The US Has Hit Record High Fiscal and Trade Deficits

A.  Introduction

The final figures to be issued before the election for the federal government fiscal accounts and for the US trade accounts have now been published.  The US Treasury published earlier today the Final Monthly Treasury Statement for the FY2020 fiscal year (fiscal years end September 30), and earlier this month the BEA and the Census Bureau issued their joint monthly report on US International Trade in Goods and Services, with trade data through August.  The chart above shows the resulting fiscal deficit figures (as a share of GDP) for all fiscal years since FY1948, while a chart for the trade deficit will be presented and discussed below.  The figures here update material that had been presented in a post from last month on Trump’s economic record.

The accounts show that the federal fiscal deficit as a share of GDP has reached a record level (other than during World War II), while the trade deficit in goods (in dollar amount, although not as a share of GDP) has also never been so high.  Trump campaigned in 2016 arguing that these deficits were too high, that he would bring them down sharply, and indeed would pay off the entire federal government debt (then at over $19 trillion) within eight years.  Paying off the debt in full in such a time frame was always nonsense.  But with the right policies he could have at least had them go in the directions he advocated.  However, they both have moved in the exact opposite direction.  Furthermore, this was not only a consequence of the economic collapse this year.  They were both already increasing before this year.  The economic collapse this year has simply accelerated those trends – especially so in the case of the fiscal deficit.

B.  The Record High Fiscal Deficit

The federal deficit hit 15.2% of GDP in FY2020 (using the recently issued September 2020 estimate by the CBO of what GDP will be in FY2020).  The highest it had been before (other than during World War II) was 9.8% of GDP in FY2009, in the final year of Bush / first year of Obama, due to the economic collapse in that final year of Bush.  In dollar terms, the deficit this fiscal year hit $3.1 trillion, which was not far below the entire amount collected in tax and other revenues of $3.4 trillion.

This deficit is incredibly high, which does not mean, however, that an increase this year was not warranted.  The US economy collapsed due to Covid-19, but with a downturn sharper than it otherwise would have been had the administration not mismanaged the disease so badly (i.e. had it not neglected testing and follow-up measures, plus had it encouraged the use of masks and social distancing rather than treat such measures as a political statement).  By neglecting such positive actions to limit the spread of Covid-19, the only alternative was to limit economic activity, whether by government policy or by personal decision (i.e. to avoid being exposed to this infectious disease by those unwilling to wear masks).

The sharp increase in government spending this year was therefore necessary.  The real mistake was the neglect by this administration of measures to reduce the fiscal deficit during the period when the economy was at full employment, as it has been since 2015.  Instead of the 2017 tax cut, prudent fiscal policy to manage the debt and to prepare the economy for the risk of a downturn at some point would have been to call for a tax increase under such conditions.  The tax cut, coupled also with an acceleration in government spending, led fiscal deficits to grow under Trump well before Covid-19 appeared.  Indeed, they grew to record high levels for periods of full employment (they have been higher during downturns).  As the old saying goes:  “The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining.”  Trump received from Obama an economy where jobs and GDP had been growing steadily and unemployment was just 4.7%.  But instead of taking this opportunity to reduce the fiscal deficit and prepare for a possible downturn, the fiscal deficit was increased.

The result is that federal government debt (held by the public) has jumped to 102% of GDP (using the CBO estimate of GDP in FY2020):

The last time the public debt to GDP ratio had been so high was at the end of World War II.  But the public debt ratio will soon certainly surpass that due to momentum, as fiscal deficits cannot be cut to zero overnight.  The economy is weak, and fiscal deficits will be required for some time to restore the economy to health.

C.  The US Trade Deficit is Also Hitting Record Highs in Dollar Terms

In the 2016 campaign, Trump lambasted what he considered to be an excessively high US trade deficit (specifically the deficit in goods, as the US has a surplus in the trade in services), which he asserted was destroying the economy.  He asserted these were due to the various trade agreements reached over the years (by several different administrations).  He would counter this by raising tariffs, on specific goods or against specific countries, and through this force countries to renegotiate the trade deals to the advantage of the US.  Deficits would then, he asserted, rapidly fall.  They have not.  Rather, they have grown:

Trump has, indeed, launched a series of trade wars, unilaterally imposing high tariffs and threatening to make them even higher (proudly proclaiming himself “Tariff Man”).  And his administration has reached a series of trade agreements, including most prominently with South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Japan, the EU, and China.  But the trade deficit in goods reached $83.9 billion in August.  It has never been so high. The deficit in goods and services together is not quite yet at a record high level, although it too has grown during the Trump period in office.  In August that broader deficit hit $67.1 billion, a good deal higher than it ever was under Obama but still a bit less than the all-time record of a $68.3 billion deficit reached in 2006 during the Bush administration, at the height of the housing bubble.

The fundamental reason the deficits have grown despite the trade wars Trump has launched is that the size of the overall trade deficit is determined not by whatever tariffs are imposed on specific goods or on specific countries, nor even by what trade agreements have been reached, but rather by underlying macro factors.  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the balance in foreign trade will be equal to the difference between aggregate domestic savings and aggregate domestic investment.  Tariffs and trade agreements will not have a significant direct impact on those macro aggregates.  Rather, tariffs applied to certain goods or to certain countries, or trade agreements reached, may lead producers and consumers to switch from whom they might import items or to whom they might export, but not the overall balance.  Trade with China, for example, might be reduced by such trade wars (and indeed it was), but this then just led to shifts in imports away from China and towards such countries as Viet Nam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Mexico.  Unless aggregate savings in the US increases or aggregate investment falls, the overall trade deficit will remain where it was.

Tariffs and trade agreements can thus lead to switches in what is traded and with whom.  Tariffs are a tax, and are ultimately paid largely by American households.  Purchasers may choose either to pay the higher price due to the tariff, or switch to a less desirable similar product from someone else (which had been either more expensive, pre-tariff, or less desirable due to quality or some similar issue), but unless the overall savings / investment balance in the economy is changed, the overall trade deficit will remain as it was.  The only difference resulting from the trade wars is that American households will then need to pay either a higher price or buy a less desirable product.

It is understandable that Trump might not understand this.  He is not an economist, and his views on trade are fundamentally mercantilist, which economists had already moved beyond over 250 years ago.  But Trump’s economic advisors should have explained this to him.  They have either been unwilling, or unable, to do so.

Are the growing trade deficits nevertheless a concern, as Trump asserted in 2016 (when the deficits were lower)?  Actually, in themselves probably not.  In the second quarter of 2020 (the most recent period where we have actual GDP figures), the trade deficit in goods reached 4.5% of GDP.  While somewhat high (generally a level of 3 to 4% of GDP would be considered sustainable), the trade balance hit a substantially higher 6.4% of GDP in the last quarter of 2005 during the Bush administration.  The housing bubble was then in full swing, households were borrowing against their rising home prices with refinancings or home equity loans and spending the proceeds, and aggregate household savings was low.  With savings low and domestic investment moderate (not as high as a share of GDP as it had been in 2000, in the last year of Clinton, but close), the trade deficit was high.  And when that housing bubble burst, the economy plunged into the then largest economic downturn since the Great Depression (largest until this year).

Thus while the trade deficit is at a record level in dollar terms (the measure Trump refers to), it is at a still high but more moderate level as a share of GDP.  It is certainly not the priority right now.  Recovering from the record economic slump (where GDP collapsed at an annualized rate of 31% in the second quarter of 2020) is of far greater concern.  And while expectations are that GDP bounced back substantially (but only partially) in the third quarter (the initial estimate of GDP for the third quarter will be issued by the BEA on October 29, just before the election), the structural damage done to the economy from the mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis will take substantial time to heal.  Numerous firms have gone bankrupt.  They and others who may survive but who have been under severe stress will not be paying back their creditors (banks and others), so financial sector balance sheets have also been severely weakened.  It will take some time before the economic structure will be able to return to normal, even if a full cure for Covid-19 magically appeared tomorrow.

D.  Conclusion

Trump promised he would set records.  He has.  But the records set are the opposite of what he promised.

Trump’s Attack on Social Security

Trump famously promised in his 2016 campaign for the presidency that he would never cut Social Security.  He just did.  How much is not yet clear.  It could be minor or it could be major, depending on how he follows up (or is allowed to follow up) on the executive order he signed on Saturday, August 8 while spending a weekend at his luxury golf course in New Jersey.  The executive order (one of four signed at that time) would defer collection of the 6.2% payroll tax paid by employees earning up to $104,000 a year for the pay periods between September 1 and December 31 (usefully straddling election day, as many immediately noted).

What would then happen on December 31?  That is not clear.  On signing the executive order, Trump said that “If I’m victorious on November 3rd, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax.  I’m going to make them all permanent.”  He later added:  “In other words, I’ll extend beyond the end of the year and terminate the tax.”

The impact on Social Security and the trust fund that supports it will depend on how far this goes.  If Trump is re-elected and he then, as promised, defers beyond December 31 collection of the payroll tax that workers pay for their Social Security, the constitutional question arises of what authority he has to do this.  While temporary deferrals of collections are allowed during a time of crisis, what happens when the president says he will bar the IRS from collecting them ever?  The president swore in his oath of office that he would uphold the law, the law clearly calls for these taxes to be collected, and a permanent deferral would clearly violate that.  But would repeated “temporary” deferrals become a violation of the statutory obligations of a president?  And he has clearly already said that he wants to make the suspension permanent and to “terminate the tax”.

There is much, therefore, which is not yet clear.  But one can examine what the impact would be under several scenarios.  They are all adverse, undermining the system of retirement benefits that has served the country well since Franklin Roosevelt signed the program into law.

Some of the implications:

a)  Deferring the collection of the Social Security payroll taxes will lead to a huge balloon payment coming due on December 31:

The executive order that Trump signed directs that firms need not (and he wants that they should not) withhold from employee paychecks the 6.2% that goes to fund the employee share of the Social Security tax.  But under current law the taxes are still due, and would need to be paid in full by December 31.

Suppose firms did decide not to withhold the 6.2% tax, and instead allow take-home pay to rise by that amount over this four-month period straddling election day.  Unless deferred further, the total of what would have been withheld will now come due on December 31, in one large balloon payment.  For those on a two-week paycheck cycle, that balloon payment would have grown to 54% of their end of the year paycheck.  It is doubtful that many employees would be very happy to see that cut in end-year pay.  Plus how would firms collect on the taxes due on workers who had been with the firm but had left for any reason before December 31?  By tax law, the firms are still obliged to pay to the IRS the payroll taxes that were due when the workers were employed with them.

Hence most expect that firms will continue to withhold for the payroll taxes due, as they always have.  The firms would likely hold off on forwarding these payments to the IRS until December 31 and instead place the funds in an escrow account to earn a bit of interest, but they would still withhold the taxes due in each paycheck just as they always have (and as their payroll systems are set up to do).  This also then defeats the whole purpose of Trump’s re-election gambit.  Workers would not see a pre-election bump up in their take-home pay.

b)  But even in this limited impact scenario, there will still be a loss to the Social Security Trust Fund:

Thus there is good reason to believe that Trump’s executive order will likely be basically just ignored.  There would, however, still be a loss to the Social Security Trust Fund, although that loss would be relatively small.

Payroll taxes paid for Social Security go directly into the Social Security Trust Fund, where they immediately begin to earn interest (at the long-term US Treasury rate).  Based on what was paid in payroll taxes in FY2019 ($1,243 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office), and adjusting for the fewer jobs now due to the sharp downturn this year, the 6.2% component of payroll taxes due would generate approximately $40 billion in revenue each month.  Assuming the $160 billion total (over four months) were then all paid in one big balloon payment on December 31 rather than monthly, the Social Security Trust Fund would lose what it would have earned in interest on the amounts deferred.  At current (low) interest rates, the total loss to Social Security would come to approximately $250 million.  Not huge, but still a loss.

c)  If collection of the 6.2% payroll tax is deferred further, beyond December 31, the losses to the Social Security Trust Fund would then grow further, and exponentially, and become disastrous if terminated:

Trump promised that “if re-elected” he would defer collection by the IRS of the taxes due further, beyond December 31.  How much further was not said, but Trump did say he would want the tax to be “terminated” altogether.  This would of course be disastrous for Social Security.  Even if the employer share of the payroll tax for Social Security (an additional 6.2%) continued to be paid in (where what would happen to it is not clear), the loss to Social Security of the employee share would lead the Trust Fund to run out in less than six years.  At that point, under current law the amounts paid to Social Security beneficiaries (retirees and dependents) would be sharply scaled back, by 50% or more (assuming the employer share of 6.2% continued to be paid).

d)  Even if the Social Security Trust Fund were kept alive by Congress acting to replenish it from other sources of tax revenues, under current law individual benefits would be reduced on those who saw their payroll tax contributions diminished:

There is also an issue at the level of individual benefits, which I have not seen mentioned but which would be significant.  The extent of this impact would depend on the particular scenario assumed, but suppose that the payroll taxes that would have come due and collected from September 1 to December 31 were permanently suspended.  For each individual, this would affect how much they had paid in to the Social Security system, where benefits are calculated by a formula based on an individual’s top 35 years of earnings (with earnings from prior years adjusted to current prices as of the year of retirement eligibility based on an average wage inflation index).

The impact on the benefits any individual will receive will then depend on the individual’s wage profile over their lifetime.  Workers may typically have 20 or 25 or maybe even 30 years of solid earnings, but then also a number of years within the 35 where they may have been not working, e.g. to raise a baby, or were unemployed, or employed only part-time, or employed in a low wage job (perhaps when a student, or when just starting out), and so on.

There would thus be a good deal of variation.  In an extreme case, the loss of four months of contributions to the Social Security Trust Fund from their employment history might have almost no impact.  This would be the case where a worker’s income in their 36th year of employment history was very similar to what it was in their 35th, and the loss in 2020 of four months of employment history would lead to 2020 dropping out of their employment top 35 altogether.  But this situation is likely to be rare.

More likely is that 2020 would remain in the top 35 years for the individual, but now with four months less of payroll contributions being recorded.  One can then calculate how much their Social Security retirement benefits would be reduced as a result.

The formulae used can be found at the Social Security website (see here, here, and here).  Using the parameters for 2020, and assuming a person had earned each year the median wages for the year (see table 4.B.3 of the 2019 Annual Statistical Supplement of Social Security), one can calculate what the benefits would be with a full year of earnings recorded for 2020 and what they would be with four months excluded, and hence the difference.

In this scenario of median earnings throughout 35 years, annual benefits to the retiree would be reduced by $105 (from $17,411 without the four months of non-payment, to $17,306 with the four months of the payroll tax not being paid).  Not huge, but not trivial either when benefits are tied to a full 35 years of earnings.  That $105 annual reduction in benefits would have been in return for the one-time reduction of $669 in payroll taxes being paid (6.2% for four months where median annual earnings of $32,378 in 2019 were assumed to apply also in 2020 despite the economic downturn).  That is, the $669 not paid in now would lead to a $105 reduction in benefits (15.8%) each and every year of retirement (assuming retirement at the Social Security normal retirement age).

The loss in retirement benefits would be greater in dollar amount if the period of non-payment of the payroll tax were extended.  Assuming, for example, a scenario where it was extended for a full year (and one then had just 34 years of contributions being paid in, with the rest at zero), with wages at the median level throughout those now 34 years, the reduction in retirement benefits would be $316 each year (three times as much as for the four-month reduction).  Payroll taxes paid would have been reduced by $2,007 in this scenario, and the $316 annual reduction is again (given how the arithmetic works) 15.8% of the $2,007 one-time reduction in payroll taxes paid.

All this assumes Social Security would continue to pay out retiree benefits in accordance with current law and assumes the Trust Fund remained adequate.  The suspension of these payroll taxes would make this difficult, as noted above, unless there was then some general bailout enacted by Congress.  But any such bailout would raise further issues.

e)  If Congress were to appropriate funds to ensure the Social Security Trust Fund remained adequately funded, the resulting gains would be far greater for those who are well off than for those who are poor:

Suppose Congress allowed these payroll taxes to be “terminated”, as Trump has called for, but then appropriated funds to ensure benefits continued to be paid as per the current formulae.  Who would gain?

For at least this part of the transaction (the origin of the funds is not clear), it would be the rich.  The savings in the payroll taxes that would be paid in order to keep one’s benefits would be five times as high for someone earning $100,000 a year as for someone earning $20,000.  The tax is a fixed 6.2% for all earnings up to the ceiling (of $137,700 in 2020, after which the tax is zero).  The difference in terms of the benefits paid would be less, since the formulae for benefits have a degree of progressivity built-in, but one can calculate with the formulae that the change in benefits from such a Congressional bailout would still be 2.3 times higher for those earning $100,000 than for those earning $20,000.

One might question whether this is the best use of such funds.  Normally one would want that the benefits accrue more to the poor than to those who are relatively well off.  The opposite would be the case here.

f)  Importantly, none of this helps those who are unemployed:

Unemployment has shot up this year due to the mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, with the unemployment rate rising to a level not seen in the US since the Great Depression.  Unemployment insurance, expanded in this crisis, has proven to be a critical lifeline not only to the unemployed but also to the economy as a whole, which would have collapsed by even more without the expanded programs.

Yet cutting payroll taxes for those who have a job and are on a payroll will not help with this.  If you are on a payroll you are still earning a wage, and that wage is, except in rare conditions, the same as what you had been earning before.  You have not suffered, as the newly unemployed have, due to this crisis.  Why, then, should you then be granted, in the middle of this crisis where government deficits have rocketed to unprecedented levels, a tax cut?

It makes no sense.  Some other motive must be in play.

g)  This does make sense, however, if your intention is to undermine Social Security:

Trump pushed for a cut in the payroll taxes supporting Social Security when discussions began in July in the Senate on the new Covid-19 relief bill (the House had already passed such a bill in May).  But even the Republicans in the Senate said this made no sense (as did business groups who are normally heavily in favor of tax cuts, such as the US Chamber of Commerce), and they kept it out of the bill they were drafting.

The primary advisor pushing this appears to have been Stephen Moore, an informal (unpaid) White House advisor close to Trump.  He co-authored an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal just a week before Trump’s announcement advocating the precise policy of deferring collection of the Social Security payroll tax.  Joining Moore were Arthur Laffer (author of the repeatedly disproven Laffer Curve, whom Trump had awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019), and Larry Kudlow (Trump’s primary economic advisor and a strong advocate of tax cuts).

Moore has long been advocating for an end to Social Security, arguing that individual retirement accounts (such as 401(k)s for all) would be preferable.  As discussed above, the indefinite deferral of collection of the payroll taxes that support Social Security would, indeed, lead to a collapse of the system.  Thus this policy makes sense if you want to end Social Security.  It does not otherwise.

Yet Social Security is popular, and critically important.  Fully one-third of Americans aged 65 or older depend on Social Security for 90% or more of their income in retirement.  And 20% depend on Social Security for 100% of their income in retirement.  Cuts have serious implications, and Social Security is a highly popular program.

Thus advocates for ending Social Security cannot expect that their proposals would go far, particularly just before an election.  But suspending the payroll taxes that support the program, with a promise to terminate those taxes if re-elected, might appear to be more attractive to those who do not see the implications.

The issue then becomes whether enough see what those implications are, and vote accordingly in the election.

A Carbon Tax with Redistribution Would Be a Significant Help to the Poor

A.  Introduction

Economists have long recommended taxing pollution as an effective as well as efficient way to achieve societal aims to counter that pollution.  What is commonly called a “carbon tax”, but which in fact would apply to all emissions of greenhouse gases (where carbon dioxide, CO2, is the largest contributor), would do this.  “Cap and trade” schemes, where polluters are required to acquire and pay for a limited number of permits, act similarly.  The prime example in the US of such a cap and trade scheme was the program to sharply reduce the sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution from the burning of coal in power plants.  That program was launched in 1995 and was a major success.  Not only did the benefits exceed the costs by a factor of 14 to 1 (with some estimates even higher – as much as 100 to 1), but the cost of achieving that SO2 reduction was only one-half to one-quarter of what officials expected it would have cost had they followed the traditional regulatory approach.

Cost savings of half or three-quarters are not something to sneer at.  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is quite possibly the greatest challenge of our times, will be expensive.  The benefits will be far greater, so it is certainly worthwhile to incur those expenses (and it is just silly to argue that “we cannot afford it” – the benefits far exceed the costs).  One should, however, still want to minimize those costs.

But while such cost savings are hugely important, one should also not ignore the distributional consequences of any such plan.  These are a concern of many, and rightly so.  The poor should not be harmed, both because they are poor and because their modest consumption is not the primary cause of the pollution problem we are facing.  But this is where there has been a good deal of confusion and misunderstanding.  A tax on all greenhouse gas emissions, with the revenue thus generated then distributed back to all on an equal per capita basis, would be significantly beneficial to the poor in purely financial terms.  Indeed it would be beneficial to most of the population since it is a minority of the population (mostly those who are far better off financially than most) who account for a disproportionate share of emissions.

A specific carbon tax plan that would work in this way was discussed in an earlier post on this blog.  I would refer the reader to that earlier post for the details on that plan.  But briefly, under this proposal all emissions of greenhouse gases (not simply from power plants, but from all sources) would pay a tax of $49 per metric ton of CO2 (or per ton of CO2 equivalent for other greenhouse gases, such as methane).  A fee of $49 per metric ton would be equivalent to about $44.50 per common ton (2,000 pounds, as commonly used in the US but nowhere else in the world).  The revenues thus generated would then be distributed back, in full, to the entire population in equal per capita terms, on a monthly or quarterly basis.  There would also be a border-tax adjustment on goods imported, which would create the incentive for other countries to join in such a scheme (as the US would charge the same carbon tax on such goods when the source country hadn’t, but with those revenues then distributed to Americans).

The US Treasury published a study of this scheme in January 2017, and estimated that such a tax would generate $194 billion of revenues in its initial year (which was assumed to be 2019).  This would allow for a distribution of $583 to every American (man, woman, and child – not just adults).  Furthermore, the authors estimated what the impact would be by family income decile, and concluded that the bottom 7 deciles of families (the bottom 70%, as ranked by income) would enjoy a net benefit, while only the richest 30% would pay a net cost.

That distributional impact will be the focus of this blog post.  It has not received sufficient attention in the discussion on how to address climate change.  While the Treasury study did provide estimates on what the impacts by income decile would be (although not always in an easy to understand form), views on a carbon tax often appear to assume, incorrectly, that the poor will pay the most as a share of their income, while the rich will be able to get away with avoiding the tax.  The impact would in fact be the opposite.  Indeed, while the primary aim of the program is, and should be, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, its redistributive benefits are such that on that basis alone the program would have much to commend it.  It would also be just.  As noted above, the poor do not account for a disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions – the rich do – yet the poor suffer similarly, if not greater, from the consequences.

This blog post will first review those estimated net cash benefits by family income decile, both in dollar amounts and as a share of income.  To give a sense of how important this is in magnitude, it will then examine how these net benefits compare to the most important current cash transfer program in the US – food stamp benefits.  Finally, it will briefly review the politics of such a program.  Perceptions have, unfortunately, been adverse, and many pundits believe a carbon tax program would never be approved.  Perhaps this might change if news sources paid greater attention to the distribution and economic justice benefits.

B.  Net Benefits or Costs by Family Income Decile from a Carbon Tax with Redistribution

The chart at the top of this post shows what the average net impact would be in dollars per person, by family cash income decile, if a carbon tax of $49 per metric ton were charged with the revenues then distributed on an equal per capita basis.  While prices of energy and other goods whose production or use leads to greenhouse gas emissions would rise, the revenues from the tax thus generated would go back in full to the population.  Those groups who account for a less than proportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions (the poor and much of the middle class) would come out ahead, while those with the income and lifestyle that lead to a greater than average share of greenhouse gas emissions (the rich) will end up paying in more.

The figures are derived from estimates made by the staff of the US Treasury – staff that regularly undertake assessments of the incidence across income groups of various tax proposals.  The study was published in January 2017, and the estimates are of what the impacts would have been had the tax been in place for 2019.  The results were presented in tables following a standard format for such tax incidence studies, with the dollars per person impact of the chart above derived from those tables.

To arrive at these estimates, the Treasury staff first calculated what the impact of such a $49 per metric ton carbon tax would be on the prices of goods.  Such a tax would, for example, raise the price of gasoline by $0.44 per gallon based on the CO2 emitted in its production and when it is burned.  Using standard input-output tables they could then estimate what the price changes would be on a comprehensive set of goods, and based on historic consumption patterns work out what the impacts would be on households by income decile.  The net impact would then follow from distributing back on an equal per capita basis the revenues collected by the tax.  For 2019, the Treasury staff estimated $194 billion would be collected (a bit less than 1% of GDP), which would allow for a transfer back of $583 per person.

Those in the poorest 10% of households would receive an estimated $535 net benefit per person from such a scheme.  The cost of the goods they consume would go up by $48 per person over the course of a year, but they would receive back $583.  They do not account for a major share of greenhouse gas emissions because they cannot afford to consume much.  They are poor, and a family earning, say, $20,000 a year consumes far less of everything than a family earning $200,000 a year.  In terms of greenhouse gas emissions implicit in the Treasury numbers, the poorest 10% of Americans account only for a bit less than 1.0 metric tons of CO2 emissions per person per year (including the CO2 equivalent in other greenhouse gases).  The richest 10% account for close to 36 tons CO2 equivalent per person per year.

As one goes from the lower income deciles to the higher, consumption rises and CO2 emissions from the goods consumed rises.  But it is not a linear trend by decile.  Rather, higher-income households account for a more than proportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions.  As a consequence, the break-even point is not at the 50th percentile of households (as it would be if the trend were linear), but rather something higher.  In the Treasury estimates, households up through the 70th percentile (the 7th decile) would on average still come out ahead.  Only the top three deciles (the richest 30%) would end up paying more for the carbon tax than what they would receive back.  But this is simply because they account for a disproportionately high share of greenhouse gas emissions.  It is fully warranted and just that they should pay more for the pollution they cause.

But it is also worth noting that while the richer household would pay more in dollar terms than they receive back, those higher dollar amounts are modest when taken as a share of their high incomes:

In dollar terms the richest 10% would pay in a net $1,166 per person in this scheme, as per the chart at the top of this post.  But this would be just 1.0% of their per-person incomes.  The 9th decile (families in the 80 to 90th percentile) would pay in a net of 0.7% of their incomes, and the 8th decile would pay in a net of 0.3%. At the other end of the distribution, the poorest 10% (the 1st decile) would receive a net benefit equal to 8.9% of their incomes.  This is not minor.  The relatively modest (as a share of incomes) net transfers from the higher-income households permit a quite substantial rise (in percentage terms) in the incomes of poorer households.

C.  A Comparison to Transfers in the Food Stamps Program

The food stamps program (formally now called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is the largest cash income transfer program in the US designed specifically to assist the poor.  (While the cost of Medicaid is higher, those payments are made directly to health care providers for their medical services to the poor.)  How would the net transfers under a carbon tax with redistribution compare to SNAP?  Are they in the same ballpark?

I had expected they would not be close.  However, it turns out that they are not that far apart.  While food stamps would still provide a greater transfer for the very poorest households, the supplement to income that those households would receive by such a carbon tax scheme would be significant.  Furthermore, the carbon tax scheme would be of greater benefit than food stamps are, on average, for lower middle-class households (those in the 3rd decile and above).

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated how food stamp (SNAP) benefits are distributed by household income decile.  While the forecast year is different (2016 for SNAP vs. 2019 for the carbon tax), for the purposes here the comparison is close enough.  From the CBO figures one can work out the annual net benefits per person under SNAP for households in the 1st to 4th deciles (with the 5th through the 10th deciles then aggregated by the CBO, as they were all small):

The average annual benefits from SNAP were estimated to be about $1,500 per person for households in the poorest decile and $690 per person in the 2nd decile.  These are larger than the estimated net benefits of these two groups under a carbon tax program (of $535 and $464 per person, respectively), but it was surprising, at least to me, that they are as close as they are.  The food stamp program is specifically targeted to assist the poor to purchase the food that they need.  A carbon tax with redistribution program is aimed at cutting back greenhouse gas emissions, with the funds generated then distributed back to households on an equal per capita basis.  They have very different aims, but the redistribution under each is significant.

D.  But the Current Politics of Such a Program Are Not Favorable

A carbon tax with redistribution program would therefore not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a lower cost than traditional approaches, but would also provide for an equitable redistribution from those who account for a disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions (the rich) to those who do not (the poor).  But news reporters and political pundits, including those who are personally in favor of such a program, consider it politically impossible.  And in what was supposed to be a personal email, but which was part of those obtained by Russian government hackers and then released via WikiLeaks in order to assist the Trump presidential campaign, John Podesta, the senior campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, wrote:  “We have done extensive polling on a carbon tax.  It all sucks.”

Published polls indicate that the degree of support or not for a carbon tax program depends critically on how the question is worded.  If the question is stated as something such as “Would you be in favor of taxing corporations based on their carbon emissions”, polls have found two-thirds or more of Americans in support.  But if the question is worded as something such as “Would you be in favor of paying a carbon tax on the goods you purchase”, the support is less (often still more than a majority, depending on the specific poll, but less than two-thirds).  But they really amount to the same thing.

There are various reasons for this, starting with that the issue is a complex one, is not well understood, and hence opinions can be easily influenced based on how the issue is framed.  This opens the field to well-funded vested interests (such as the fossil fuel companies) being able to influence votes by sophisticated advertising.  Opponents were able to outspend proponents by 2 to 1 in Washington State in 2018, when a referendum on a proposed carbon tax was defeated (as it had been also in 2016).  Political scientists who have studied the two Washington State referenda believe they would be similarly defeated elsewhere.

There appear to be two main concerns:  The first is that “a carbon tax will hurt the poor”.  But as examined above, the opposite would be the case.  The poor would very much benefit, as their low consumption only accounts for a small share of carbon emissions (they are poor, and do not consume much of anything), but they would receive an equal per capita share of the revenues raised.

In distinct contrast, but often not recognized, a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on traditional regulation would still see an increase in costs (and indeed likely by much more, as noted above), but with no compensation for the poor.  The poor would then definitely lose.  There may then be calls to add on a layer of special subsidies to compensate the poor, but these rarely work well.

The second concern often heard is that “a carbon tax is just a nudge” and in the end will not get greenhouse gas emissions down.  There may also be the view (internally inconsistent, but still held) that the rich are so rich that they will not cut back on their consumption of high carbon-emission goods despite the tax, while at the same time the rich can switch their consumption (by buying an electric car, for example, to replace their gasoline one) while the poor cannot.

But the prices do matter.  As noted at the start of this post, the experience with the cap and trade program for SO2 from the burning of coal (where a price is put on the SO2 emissions) found it to be highly effective in bringing SO2 emissions down quickly.  Or as was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, charging polluters for their emissions would be key to getting utilities to switch use to clean energy sources.  The cost of both solar and wind new generation power capacity has come down sharply over the past decade, to the point where, for new capacity, they are the cheapest sources available.  But this is for new generation.  When there is no charge for the greenhouse gases emitted, it is still cheaper to keep burning gas and often coal in existing plants, as the up-front capital costs have already been incurred and do not affect the decision of what to use for current generation.  But as estimated in that earlier post, if those plants were charged $40 per ton for their CO2 emissions, it would be cheaper for the power utilities to build new solar or wind plants and use these to replace existing fossil fuel plants.

There are many other substitution possibilities as well, but many may not be well known when the focus is on a particular sector.  For example, livestock account for about 30% of methane emissions resulting from human activity.  This is roughly the same share as methane emissions from the production and distribution of fossil fuels.  And methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, with 86 times the global warming potential over a 20-year horizon of an equal weight of CO2.  Yet a simple modification of the diets of cows will reduce their methane emissions (due to their digestive system – methane comes out as burps and farts) by 33%.  One simply needs to add to their feed just 100 grams of lemongrass per day and the digestive chemistry changes to produce far less methane.  Burger King will now start to purchase its beef from such sources.

This is a simple and inexpensive change, yet one that is being done only by Burger King and a few others in order to gain favorable publicity.  But a tax on such greenhouse gas emissions would induce such an adjustment to the diets of livestock more broadly (as well as research on other dietary changes, that might lead to an even greater reduction in methane emissions).  A regulatory focus on emissions from power plants alone would not see this.  One might argue that a broader regulatory system would cover emissions from such agricultural practices, and in principle it should.  But there has been little discussion of extending the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions to the agricultural sector.

More fundamentally, regulations are set and then kept fixed over time in order to permit those who are regulated to work out and then implement plans to comply.  Such systems are not good, by their nature, at handling innovations, as by definition innovations are not foreseen.  Yet innovations are precisely what one should want to encourage, and indeed the ex-post assessment of the SO2 emissions trading program found that it was innovations that led to costs being far lower than had been anticipated.  A carbon tax program would similarly encourage innovations, while regulatory schemes can not handle them well.

There may well be other concerns, including ones left unstated.  Individuals may feel, for example, that while climate change is indeed a major issue and needs to be addressed, and that redistribution under a carbon tax program might well be equitable overall, that they will nonetheless lose.  And some will.  Those who account for a disproportionately high share of greenhouse gas emissions through the goods they purchase will end up paying more.  But costs will also rise under the alternative of a regulatory approach (and indeed rise by a good deal more), which will affect them as well.  If they do indeed account for a disproportionately high share of greenhouse gas emissions, they should be especially in favor of an approach that would bring these emissions down at the lowest possible cost.  A scheme that puts a price on carbon emissions, such as in a carbon tax scheme, would do this at a lower cost than traditional approaches.

So while many have concerns with a carbon tax with redistribution scheme, much of this is due to a misunderstanding of what the impacts would be, as well as of what the impacts would be of alternatives.  One sees this in the range of responses to polling questions on such schemes, where the degree of support depends very much on how the questions are worded or framed.  There is a need to explain better how a carbon tax with redistribution program would work, and we have collectively (analysts, media, and politicians) failed to do this.

There are also some simple steps one can take which would likely increase the attractiveness of such a program.  For example, perceptions would likely be far better if the initial rebate checks were sent up-front, before the carbon taxes were first to go into effect, rather than later, at the end of whatever period is chosen.  Instead of households being asked to finance the higher costs over the period until they received their first rebate checks, one would have the government do this.  This would not only make sense financially (government can fund itself more cheaply than households can), but more important, politically.  Households would see up-front that they are, indeed, receiving a rebate check before the prices go up to reflect the carbon tax.

And one should not be too pessimistic.  While polling responses depend on the precise wording used, as noted above, the polling results still usually show a majority in support.  But the issue needs to be explained better.  There are problems, clearly, when issues such as the impact on the poor from such a scheme are so fundamentally misunderstood.

E.  Conclusion 

Charging for greenhouse gases emitted (a carbon tax), with the revenues collected then distributed back to the population on an equal per capita basis, would be both efficient (lower cost) and equitable.  Indeed, the transfers from those who account for an especially high share of greenhouse gas emissions (the rich) to those who account for very little of them (the poor), would provide a significant supplement to the incomes of the poor.  While the redistributive effect is not the primary aim of the program (reducing greenhouse gases is), that redistributive effect would be both beneficial and significant.  It should not be ignored.

The conventional wisdom, however, is that such a scheme could not command a majority in a referendum.  The issue is complex, and well-funded vested interests (the fossil fuel companies) have been able to use that complexity to propagate a sufficient level of concern to defeat such referenda.  The impact on the poor has in particular been misportrayed.

But climate change really does need to be addressed.  One should want to do this at the lowest possible cost while also in an equitable manner.  Hopefully, as more learn what carbon tax schemes can achieve, politicians will obtain the support they need to move forward with such a program.

The Growing Fiscal Deficit, the Keynesian Stimulus Policies of Trump, and the FY20/21 Budget Agreement

A.  The Growing Fiscal Deficit Under Trump

Donald Trump, when campaigning for office, promised that he would “quickly” drive down the fiscal deficit to zero.  Few serious analysts believed that he would get it all the way to zero during his term in office, but many assumed that he would at least try to reduce the deficit by some amount.  And this clearly should have been possible, had he sought to do so, when Republicans were in full control of both the House and the Senate, as well as the presidency.

That has not happened.  The deficit has grown markedly, despite the economy being at full employment, and is expected to top $1 trillion this year, reaching over 5% of GDP.  This is unprecedented in peacetime.  Never before in US history, other than during World War II, has the federal deficit hit 5% of GDP with the economy at full employment.  Indeed, the fiscal deficit has never even reached 4% of GDP at a time of full employment (other than, again, World War II).

The chart at the top of this post shows what has happened.  The deficit is the difference between what the government spends (shown as the line in blue) and the revenues it receives (the line in green).  The deficit grew markedly following the financial and economic collapse in the last year of the Bush administration.  A combination of higher government spending and lower taxes (lower both because the economy was depressed but also from legislated tax cuts) were then necessary to stabilize the economy.  As the economy recovered the fiscal deficit then narrowed.  But it is now widening again, and as noted above, is expected to top $1 trillion dollars in FY2019 (which ends on September 30).

More precisely, the US Treasury publishes monthly a detailed report on what the federal government received in revenues and what was spent in outlays for that month and for up to that point in the fiscal year.  See here for the June report, and here for previous monthly reports.  It includes a forecast of what will be received and spent for the fiscal year as a whole, and hence what the deficit will be, based on the budget report released each spring, usually in March.  For FY2019, the forecast was of a deficit of $1.092 trillion.  But these are forecasts, and comparing the forecasts made to the actuals realized over the last three fiscal years (FY2016 to18), government outlays were on average overestimated by 2.0% and government revenues by 2.2%.  These are similar, and scaling the forecasts of government outlays and government revenues down by these ratios, the deficit would end up at $1.075 trillion.  I used these scaled figures in the chart above.

The widening in the deficit in recent years is evident.  The interesting question is why.  For this one needs counterfactuals, of what the figures would have been if some alternative decisions had been made.

For government revenues (taxes of various kinds), the curve in orange show what they would have been had taxes remained at the same shares of the relevant income (depending on the tax) as they were in FY2016.  Specifically, individual income taxes were kept at a constant share of personal income (as defined and estimated in the National Income and Product Accounts, or NIPA accounts, assembled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, or BEA, of the US Department of Commerce); corporate profit taxes were kept at a constant share of corporate profits (as estimated in the NIPA accounts); payroll taxes (primarily Social Security taxes) were kept at a constant share of compensation of employees (again from the NIPA accounts); and all other taxes were kept at a constant share of GDP.  The NIPA accounts (often referred to as the GDP accounts) are available through the second quarter of CY2019, and hence are not yet available for the final quarter of FY2019 (which ends September 30, and hence includes the third quarter of CY2019).  For this, I extrapolated the final quarter’s figures based on what growth had been over the preceding four quarters.

Note also that the base year here (FY2016) already shows a flattening in tax revenues.  If I had used the tax shares of FY2015 as a base for the comparison, the tax losses in the years since then would have been even greater.  Various factors account for the flattening of tax revenues in FY2016, including (according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office) passage by Congress of Public Law 114-113 in December 2015, that allowed for a more rapid acceleration of depreciation allowances for investment by businesses.  This had the effect of reducing corporate profit taxes substantially in FY2016.

Had taxes remained at the shares of the relevant income as they were in FY2016, tax revenues would have grown, following the path of the orange curve.  Instead, they were flat in nominal dollar amount (the green curve), indicating they were falling in real terms as well as a share of income.  The largest loss in revenues stemmed from the major tax cut pushed through Congress in December 2017, which took effect on January 1, 2018.  Hence it applied over three of the four quarters in FY2018, and for all of FY2019.

An increase in government spending is also now leading, in FY2019, to a widening of the deficit.  Again, one needs to define a counterfactual for the comparison.  For this I assumed that government spending during Trump’s term in office so far would have grown at the same rate as it had during Obama’s eight years in office (the rate of increase from FY2008 to 16).  That rate of increase during Obama’s two terms was 3.2% a year (in nominal terms), and was substantially less than during Bush’s two terms (which was a 6.6% rate of growth per year).

The rate of growth in government spending in the first two years of Trump’s term (FY2017 and 2018) then almost exactly matched the rate of growth under Obama.  But this has now changed sharply in FY19, with government spending expected to jump by 8.0% in just one year.

The fiscal deficit is then the difference, as noted above, between the two curves for spending and revenues.  Its change over time may be clearer in a chart of just the deficit itself:

The curve in black shows what the deficit has been, and what is expected for FY2019.  The deficit narrowed to $442 billion in FY2015, and then started to widen.  Primarily due to flat tax revenues in FY2016 (spending was following the path it had been following before, after several years of suppression), the deficit grew in FY2016.  And it then continued to grow until at least through FY2019.  The curve in red shows what the deficit would have been had government spending continued to grow under Trump at the pace it had under Obama.  This would have made essentially no difference in FY2017 and FY2018, but would have reduced the deficit in FY2019 from the expected $1,075 billion to $877 billion instead.  Not a small deficit by any means, but not as high.

But more important has been the contribution to the higher deficit from tax cuts.  The combined effect is shown in the curve in blue in the chart.  The deficit would have stabilized and in fact reduced by a bit.  For FY2019, the deficit would have been $528 billion, or a reasonable 2.5% of GDP.  Instead, at an expected $1,075 billion, it will be over twice as high.  And it is a consequence of Trump’s policies.

B.  Have the Tax Cuts Led to Higher Growth?

The Trump administration claimed that the tax cuts (and specifically the major cuts passed in December 2017) would lead to such a more rapid pace of GDP growth that they would “pay for themselves”.  This clearly has not happened – tax revenues have fallen in real terms (they were flat in nominal terms).  But a less extreme argument was that the tax cuts, and in particular the extremely sharp cut in corporate profit taxes, would lead to a spurt of new corporate investment in equipment, which would raise productivity and hence GDP.  See, for example, the analysis issued by the White House Council of Economic Advisors in October 2017.

But this has not happened either.  Growth in private investment in equipment has in fact declined since the first quarter of 2018 (when the law went into effect):

The curve in blue shows the quarter to quarter changes (at an annual rate), while the curve in red smooths this out by showing the change over the same quarter of a year earlier.  There is a good deal of volatility in the quarter to quarter figures, while the year on year changes show perhaps some trends that last perhaps two years or so, but with no evidence that the tax cut led to a spurt in such investment.  The growth has in fact slowed.

Such investment is in fact driven largely by more fundamental factors, not by taxes.  There was a sharp fall in 2008 as a result of the broad economic and financial collapse at the end of the Bush administration, it then bounced back in 2009/10, and has fluctuated since driven by various industry factors.  For example, oil prices as well as agricultural prices both fell sharply in 2015, and the NIPA accounts indicate that equipment investment in just these two sectors reduced private investment in equipment by more than 2% points from what the total would have been in 2015.  This continued into 2016, with a reduction of a further 1.3% points.  What matters are the fundamentals.  Taxes are secondary, at best.

What about GDP itself?:

Here again there is quarter to quarter volatility, but no evidence that the tax cuts have spurred GDP growth.  Over the past three years, real GDP growth on a quarter to quarter basis peaked in the fourth quarter of 2017, before the tax cuts went into effect, and has declined modestly since then.  And that peak in the fourth quarter of 2017 was not anything special:  GDP grew at a substantially faster pace in the second and third quarters of 2014, and the year on year rate in early 2015 was higher than anything reached in 2017-19.  Rather, what we see in real GDP growth since late 2009 is significant quarter to quarter volatility, but around an average pace of about 2.3% a year.  There is no evidence that the late 2017 tax cut has raised this.

The argument that tax cuts will spur private investment, and hence productivity and hence GDP, is a supply-side argument.  There is no evidence in the numbers to support this.  But there may also be a demand-side argument, which is basically Keynesian.  The argument would be that tax cuts lead to higher (after-tax) incomes, and that these higher incomes led to higher consumption expenditures by households.  There might be some basis to this, to the extent that a portion of the tax cuts went to low and middle-income households who will spend more upon receiving it.  But since the tax cut law passed in December 2017 went primarily to the rich, whose consumption is not constrained by their current income flows (they save the excess), the impact of the tax cuts on household consumption would be weak.  It still, however, might be something.

But this still did not lead to a more rapid pace of GDP growth, as we saw above.  Why?  One needs to recognize that GDP is a measure of production in the domestic economy (GDP is Gross Domestic Product), and not of demand.  GDP is commonly measured by adding up the components of demand, with any increase or decrease in the stock of inventories then added (or subtracted, if negative) to tell us what production must have been.  But this is being done because the data is better (and more quickly available) for the components of GDP demand.  One must not forget that GDP is still an estimate of production, and not of total domestic demand.

And what the economy can produce when at full employment is constrained by whatever capacity was at that point in time.  The rate of unemployment has fallen steadily since hitting its peak in 2009 during the downturn:

Aside from the “squiggles” in these monthly figures (the data are obtained from household surveys, and will be noisy), unemployment fell at a remarkably steady pace since 2009.  One can also not discern any sharp change in that pace before and after January 2017, when Trump took office.  But the rate of unemployment is now leveling off, as it must, since there will always be some degree of frictional unemployment when an economy is at “full employment”.

With the economy at full employment, growth will now be constrained by the pace of growth of the labor force (about 0.5% a year) plus the growth in productivity of the average labor force member (which analysts, such as at the Congressional Budget Office, put at about 1.5% a year in the long term, and a bit less over the next decade).  That is, growth in GDP capacity will be 2% a year, or less, on average.

In such situations, Keynesian demand expansion will not raise the growth in GDP beyond that 2% rate.  There will of course be quarter to quarter fluctuations (GDP growth estimates are volatile), but on average over time, one should not expect growth in excess of this.

But growth can be less.  In a downturn, such as that suffered in 2008/09, GDP growth can drop well below capacity.  Unemployment soars, and Keynesian demand stimulus is needed to stabilize the economy and return it to a growth path.  Tax cuts (when focused on low and middle income households) can be stimulative.  But especially stimulative in such circumstances is direct government spending, as such spending leads directly to people being hired and put to work.

Thus the expansion in government spending in 2008/09 (see the chart at the top of this post) was exactly what was needed in those circumstances.  The mistake then was to hold government spending flat in nominal terms (and hence falling in real terms) between 2009 and 2014, even though unemployment, while falling, was still relatively high.  That cut-back in government spending was unprecedented in a period of recovery from a downturn (over at least the past half-century in the US).  And an earlier post on this blog estimated that had government spending been allowed to increase at the same pace as it had under Reagan following the 1982 downturn, the US economy would have fully recovered by 2012.

But the economy is now at full employment.  In these circumstances, extra demand stimulus will not increase production (as production is limited by capacity), but will rather spill over into a drawdown in inventories (in the short term, but there is only so much in inventories that one can draw down) or an increase in the trade deficit (more imports to satisfy the domestic demand, or exports diverted to meet the domestic demand).  One saw this in the initial estimates for the GDP figures for the second quarter of 2019.  GDP is estimated to have grown at a 2.1% rate.  But the domestic final demand components grew at a pace that, by themselves, would have accounted for a 3.6% point increase in GDP.  The difference was accounted for by a drawdown in inventories (accounting for 0.7% points of GDP) and an increase in the trade deficit (accounting for a further reduction of 0.8% points of GDP).  But these are just one quarter of figures, they are volatile, and it remains to be seen whether this will continue.

It is conceivable that domestic demand might fall back to grow in line with capacity.  But this then brings up what should be considered the second arm of Trump’s Keynesian stimulus program.  While tax cuts led to growing deficits in FY2017 and 18, we are now seeing in FY2019, in addition to the tax cuts, an extraordinary growth in government spending.  Based on US Treasury forecasts for FY2019 (as adjusted above), federal government spending this fiscal year is expected to grow by 8.0%.  This will add to domestic demand growth.  And there has not been such growth in government spending during a time of full employment since George H. W. Bush was president.

C.  The Impact of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019

Just before leaving for its summer recess, the House and the Senate in late July both passed an important bill setting the budget parameters for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.  Trump signed it into law on August 2.  It was needed as, under the budget sequester process forced on Obama in 2011, there would have otherwise been sharp cutbacks in the discretionary budgets for what government is allowed to spend (other than for programs such as Social Security or Medicare, where spending follows the terms of the programs as established, or for what is spent on interest on the public debt).  The sequesters would have set sharp cuts in government spending in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, and if allowed, such sudden cuts could have pushed the US economy into a recession.

The impact is clear on a chart:

The figures are derived from the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the impact on government spending from the lifting of the caps.  Without the change in the spending caps, discretionary spending would have been sharply reduced.  At the new caps, spending will increase at a similar pace as it had before.

Note the sharp contrast with the cut-backs in discretionary budget outlays from FY2011 to FY2015.  Unemployment was high then, and the economy struggled to recover from the 2008/09 downturn while confronting these contractionary headwinds.  But the economy is now at full employment, and the extra stimulus on demand from such spending will not, in itself and in the near term, lead to an increase in capacity, and hence not lead to a faster rate of growth than what we have seen in recent years.

But I should hasten to add that lifting the spending caps was not a mistake.  Government spending has been kept too limited for too long – there are urgent public needs (just look at the condition of our roads).  And a sharp and sudden cut in spending could have pushed the economy into a recession, as noted above.

More fundamentally, keeping up a “high pressure” economy is not necessarily a mistake.  One will of course need to monitor what is happening to inventories and the trade deficit, but the pressure on the labor market from a low unemployment rate has been bringing into the labor force workers who had previously been marginalized out of it.  And while there is little evidence as yet that it has spurred higher wages, continued pressure to secure workers should at some point lead to this.  What one does not want would be to reach the point where this leads to higher inflation.  But there is no evidence that we are near that now.  Indeed, the Fed decided on July 31 to reduce interest rates (for the first time since 2008, in part out of concern that inflation has been too low.

D.  Summary, Implications, and Conclusion

Trump campaigned on the promise that he would bring down the government deficit – indeed bring it down to zero.  The opposite has happened.  The deficit has grown sharply, and is expected to reach over $1 trillion this fiscal year, or over 5% of GDP.  This is unprecedented in the US in a time of full employment, other than during World War II.

The increase in the deficit is primarily due to the tax cuts he championed, supplemented (in FY2019) by a sharp rise in government spending.  Without such tax cuts, and with government spending growth the same as it had been under Obama, the deficit in FY2019 would have been $530 billion.  It is instead forecast to be double that (a forecast $1.075 trillion).

The tax cuts were justified by the administration by arguing that they would spur investment and hence growth.  That has not happened.  Growth in private investment in equipment has slowed since the major tax cuts of December 2017 were passed.  So has the pace of GDP growth.

This should not be surprising.  Taxes have at best a marginal effect on investment decisions.  The decision to invest is driven primarily by more fundamental considerations, including whether the extra capacity is needed given demand for the products, by the technologies available, and so on.

But tax cuts (to the extent they go to low and middle income households), and even more so direct government spending, can spur demand in the economy.  At times of less than full employment, this can lead to a higher GDP in standard Keynesian fashion.  But when the economy is at full employment, the constraint is not aggregate demand but rather production capacity.  And that is set by the available labor force and how much each worker can produce (their productivity).  The economy can then grow only as fast as the labor force and productivity grow, and most estimates put that at about 2% or less per year in the US right now.

The spur to demand can, however, act to keep the economy from falling back into a recession.  With the chaos being created in the markets by the trade wars Trump has launched, this is not a small consideration.  Indeed, the Fed, in announcing its July 31 cut in interest rates, indicated that in addition to inflation tracking below its target rate of 2%, concerns regarding “global developments” (interpreted as especially trade issues) was a factor in making the cut.

There are also advantages to keeping high pressure on the labor markets, as it draws in labor that was previously marginalized, and should at some point lead to higher wages.  As long as inflation remains modest (and as noted, it is currently below what the Fed considers desirable), all this sounds like a good situation.  The fiscal policies are therefore providing support to help ensure the economy does not fall back into recession despite the chaos of the trade wars and other concerns, while keeping positive pressure in the labor markets.  Trump should certainly thank Nancy Pelosi for the increases in the government spending caps under the recently approved budget agreement, as this will provide significant, and possibly critical, support to the economy in the period leading up to the 2020 election.

So what is there not to like?

The high fiscal deficit at a time of full employment is not to like.  As noted above, a fiscal deficit of more than 5% of GDP during a time of full employment is unprecedented (other than during World War II).  Unemployment was similarly low in the final few years of the Clinton presidency, but the economy then had fiscal surpluses (reaching 2.3% of GDP in FY2000) as well as a public debt that was falling in dollar amount (and even more so as a share of GDP).

The problem with a fiscal deficit of 5% of GDP with the economy at full employment is that when the economy next goes into a recession (and there eventually always has been a recession), the fiscal deficit will rise (and will need to rise) from this already high base.  The fiscal deficit rose by close to 9 percentage points of GDP between FY2007 and FY2009.  A similar economic downturn starting from a base where the deficit is already 5% of GDP would thus raise the fiscal deficit to 14% of GDP.   And that would certainly lead conservatives to argue, as they did in 2009, that the nation cannot respond to the economic downturn with the increase in government spending that would be required to stabilize and then bring down unemployment.

Is a recession imminent?  No one really knows, but the current economic expansion, that began five months after Obama took office, is now the longest on record in the US – 121 months as of July.  It has just beaten the 120 month expansion during the 1990s, mostly when Clinton was in office.  Of more concern to many analysts is that long-term interest rates (such as on 10-year US Treasury bonds) are now lower than short-term interest rates on otherwise similar US Treasury obligations.  This is termed an “inverted yield curve”, as the yield curve (a plot of interest rates against the term of the bond) will normally be upward sloping.  Longer-term loans normally have to pay a higher interest rate than shorter ones.  But right now, 10-year US Treasury bonds are being sold in the market at a lower interest rate than the interest rate demanded on short-term obligations.  This only makes sense if those in the market expect a downturn (forcing a reduction in interest rates) at some point in the next few years.

The concern is that in every single one of the seven economic recessions since the mid-1960s, the yield curve became inverted prior to that downturn.  While this was typically two or three years before the downturn (and in the case leading up to the 1970 recession, about four years before), in no case was there an inverted yield curve without a subsequent downturn within that time frame.  Some argue that “this time is different”, and perhaps it will be.  But an inverted yield curve has been 100% accurate so far in predicting an imminent recession.

The extremely high fiscal deficit under Trump at a time of full employment is therefore leaving the US economy vulnerable when the next recession occurs.  And a growing public debt (it will reach $16.8 trillion, or 79% of GDP, by September 30 of this year, in terms of debt held by the public) cannot keep growing forever.

What then to do?  A sharp cut in government spending might well bring on the downturn that we are seeking to avoid.  Plus government spending is critically needed in a range of areas.  But raising taxes, and specifically raising taxes on the well-off who benefited disproportionately in the series of tax cuts by Reagan, Bush II, and then Trump, would have the effect of raising revenue without causing a contractionary impulse.  The well-off are not constrained in what they spend on consumption by their incomes – they consume what they wish and save the residual.

The impact on the deficit and hence on the debt could also be significant.  While now a bit dated, an analysis on this blog from September 2013 (using Congressional Budget Office figures) found that simply reversing in full the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 would lead the public debt to GDP ratio to fall and fall sharply (by about half in 25 years).  The Trump tax cuts of December 2017 have now made things worse, but a good first step would be to reverse these.

It was the Bush and now Trump tax cuts that have put the fiscal accounts on an unsustainable trajectory.  As was noted above, the fiscal accounts were in surplus at the end of the Clinton administration.  But we now have a large and unprecedented deficit even when the economy is at full employment.  In a situation like this, one would think it should be clear to acknowledge the mistake, and revert to what had worked well before.

Managing the fiscal accounts in a responsible way is certainly possible.  But they have been terribly mismanaged by this administration.

Allow the IRS to Fill In Our Tax Forms For Us – It Can and It Should

A.  Introduction

Having recently completed and filed this year’s income tax forms, it is timely to examine what impact the Republican tax bill, pushed quickly through Congress in December 2017 along largely party-line votes, has had on the taxes we pay and on the process by which we figure out what they are.  I will refer to the bill as the Trump/GOP tax bill as the new law reflected both what the Republican leadership in Congress wanted and what the Trump administration pushed for.

We already know well that the cuts went largely to the very well-off.  The chart above is one more confirmation of this.  It was calculated from figures in a recent report by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation of the US Congress, released on March 25, 2019 (report #JCX-10-19).  While those earning more than $1 million in 2019 will, on average, see their taxes cut by $64,428 per tax filing unit (i.e. generally households), those earning $10,000 or less will see a reduction of just $21.  And on the scale of the chart, it is indeed difficult to impossible even to see the bars depicting the reductions in taxes for those earning less than $50,000 or so.

The sharp bias in favor of the rich was discussed in a previous post on this blog, based there on estimates from a different group (the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan think tank) but with similar results.  And while it is of course true that those who are richer will have more in taxes that can be cut (one could hardly cut $64,428 from a taxpayer earning less than $10,000), it is not simply the absolute amounts but also the share of taxes which were cut much further for the rich than for the poor.  According to the Joint Committee on Taxation report cited above, those earning $30,000 or less will only see their taxes cut by 0.5% of their incomes, while those earning between $0.5 million and $1.0 million will see a cut of 3.1%.  That is more than six times as much as a share of incomes.  That is perverse.

And the overall average reduction in individual income taxes will only be a bit less than 10% of the tax revenues being paid before.  This is in stark contrast to the more than 50% reduction in corporate income taxes that we have already observed in what was paid by corporations in 2018.

Furthermore, while taxes for households in some income category may have on average gone down, the numerous changes made to the tax code on the Trump/GOP bill meant that for many it did not.  Estimates provided in the Joint Committee on Taxation report cited above (see Table 2 of the report) indicate that for 2019 a bit less than two-thirds of tax filing units (households) will see a reduction in their taxes of $100 or more, but more than one-third will see either no significant change (less than $100) or a tax increase.  The impacts vary widely, even for those with the same income, depending on a household’s particular situation.

But the Trump/GOP tax bill promised not just a reduction in taxes, but also a reduction in tax complexity, by eliminating loopholes and from other such measures.  The claim was that most Americans would then be able to fill in their tax returns “on a postcard”.  But as is obvious to anyone who has filed their forms this year, it is hardly that.  This blog post will discuss why this is so and why filling in one’s tax returns remains such a headache.  The fundamental reason is simple:  The tax system is not less complex than before, but more.

There is, however, a way to address this, and not solely by ending the complexity (although that would in itself be desirable).  Even with the tax code as complicated as it now is (and more so after the Trump/GOP bill), the IRS could complete for each of us a draft of what our filing would look like based on the information that the IRS already collects.  Those draft forms would match what would be due for perhaps 80 to 85% of us (basically almost all of those who take the standard deduction).  For that 80 to 85% one would simply sign the forms and return them along with a payment if taxes are due or a request for a refund if a refund is due.  Most remaining taxpayers would also be able to use these initial draft forms from the IRS, but for them as the base for what they would need to file.  In their cases, additions or subtractions would be made to reflect items such as itemized deductions (mostly) and certain special tax factors (for some) where the information necessary to complete such calculations would not have been provided in the normal flow of reports to the IRS.  And a small number of filers might continue to fill in all their forms as now.  That small number would be no worse than now, while life would be much simpler for the 95% or more (perhaps 99% or more) who could use the pre-filled in forms from the IRS either in their entirety or as a base to start from.

The IRS receives most of the information required to do this already for each of us (and all that is required for most of us).  But what would be different is that instead of the IRS using such information to check what we filed after the fact, and then impose a fine (or worse) if we made a mistake, the IRS would now use that same information to fill in the forms for us.  We would then review and check them, and if necessary or advantageous to our situation we could then adjust them.  We will discuss how such a tax filing system could work below.

B.  Our Tax Forms are Now Even More Complex Than Before

Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress promised that with the Trump/GOP tax bill, the tax forms we would need to file could, for most of us, fit just on a postcard.  And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin then asserted that the IRS (part of Treasury) did just that.  But this is simply nonsense, as anyone who has had to struggle with the new Form 1040s (or even just looked at them) could clearly see.

Specifically:

a)  Form 1040 is not a postcard, but a sheet of paper (front and back), to which one must attach up to six separate schedules.  This previously all fit on one sheet of paper, but now one has to complete and file up to seven just for the 1040 itself.

b)  Furthermore, there are no longer the forms 1040-EZ or 1040-A which were used by those with less complex tax situations.  Now everyone needs to work from a fully comprehensive Form 1040, and try to figure out what may or may not apply in their particular circumstances.

c)  The number of labeled lines on the old 1040 came to 79.  On the new forms (including the attached schedules) they come to 75.  But this is misleading, as what used to be counted as lines 1 through 6 on the old 1040 are now no longer counted (even though they are still there and are needed).  Including these, the total number of numbered lines comes to 81, or basically the same as before (and indeed more).

d)  Spreading out the old Form 1040 from one sheet of paper to seven does, however, lead to a good deal of extra white space.  This was likely done to give it (the first sheet) the “appearance” of a postcard.  But the forms would have been much easier to fill in, with less likelihood of error, if some of that white space had been used instead for sub-totals and other such entries so that all the steps needed to calculate one’s taxes were clear.

e)  Specifically, with the six new schedules, one has to carry over computations or totals from five of them (all but the last) to various lines on the 1040 itself.  But this was done, confusingly, in several different ways:  1)  The total from Schedule 4 was carried over to its own line (line 14) on the 1040.  It would have been best if all of them had been done this way, but they weren’t.  Instead, 2) The total from Schedule 2 was added to a number of other items on line 11 of the 1040, with the total of those separate items then shown on line 11.  And 3) The total from Schedule 1 was added to the sum of what is shown on the lines above it (lines1 through 5b of the 1040) and then recorded on line 6 of the 1040.

If this looks confusing, it is because it is.  I made numerous mistakes on this when completing my own returns (yes – I do these myself, as I really want to know how they are done).  I hope my final returns were done correctly.  And it is not simply me.  Early indications (as of early March) were that errors on this year’s tax forms were up by 200% over last year’s (i.e. they tripled).

f)  There is also the long-standing issue that the actual forms that one has to fill out are in fact substantially greater than those that one files, as one has to fill in numerous worksheets in order to calculate certain of the figures.  These worksheets should be considered part of the returns, and not hidden in the directions, in order to provide an honest picture of what is involved.  And they don’t fit on a postcard.

g)  But possibly what is most misleading about what is involved in filling out the returns is not simply what is on the 1040 itself, but also the need to include on the 1040 figures from numerous additional forms (for those that may apply).  Few if any of them are applicable to one’s particular tax situation, but to know whether they do or not one has to review each of those forms and make such a determination.  How does one know whether some form applies when there is a statement on the 1040 such as “Enter the amount, if any, from Form xxxx”?  The only way to know is to look up the form (fortunately now this can be done on the internet), read through it along with the directions, and then determine whether it may apply to you.  Furthermore, in at least a few cases one can only know if the form applies to your situation is by filling it in and then comparing the result found to some other item to see whether filing that particular form applies to you.

There are more than a few such forms.  By my count, one has just on the Form 1040 plus its Schedules 1 through 5 amounts that might need to be entered from Forms 8814, 4972, 8812, 8863, 4797, 8889, 2106, 3903, SE, 6251, 8962, 2441, 8863, 8880, 5695, 3800, 8801,1116, 4137, 8919, 5329, 5405, 8959, 8960, 965-A, 8962, 4136, 2439, and 8885.  Each of these forms may apply to certain taxpayers, but mostly only a tiny fraction of them.  But all taxpayers will need to know whether they might apply to their particular situation.  They can often guess that they probably won’t (and it likely would be a good guess, as most of these forms only apply to a tiny sliver of Americans), but the only way to know for sure is to check each one out.

Filling out one’s individual income tax forms has, sadly, never been easy.  But it has now become worse.  And while the new look of the Form 1040 appears to be a result of a political decision by the Trump administration (“make it look like it could fit on a postcard”), the IRS should mostly not be blamed for the complexity.  That complexity is a consequence of tax law, as written by Congress, which finds it politically advantageous to reward what might be a tiny number of supporters (and campaign contributors) with some special tax break.  And when Congress does this, the IRS must then design a new form to reflect that new law, and incorporate it into the Form 1040 and now the new attached schedules.  And then everyone, not simply the tiny number of tax filers to whom it might in fact apply, must then determine whether or not it applies to them.

There are, of course, also more fundamental causes of the complexity in the tax code, which must then be reflected in the forms.  The most important is the decision by our Congress to tax different forms of income differently, where wages earned will in general be taxed at the highest rates (up to 37%) while capital gains (including dividends on stocks held for more than 60 days) are taxed at rates of just 20% or less.  And there are a number of other forms of income that are taxed at various rates (including now, under the Trump/GOP tax bill, an effectively lower tax rate for certain company owners on the incomes they receive from their companies, as well as new special provisions of benefit to real estate developers).  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, there is no good rationale, economic or moral, to justify this.  It leads to complex tax calculations as the different forms of income must each be identified and then taxed at rates that interact with each other.  And it leads to tremendous incentives to try to shift your type of income, when you are in a position to do so, from wages, say, to a type taxed at a lower rate (such as stock options that will later be taxed only at the long-term capital gains rate).

Given this complexity, it is no surprise that most Americans turn either to professional tax preparers (accountants and others) to fill in their tax forms for them, or to special tax preparation software such as TurboTax.  Based on statistics for the 2018 tax filing season (for 2017 taxes), 72.1 million tax filers hired professionals to prepare their tax forms, or 51% of the 141.5 million tax returns filed.  The cost varies by what needs to be filed, but even assuming an average fee of just $500 per return, this implies a total of over $36 billion is being paid by taxpayers for just this service.

Most of the remaining 49% of tax filers use tax preparation software for their returns (a bit over three-quarters of them).  But these are problematic as well.  There is also a cost (other than for extremely simple returns), but the software itself may not be that good.  A recent review by Consumer Reports found problems with each of the four major tax preparation software packages it tested (TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxSlayer, and TaxAct), and concluded they are not to be trusted.

And on top of this, there is the time the taxpayer must spend to organize all the records that will be needed in order to complete the tax returns – whether by a hired professional tax preparer, or by software, or by one’s own hand.  A 2010 report by a presidential commission examing options for tax reform estimated that Americans spend about 2.5 billion hours a year to do what is necessary to file their individual income tax returns, equivalent to $62.5 billion at an average time cost of $25 per hour.

Finally there are the headaches.  Figuring one’s taxes, even if a professional is hired to fill in the forms, is not something anyone wants to spend time on.

There is a better way.  With the information that is already provided to the IRS each year, the IRS could complete and provide to each of us a draft set of tax forms which would suffice (i.e. reflect exactly what our tax obligation is) for probably 80% or more of households.  And most of the remainder could use such draft forms as a base and then provide some simple additions or subtractions to arrive at what their tax obligation is.  The next section will discuss how this could be done.

C.  Have the IRS Prepare Draft Tax Returns for Each of Us

The IRS already receives, from employers, financial institutions, and others, information on the incomes provided to each of us during the tax year.  And these institutions then tell us each January what they provided to the IRS.  Employers tell us on W-2 forms what wages were paid to us, and financial institutions will tell us through various 1099 forms what was paid to us in interest, in dividends, in realized capital gains, in earnings from retirement plans, and from other such sources of returns on our investments.  Reports are also filed with the IRS for major transactions such as from the sale of a home or other real estate.

The IRS thus has very good information on our income each year.  Our family situation is also generally stable from year to year, although it can vary sometimes (such as when a child is born).  But basing an initial draft estimate on the household situation of the previous year will generally be correct, and can be amended when needed.  One could also easily set up an online system through which tax filers could notify the IRS when such events occur, to allow the IRS to incorporate those changes into the draft tax forms they next produce.

For most of those who take the standard deduction, the IRS could then fill in our tax forms exactly.  And most Americans take the standard deduction. Prior to the Trump/GOP tax bill, about 70% of tax filers did, and it is now estimated that with the changes resulting from the new tax bill, about 90% will.  Under the Trump/GOP tax bill, the basic standard deduction was doubled (while personal exemptions were eliminated, so not all those taking the standard deduction ended up better off).  And perhaps of equal importance, the deduction that could be taken on state and local taxes was capped at $10,000 while how much could be deducted on mortgage interest was also narrowed, so itemization was no longer advantageous for many (with these new limitations primarily affecting those living in states that vote for Democrats – not likely a coincidence).

The IRS could thus prepare filled in tax forms for each of us, based on information contained in what we had filed in earlier years and assuming the standard deduction is going to be taken.  But they would just be drafts.  They would be sent to us for our review, and if everything is fine (and for most of the 90% taking the standard deduction they would be) we would simply sign the forms and return them (along with a check if some additional tax is due, or information on where to deposit a refund if a tax refund is due).

But for the 10% where itemized deductions are advantageous, and for a few others who are in some special tax situation, one could either start with the draft forms and make additions or subtractions to reflect simple adjustments, or, if one wished, prepare a new set of forms reflecting one’s tax situation.  There would likely not be many of the latter, but it would be an option, and no worse than what is currently required of everyone.

For those making adjustments, the changes could simply be made at the end.  For example (and likely the most common such situation), suppose it was advantageous to take itemized deductions rather than the standard deduction.  One would fill in the regular Schedule A (as now), but then rather than recomputing all of the forms, one could subtract from the taxes due an amount based on what the excess was of the itemized deductions over the standard deduction, and one’s tax rate.  Suppose the excess of the itemized deductions over the standard deduction for the filer came to $1,000.  Then for the very rich (households earning over $600,000 a year after deductions), one would reduce the taxes due by 37%, or $370.  Those earning $400,000 to $600,000, in the 35% bracket, would subtract $350.  And so on down to the lower brackets, where those in the 12% bracket (those earning $19,050 to $77,400) would subtract $120 (and those earning less than $19,050 are unlikely to itemize).

[Side Note:  Why do the rich receive what is in effect a larger subsidy from the government than the poor do for what they itemize, such as for contributions to charities?  That is, why do the rich effectively pay just $630 for their contribution to a charity ($1,000 minus $370), while the poor pay $880 ($1,000 minus $120) for their contribution to possibly the exact same charity?  There really is no economic, much less moral, reason for this, but that is in fact how the US tax code is currently written.  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the government subsidy for such deductions could instead be set to be the same for all, at say a rate of 20% or so.  There is no reason why the rich should receive a bigger subsidy than the poor receive for the contributions they make.]

Another area where the information the IRS would not have complete information to compute taxes due would be where the tax filer had sold a capital asset which had been purchased before 2010.  The IRS only started in 2010 to require that financial institutions report the cost basis for assets sold, and this cost basis is needed to compute capital gains (or losses).  But as time passes, a smaller and smaller share of assets sold will have been purchased before 2010.  The most important, for most people, will likely be the cost of the home they bought if before 2010, but such a sale will happen only once (unless they owned multiple real estate assets in 2010).

But a simple adjustment could be made to reflect the cost basis of such assets, similar to the adjustment for itemized deductions.  The draft tax forms filled in by the IRS would leave as blank (zero) the cost basis of the assets sold in the year for which it did not have a figure reported.  The tax filer would then determine what the cost basis of all such assets should be (as they do now), add them up, and then subtract 20% of that total cost basis from the taxes due (for those in the 20% bracket for long term capital gains, as most people with capital gains are, or use 15% or 0% if those tax brackets apply in their particular cases).

There will still be a few tax filers with more complex situations where the IRS draft computations are not helpful, who will want to do their own forms.  This is fine – there would always be that option.  But such individuals would still be no worse off than what is required now.  And their number is likely to be very small.  While a guess, I would say that what the IRS could provide to tax filers would be fully sufficient and accurate for 80 to 85% of Americans, and that simple additions or subtractions to the draft forms (as described above) would work for most of the rest.  Probably less than 5% of filers would need to complete a full set of forms themselves, and possibly less than 1%.

D. Final Remarks

Such an approach would be new for the US.  But there is nothing revolutionary about it.  Indeed, it is common elsewhere in the world.  Much of Western Europe already follows such an approach or some variant of it, in particular all of the Scandinavian countries as well as Germany, Spain, and the UK, and also Japan.  Small countries, such as Chile and Estonia, have it, as do large ones.

It has also often been proposed for the US.  Indeed, President Reagan proposed it as part of his tax reduction and simplification bill in 1985, then candidate Barack Obama proposed it in 2007 in a speech on middle class tax fairness, a presidential commission in 2010 included it as one of the proposals in its report on simplifying the tax system, and numerous academics and others have also argued in its favor.

It would also likely save money at the IRS.  The IRS collects already most of the information needed.  But that information is not then sent back to us in fully or partially filled in tax forms, but rather is used by the IRS after we file to check to see whether we got anything wrong.  And if we did, we then face a fine or possibly worse.  Completing our tax returns should not be a game of “gotcha” with the IRS, but rather an effort to ensure we have them right.

Such a reform has, however, been staunchly opposed by narrow interests who benefit from the current frustrating system.  Intuit, the seller of TurboTax software, has been particularly aggressive through its congressional lobbying and campaign contributions in using Congress to block the IRS from pursuing this, as has H&R Block.  They of course realize that if tax filing were easy, with the IRS completing most or all of the forms for us, there would be no need to spend what comes to billions of dollars for software from Intuit and others.  But the morality of a business using its lobbying and campaign contributions to ensure life is made particularly burdensome for the citizenry, so that it can then sell a product to make it easier, is something to be questioned.

One can, however, understand the narrow commercial interests of Intuit and the tax software companies.  One can also, sadly, understand the opposition of a number of conservative political activists, with Grover Norquist the most prominent and in the lead. They have also aggressively lobbied Congress to block the IRS from making tax filing simpler.  They are ideologically opposed to taxes, and see the burden and difficulty in figuring out one’s taxes as a positive, not as a negative.  The hope is that with more people complaining about how difficult it is to fill in their tax forms, the more people will be in favor of cutting taxes.  While that view on how people see taxes might well be accurate, what many may not realize is that the tax cuts of recent decades have led to greater complexity and difficulty, not less.  With new loopholes for certain narrow interests, and with income taxed differently depending on the source of that income (with income from wealth taxed at a much lower rate than income from labor), the system has become more complex while generating less revenue overall.

But it is perverse that Congress should legislate in favor of making life more difficult.  The tax system is indeed necessary and crucial, as Reagan correctly noted in his 1985 speech on tax reform, but as he also noted in that speech, there is no need to make them difficult.  Most Americans, Reagan argued, should be able, and would be able under his proposals, to use what he called a “return-free” system, with the IRS working out the taxes due.

The system as proposed above would do this.  It would also be voluntary.  If one disagreed with the pre-filled in forms sent by the IRS, and could not make the simple adjustments (up or down) to the taxes due through the measures as discussed above, one could always fill in the entire set of forms oneself.  But for that small number of such cases this would just be the same as is now required for all.  Furthermore, if one really was concerned about the IRS filling in one’s forms for some reason (it is not clear what that might be), one could easily have a system of opting-out, where one would notify the IRS that one did not want the service.

The tax code itself should still be simplified.  There are many reforms that can and should be implemented, if there was the political will.  The 2010 presidential commission presented numerous options for what could be done.  But even with the current complex system, or rather especially because of the current complex system, there is no valid reason why figuring out and filing our taxes should be so difficult.  Let the IRS do it for us.