Posts Tagged ‘taxes’

Yes, kick the can down the road

20 July 2011

I don’t say this often, but Eric Cantor is half right. The Republican House Majority Leader’s mantra in the current debate over a long-term budget fix has been “You don’t raise taxes in a recession.” That is good policy advice, and any Keynesian economist would tell you the same. Tax increases lower GDP, indirectly, by lowering people’s disposable income — if they have less money, most people will spend less money, so consumption drops. But any Keynesian economist would also tell you, “Don’t cut spending in a recession.” Cuts in government spending directly lower GDP and indirectly lower it by lowering the consumption of laid-off government workers and government contractors. So neither tax increases nor spending cuts are a good idea in this time of 9.2% unemployment.

(It’s a pity that Cantor doesn’t understand the second part, or pretends not to. But not a surprise. Misrepresenting Keynes is a cottage industry among Republican politicians and pundits. Ezra Klein notes that Cantor wrote in his campaign manifesto of last year that Keynesianism is the theory that “government can be counted on to spend more wisely than the people.” But I digress . . .)

Right now, we’re told August 2 is the deadline for an agreement by Congress to raise the national debt ceiling or face a partial government shutdown in which some Treasury bondholders, government employers, government contractors and/or other government creditors won’t get paid. I’ve written again and again that the whole concept of a debt ceiling is self-destructive and a waste of time — and, as usual, The Onion says it better than I ever could — but the “grand bargain” that the president seeks could easily be self-destructive as well. Both Democrats and Republicans say they want to pass a long-term deficit reduction plan that reduces the national debt by several trillion dollars over the next decade. That’s fine in a broad sense, as health care costs continue to jump by leaps and bounds, two wars continue to drain our resources, and federal taxes as a share of GDP are at their lowest level in a half-century. But if the tax increases and spending cuts kick in while the economy is still in this Little Depression, with unemployment well above its normal range of 5-7%, then the grand bargain becomes a starvation diet.

If we could just fine all politicians and pundits a dollar each time they say “we can’t afford to kick the can down the road any more,” we could pay off the national debt. Barring that, we can at least question that bit of conventional wisdom, telling them, no, it’s not a good idea to raise taxes or cut spending while the economy is still in the tank, and any plan to do either or both that kicks in while unemployment is still above 7% is a bad one. Worse than defaulting on the government’s obligations? Probably not. But a lot worse than doing nothing on both fronts.

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Raise *these* taxes

1 August 2009

So many problems out there — health care costs, climate change, mortgage crisis — and so many complicated solutions being pursued.  Some solutions that economists would tend to favor that do not seem to be part of the current political debate involve eliminating a couple of expensive tax loopholes, for health insurance and mortgage interest, and imposing a carbon tax.

All of these would raise a lot of revenue, and tax increases of any kind are like kryptonite to politicians and of course counterproductive in a recession, but they could be made revenue-neutral by cutting tax rates or increasing the personal exemptions or standard deductions.  Or, when the economy has recovered, tax increases like these could be part of a deficit-reduction package.

One by one:

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Geithner’s tax problem, Goolsbee’s solution?

14 January 2009

I’d been expecting Treasury Secretary-designate Tim Geithner to come up for some grilling in his confirmation hearing, over his role in the TARP bailout and in the orgy of deregulation of the late 1990s.  (Neither of those things is necessarily disqualifying in my eyes, as long as he can show that he’s learned from his and other people’s mistakes.)  But as with past nominees, from John Tower to Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, it’s the small stuff of dubious relevance that tends to blow up — and distract Congress, the media, and the public from issues of actual substance.   The main distraction this time: Geithner failed to pay $43,000 in federal taxes.

On the surface, this looks pretty bad:  the guy who would be the head of the agency that oversees the IRS, failing to pay his Social Security and Medicare taxes for four years in a row (2001-2004).  But not so fast.   Most of us have those taxes withheld directly from our paychecks and don’t think about them otherwise.   Geithner, by contrast, was working for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where employees don’t pay federal income tax.  Several of my grad school friends went to work for the IMF, and I distinctly remember them saying, it’s great, we don’t pay taxes.  The incoming administration’s talking points on the matter (take them with a grain of salt if you want) note that this confusion is very common among IMF employees.

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