Friday, March 16, 2018

What Tolls and Transportation Taxes Purchase 

Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a letter to the editor from Nathan A. Benefield, vice president and CEO of Commonwealth Foundation. The letter apparently isn’t on the www.philly.com website, but can be found on the Philadelphia Inquirer replica site. Benefield criticized an earlier claim by columnist Maria Panaritis that maintenance of roads and bridges in Pennsylvania is underfunded. Benefield wrote, “Yet Pennsylvania has the nation’s highest gasoline tax and collects so much for infrastructure that money is redirected to mass transit. Turnpike tolls, vehicle fees, and driver fees all help fund SEPTA, meaning motorists are subsidizing mass transit they don’t use.” There are two problems with this assertion.

First, the first quoted sentence makes it appear that the revenues collected from the gasoline tax is so abundant that after spending whatever needs to be spent on highways and bridges, the rest is gratuitously given to mass transit. That is not the case. By law, a percentage of the tax, and other fees, is transmitted to mass transit agencies whether or not all of the necessary road and bridge maintenance is completed.

Second, the second sentence raises the oft-heard objection that motorists ought not be “subsidizing” mass transit. This objection rests on the unstated assumption that motorists do not benefit from mass transit because they aren’t using mass transit. Even aside from motorists who also use mass transit, motorists who do not use mass transit indeed benefit from mass transit. They benefit because mass transit permits people who otherwise would be using roads and bridges to find other ways to travel, thus reducing congestion. Imagine if mass transit simply disappeared. Mass transit riders would be forced to drive vehicles or to use taxis, Uber, and similar means of transport. Congestion would bring gridlock and more pollution not only to urban areas, but also to some suburbs, and would increase congestion and pollution in suburban and rural areas. People otherwise riding trains from Philadelphia to and from Lancaster, Harrisburg, or Pittsburgh, or two and from those and other cities, would take to the highways, including those traversing rural areas. Moreover, the additional congestion in the cities would delay the shipment of goods to and from rural areas, and increase the costs of those shipments.

Just because a benefit provided by a toll, a user fee, or a tax is not immediately perceived does not mean it does not exist. Sometimes recognizing the full impact of a revenue stream requires much more than simplistic analysis.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Arguing About Tax Crumbs 

In his March 7, 2018, Institute for Policy Innovation commentary, Whose Crumbs?, Tom Giovanetti criticized Democrat Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for referring to the recent spate of employee bonuses as “crumbs.” Two responses are in order.

First, though I am no fan of Nancy Pelosi, fairness dictates that she not be accused of, nor credited with, originating the use of “crumbs” to describe these mere pittances of bonuses. Giovanetti notes that she used the term on January 11, 2018, and then again on January 25. My guess is that she also used the term at other times after January 11, but Giovanetti did not need to identify every instance to make his point. My point, however, is that credit or condemnation for using the term belongs to me. On December 25, 2017, in Taxmas?, I referred to the impact of the 2017 tax legislation on the average American as “crumbs.” On December 29, in Those Tax-Cut Inspired Bonus Payments? Just Another Ruse, I predicted that “when the smoke clears and the mirrors are removed, corporate cash reserves will grow, some employees at a handful of companies will get a few crumbs, and others, perhaps many others, will lose their jobs.” On January 1, 2018, in Getting Tax Cut Benefits to Those Who Need Economic Relief: A Drop in the Bucket But Never a Flood, I criticized what the recipients of the tax cuts were doing by asking, “Imagine if corporations and businesses were required to use their tax cuts to reduce the prices of their goods and services rather than using them to engage in mergers, buy back stock, increase dividends, or toss bonus crumbs to some employees while axing thousands of jobs.” Weeks before Pelosi shared her description of the meager bonus payments being dished out to a handful of employees, I used a very appropriate word to describe what was about to happen, and has been happening.

Second, Giovanetti’s criticism of Pelosi’s use of the word “crumb” to describe what has happened is seriously flawed. I respond because criticizing her use, or anyone’s use, of the word is no less a criticism of my use of the word. Giovanetti claims that Pelosi is out of touch with the average American family. Maybe she is, maybe she’s not, but I’m not. I’ve spent my entire life in touch with people from average and not-so-average backgrounds, with the wealthy, the poor, and those in-between. So how is the average American family responding to these tax crumbs? The answer can be found in Michael Tackett’s Blue-Collar Trump Voters Are Shrugging at Their Tax Cuts report. One worker described his take-home pay increase caused by the tax cut to be enough for two beers. To quote Tackett, “Other workers described their increase as enough for a week’s worth of gas or a couple of gallons of milk, with an additional $40 in a paycheck every two weeks on the high side to $2 a week on the low.” Another worker concluded that his pay increase would be insufficient “to take his girlfriend to a nice dinner.” Still another worker described the $6 weekly increase as “lunch money,” presumably for one day of the week. One worker appears to be seeing the light of day, though his use of “he” should be “they,” as members of Congress certainly are complicit in the tax cut scam foisted on America; he explained, “He’s pulling out jazz hands and shiny stuff up front and will screw us on the back end.” Indeed.

Surely the reaction to a $250 bonus, which is the equivalent of a $5 weekly pay increase for one year, no different. These tiny amounts, though better than zero, are no different than crumbs. I explained this in several posts, including Oh, Those Bonus Payments! Much Ado About Almost Nothing, describing the average $190 bonus to be received by Walmart employees. In other posts I explained how, at the same time these measly bonus payments were being slated for distribution to some employees, other employees at a number of companies were seeing pink slips.

Giovanetti also claims that Pelosi doesn’t understand economics. Perhaps she doesn’t. Perhaps she does. But the claim by Giovanetti that a company’s taxes are paid by its workers, shareholders, and customers and that these are the people who benefit from the company paying lower taxes flies in the face of economic facts. As I described in More Proof Supply-Side Economic Theory is Bad Tax Policy, a Morgan Stanley study showed that almost half of the tax cut money received by corporations is going to top executives and hedge funds, a fifth is going to mergers and acquisitions enriching investment bankers, and about a tenth ending up in one-time rank-and-file employee bonuses. In other words, prices charged to customers aren’t being reduced, and workers aren’t getting permanent and meaningful wage increases. Of course, as I proposed many times, including How to use the Tax Law to Create Jobs and Raise Wages, Congress could have, and should have, made the tax cuts contingent on worker pay increases and customer price reductions. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, increasing amounts of money are flowing into the hands of those who already are drowning in it. Thus, Giovanetti’s claim that the tax cuts “frees up more money for business investment, expansion, hiring and worker training” ignores the reality that these corporations already had huge piles of money available for business investment, expansion, hiring and worker training, weren’t doing very much of that, and still aren’t doing very much of that. Before getting hoodwinked by the increases in jobs, remember that almost all of those jobs are low-paying, minimum wage, and part-time, temporary, arrangements. As the people in Tackett’s report experienced, when factories closed and eventually other employers came to town, the average worker was earning half of what he or she had been bringing home. The poor remain poor, the middle class becomes poorer, and the wealthy, well, they get wealthier.

To Giovanetti’s credit, in the same commentary he criticizes those who defend the tariff increases. He’s right. In his criticism of the tariffs, he flirts with demand-side economic theory, focusing on the impact of the tariffs on consumer spending power. Would that Tom Giovanetti realize that the tariff increases and the tax cuts for the wealthy both emanate from the same approach to economics, and that the approach in question is deeply flawed. I cannot wait until he makes that connection. When he embraces demand-side economic theory, his contribution to the rebuilding of America could be tremendous.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tax Opposition: A Costly Road to Follow 

With great delight, Americans for Prosperity issued a press release proudly quoting Paul Ryan’s promise, “We’re not going to raise gas taxes.” He explained, “[T]he last thing we want to do is pass historic tax relief in December and then undo that, so we are not going to raise gas taxes.” Americans with Prosperity endorsed that position, quoting from a letter it sent to the Administration opposing any gas tax increases.

So, with highways, bridges, and tunnels in serious need of repair, and expansion necessary in areas stifled by congestion, what brilliant idea does Paul Ryan and his backers at Americans for Prosperity offer? Let the transportation infrastructure deteriorate while people are injured and killed? Put ownership of public infrastructure into the hands of oligarchs who will impose tolls far higher than any gas tax hike would have been, while they extract more profits for their bulging coffers and scream for more tax relief because they are impoverished?

It amuses me how an organization claiming prosperity as its goal can ignore the vital role that public highways, bridges, and tunnels play in boosting a nation’s prosperity. Does this group not understand the negative impact on the American economy of traffic congestion, delayed delivery of goods, and productivity decreases caused by deficient highways, bridges, and tunnels? It is a well-known principle of economics that one must spend money in order to make money. Has Paul Ryan and Americans for Prosperity figured out yet that investing in infrastructure will increase GDP more quickly and to a greater extent than the tax cuts they worship? And, if dumping money into the economy by putting it into the hands of wealthy individuals and corporations that are using very little of it to spark the economy is supposedly, in their view, so wonderful, is it not even more wonderful to infuse the economy with investments that are visible and guaranteed to provide economic payback that benefits everyone?

The answer surely is the mileage-based road fee. I have discussed that approach in numerous posts, including Tax Meets Technology on the Road, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Again, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Yet Again, Change, Tax, Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Secrecy, Pennsylvania State Gasoline Tax Increase: The Last Hurrah?, Making Progress with Mileage-Based Road Fees, Mileage-Based Road Fees Gain More Traction, Looking More Closely at Mileage-Based Road Fees, The Mileage-Based Road Fee Lives On, Is the Mileage-Based Road Fee So Terrible?, Defending the Mileage-Based Road Fee, Liquid Fuels Tax Increases on the Table, Searching For What Already Has Been Found, Tax Style, Highways Are Not Free, Mileage-Based Road Fees: Privatization and Privacy, Is the Mileage-Based Road Fee a Threat to Privacy?, So Who Should Pay for Roads?, Between Theory and Reality is the (Tax) Test, Mileage-Based Road Fee Inching Ahead, Rebutting Arguments Against Mileage-Based Road Fees, On the Mileage-Based Road Fee Highway: Young at (Tax) Heart?, To Test The Mileage-Based Road Fee, There Needs to Be a Test, What Sort of Tax or Fee Will Hawaii Use to Fix Its Highways?, And Now It’s California Facing the Road Funding Tax Issues, If Users Don’t Pay, Who Should?, Taking Responsibility for Funding Highways, Should Tax Increases Reflect Populist Sentiment?, When It Comes to the Mileage-Based Road Fee, Try It, You’ll Like It, Mileage-Based Road Fees: A Positive Trend?, and Understanding the Mileage-Based Road Fee. Yet the anti-tax, pro-oligarchy-enrichment-through-privatization crowd derides the mileage-based road fee with as much vigor as they oppose the gasoline tax and every other tax.

It is not unusual for defenders of a foolish policy, such as cutting off necessary funding that returns many dollars for each invested dollar, to sound more and more ridiculous as they are backed into a corner while the light shining on their policies’ shortcomings becomes brighter and more focused. Every American, including those already injured or dishing out dollars because of injuries and damages caused by infrastructure deficiencies, and those who inevitably will suffer injuries and damages, should be extremely alarmed. Figuring this out while at someone’s funeral, while in the hospital, while dealing with unemployment, or while dealing with delays in the delivery of much-needed medicines will be too late. Way too late.

Friday, March 09, 2018

What Is a Successful Tax? 

For almost a decade I have been criticizing the so-called soda tax. It fails to get my support because it is both too narrow and too broad. It applies to items that ought not be subjected to this sort of “health improvement” tax, and yet fails to apply to most of the food and beverage items that contribute to health problems. I have written about the soda tax for almost ten years, in posts such as What Sort of Tax?, The Return of the Soda Tax Proposal, Tax As a Hate Crime?, Yes for The Proposed User Fee, No for the Proposed Tax, Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Shelved, But Will It Return?, Taxing Symptoms Rather Than Problems, It’s Back! The Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Returns, The Broccoli and Brussel Sprouts of Taxation, The Realities of the Soda Tax Policy Debate, Soda Sales Shifting?, Taxes, Consumption, Soda, and Obesity, Is the Soda Tax a Revenue Grab or a Worthwhile Health Benefit?, Philadelphia’s Latest Soda Tax Proposal: Health or Revenue?, What Gets Taxed If the Goal Is Health Improvement?, The Russian Sugar and Fat Tax Proposal: Smarter, More Sensible, or Just a Need for More Revenue, Soda Tax Debate Bubbles Up, Can Mischaracterizing an Undesired Tax Backfire?, The Soda Tax Flaw in Automotive Terms, Taxing the Container Instead of the Sugary Beverage: Looking for Revenue in All the Wrong Places, Bait-and-Switch “Sugary Beverage Tax” Tactics, How Unsweet a Tax, When Tax Is Bizarre: Milk Becomes Soda, Gambling With Tax Revenue, Updating Two Tax Cases, When Tax Revenues Are Better Than Expected But Less Than Required, The Imperfections of the Philadelphia Soda Tax, When Tax Revenues Continue to Be Less Than Required, How Much of a Victory for Philadelphia is Its Soda Tax Win in Commonwealth Court?, Is the Soda Tax and Ice Tax?, and Putting Funding Burdens on Those Who Pay the Soda Tax.

Now comes news that despite falling short of its revenue goals, Philadelphia officials consider the city’s soda tax to be a success. According to Stu Bykofsky, the city’s budget director declared that the city’s reaction to “coming within 15 percent of that original [revenue] estimate” was something o which “we’re actually pretty proud.” Bykofsky asks, “If you announced a goal and failed to achieve it, would you claim success?” The city’s mayor’s answer, though provided before Bykofsky asked his question, “The beverage industry would like folks to think that somehow $79 million in new revenue is a failure.” The revenue projection was $92 million. The city’s finance director gave an answer by pointing out that “thousands of children are getting access to pre-K and to community schools that they would not have gotten without this tax.” Bykofsky noted that though the goal was to provide space for 6,500 pre-K children, only 5,500 seats will be added because of the revenue shortfall. He asks if the 1,000 children not getting into the program would consider the soda tax to be a success.

My reaction to this debate is that too much focus is being placed on the word “success.” Technically, success means the accomplishment of a goal. Using that definition, the Philadelphia soda tax is not a success. It failed to raise the revenue set as a goal by its proponents. On the other hand, the soda tax revenue has permitted the city to rack up several accomplishments. The question, though, isn’t whether those accomplishments amount to success – they don’t – but whether the method of funding those accomplishments made and makes sense. It doesn’t, for all the reasons I have described in that long litany of previous posts and for the additional reasons other commentators have provided. There are better and more efficient ways to raise revenue.

One of the goals of the soda tax, held out as a justification, is not discussed by Bykofsky in his recent commentary, though that’s because no city official mentioned it. The soda tax was, and still is, touted as a method of improving public health. What remains to be seen are measurements indicating that the health of Philadelphia residents has improved. Has the average blood pressure dropped? Has the average blood glucose level dropped? Has the percentage of Philadelphians who are obese dropped? Statistics exist, as this article demonstrates, but I did not find anything indicating one way or another whether the tax on some beverages, including those not contributing to poor health, has had any noticeable effect on the health of Philadelphians.

To answer the question posed by the title of this post, a tax is successful when the goals established for the tax are met within the period of time set for accomplishment of those goals. At the moment, there is insufficient information to reach a final conclusion on the Philadelphia soda tax, but to date, it has not been a success. Getting partway to the goals, though in and of itself an accomplishment, is not success. The tax is an unwise tax, and it is rare for an unwise tax to be a success.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

More Proof Supply-Side Economic Theory Is Bad Tax Policy 

Readers of this blog know that I am an advocate of demand-side economic policy. Logic and experience have established the failure of tax cuts for the wealthy to improve the economic condition of most Americans. Even some beneficiaries of supply-side tax cutting have disagreed with that approach, as I discussed in Some Wealthy Persons Don’t Want Tax Cuts. Among my many posts pointing out the failures of supply-side trickle-down economic theory are Does Repealing the Corporate Income Tax Equal More Jobs?, in which I explain why demand-side economic theory works and supply-side theory does not, and Kansas As a Role Model for Tax Policy?, in which I describe the utter catastrophe foisted on the people of Kansas by a crazed supply-sider who ignored the advice of experts and alienated even many members of his own political party.

Now comes more proof that the tax cuts enacted at the end of 2017 are not going to do what was claimed by the advocates of tax cuts for the wealthy. In What will S&P 500 firms do with their tax cut billions?, Joseph N. DiStefano explores the outcome of a Morgan Stanley study of what corporations plan to do with their tax cut windfalls. What interested me most was not that overall outcome, which came as no surprise – almost half of the money going to top executives, hedge funds, and similar stockholders, and a fifth going to mergers and acquisitions that generate wealth for investment bankers, and barely a bit more than a tenth ending up in one-time mere pittances of employee bonuses – but what some executives confessed. As DiStefano put it, executives “have admitted they don’t expect tax cuts will fuel new demand for what they sell.” For example, the CEO of Boeing described the effect of tax cuts on aircraft sales by explaining, “No, I don’t see a changing pattern of buying patterns.” When asked if the tax cuts would increase demand for advertising, the CEO of Comcast NBC Universal explained that there wasn’t “necessarily a direct correlation” between the tax cuts and increased advertising designed to increase revenues. Officials at Pulte Corp. explained that lower tax rates do not affect demand for the homes it builds.

These responses do not surprise me. Those who can afford to buy airplanes already have done so and don’t need or want any more, and the tax cuts do nothing to cause more than a handful of individuals and businesses, if at all, to decide they can afford to buy an airplane. The same can be said with respect to the homes built by Pulte. And any company can increase its advertising, but if the consumer class cannot afford what’s being sold, even if it’s wanted, sales will not happen.

How different it would be if the tax cuts had been distributed to the “bottom 90 percent” instead of to those who are not in need of more money, and who clearly are doing very little with their tax cut windfalls that will boost demand in the American economy. But considering that the goal of those advocating these tax cuts was not to improve the economic condition of Americans or to boost the national economy, but to line the pockets of the oligarchy that has seized control of government, it is no surprise that demand-side economic theory will not find a home in national tax policy until the swamp is drained and the make-the-oligarchy-even-wealthier crowd is voted out of power.

Monday, March 05, 2018

A Second Man Who Made a Difference in the Tax World  

Two weeks ago, in One Man Who Made a Difference in the Tax World, I reacted to the passing of Leonard L. Silverstein by describing the positive impact he had on the tax world and on my career. Now comes more sad news. Saturday a week ago, Leon G. Wigrizer died. My career with the Chief Counsel to the Internal Revenue Service was facilitated by his gracious assistance, as he took time to educate me about the responsibilities and opportunities I would encounter and took time to let people in that office know of my availability.

Shortly after I met him, Leon became the first inspector general in the Treasury Department, and eventually served as the first inspector general of Philadelphia. I nodded in agreement as I read comments by the professionals with whom he worked, who used phrases such as “endless dedication to integrity and honesty, “wonderful public servant,” and “inspiration to all.”

One of the many efforts in his campaign to rid government of fraud, corruption, waste, and mismanagement was participation “in an investigation of family members of high-ranking elected officials” in the federal government. The number of government employees arrested through his efforts numbered in the triple digits.

The nation needs more people like Leon Wigrizer. I was blessed for having known him. So, too, was the nation, even though few people realize it. Like Leonard L. Silverstein, Leon made a difference. He will be missed. May he rest in peace.

Friday, March 02, 2018

How To Use the Tax Law to Create Jobs and Raise Wages 

On Monday, in How To Use Tax Breaks to Properly Stimulate an Economy, I stated that, “The worst way to use the tax law to encourage behavior is to hand out tax breaks without requiring anything in return other than promises.” Already some Americans are beginning to realize that making the wealthy wealthier is doing little, if anything, for the typical middle-class or poor American. In fact, it’s doing almost nothing for anyone not in the top one percent. The evidence is piling up.

Though I detest using the tax law to encourage or discourage behavior, it isn’t enough simply to criticize. So, although I would prefer other avenues, if I were to craft tax law provisions to create jobs and raise wages, I would do something very different. Whether anything needs to be done is problematic, because we’re being told that the labor market is tight, unemployment is down, and wages in a handful of economic sectors are rising because of shortages of skilled workers. Of course, we also are being told that skilled people in their fifties and sixties are finding it difficult to find jobs.

The best way to encourage employers to hire workers is, of course, to put money into the hands of consumers, because the American economy, when at its best, is demand-driven. Supply-side economics is nonsense, and most people are coming to understand that. Many advocates of demand-side economic theory also support tax rate reductions, but aimed at the 99 percent rather than the top one percent. There are flaws, though, in tax rate reductions, because there is no guarantee that the tax cuts will find their way into the economic sectors most in need of revitalization, and because getting money into the hands of those with no tax liabilities requires something more than rate reductions, namely, refundable credits. Refundable credits are problematic.

A somewhat middle position is to provide employers with an additional deduction based on wage and job growth. For example, employers could be allowed to deduct not only compensation paid, but, in addition, a percentage, perhaps 25 or 30 percent, of the excess of the compensation paid during the taxable year and the compensation paid during the previous taxable year, perhaps leaving out of the computation increases in compensation paid to individuals earning more than a specific amount, such as $150,000, $200,000 or some similar figure in that range. This incentive would, or at least should, encourage employers to raise the pay of their low compensation employees rather than CEOs and other highly compensated employees. As for employers that would have no use for these deductions, encouraging failing businesses or successful businesses that use tax shelters to mask taxable income, they ought not be encouraged to continue on those paths. In this way, tax breaks would be tied to performance. People who don’t create jobs ought not get to share in tax breaks held out as job-creation inducements.

The danger in advocating a “somewhat middle position” is that it invites criticism and attacks from all sides. In the current political climate, where compromise is disdained, cooperation avoided, and extremism rampant, the best that can be said about advocating a middle position is that it provides a framework on which to rebuild the nation when, or if, its citizens realize that political climate change is necessary.

Newer Posts Older Posts

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?