Posts tagged ‘payroll tax’

Raise the Payroll Tax

Yesterday, Congress agreed to extend the payroll tax reductions for another period of time.  I have been thinking about this for a while, and I am slowly coming to the conclusion these taxes should be raised.  I am still thinking this through so I welcome feedback.

I don't think I have to convince regular readers of this site that I am against government-run and mandated-for-all retirement funds (income via Social Security, medical via Medicare).  But if we are going to have such programs, and maintain the pretense that they are insurance programs and not welfare/transfer programs, then the "premiums" we are forced to pay should reflect true costs.

I don't think Medicare premiums are covering anywhere near the actuarial-expected costs of one's future medical care.  And while Social Security rates may be set correctly if trust funds were truly held securely, the fact of the matter is that past Social Security premiums that were paid to support future benefits have all been spent by a corrupt Congress.  Rates are going to have to be raised to replace this theft.

I don't like raising taxes.  I wish these two programs would go away or else be restructured drastically.  If they exist, though, there is nothing more dangerous than an incorrect price.  Prices help consumers make price-value tradeoffs -- the Keanu Reeves lifetime DVD collection may be a deal at $6.99 but not at $99.99.  So charging the wrong prices for these programs not only royally screws up the government's finances, but it also misleads Americans about the value of these programs in comparison to what they pay for them.

Government Agencies Run For Their Employee's Benefit

About 20 years ago I did a rail transit study for McKinsey & Company with a number of European state rail companies, like the SNCF in France.   With my American expectations, I was shocked to see how overstaffed these companies were.  At the time, the SNCF had more freight car maintenance personnel than they had freight cars.  This meant that they could assign a dedicated maintenance person to every car and still get rid of some people.

Later in my consulting career, I worked for Pemex in Mexico, where the over-staffing was even more incredible.  I realized that in countries like France and Mexico, state-run corporations were first and foremost employment vehicles run for the benefit of employees, and, as  distant second, value-delivery vehicles and productive enterprises.

Over the last 20 years, I have seen more and more of this approach to public agencies coming to the US.  If nothing else, the whole Wisconsin brouhaha hopefully opened the eyes of many Americans to the fact that public officials and heads of agencies feel a lot more loyalty to their employees than they do to taxpayers.

I see this all the time in my business, which is private operation of certain state-run activities (e.g. parks and recreation).  I constantly find myself in the midst of arguments that make no sense against privatization.   I finally realized that the reason for this is that they were reluctant to voice the real reason for opposition -- that I would get the job done paying people less money.  This is totally true -- I actually hire more people to staff the parks than the government does, but I don't pay folks $65,000 a year plus benefits and a pension to clean the bathrooms, and I don't pay them when the park is closed and there is not work to do.  I finally had one person in California State Parks be honest with me -- she said that the employees position was that they would rather see the parks close than run without government workers.

Of course, if this argument was made clear in public, that the reason for rising taxes and closing parks was to support pay and benefits of government employees, there might be a fight.  So the true facts need to be buried.  Like in this example from the Portland transit system, via the anti-planner.

In 2003, TriMet persuaded the Oregon legislature to allow it to increase the tax by 0.01 percent per year for ten years, starting in 2005. In 2009, TriMet went back and convinced the legislature to allow it to continue increasing the tax by 0.01 percent per year for another 10 years. Thus, the tax now stands at $69.18 per $10,000 in payroll, and will rise to $82.18 per $10,000 in 2025.

At the time, TriMet promised that all of this tax increase would be dedicated to increasing service, and as of 2010, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel claims this is being done. But according to John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, that’s not what is happening.

Poring over TriMet budgets and records, Charles found that, from 2004 (before the tax was first increased) and 2010, total payroll tax collections grew by 34 percent, more than a third of which was due to the tax increase. Thanks to fare increases, fares also grew by 68 percent, so overall operating income grew by about 50 percent, of which about 7 percent (almost $20 million) was due to the increased payroll tax.

So service must have grown by about 7 percent, right? Wrong. Due to service cuts made last September, says Charles, TriMet is now providing about 14 percent fewer vehicle miles and 12 percent fewer vehicle hours of transit service than it provided in 2004 (comparing December 2004 with December 2010). TriMet blamed the service cuts on the economy, but its 50 percent increase in revenues belie that explanation.

By 2030, according to TriMet’s financial forecast (not available on line), the agency will have collected $1.63 billion more payroll taxes thanks to the tax increase. Yet the agency itself projects that hours and miles of service in 2030 will be slightly less than in 2004.

Where did all the money go if not into service increases? Charles says some of it went into employee benefits. TriMet has the highest ratio of employee benefits to payroll of any transit agency. At latest report, it actually spends about 50 percent more on benefits than on pay, and is the only major transit agency in the country to spend more on benefits than pay. This doesn’t count the unfunded health care liabilities; by 2030, TriMet health care benefits alone are projected to be more than its payroll.

This is Stupid

From the new bill signed by Obama today:

Under the new law, businesses that hire anyone unemployed for at least 60 days would be exempt from paying the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax through December. Employers also would get an additional $1,000 credit if new workers remain on the job a full year.

This is absurdly game-able.  How do I know?  Because as I read this here (I have not read the legislation) this is a ridiculous windfall for our company.  As a seasonal business, my current payroll is about 40 people.  Over the next two months, I will hire nearly 400 workers for the summer, most of whom have not been working over the winter as they are retired and just work a few months of the year.  Am I really not going to have to pay Social Security taxes on all these people?

And how is anyone going to administer this?  Are my payroll company and I going to have to figure out the employment status of all of our hires for the last 60 days to figure out what taxes to collect?  Does anyone in Congress even think about this stuff when they pass this garbage?

Update: ADP has more

Update #2: Here is my prediction, if they forgot about seasonal hiring  (again, I have not read the letter of the law yet).  This will be like the cash for clunkers program - in a month or two they will announce that they have used up the money they had allocated for the whole year.

Wherein, To My Great Surprise, I actually Agree with James Hansen

James Hansen wrote an editorial supporting a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and while I don't really agree with all of his justifications or economics, I do agree with his ultimate conclusion --that such a tax would be fairer, more efficient, less growth-killing, and ultimately more effective than the Frankenstein mess of parts that makes up the current cap-and-trade bill.

To be fair, I have been on this point for a while, having advocated a carbon tax offset by a payroll tax reduction to make it revenue neutral for some time, including in my most recent film.  I don't think I have to tell my readers that I am not big on taxes nor am I of the belief that any strong action on CO2 emissions is necessary.

However, I am largely indifferent between a sales tax on fuel and an equal sized sales tax on labor (which is effectively what payroll taxes are).  There is no doubt that a reduction in payroll taxes would be a helpful step in this recession, and if folks would sleep better at night with less carbon emissions, I can tolerate trading one for another.

Jonathon Adler has more, including Paul Krugman's negative reaction to the plan  (did this guy really once win the Nobel Price in economics?)

I Hate to Repeat Myself, But...

Remember this -- a climate bill will have impact on CO2 emissions in direct proportion to how much it raises fossil-fuel-related energy prices.  When supporters of the bill say things like "it won't raise prices very much" they are in effect declaring "this bill will not solve the intended problem."

Below is a map of some of the climate actions being proposed.  As portrayed here, the current cap-and-trade bill is perhaps the worst of all choices, realizing limited gains (as demonstrated by programs in Europe and their supporters own estimates) combined with high costs.  The program is expensive to administer and much of the higher costs to consumers end up as subsidies to large corporations and green pork.


The combination plan of a large carbon tax offset by payroll tax reductions was discussed here.

Jeff Flake is Freaking Brilliant

The Republicans have lost the knack for being a minority party in opposition.  Nowadays, they waste tremendous time and effort playing he-said-she-said with Nancy Pelosi or Jon Edwards, while blithely voting for more pork and trillions in new spending.  Obama, after all, wouldn't have his favorite and best tool (TARP) for building a Mussolini-style corporate state without Republican votes.

While it strikes me that a capable opposition would certainly know how to turn a knife in a political scandal, it also should be ready to introduce principled alternatives to key legislation.   The best such proposals are ones that attempt to achieve the stated goals of the majority party better and faster than the majority's own legislative efforts.

Which brings us to Jeff Flake, who is becoming a master of this.   When Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama spouted platitudes about openness in government (without really taking any steps to achieve it) Flake came along and introduced bill after bill challenging the Democrats put their money where their mouth is on earmarks and transparency.  I have always been a big fan of Congressman Jeff Flake, who represents a district not far away from my home.  Though we don't agree on every issue, there are few, if any, politicians whose judgment I trust more.

Flake's most recent initiative is one close to my heart.  As readers know, I have good scientific reasons for believing the threat of CO2 emissions has been grossly overstated.  However, if we are going to commit to reducing CO2, we might as well do it intelligently, and Flake's proposal is very close to one I have been pushing for some time:

Conservative House members Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Inglis (R-SC), along with Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), have introduced an alternative to the cap-and-trade proposal developed by House Democrats: HR 2380, the "Raise Wages, Cut Carbon" Act of 2009. Their proposal is for a carbon tax that will gradually increase over time, offset by a reduction in payroll taxes.

Of course I think this is brilliant, because it is my idea as well.  But it is also a brilliant opposition strategy.  Flake's approach is far better than the cap-and-trade mess the Democrats have gotten themselves in  -- not just because it would work better, but because it actually hits key supposedly liberal objectives better than does the Democrat's bill.  Specifically:

  • Fairness. Sure, everyone is correct that a carbon tax can be politicized, but I do not think it can be gamed nearly as much as cap-and-trade.  For evidence, I turn to California.  California has both a cap-and-trade legislation, rule-making for which has been thrown to the California Air Resources Board (CARB); and it has carbon-tax-like excise taxes, which we generally call sales taxes.  Sure, there are some special case sales tax categories aimed a politically connected groups, but in general the sales tax system in California is simple and mostly fair.  More importantly, it is a layup to administer.  Contrast that to CARB, which has been slogging away in cap-and-trade related rule-making for years, and has everybody both pissed off and panicked.  Should cow flatulence be counted?  Should National Forests be able to sell offsets?  How do you create any kind of fair offset accounting given the shenanigans in Europe?  Should we allow Californians to have black cars? (seriously)  This is a perfect A-B test, as the legislators are the same in both cases -- sales taxes are simple and fair, cap-and-trade is a mess.
  • Openness and transparency. It is clear that Obama's stated commitment to openness and transparency was all so much BS.  But why not nail him to that cross anyway?  Few if any of the general public understand cap-and-trade.  It is a tax, but it is inherently hidden from view, and passed through to consumers buried in rates in a way that offers politicians maximum deniability.  Everyone understands a sales tax, or the gas tax.  The system and its costs will be right out front (which is exactly what Democrats secretly DON'T want, which is what makes this a clever opposition tactic).
  • Progressiveness. For all their talks about the common man and being progressives, the advocates of cap-and-trade are pushing what is possibly the most regressive tax increase of all time.  Again, there is a kind of political money laundering that hides the tax, but it is a tax none-the-less, and will hit the poor the hardest when electricity and fuel prices inevitably increase.  Flake's proposal to take the proceeds of the tax and use them to reduce the payroll tax is a great one -- offset one regressive tax with another, while at the same time putting in place incentives for job creation.

Postscript: My 2007 energy plan was as follows (assuming the need to do something about CO2)

  1. large federal carbon tax, offset by reduction in income and/or payroll taxes
  2. streamlined program for licensing new nuclear reactors
  3. get out of the way

Carbon Tax vs. Cap and Trade

Coyote, December 2007:

I can for a moment place myself in a position where I would imagine being worried about CO2 and dependence on fossil fuels.  For someone who really cares about these things, here is what a rational energy plan would look like:

  1. large federal carbon tax, offset by reduction in income and/or payroll taxes
  2. streamlined program for licensing new nuclear reactors
  3. get out of the way

Ronald Bailey, today:

Interestingly, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested to Gore during the hearing that a better proposal would be to impose an across-the-board carbon tax which would then be reimbursed entirely by cutting the payroll tax.

He has much more on problems of cap and trade in the article.  I have written many times on a carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade, indexed here.

I Have Been On-Board For A While

I don't think that anthropogenic global warming will be substantial enough to justify massive and expensive interventions to limit Co2.  I won't go into the reasons for this statement, as I have a whole other blog dedicated to climate.  If you are unfamiliar with the arguments that Co2 is likely warming the Earth, but not by nearly as much as alarmists claim, you might start with some of these videos.

However, it seems almost inevitable that the new Congress and Administration will do "something" on Co2, if for no other reason that it has become a self-image issue on the left  (i.e. I am a good person because I care about global warming).  We libertarians are seldom very good at engaging on issues of how such government interventions should be done best.  Every time people ask us our opinion of how to structure such a program to do the least harm, we get about 5 seconds into an answer before we just break down and start yelling, "this is crazy!  Do nothing!  Leave us alone!" (actually, emissions laws are one of the few areas where government regulation helps to protect private property rights).

Bryan Pick at Q&O points to a number of folks advocating an increase in carbon taxes offset by reductions in payroll taxes (Bryan's plan is more comprehensive than this, and is here).  I actually advocated something similar over a year ago.  Here is my logic chain:

  1. The carbon tax is a much, much better approach to reducing CO2 than cap-and-trade systems.  Cap-and-trade is bad for the same reason that politicians like it -- it offers a near infinite playing field for lobbying, special rules, influence-peddling, special exemptions, government chosen winners, etc. while hiding the fact that it is in fact a huge new tax.  My more detailed argument on this can be found here and here and here.
  2. A new carbon tax should be revenue neutral.  After all, the point in the first place is not to raise revenues, but to provide a pricing signal that Americans need to switch away from carbon-based fuels.
  3. A good place to offset revenues is the payroll tax.  Both fuel taxes and payroll taxes are criticized for being regressive, so it is an easy place to try to forge a compromise with the left.  Further, the payroll tax acts effectively as a tax on hiring, so a reduction would certainly be welcome any time, and particularly in a recession.
  4. We need to create a streamlined licensing program for nuclear reactors.  Utilities, particularly ones dependent on coal today, need a realistic option to continue to provide power at reasonable cost in their communities.  Solar and wind are just not reasonable alternatives today.  Nukes are the only carbon-free scalable generating technology we have.

Again, I don't think the dislocations required here are worth the effort, but this is the best way to do it if we must.

Postscript: By the way, here is one thing no one is telling you.  Folks in Congress have tossed around carbon and fuel tax ideas that might add, say 25 cents per gallon.  But if we are truly in thrall to the climate alarmists and take their recommendations, then Co2 outputs must be reduced 50-80% in this country.  We are talking about reducing Co2 output to levels before 1920!  To do this will require a truly massive tax.  Just to scale it, over the last year gas prices doubled by about $2 a gallon, and total miles driven fell by less than 5%.   Europe is at around $8-$9 gas and are nowhere near these climate goals.  I don't think it would be too much to say that gas prices would have to top $20 to reach these goals.

This is why I think the most likely case for climate regulation is that we will have some kind of tax or cap system but that this system will be far short of anything that will really reduce Co2 or even stop its growth.  The costs are just too high, and the benefits too shaky.  You can see that in Europe, as countries back off Kyoto goals  (and even Kyoto goals are far short of what alarmists think we need to be hitting).  And any progress they have made against Kyoto goals has mainly been accidents of changing enconomic and political structures rather than the result of any real targeted action.  What we will get is something that costs a lot without accomplishing much, but will make the left feel better about themselves.  Sound familiar?

Update: Children in European Restaurants

Not really forewarned about this social trend in advance, my family was surprised to find that many restaurants in smaller English towns would not let us in with our children.  I wrote about the strange Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-esque reactions we got to our children here.

Reader Tom Van Horn sends in this update from Newsweek:

a recent British study showed a house's value drops by 5 percent if
neighbors move in with teenage kids. Hotels are catering to the
childless, too; Italy's La Veduta country resort promises, "Your Tuscan
holiday will not be shattered by the clamor of children." In Rome, many
restaurants make it clear that children are not welcome"”in some cases
by establishing themselves as "clubs," where members must be older than
18 to join.

*shrug*  There are times when my wife and I like to get away from kids too, and we have a couple of them.  I know a few couples who have chosen to remain childless and I can assure you they are sick and tired of being asked about their childlessness like it was some kind of disease.  I am sure they will welcome a sense of normalcy for their chosen way to live.  Combining this trend with my observation that Parisians will take their dog anywhere, it is probably not long before there are public places in Paris where dogs are welcome but kids are not.

That doesn't mean that everyone shares my willingness to let folks live in peace like they choose.  Certain politicians around Europe seem to want to intervene (and isn't that why people become politicians in the first place -- to force other people into making choices that they would not have made for themselves?)

Politicians and religious leaders warn darkly of an "epidemic" of
childlessness that saps the moral fiber of nations; they blame the
child-free for impending population decline, the collapse of pension
systems and even the rise in immigration. In Japan, commentators have
identified the "parasite single" who lives off society instead of doing
his duty to start a family

In Germany, where the childless rate is the
highest in the world, at 25 percent, the best-seller lists have been
full of tomes forecasting demographic doomsday. In "Minimum," the
conservative commentator Frank Schirrmacher describes a "spiral of
childlessness," where a declining population becomes ever more
reluctant to have kids. Media reports have stigmatized the "cold career
woman""”one such recent article came with mug shots of childless female
celebs"”accusing them of placing their jobs before kids. Never mind that
Germany trails its neighbors in the availability of child care, or the
amount of time men spend helping around the house.

Germany to Russia, there is increasing talk of sanctions against the
childless. In Slovakia, a leading adviser on the government's Strategic
Council on Economic Development proposed in March to replace an
unpopular payroll tax with a levy on all childless Slovaks between the
ages of 25 and 50. In Russia, where the birthrate has dropped from 2.3
in the 1980s to 1.3 today, a powerful business lobby has called for an
income-tax surcharge on childless couples. In Germany, economists and
politicians have demanded that public pensions for the childless be
slashed by up to 50 percent"”never mind that such pensions were invented
as an alternative to senior citizens' having to depend on their