Posts tagged with: Public economics

29taxes.2-500In an attempt to trap Jesus, some Pharisees and Herodians asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” In response, Jesus said,

“Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The Pharisees and Herodians “marveled” at Jesus answer, but had they asked an agent of the Roman IRS they likely would have been given a similar answer.

Governments have always had to contend with citizens who make what are considered “frivolous tax arguments” to avoid complying with tax laws. Such arguments rarely work (it’s usually not effective to try to present a creative interpretation of tax law to the people who interpret tax laws) but people keep trying.

The IRS has an entire list of responses to the most common frivolous tax arguments. Here are four of my favorites:
(more…)

Over at the IFWE blog, Elise Amyx takes a look at Brian Fikkert’s argument about the origins of the modern American welfare state:

According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.

In Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life, Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster make a similar case. They argue that “the church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” They also cast the hopeful vision that another reversal might occur: “The church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems if enough believers caught the vision.”

While Fikkert is largely drawing on the early twentieth century in America for his argument, Berghoef and DeKoster examine more broadly the Christian perspective on the relationship between faith and works of charity. This dynamic is, after all, is a perennial challenge for Christian social engagement, and the interaction between the Social Gospel and evangelicalism in America is just one example. Another is the reversal over the last century or so in the Netherlands, where there has been a move from Abraham Kuyper’s claim that “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” to the church’s plea “for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government.”
(more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My friend John Teevan of Grace College sends out a monthly newsletter, “Economic Prospect.” He passes along this in the current edition:

I found this note from a newly retired accountant (age 66) who has not gone on social security yet. His income as a part-time accountant in his town was $60,000.

“My income is $60,000 and my IRS taxes are 10,000, my FICA deduction is $8,000, my state income tax is $2500, and my property tax is $6000. So I pay a total of $26,500 in taxes leaving me $33,500.

However, I have additional costs that I would like to (but can’t) deduct from my income. As I watch ‘government accounting’ I realize that these should be considered real costs.

I have saved $200,000 and invested the money in bonds earning 1% ($2000).

I could have invested that money in CDs earning 5% (10,000), but as the Fed has lowered the interest rate the cost to me is the difference: $8000.

In addition I am now entitled to social security and at my level of income over the years I would have received $28,000 this year, but I have chosen not to take Social Security saving Uncle Sam that money.

So I have contributed a total of $36,000 to Uncle Sam in foregone interest and foregone Social Security payments. Who got the benefit of that $36,000?

Uncle Sam; not me.

So if I add up my total contributions to the government this past year I paid $26,500 in taxes and paid $36,000 in lost income. These two come to $62,500…more than the $60,000 I earned.

While I enjoy my new job, when I think about this, I start to feel like one of Pharaoh’s slaves toiling to roll immense stones up from the Nile to his pyramid.”

Send John a message if you’d like to be added to his “Economic Prospect” list. It’s always a great read.

As occurrences of preventable diseases increase and the debt deepens, some look to “sin taxes” as an easy to solution to both problems. Thirty-three states have even gone as far as to implement a soda tax in an attempt to curb obesity. At first glance sin taxes seem to be a good idea, but they can actually cause more harm than good.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just published a working paper on sin taxes and their negative effects. The study was conducted by Adam J. Hoffer, William F. Shughart II, and Michael D. Thomas.  They have found that taxing specific goods or services based on perceived “negative externalities their consumption generates”  is an ineffective source of revenue.

The authors summarize their findings in a recent U.S. News and World Report op-ed:

  • Lobbying: Millions of dollars have been spent to thwart taxation of the soft drink industry’s products and to prevent existing taxes from being raised. In 2009 alone, the industry spent more than $57 million on lobbying. Such lobbying expenditures are socially wasteful. How much money is now being spent attempting to block Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on 32-ounce soft drink containers?
  • Regressive taxation: Far from being income-neutral, such taxes are regressive because their burden falls most heavily on people with the fewest options—the poor. Low-income households who continue to purchase goods that are sin-taxed will have even less money left over to spend on other items.
  • Revenue not used for its intended purpose: Sin taxes raise revenue by transferring money from those who continue to buy the taxed items straight to the coffers of the public treasury. Taxing sin might be reasonable if the revenue from these taxes was used to address the underlying negative consequences of consumption. In the real world, however, money generated by the tobacco settlement financed general spending and not smoking cessation programs or treating smoking-related diseases. The social security trust fund has been replaced with treasury IOUs, and the highway trust fund filled by taxing the sin of driving will fail to meet obligations as early as 2015.

You can read the entire working paper, “Sin Taxes: Size, Growth, and the Creation of the Sindustry” here. Acton president and co-founder, Rev. Robert Sirico has also written about the consequences of sin taxes. You can read his “Hate the Sin, Tax the Sinner?” here.

Is spartan austerity driving us over the fiscal cliff?

The latest step in the budget dance between House Republicans and the White House has to do with where tax increases (or revenue increases in general, depending on what is called what) fit with a deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” As Napp Nazworth reports, President Obama has apparently delivered an ultimatum: “there would be no agreement to avert the ‘fiscal cliff’ unless tax rates are increased on those making more than $250,000 per year.”

On one level it seems reasonable to talk about addressing a deficit from both directions: cutting spending and raising revenue. But as Ray Nothstine put it so well earlier this week, without some structural (and cultural) changes to the way Congress works, it would be insane to think that giving politicians more money is going to change how they spend it. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Historically “politicians spend the money as fast as it comes in – and a little bit more.” Without some kind of balanced budget agreement, something with real teeth, why should we think things will be any different this time around? (I’ve talked about a more promising “both/and” budget solution before.) As Ray and I have concluded elsewhere, “In the case of the federal spending, the government has proved to be untrustworthy with very much. It’s time to see if the politicians in Washington can learn to be trustworthy with less.”
(more…)

This week I wrote about the dignity of paying taxes (among other ways of contributing to social flourishing). But as we know, not all taxes are created equal. Indeed, as Antony Davies and James Harrigan write this week at US News, “Politicians are in the business of buying votes with tax breaks and sweetheart deals for their preferred constituencies, and they have to offset these deals by taxing disfavored constituencies at increased rates. The longer this game is played, the more convoluted the tax code becomes.”

As I argued previously at Capital Commentary, this amounts to a kind of back door social engineering (as well as playing favorites, picking winners, and so on). The fundamental purpose of taxation is not to buy votes and give preference to lobbies and special constituencies. Instead, as I write, “The point of taxation is to raise funds to enable the government to fulfill its moral, political, and social responsibilities.” Such a view is ultimately at odds with a Utilitarian theory, which considers taxation to be a tool rather used “to maximize overall well-being in society.” Matthew Weinzierl argues for greater attention to a theory of Equal Sacrifice, which on Weinzierl’s account “assumes individuals have the first claim to their output, and that they voluntarily agree to form societies that collect taxes in order to purchase public goods.”
(more…)

In today’s Detroit News, Acton communications intern Elise Amyx offers a piece on farm subsidies. She looks at how Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow described this government support as “risk management protection” for farmers.

Stabenow, chairwoman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, conceded to the soybean farmers that “it’s wonderful that farming is prosperous now.” But she pointed to droughts in the South and the floods in the Midwest as proof that “you still face the same risk that farmers have always to deal with.” Some agribusinesses get paid seven digits to not farm areas of their farm in the name of “risk management,” but what sort of business person doesn’t take risks?

There is no doubt that farming is a difficult, volatile business filled with risk and uncertainty, but so are many other industries that do not receive any government handouts. Too many farmers view the government as a savior, who will reduce risk, create certainty and save the day if something bad happens. This is a dangerously dependent position to be in, and it is morally problematic when it comes at the expense of everyone else.

The glaring injustices built into farm subsidy policies explain why so many on both the political right and left routinely describe them as immoral.

Read Elise Amyx’s “Farming subsidies often do more harm than good” in the Detroit News.

Jim Wallis: Paul Ryan is A Bully & Hypocrite

Not so long ago, the Rev. Jim Wallis was positioning himself as the Chief Apostle of Civility, issuing bland pronouncements about all of us needing to get along. His “A Christian Covenant For Civility,” barely a year old, is now looking more tattered than a Dead Sea Scroll. Of course, he took up the civility meme back when he was hoping to brand the Tea Party as a horde of un-Christian, poor-hating libertarian bullying racists who enjoy nothing more than kicking widows and orphans with their hobnailed jackboots. Here he is last year warning America about the hostile Tea Party threat: “Honest disagreements over policy issues have turned into a growing vitriolic rage against political opponents, and even threats of violence against lawmakers are now being credibly reported.”

Ah, but the Apostle of Civility fled the agora. Right about the time that the vicious and violent attacks started on elected officials like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. It’s routine anymore to hear thuggish threats at state capital protests such as, “The only good Republican is a dead Republican” — and worse. (see video at bottom of post but be warned: rough images and language.)

Now, Wallis has returned, wearing the robes of an Old Testament Prophet, the scourge of those who would oppress the poor and bargaining unit members in threatened civil service classifications. The tip off was the title of his latest Huffington Post article, “Woe to You, Legislators!” Nice touch, that. More, from Wallis, who channels Isaiah:

You may think that my language sounds too strong: “bullies”, “corrupt”, “hypocrites.” But listen to the prophet Isaiah:

“Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?” (Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message)

Ryan’s budget seems to follow, almost line by line, the “oppressive statues” Isaiah rails against. Ryan’s budget slashes health care for the poor and elderly by gutting Medicaid and undermining Medicare, and cuts funding for food stamps, early childhood development programs, low-income housing assistance, and educational programs for students.

Phrases such as “gutting Medicaid” are not designed to inform, but to inflame. This is the work of a demagogue. (more…)

The American Spectator published a new commentary by Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. The commentary was also picked up by RealClearReligion.

Christians in a Post-Welfare State World

By Samuel Gregg

As the debt-crisis continues to shake America’s and Europe’s
economies, Christians of all confessions find themselves in the
unaccustomed position of debating the morality and economics of
deficits and how to overcome them.

At present, these are important discussions. But frankly
they’re nothing compared to the debate that has yet to come. And
the question is this: How should Christians realize their
obligations to the poor in a post-welfare state
world?

However the debt-crisis unfolds, the Social
Democratic/progressive dream of a welfare state that would
substantially resolve questions of poverty has clearly run its
course. It will end in a fiscal Armageddon when the bills can’t be
paid, or (and miracles have been known to happen) when political
leaders begin dismantling the Leviathans of state-welfare to avert
financial disaster.

Either way, the welfare state’s impending demise is going
to force Christians to seriously rethink how they help the least
among us.

Why? Because for the past 80 years, many Christians have
simply assumed they should support large welfare states. In Europe,
Christian Democrats played a significant role in designing the
social security systems that have helped bankrupt countries like
Portugal and Greece. Some Christians have also proved remarkably
unwilling to acknowledge welfarism’s well-documented social and
economic dysfunctionalities.

As America’s welfare programs are slowly wound back, those
Christian charities who have been heavily reliant upon government
contracts will need to look more to the generosity of churchgoers
– many of whom are disturbed by the very secular character assumed
by many religious charities so as to enhance their chances of
landing government contracts.
(more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Do Less with Less: What the History of Federal Debt and Tax Leverage Teaches,” I reflect on how the federal government has lived beyond its means for decades. This reality is especially important to recognize as we approach Tax Day this year as well as in the context of debates about how to address the public debt crisis.

There are many who think we need to raise taxes in order to close the historic levels of deficit spending. In theory I would consider raising taxes as a viable option, or at least preferable to continued deficit spending, since it would at least make the real cost of government more visible. Roughly 40% of what the government spent last year was beyond what it took in.

But without structural connections between increased taxes and balancing the budget, there’s nothing at all to give us hope that the government wouldn’t simply continue to leverage the greater revenue into greater deficit spending. In this vein I note the conclusions recently updated by Richard Vedder and Stephen Moore, that “over the entire post World War II era through 2009 each dollar of new tax revenue was associated with $1.17 of new spending. Politicians spend the money as fast as it comes in—and a little bit more.”

Calvin College philosophy professor James K. A. Smith doesn’t take this reality into account, I don’t think, when he recently argued that the current situation calls for raising taxes, both on the rich and the middle-class. Thus, he writes,

But only a lazy, unimaginative take on this would assume that “low taxes” is a given. So sure, one strategy to reduce debt would be to slash spending, which inevitably happens on the backs of the poor and vulnerable, particularly women and children.

The alternative to such an unattractive option as Smith sees it is to raise taxes, particularly on the rich. Smith thus points to the idea that America needs to adopt a “graduated tax like most other North American countries.”

The fact is, though, that the US already has a progressive tax system, and indeed places a much higher relative burden on the top decile of household incomes than other developed nations.

One of the next big fights will be over raising the debt ceiling, as Smith points out. Perhaps we can link balanced budgets with increases on the debt ceiling (something more feasible than passing a balanced budget amendment). The idea would be that we only increase the debt ceiling on the condition balancing the annual budget, and that we only think about raising taxes to balance that budget if we actually commit to balancing it.

Simply raising taxes won’t do anything but give the federal government more money to leverage into higher levels of deficit spending.