Two weeks ago Warren Buffett made waves with a brief op-ed piece in the New York Times of August 15 entitled “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.” In it he says that very rich people are undertaxed, but he would leave the federal income tax rates of 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged and only raise the tax rates of taxpayers who report more than $1 million of taxable income a year; if they report at least $10 million a year they would pay an additional surcharge. But he doesn’t say what the increased tax rates on either group should be. He also wants dividends and capital gains taxed at the same rate as ordinary income but does not say whether he thinks the uniform tax rate should be the present income tax rate (except for those earning over $1 million a year and therefore liable for the lesser or greater surcharge) or perhaps a lower rate because it have a bigger base.
Buffett’s piece is short, and really the only thing of interest, besides the celebrity of its author, is his claim, based on his extensive personal knowledge of wealthy investors, that increasing the taxes on the wealthy would not cause them to invest less. He may be right but he does not discuss the distinct issue of whether they would invest differently.
The growth of the federal deficit, which is growing from a very high level at a rate of well over $1 trillion a year, cannot be arrested without more tax revenues. The alternatives are spending cuts and rapid economic growth. They are attractive to many conservatives but will not cut the mustard. The needs of government preclude the kind of drastic spending cuts that would curb the growth of the federal deficit without any need for additional federal revenues. Diehard opponents of increasing tax revenues even by closing loopholes without raising tax rates argue that the federal government is too large and can only be made smaller by reducing its income. But this argument contains two mistakes. One is to think that the federal government can finance its activities only by taxation. Not true; it can finance them with borrowed money, as proved by the Bush tax cuts, which did not lead to a reduction in the scale or spending of the federal government, but merely to an increase in borrowing. Of course, as the federal government approaches bankruptcy, the pressure to curtail federal spending is great and an increase in tax revenues would alleviate the pressure, but probably only slightly because the feasible scope for such an increase is very limited.
Second is a confusion between size of government and amount of government spending. The federal government is not too large in the sense of having too many employees or even too many functions. We need a large military, and we need regulatory agencies that are well staffed—regulatory laxity was a major contributing factor to the financial crisis of 2008 and the broader economic crisis that it triggered. What we can’t afford is not federal employees (including soldiers) but careening entitlements. But the administration of vast entitlement programs is not particularly costly. A small government can transfer immense amounts of wealth among its citizens. The problem is the entitlements themselves, not wasteful expenditures on administering them—indeed the Medicare program would probably be more efficient, and, specifically, less susceptible to fraudulent and other overbilling and approval of unnecessary or marginal medical treatments, if the Medicare administration had more staff.
Military spending cannot be cut significantly without endangering national security. Of course there is “waste” in military spending as there is in most activities, but bureaucratic and political imperatives, as well as the inherent uncertainty of threats to national security, place limits on economizing on military spending. Most of the other discretionary spending of the federal government (that is, spending that Congress must approve every year) is likewise justifiable, including spending on domestic security, infrastructure, the environment, basic research, and disaster relief, as well as regulation. Discretionary federal spending can and will be cut if the deficit cannot be reduced by other means, but it probably cannot be cut a great deal without inflicting costs greater than the benefits.
Anyway the real threat to the solvency of the federal government doesn’t come from military expenditures, which would be leveling off even if there were no budget crisis, or other discretionary spending, which if it cannot be greatly cut can nevertheless be kept in bounds without great hardship. The real threat to federal solvency comes from the entitlement programs—Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and many others—not because they are huge, though they are, and certainly not because they are costly to administer, but because their outlays are growing rapidly, especially Medicare and Social Security outlays because of the aging of the population and the rising costs of medical technology as a byproduct of technological advance. Political resistance to cutting these programs, or at least to cutting Medicare and Social Security, is fierce. The programs may be cut some despite their sacred-cow status, but not enough to reduce the rate of increase of the deficit to the rate of economic growth.
So can economic growth be increased, then? In the near term, the combination of poor economic leadership and management by the Administration with the economic radicalism of congressional Republicans makes it unlikely that the government will do anything to stimulate growth before the 2012 Presidential election and the seating of a new Congress in January 2013. Eventually the economy may rejoin its long-term trend of an annual growth rate of GDP of a little under 3 percent; whether there is a set of economically and politically feasible policies that would increase that rate seems doubtful.
Which leaves increased tax revenues as a seeemingly indispensable weapon against the soaring deficit. Indispensable—but not ideal. Any increase in tax revenues would be counterproductive in the present depressed state of the economy, because it would take money out of the private economy at a time when the government can finance its debt cheaply by borrowing at very low interest rates. The increase in tax revenues would have to be phased in gradually and meanwhile the deficit will be growing.
Merely increasing marginal income tax rates, even on the millionaires and multimillionaires and billionaires, is likely to be counterproductive. Unless the percentage increase is substantial, it will not generate much revenue. And if the increase is substantial, it will induce a flight to loopholes. (Buffett would close only two of them—dividends and capital gains—and there are many more.) Only if increased rates were joined with a thoroughgoing reform of the tax system that would eliminate virtually all deductions and exemptions would the increased rates generate substantially increased revenues by preventing a flight to loopholes. The reform would have to be precise, leaving very little for regulatory adjustments by the Treasury, and represent an unshakeable congressional commitment, eliminating all uncertainty so that taxpayers would know exactly where they stood. Meaningful tax reform along these lines, though falling far short of what was, and today is much more urgently, needed, was achieved during the Reagan Administration; there is no reason, other than interest group pressures and other political forces, why it can’t be achieved today. But those pressures and forces are great.