Getting fiscal about policy proposals.
The New York Times Feb. 19, 2019
Whoever gets the Democratic nomination, she or he will run in part on proposals to increase government spending. And you know what that will mean: There will be demands that the candidate explain how all this will be paid for. Many of those demands will be made in bad faith, from people who never ask the same questions about tax cuts. But there are some real questions about the fiscal side of a progressive agenda.
Well, I have some thoughts about that, inspired in part by looking at Elizabeth Warren’s proposals on both the tax and spending side. By the way, I don’t know whether Warren will or even should get the nomination. But she’s a major intellectual figure, and is pushing her party toward serious policy discussion in a way that will have huge influence whatever her personal trajectory.
In particular, Warren’s latest proposal on child care – and the instant pushback from the usual suspects – has me thinking that we could use a rough typology of spending proposals, classified by how they might be paid for. Specifically, let me suggest that there are three broad categories of progressive expenditure: investment, benefits enhancement, and major system overhaul, which need to be thought about differently from a fiscal point of view.
So, first off, investment – typically spending on infrastructure or research, but there may be some room at the margin for including spending on things like childhood development in the same category. The defining characteristic here is that it’s spending that will enhance society’s future productivity. How should we pay for that kind of outlay?
The answer is, we shouldn’t. Think of all the people who say that the government should be run like a business. Actually it shouldn’t, but the two kinds of institution do have this in common: if you can raise funds cheaply and apply them to high-return projects, you should go ahead and borrow. And Federal borrowing costs are very low – less than 1 percent, adjusted for inflation – while we are desperately in need of public investment, i.e., it has a high social return. So we should just do it, without looking for pay-fors.
Much of what seems to be in the Green New Deal falls into that category. To the extent that it’s a public investment program, demands that its supporters show how they’ll pay for it show more about the critics’ bad economics than about the GND’s logic.
My second category is a bit harder to define, but what I’m thinking of are initiatives that either expand an existing public program or use subsidies to create incentives for expanding some kind of socially desirable private activity – in each case involving sums that are significant but not huge, say a fraction of a percent of GDP.
The Affordable Care Act falls into that category. It expanded Medicaid while using a combination of regulation and subsidies to make private insurance more available to families above the new Medicaid line. Warren’s childcare proposal, which reportedly will come in at around 1/3 of a percent of GDP, also fits. So would a “Medicare for All” proposal that involves allowing people to buy in to government insurance, rather than offering that insurance free of charge.
It’s harder to justify borrowing for this kind of initiative than borrowing for investment. True, with interest rates low and demand weak it makes some sense to run persistent deficits, but there are surely enough investment needs to use up that allowance. So you want some kind of pay-for. But the sums are small enough that the revenue involved could be raised by fairly narrow-gauge taxes – in particular, taxes that hit only high-income Americans.
That is, in fact, how Obamacare was financed: the revenue component came almost entirely from taxes on high incomes (there were some small items like the tax on tanning parlors.) And Warren has in fact proposed additional taxes on the wealthy – her proposed tax on fortunes over $50 million would yield something like four times the cost of her child care proposal.
So benefit enhancement can, I’d argue, be paid for with taxes on high incomes and large fortunes. It doesn’t have to impose on the middle class.
Finally, my third category is major system overhaul, of which the archetype would be replacing employer-based private health insurance with a tax-financed public program – the purist version of Medicare for all. A really major expansion of Social Security might fall into that category too, although smaller enhancements might not.
Proposals in this category are literally an order of magnitude more expensive than benefit enhancements: private health insurance currently amounts to 6 percent of GDP. To implement these proposals, then, we’d need a lot more revenue, which would have to come from things like payroll taxes and/or a value-added tax that hit the middle class.
You can argue that most middle-class families would be better off in the end, that the extra benefits would more than compensate for the higher taxes. And you’d probably be right. But this would be a much heavier political lift. You don’t have to be a neoliberal tool to wonder whether major system overhaul should be part of the Democratic platform right now, even if it’s something many progressives aspire to.
My main point now, however, is that when people ridicule progressive proposals as silly and unaffordable, they’re basically revealing their own biases and ignorance. Investment can and should be debt-financed; benefit enhancements can be largely paid for with high-end taxes. Howard Schultz won’t like it, but that’s his problem.