Ron Paul on taxes

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A number of readers want me to really dive into Ron Paul's economic policies and explain why I don't like them. Okay, here goes. First up: one of the main areas in which I am supposed to agree with Dr. Paul. That is to say, taxes.

Most of Dr. Paul's supporters like the fact that he wants to cut taxes. I like the fact that he wants to cut taxes. But how he plans to cut taxes is not so good. In fact, it's pretty bad.

His website is full of talk about eliminating the income tax, which is not going to happen. His more realistic plans consist mostly of about eighty zillion tax credits, either to replace existing government spending, or to make a warm gesture towards interest groups Dr. Paul thinks are swell, like senior citizens and people serving in the active duty military.

Item one: there is no good reason to replace spending with tax credits. Economically, they are indistinguishable from spending, except that they add all sorts of ugly behavioral inefficiencies.

Item two: they are regressive. Dr. Paul has several plans to replace spending programs with tax credits, which would represent a massive fiscal redistribution away from people who can't do much with a $15,000 tax credit because they do not have $15,000 worth of taxable income.

Item three: tax credits are economically inefficient, for reasons that I once laid out at great length here.

Item four: tax credits are economically distortionary; they either pay people to do things that they were going to do anyway, or they encourage people to do things that won't pay for themselves.

Item five: tax credits are much beloved of politicians because they sound magically different from spending, which allows them to distribute goodies to their supporters. If nothing else, this should make any libertarian shudder at the thought of tax credits.

And how will he pay for this tax cuttery? Megan's First Fiscal Law: spending is taxation. Economically, it doesn't seem to make much difference whether you finance that spending with taxation or debt; both exert some economic drag, though the mechanisms are different. If you want to cut taxes, you have to cut spending.

Actually, Dr Paul says he agrees with this. So how come his website and collected "issues" writing reveal no major cuts to any programs except his scheme to eliminate the department of education? I mean, I'm all for getting rid of the School Nannies. But observe, please, this graph which I am shamelessly ripping off of Marginal Revolution:

Spending_3

Note, please the category "everything else" which comprises under 17% of the budget. The Department of Education disappears into there, along with transportation, farm subsidies, and everything that is not entitlement spending, defense, and interest on the national debt.

Perhaps he is planning to slash military spending? But then who is going to perform all this border enforcement? And I don't actually see where he's planning to make the military smaller; he's just planning to keep them home. Iraq is expensive, but it's not expensive enough to pay for the kind of tax cuttery he's proposing. You'd have to cut the defense budget by a third to produce a 5% reduction in the overall budget.

Entitlements are by far the largest part of our budget; if you're serious about cutting spending, you need to get serious about attacking entitlements. But Dr. Paul makes no mention of slashing Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, and for good reason: the senior lobby would slaughter him. In fact, he's not only going to leave Social Security benefits intact, but also, he's planning to eliminate taxation of Social Security benefits. His plan for dealing with the entitlement problem seems to consist of saying that we should keep the federal government from spending the "trust funds". Okay, Dr.; into what financial assets should the government invest this trust funds, and what taxes will you raise, or spending will you cut, in order to plug the several-hundred-billion-dollar hole this will open in the general fund?

Nor are seniors the only ones he plans to cut taxes on. His ideas include no taxes for active duty military, tax credits for health care, tax credits for paying property taxes . . . apparently, the only people Dr. Paul thinks should pay taxes are, well, me, a young urban worker who doesn't own a home.

He promises to veto new spending. But new discretionary spending is simply not the major driver of our budget. The major driver of our budget is entitlements, which will grow unchecked even if he, and Congress, adjourn to play golf for the next eight years. This is not economically serious, fiscally responsible policy; in fact, it's just another variant on what everyone else is doing, which is ignoring the entitlement programs that are about to turn into the sucking chest wound of the US budget.

Finally, he sells his fiscal policy with completely unnecessary, not to mention factually deceptive, immigrant-and-trade bashing. His brief on the Import-Export Bank, an FDR-era boondoggle of trivial significance to anything, including the US taxpayer, is positioned as a complaint that we are massively subsidizing China. In fact, the subsidy is tiny, and it's not aimed at foreigners. We lend poor credit risks in other countries money to buy US goods; it's an export subsidy, and a particularly stupid one that should be eliminated--without gratuitous fearmongering about China.

Similarly, he attacks the Social Security Administration's plan for a "totalization" agreement with Mexico, claiming that it will result in the American taxpayer, suddenly and for no apparent reason, sending a ton of money to Mexicans who work here for a little while and then go back to Mexico in order to loll around in the sun collecting their Social Security checks.

This sounds ludicrous because it's a gross distortion. Totalization agreements are standard practice between countries with social security systems; they prevent people who are working abroad, but planning to retire in their own country, from having to make contributions to two systems. We have totalization agreements with any number of countries, and the actuaries at the SSA expect that the agreement with Mexico will have little impact either way on the trust funds. Indeed, the agreement with Mexico will cost us much less than our agreement with that nation of mooching scabs, the Canadians.

In short, I do not look at this list of proposals and see a bold iconoclast who finally dares to transcend politics, fearlessly doing what needs to be done and speaking truth to power. I see a politician telling his supporters what they want to hear, which is that they deserve to pay lower taxes, but not to have any program that is important to them slashed. I see him scoring cheap campaign points off of American hostility to foreigners, particularly poor foreigners who compete with them economically. And I see him, like everyone else, dodging the major fiscal challenge of our time: the problem of paying for the health care and pensions of the retiring baby boomers.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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