Watch a recording of Truth in Accounting’s virtual event with special guest Steve Malanga, senior editor at City Journal. In this episode, we discussed the financial troubles of America’s largest cities and the effects of Biden’s infrastructure plan.
Author(s): Bill Bergman, Sheila Weinberg, Steve Malanga
And applying the higher capital gains rate to top earners, who tend to be wealthy, creates bigger distortions because these taxpayers have many tools to avoid the tax. For example, when you inherit assets subject to estate taxes, the capital gains tax that you pay is based on when the asset was transferred to you, instead of when it was bought. This is known as a step-up in basis. Doubling the tax rate makes this provision much more attractive, and word is that the Biden plan nixes it. High earners can find other ways to get around this tax with the right advice. Certain asset classes, such as investment real estate, offer a chance to lower liability. We may also see more high-net-worth investors move further into the murky world of private equity, where values are easier to distort.
There are better ways to collect investment-income revenue. Getting rid of step-up in basis is a start; the administration could also take on the myriad loopholes that favor different asset classes. But these approaches don’t offer the stick-it-to-the rich satisfaction of doubling the rate on investment income—even if we all wind up paying for it.
We can see evidence of the market distortions that government subsidies cause in the market capitalization of electric-car maker Tesla—currently about $650 billion, or more than five times that of General Electric. Tesla benefits from many subsidies already, and the Biden infrastructure plan aims to divert even more to the electric-car industry. And by increasing the corporate tax rate to pay for part of these subsidies, the Biden plan will further distort the market by making the unsubsidized private sector even less attractive to investors.
The pandemic forced many businesses to adopt new technologies that could boostproductivity for decades. Productivity gains don’t always come so fast. It took more than 100 years for the steam engine, a transformative technology, to show up in productivity estimates, for example. The pandemic’s acceleration of this process of technological adoption means that we could be poised for a big burst of follow-on growth and innovation. But government interventions on the scale of the Covid stimulus and infrastructure bill threaten to divert these energies into less productive investments.
True, the added government spending will provide short-term benefits to workers in the form of new jobs building roads, bridges, and airports or retrofitting buildings with green technology. But using industrial policy to create jobs can also generate long-term risks for those workers, by steering them away from gaining the skills and experience the market may need in the future. Research has shown that workers for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration were less likely to take higher-paying private-sector jobs when they became available because they preferred the security of a government guarantee. In the long term, that can lead to wage stagnation and a population less competitive in the global market.
But this is Detroit, which has the highest effective property tax rate of any major city in America, at 3.58 percent of market value. If the tax man assesses your house at its full renovation cost, this would add $537 to your monthly mortgage bill, bringing it to $1,295.
That hefty charge might not look too bad if the quality of local government services is top shelf. As Charles Tiebout observed in his classic 1956 article on local public finance, people “vote with their feet” and shop for their preferred combination of services and prices among various localities. Some happily buy at the public services equivalent of Neiman Marcus, others at Walmart.
From public safety to education to infrastructure, however, Detroit is no Neiman Marcus. To be charitable, let’s suppose the city’s services are on par with those of other Michigan cities, where the average property tax rate is 1.54 percent. Elsewhere, then, a comparable $180,000 investment comes with a monthly mortgage bill of just $989, or $306 a month less than in Detroit.
The New York tax burden is already punishing enough. New Yorkers pay a greater percentage of their earnings to the state than residents of any other state. The total tax burden, on top of federal taxes, amounts to 12.79 percent of income, according to a new study. Opponents of the latest tax increases claim that the state’s punishing rates are responsible for driving high earners and businesses away, and indeed the state consistently faced massive levels of net outmigration to other states even before the pandemic. That migration has included thousands of jobs in areas like financial services. Among the firms that have relocated significant jobs away from the city are Credit Suisse, Barclays, UBS, and AllianceBernstein, according to a recent Forbes article. Goldman Sachs has moved a big-money management division to Florida, and hedge fund manager Carl Icahn has decamped there as well. The Empire State’s taxes are one reason that former hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman said, “I suspect Florida will soon rival New York as a finance hub.”
The number of excess deaths not involving Covid-19 has been especially high in U.S. counties with more low-income households and minority residents, who were disproportionately affected by lockdowns. Nearly 40 percent of workers in low-income households lost their jobs during the spring, triple the rate in high-income households. Minority-owned small businesses suffered more, too. During the spring, when it was estimated that 22 percent of all small businesses closed, 32 percent of Hispanic owners and 41 percent of black owners shut down. Martin Kulldorff, a professor at Harvard Medical School, summarized the impact: “Lockdowns have protected the laptop class of young low-risk journalists, scientists, teachers, politicians and lawyers, while throwing children, the working class and high-risk older people under the bus.”
The deadly impact of lockdowns will grow in future years, due to the lasting economic and educational consequences. The United States will experience more than 1 million excess deaths in the United States during the next two decades as a result of the massive “unemployment shock” last year, according to a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins and Duke, who analyzed the effects of past recessions on mortality. Other researchers, noting how educational levels affect income and life expectancy, have projected that the “learning loss” from school closures will ultimately cost this generation of students more years of life than have been lost by all the victims of the coronavirus.
Perhaps most damaging, however, has been the idea arising in the last few years that people simply can’t be trusted to make sensible risk assessments—that they must be guided or even manipulated into making smarter choices. The idea that we need to be “tricked” into good behavior was pervasive throughout the pandemic. First, we were told masks weren’t effective, in what turned out to be an attempt to protect supplies for health-care workers. Last spring, we were told that coming into contact with others in just about any environment was unsafe, despite data showing the risk of outdoor transmission was very low. Over the holidays, rather than telling people that they should reduce their risks at holiday gatherings by taking steps like getting a test beforehand, public-health officials said that we should all just stay home, because tests can’t guarantee safety. Even today, the FDA refuses to approve cheap, at-home rapid tests without a prescription because the government doesn’t trust individuals to assess risks based on good, albeit imperfect, information.
The worst, most consequential failure in risk communication concerns the current vaccine rollout. The media constantly instruct us that, even weeks after receiving the second shot, it’s still not safe to socialize without masks. President Biden and Anthony Fauci have warned that we may not be able to resume “normal” life for another year. Fauci recently counseled against vaccinated people eating in indoor restaurants or playing mahjong together. Public-health officials today gave the green light for vaccinated people to gather together—but only after weeks of confusing and contradictory guidance.
The Budget Control Act of 1974 is the most misnamed congressional act in American history. Far from “controlling” anything, its passage caused the federal budget process to spin out of control. In the six years preceding the act, with the Vietnam War raging, annual deficits averaged $11.3 billion. In the first six years after the Budget Control Act, with the war over, they averaged $54 billion.
What happened? The Budget Control Act cut the president out of the budget process by removing his political leverage, leaving Congress in near-total control of the budget. Congressmen have a strong incentive to bring home the bacon, both to their voters and, increasingly, to their donors. Logrolling—you vote for my project and I’ll vote for yours—is, all too often, how Congress works.
Before 1920, there was no unified budget process. Executive departments simply submitted their budget requests directly to Congress. What kept spending under control was a strong political consensus across both parties that the budget should be balanced if at all possible. That idea only began to erode in the 1960s, with a misuse of Keynesian theory.
“California is not only poised for recovery, but we’re seeing real signs of recovery in our state,” Governor Gavin Newsom announced in early January, as he unveiled a state budget with record spending fueled by a $15 billion budget surplus. Yet two weeks later, Newsom sent a letter to President Biden expressing support for his plan to give an additional $350 billion in aid to state and local governments.
Similar stories have played out in other states. “We’re going to need a robust federal support system to help our states and economies recover beyond the federal CARES funds that expire at the end of the year,” said Wisconsin governor Tony Evers in November. Yet within weeks, the state was projecting a budget surplus, and by January it had revised that estimate up to $1.8 billion. Rather than drawing on these reserves, Wisconsin added to its “rainy day” fund, the balance of which is expected to hit nearly $1 billion this year.
Between March 25 and May 10, 2020, an advisory from Cuomo’s Department of Health (DOH) compelled nursing homes to readmit hospitalized Covid-19 patients without checking if they still had active infection. Health experts cautioned that the policy could lead to additional deaths by introducing infected people into closed facilities where those most vulnerable to the disease—the elderly and infirm—live. Cuomo’s responses ranged from the devil—aka the Trump administration—made me do it; to we didn’t force anything—facilities had discretion to turn down admissions; to “nothing to see here”—the policy didn’t increase the number of deaths; to “who cares” where they died.
Cuomo repeatedly and falsely claimed that the policy was directed by federal guidance. A July DOH report (now revised) also claimed that the nursing-home admission policy was following federal guidance that homes “should accept residents with COVID-19.” In fact, the federal guidance was permissive, not proscriptive: “A nursing home can accept a resident diagnosed with COVID-19 . . . as long as the facility can follow CDC guidance for Transmission-Based Precautions” (emphasis added).
Cuomo ducked press demands for nursing-home mortality data throughout 2020, even as every other state made the information public. While New York admitted to about 7,000 nursing home deaths, informed estimates put the real count at around 12,000; the state refused to confirm the numbers. Last month, Attorney General Letitia James released a report acknowledging that the real death toll was close to 13,000. In reaction to this news, Cuomo snapped, “Who cares? 33 [percent], 28 [percent]. Died in a hospital. Died in a nursing home. They died.”
What this episode reveals is Andrew Cuomo’s massive egotism. He was elevated by a fawning national media into a preposterously salvific role last spring and summer. Throughout the course of the pandemic, the governor gave daily televised briefings in which he hailed his own performance as a beacon of leadership. Cuomo delivered such apothegms as, “It’s going to be hard, there is no doubt. But at the same time it is going to be OK.” He also made a point, continuously, of calling the novel coronavirus the “European virus,” presumably in counterpoint to Trump’s calling it the “China virus,” though it is widely recognized that the virus originated in China, even if some infected people may have caught it in Italy before bringing it to America.
The big misunderstanding here is that, though structural changes are certainly persistent and less responsive to policy, they are not permanent. Conditions are always changing. Productivity transforms economies, and so do shifting age structures and demographics. Foreigners are already losing their appetite for U.S. debt; much of it is now bought by the Fed or by banks required to hold it for regulatory reasons. Thus prices may not be as revealing as we think.
And we can’t be sure that debt monetization won’t unleash inflation or higher interest rates. The Fed buys bonds from the banks and credits them with reserves. Eventually banks may want to spend their reserves, and the Fed will need to sell some bonds—which could increase interest rates, or increase inflation, or both. The world could also discover a new safe asset, like German stocks. For many years, gold was considered the only safe asset, and it was unimaginable that a fiat currency could be safe.
Structural changes happen more often and much faster than people realize. We could come out of the pandemic in a new regime of less trade and more reliance on tech that could change debt and price dynamics in ways that we don’t yet understand.