Sunday, October 29, 2017

A GOOD CENSUS IS ESSENTIAL

Dispute is the name of the game in today’s politics.

Republicans think the President's efforts to improve the terms of trade between America and other countries, to control immigration from selected countries, to undo Obamacare, to limit economic and social regulation, to strengthen defense and to reduce taxes are steps that will benefit America and are consistent with his campaign promises.        

Democrats think the President is systematically dismantling our government by appointing Secretaries of the major agencies who are opposed to what their agencies are charged with doing, lack experience in the relevant disciplines or are intellectually unable to master the tasks with which they are charged.  They believe the government should sustain and build upon past regulatory accomplishments, act to prevent further decay of our infrastructure, should sustain and expand government R&D, should broaden the government’s efforts to retrain workers for better jobs and higher wages, and should not seek tax cuts that are inconsistent with sound fiscal policy.  

Whatever the validity of these differing points of view, and for all the damage or good that those appointed to high places are doing and will do before 2020,  the President’s unwillingness to appoint management at the US Census Bureau  and provide funding for the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census will likely have more profound and far reaching consequences than the near term impact of either legislation or executive orders.

The Census matters a lot, for many reasons.  Census data determines the makeup of Congress, and provides information which determines the allocation of tens of billions of federal dollars. Moreover, the Census provides essential protection and guidance for both individuals and businesses.  Without accurate census information, there would be no way to be sure that government funds for building schools, roads and other public facilities would be accurately allocated. Nor would businesses have accurate data about population densities and trends to help locate stores, assess the probable success of new products, and do other kinds of planning.  

Our founders believed that census data is essential to participatory democracy, and wrote the requirement for a census into our constitution.

Unhappily, neither the President nor the Congress have yet taken the steps necessary to properly conduct the 2020 census.  The Director of the Census Bureau retired in June 2017, and has not been replaced.  Moreover, recent budgetary proposals include substantially less for the Bureau than the approximately $12 billion the retiring Director told Congress the 2020 census will cost.  Unless these problems are fixed by early 2018, there will not be sufficient time to test 2020 census procedures and get the hundreds of thousands of people needed organized and in place.  


Without census data, the government will lack an essential compass.  Since our course is already erratic, the absence of a compass could prove catastrophic.   
  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

LET'S HAVE MORE FLINTS!!!!



Sometimes, true life is hard to believe.  A year ago, with the country agog about unsafe drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the notion that the  US Government would soon reduce the amount of federal money available to help state and local agencies test for water safety would have been regarded as fanciful. 

No more.  President Trump’s proposed budget seeks to chop spending at the Environmental Protection Agency by $2.4 billion – about 31% --   while eliminating a quarter of the agency’s 15,000 jobs. Among many other cuts, the Agency is proposing to reduce the grants that help states and cities monitor public water systems from $102 million to $71 million. Since many cities have the same eroded pipes that have afflicted Flint, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to reduce the number of inspectors while simultaneously eviscerating the programs that follow up on and seek to correct  unsatisfactory results.  

Cutting back support for clean drinking water is only one of many things the Administration doesn’t think are worthwhile.  The EPA is proposing to eliminate the $400 million it now spends on regional cleanup programs across the country, including an extensive effort to prevent further damage to the Great Lakes.  The Agency  wants to cut  the $165 million it spends helping states identify and deal with pollutants not regulated by the Clean Water Act as well the roughly $50 million it devotes to monitoring vehicle emissions, despite having recently fined both Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler for cheating on emission tests.

Is there anything the Agency wants to spend more on?  Yes.  It wants to double the agency’s operations staff and provide a round the clock security detail for Scott Pruitt, the new Administrator, who seems to think the door to door protection provided for prior Administrators is insufficient. 

Give you any hint of who and what the new Administration thinks is important?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Do Only Suckers Pay Taxes?



                                         DO ONLY SUCKERS PAY TAXES?

I’ve always thought of taxes as the price of civilization, and while grumbling along with everyone else about the tax codes complexity, I have never felt anything but pride in my ability to contribute larger amounts to our shared enterprise.   Once, when I was audited, I was particularly proud of the fact that the only mistakes found were in the government’s failure.  I ended up with a small refund!! 

 For many years, I think the vast majority of citizens shared my view.  In recent years, however, the number of people who disagree with the existence, intent or performance of the government has increased dramatically and as a consequence, there seems to be growing acceptance of tax evasion and a near constant chorus of calls - often from very wealthy people – for lower tax rates.

In my view, a collective disdain for tax compliance threatens both our solvency and our form of government.    In a large country like the US, where most people do not run for public office or otherwise participate actively in governance,   preserving representative government  depends, at least in part,  on sustaining the rituals of participation that establish  a common interest. In years past, one of the most important of those rituals was mandatory military service, which touched virtually every family’s life directly or indirectly.  Mandatory service has given way to a volunteer military about which most of us know very little and with which we have little interaction.
Another weakened ritual is voting. In the most recent Presidential election, only 58% of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot; 90 million citizens simply didn’t bother and by implication, care little about voting rights. 
       
One of the most important remaining rituals is obeying our tax laws, which rest on a presumption of compliance.     Unhappily, the Congress – which levies taxes and should seek to encourage honest tax reporting – seems intent on making tax compliance a “suckers only” game.  In addition to echoing calls for lower taxes, lawmakers have been gradually eviscerating the IRS, which is no longer capable of enforcing our tax laws. In 2014, the latest year for which I could find records, the IRS audited less than 1% of all returns, and only 16% of those returns which reported income of more than $10 million.  The reason is simple: fewer auditors.  In 2016, enforcement staffing fell to less than 16,000, fewer than were on the job back in 2010.  

The lack of investigative manpower leads, inevitably, to widespread tax evasion.  Following each of the last several Presidential elections, one or more cabinet appointees have been revealed as having failed to pay taxes on household help.  Last year, fewer than 200,000 taxpayers paid these taxes, a number implying massive non-compliance. It doesn’t seem to matter to these evaders that the helpers will end up, years in the future, without the retirement benefits everyone needs. 

 In addition to doing far too few audits, the agency is doing fewer investigations of identity theft, money laundering, and public corruption.  Moreover, taxpayers seeking IRS assistance increasingly find their written queries unanswered and the agency’s telephones unmanned.  

None of this makes sense, since we have a huge tax gap – the difference between the amount paid and the amount owed – and the IRS is extremely efficient, spending just 35 cents to collect every $100 of revenue collected.    Moreover, incremental spending produces huge incremental gains: for every $1 spent on additional agents, the government recovers $4 of additional revenue.  And the government needs the money.  Last year’s budget deficit was $587 billion, but more than $450 billion in taxes went uncollected.  Collecting the money due but unpaid would nearly eliminate the deficit and free up funds that are needed to improve our infrastructure, improve health care and revitalize our educational system. 

Unhappily, things seem to be getting worse, not better.  The Trump Administration has proposed a 14.1 percent cut to the IRS for the fiscal year that begins in October, which would reduce the agency’s budget to about 70% of what it was six years ago.   If that proposal becomes reality, agency effectiveness will decline still further. 

I don’t understand why our government follows policies seemingly designed to minimize tax collections and create a nation of scofflaws.  In years past, Americans mocked countries unable or unwilling to collect taxes; today, we seemed determined to emulate them.

There will always be disagreements about what roles government should or should not take on.    But if we want to sustain self- governance, we need to recognize that doing so requires adherence to the rule of law, including calculating and paying all the taxes that are due.  Only by doing so can we be sure that citizens who pay their taxes will see themselves as patriots, not suckers!!!!