Will natural gas ever catch on as an important transportation fuel?
Yes, argues MIT Professor Christopher Knittel, in a new discussion paper for the Hamilton Project. Given the now-enormous spread between gasoline and natural gas prices, Knittel thinks that natural gas vehicles should become increasingly popular. Here, for example, are his calculations of the lifetime operating costs for various vehicles using gasoline or natural gas (click to enlarge, and be sure to read the caveat in the footnote):
As you would expect, the biggest potential savings accrue to the most fuel-guzzling vehicles, heavy-duty trucks in particular.
Knittel does not believe, however, that the private market will exploit this potential as fast or extensively as it should. He thus proposes policies to accelerate refueling infrastructure build-out and to encourage natural gas vehicles. Here’s his abstract:
Technological advances in horizontal drilling deep underground have led to large-scale discoveries of natural gas reserves that are now economical to access. This, along with increases in oil prices, has fundamentally changed the relative price of oil and natural gas in the United States. As of December 2011, oil was trading at a 500 percent premium over natural gas. This ratio has a number of policy goals related to energy. Natural gas can replace oil in transportation through a number of channels. However, the field between natural gas as a transportation fuel and petroleum-based fuels is not level. Given this uneven playing field, left to its own devices, the market is unlikely to lead to an efficient mix of petroleum- and natural gas-based fuels. This paper presents a pair of policy proposals designed to increase the nation’s energy security, decrease the susceptibility of the U.S. economy to recessions caused by oil-price shocks, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. First, I propose improving the natural gas fueling infrastructure in homes, at local distribution companies, and along long-haul trucking routes. Second, I offer steps to promote the use of natural gas vehicles and fuels.
His ”steps to promote the use of natural gas vehicles and fuels” are subsidies and regulations. Regular readers will recall that I believe environmental taxes would be a better way of addressing environmental concerns and, in particular, of promoting natural gas over gasoline. Of course, that view hasn’t gained much traction among policymakers. As least not yet.
I get the impression that many Americans believe Medicare is financed like Social Security. They know that a portion of payroll taxes goes to Social Security and a portion goes to Medicare. So they conclude workers are paying for Medicare benefits the same way they are paying for Social Security benefits.
That isn’t remotely true, as new data from the Congressional Budget Office demonstrate.
In 2010, payroll taxes covered a little more than a third of Medicare’s costs. Beneficiary premiums (and some other earmarked receipts) covered about a seventh. General revenues (which include borrowing) covered the remainder, slightly more than half of total Medicare costs.
If you prefer to focus on just the government’s share of Medicare (i.e., after premiums and similar payments by or on behalf of beneficiaries), then payroll taxes covered about 40% of the program, and other revenues and borrowing covered about 60%.
In contrast, payroll taxes and other earmarked taxes covered more than 93% of Social Security’s costs in 2010, and that was after many years of surpluses.
The difference between the two programs exists because payroll taxes finance almost all of Social Security, but only one part of Medicare, the Part A program for hospital insurance. Parts B and D (doctors and prescription drugs) don’t get payroll revenues; instead, they are covered by premiums and general revenues. But that distinction often gets lost in public discussion of Medicare financing.
As recently at 2000, general revenues covered only a quarter of Medicare’s costs. That share has increased because of the creation of the prescription drug benefit in 2003 and because population aging and rising health care costs have pushed Medicare spending up faster than worker wages. Over the next decade, CBO projects that premiums will cover a somewhat larger share of overall costs, while the general revenue share will slightly decline.
Note: For simplicity, I have focused on the annual flow of taxes and benefits. The same insight applies if you want to think of Social Security and Medicare as programs in which workers pay payroll taxes to earn future benefits. That’s approximately true for workers as a whole in Social Security (but with notable differences across individuals and age cohorts and uncertainty about what the future will bring). But it’s not true at all for Medicare.
Yesterday I had the chance to testify before the Select Revenue Measures Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee about a perennial challenge, the “tax extenders,” which really ought to be known as the “tax expirers.” Here are my opening remarks. You can find my full testimony here.
As you know, the United States faces a sharp “fiscal cliff” at yearend when numerous policy changes occur. If all these changes happen, they will reduce the fiscal 2013 deficit by about $500 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, before taking into account any negative feedback from a weaker economy. About one-eighth of that “cliff”—$65 billion—comes from the expiring and expired tax cuts that are the focus of today’s hearing.
In deciding their fate, you should consider the larger problems facing our tax system. That system is needlessly complex, economically harmful, and widely perceived as unfair. It’s increasingly unpredictable. And it fails at its most basic task, raising enough money to pay our bills.
The “expirers” often worsen these problems. They create uncertainty, complicate compliance, and cost needed revenue. Some make the tax code less fair, some more fair. Some weaken our economy, while others strengthen it.
Fundamental tax reform would, of course, be the best way to address these concerns. But such reform isn’t likely soon.
So you must again grapple with “the expirers.” As a starting point, let me note that they come in three flavors:
- Tax cuts enacted to address a temporary challenge such as recession, the housing meltdown, or regional disasters.
- Tax cuts that have reached a sunset review. Prolonged economic weakness and recent omnibus extensions mean there aren’t that many of these, but they do exist.
- Tax cuts that expire to game budget rules. These appear to be the most common. Supporters intend these provisions to be long-lived or permanent, but they haven’t found the budget resources to do so.
To determine which of these policies should be extended and which not, you should consider several factors:
- Does the provision address a compelling need for government intervention?
- Does it accomplish its goal effectively and at reasonable cost?
- Does it make the tax code more or less fair?
- Do its potential benefits justify the revenue loss or the need for higher taxes elsewhere?
In short, you should subject these provisions to the same standards applied to other policy choices. And in this case, you should keep in mind that most of the so-called “tax extenders” are effectively spending through the tax code. You should thus hold them to the same standards as equivalent spending programs.
You should also reform the way you review expiring tax provisions.
- Flip the burden of proof. Today’s standing presumption is that most of these provisions will ultimately be extended. That’s why they are called “the extenders,” even after they have expired. Ultimately, though, we should move to a system in which the presumption, rebuttable to be sure, is that expiring provisions will expire unless supporters can justify their continuation. In short, they should be “the expirers.”
- Second, divide them up. Like musk oxen, the beneficiaries of these provisions have realized that there is safety in numbers. They thus do their best to coalesce as a single herd—“the extenders”—and to migrate across the annual legislative tundra with as little individual attention as possible.You should break up the herd. Reviewing each provision in detail may not be practical in a single year, but you can identify specific groups for careful review. For example, you can separate out the stimulus provisions, the charity provisions, the energy provisions, and so on.You should also spread scheduled expirations out over time. If fewer expire each year, you will be able to give each one more attention.
- Third, change budget rules for temporary tax cuts. Pay-as-you-go budgeting creates crucial discipline but has an unfortunate side effect: long-term tax policies often get chopped into one-year segments. In addition, 10 years of offsets can be used to pay for a single-year extension.To combat this, you could require that any temporary tax provision be assumed to last no less than five years in the official budget baseline. Proponents would then have to round up enough budget offsets to pay for those five years.In addition, Congress could require that offsets happen over the same years as an extension. That would eliminate situations in which 10 years of offsets pay for a single-year extension.
A man with one clock always knows the time. A man with two clocks is never sure.
This week brings the two heavyweights of economic statistics. On Thursday morning we got the latest read on economic growth, and on Friday we learn how the job market fared in May.
Government statisticians and outside commenters usually emphasize a particular headline number in these reports. For the economy as a whole, it’s the annual growth rate of gross domestic product (GDP), which logged in at a mediocre 1.9 percent in the first quarter. For jobs, it’s the number of nonfarm payroll jobs created in the past month (115,000 in April, but that will be revised on Friday morning).
In each case, the government also reports a second measure of essentially the same thing. Jobs day aficionados are familiar with this. The payroll figure comes from a survey of employers, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports results from a survey of people. That provides the other famous job metric, the unemployment rate, and a second count of how many people have a job. The concept isn’t exactly the same as the payroll measure–it includes a broader array of jobs, for example, but doesn’t reflect people holding multiple jobs–but it’s sufficiently similar that it can be an interesting check on the more-quoted payroll figure.
The downside of this extra information, however, is that it can foster confusion. In April, for example, payrolls increased by 115,000, but the household measure of employment fell by 169,000. Did jobs grow or decline in April?
Another, less well-known example happens with the GDP data. The Bureau of Economic Analysis calculates this figure two different ways: by adding up production to get GDP and by adding up incomes to get gross domestic income (GDI). In principle, these should be identical. In practice, they differ because of measurement challenges. As Brad Plummer notes in a piece channeling Wharton economist Justin Wolfers, the two measures tell somewhat different stories about recent economic growth. In Q1, for example, GDI expanded at a respectable 2.7 percent, much faster than the 1.9 percent recorded for GDP. Is the economy doing ok or barely plodding along?
Such confusion is the curse of having two clocks. We can’t be sure which measure to believe. Experts offer good reasons to prefer the payroll figure (e.g., it’s based on a much larger survey) and GDP (e.g., income measurement is difficult for various technical reasons, including capital gains). But there are counterviews as well; for example, at least one paper finds that GDI does a better job of capturing swings in the business cycle.
Despite this confusion, two clocks are better than one. They remind us of the fundamental uncertainty in economic measurement. That uncertainty is often overlooked in the rush to analyze the latest economic data, but it is real. There are limits to what we know about the state of the economy.
In addition, a weighted average of two readings may well provide a better reading than either one alone. If one clock says 11:40 and another says 11:50, for example, you’d probably do well to guess that it’s 11:45. Unless, of course, you have reason to believe that one clock is better than the other.
The same may well be true for GDP and GDI - the truth is likely in the middle. (This is less true with the jobs data; because of the larger sample, I weight the payroll measure much more heavily than the household measure, at least for monthly changes.)
P.S. For more on GDP vs. GDI, see Dean Baker and Binyamin Appelbaum.
Public opinion surveys provide a wealth of information about beliefs in America and around the world. For example, they document how much public approval for same-sex marriage has been increasing, how Facebook has infiltrated many of our daily lives, and how humanitarian aid affects how citizens of other nations view America.
Fifteen years ago, more than one in three of households responded to surveys. Today, that rate is less than one in ten.
That increases the cost of reliable surveys — to get a reasonable sample, you need to try to contact more households. Even more important, declining participation raises the question of whether the minority of respondents are representative of the population as a whole. The Pew Research Center study took a close look at that question:
The general decline in response rates is evident across nearly all types of surveys, in the United States and abroad. At the same time, greater effort and expense are required to achieve even the diminished response rates of today. These challenges have led many to question whether surveys are still providing accurate and unbiased information. Although response rates have decreased in landline surveys, the inclusion of cell phones – necessitated by the rapid rise of households with cell phones but no landline – has further contributed to the overall decline in response rates for telephone surveys.
A new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds that, despite declining response rates, telephone surveys that include landlines and cell phones and are weighted to match the demographic composition of the population continue to provide accurate data on most political, social and economic measures. This comports with the consistent record of accuracy achieved by major polls when it comes to estimating election outcomes, among other things.
This is not to say that declining response rates are without consequence. One significant area of potential non-response bias identified in the study is that survey participants tend to be significantly more engaged in civic activity than those who do not participate, confirming what previous research has shown. People who volunteer are more likely to agree to take part in surveys than those who do not do these things. This has serious implications for a survey’s ability to accurately gauge behaviors related to volunteerism and civic activity. For example, telephone surveys may overestimate such behaviors as church attendance, contacting elected officials, or attending campaign events.
However, the study finds that the tendency to volunteer is not strongly related to political preferences, including partisanship, ideology and views on a variety of issues. Republicans and conservatives are somewhat more likely than Democrats and liberals to say they volunteer, but this difference is not large enough to cause them to be substantially over-represented in telephone surveys.
In short, opinion surveys likely overstate civic activity, but otherwise appear to track other observable political, social, and economic variables.
Medicare Part A is one of several federal programs that control spending through a “belt and suspenders” combination of regular program rules (the belt) and an overall limit (the suspenders). But it’s the only one that allows legislated savings to offset the costs of policy changes in other programs and extend the time before the overall limit constrains operations.
Congress can’t increase Social Security payroll taxes to pay for increased health care spending or reduce flood insurance subsidies to pay for tax cuts; in both cases, the resources stay within the affected programs. And when it cuts spending on Medicare Parts B and D to pay for other spending, no one claims those cuts will also postpone the day when trust fund exhaustion will disrupt their operations.
Such double counting is possible only in Medicare Part A. And it’s a real problem, creating needless confusion and reinforcing the sense that Washington plays fast and loose with budget numbers.
Happily, Congress knows how to fix this problem. All it needs to do is apply to Medicare A the practices used by one of the other programs that have “belt and suspenders” budgeting but avoid potential double counting.
One approach would be the rules used by the National Flood Insurance Program. As I discussed in more detail last week, those rules require that any legislated savings remain in the program. Lawmakers can’t reduce NFIP subsidies to pay for new spending in other programs. Instead, any savings are automatically earmarked to pay future NFIP claims that would go unpaid because of the program’s borrowing limit. (For an example, see here.)
This approach brings the overall limit explicitly into the budget. But it makes for weird budgeting. For example, the budget baseline would show Medicare A breaking even over the long run, since the trust fund limit would take precedence over its fundamental deficits.
A better approach would adopt the rules used by Social Security. Those rules show Social Security running deficits far into the future in the budget baseline, but they still take the trust fund seriously when examining new legislation. Any proposed cuts to the program’s spending or increases in its revenues are “off budget”. The Congressional Budget Office reports them, but Congress can’t use them to pay for other spending.
A recent Senate bill provides a telling example. The bill would expand the type of income subject to payroll taxes in order to pay for a one-year extension of low interest rates on student loans. Those low rates would cost $6 billion, but the Senate proposal would raise $9 billion. The bill had to overshoot that much because $3 billion comes from higher Social Security taxes and is thus off limits. Meanwhile, the $6 billion in usable revenues comes from Medicare Part A, which is considered “on budget” despite having a trust fund just like Social Security’s.
That difference highlights the inconsistency in current budgeting. If policymakers believe the Part A trust fund is as sacrosanct as Social Security’s, they should provide the same budgetary protection: Part A savings should be off budget, where they couldn’t be used to pay for health reform, student loans, tax cuts, or anything else outside the hospital insurance program.
If Congress doesn’t believe the trust fund deserves that protection, it should adopt a third approach: make the Part A fund as operationally toothless as the one for Medicare B and D. Those programs spend much more than they receive, so their trust fund has unlimited ability to draw on general revenues. If the same were true for Medicare Part A, program changes could be used to pay for health reform (as they were in 2010) or anything else, just like any other mandatory program. But we wouldn’t have any confusion over whether those changes also extend the program’s ability to operate.
The Social Security and Medicare B and D approaches both make more sense than the mishmash that applies to Medicare A today. I think the Medicare B and D approach is the better of the two, not least because it would put all the parts of Medicare on equal footing. But one could certainly argue for the Social Security approach instead. That’s the discussion we should have now so that we can avoid needless double-counting debates in the future.
P.S. Several readers noted an important qualification to my Social Security discussion in my earlier post. Many experts believe past Social Security surpluses have been used to finance deficits in the rest of the budget and, as a result, Social Security resources have been paying for higher spending or lower revenues elsewhere in government. I agree. My comments in these posts apply only to explicit budgeting decisions, like those in 2010’s health reform or today’s student loan legislation. In that context, Social Security savings cannot be legislatively used to pay for other programs. But they still might have indirect effects. For example, by reducing future unified budget deficits, Social Security savings might weaken future congressional efforts to reduce deficits outside Social Security.
The recent double-counting dispute isn’t just about politics; it also reveals a flaw in budgeting for Medicare Part A.
Budget experts are waging a spirited battle over the Medicare changes that helped pay for 2010’s health reform. In April, Chuck Blahous, one of two public trustees of the program, released a study arguing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would increase the deficit by at least $340 billion by 2021, a sharp contrast from the $210 billion in deficit reduction estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Chuck bases his estimates on several factors, but the item that has garnered the most attention is his charge that the ACA’s spending cuts and revenue increases in Medicare Part A are being double counted: once to help pay for the ACA’s coverage expansion and a second time to improve the finances of the Part A trust fund, whose predicted exhaustion was delayed by several years.
Chuck notes that those resources can be used only once: They can either offset some costs of health reform or strengthen Medicare, but not both. He believes those resources will ultimately finance additional Medicare spending and thus can’t offset any health reform costs. For that reason, he concludes that the ACA would increase deficits, rather than reduce them.
That argument inspired a host of commentary from leading budget experts, ranging from denunciation to affirmation. See, for example, Jeffrey Brown, Howard Gleckman, Peter Orszag, Robert Reischauer (as quoted by Jonathan Chait), and Paul Van de Water, and a follow up by Chuck and Jim Capretta.
Why does this dispute exist? It can’t just be politics. If it were, we’d have double-counting disputes about every program. But we don’t. We thus need an explanation for why this debate has erupted around Medicare Part A, which provides hospital insurance, but not around other programs. Part A is not unique in controlling spending by a “belt and suspenders” combination of regular program rules (the “belt”) and an overall limit (the “suspenders”). Such budgeting also applies to Social Security, Medicare Parts B and D (which cover physician visits and prescription drugs), and the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal debt limit acts as “suspenders” for the entire budget. But none of those give rise to double-counting disputes.
That suggests that there is something unusual—perhaps flawed—about budgeting for Medicare Part A. To see what that is, it helps to boil the dispute down to two basic questions about programs subject to “belt and suspenders” budgeting.
First, can spending reductions or revenue increases in the program offset spending increases or revenue reductions in other programs? In short, can budget savings pay for other programs? Or must they stay within the program itself?
Second, would hitting the overall budget limit affect program operations? In other words, do budget savings extend the period during which the program can operate at full capacity? Or is the limit operationally toothless?
As shown above, policymakers have answered these questions differently for different programs (for further details, see the appendix).
This comparison reveals the unique feature of Medicare Part A: It is the only one of these programs that allows budget savings to pay for other programs and has a trust fund with real operational teeth. It alone answers Yes to both questions. That is why Medicare Part A is the only program that creates the possibility of double counting and suffers from the reality of a double-counting dispute.
Double counting isn’t possible in Social Security or the NFIP because budget rules require that savings stay in the program. It isn’t possible for the budget as a whole since there are, by definition, no other programs to fund. And double counting isn’t possible in Medicare Parts B and D because its trust fund does nothing to limit operations.
But double counting is possible in Medicare Part A. That happens whenever someone claims that the health reform legislation both reduces deficits and provides additional resources to Medicare Part A. I will leave it to others to adjudicate whether any health reform proponents committed that error. I will note, however, that every budget expert, including Chuck Blahous, agrees that CBO didn’t do so (its baseline ignores the trust fund, so savings reduce deficits and have no effect on program operations).
Bottom line: The peculiar budget rules for Medicare Part A make it possible for analysts, pundits, and policymakers—whether willfully or inadvertently—to double count budget savings in Medicare Part A. That needless confusion is a significant flaw. To correct it, Congress could adopt the budget practices it uses in Social Security, Medicare B & D, or the NFIP. In a follow-up post, I will examine the pros and cons of these alternatives.
Appendix: How “Belt and Suspenders” Budgeting Works
In Medicare Part A, spending is determined by rules about benefit eligibility and provider payment rates. If the Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund balance falls to zero, however, spending faces a separate, hard limit: payments can’t exceed receipts. Program operations would thus be disrupted if the trust fund became exhausted. Congressional budget rules ignore the trust fund and assume that spending will continue at scheduled levels regardless of its balance. Under that approach, any spending reductions or revenue increases in Medicare Part A generate new budget resources that can be used to pay for changes in other programs.
Social Security operates differently. It faces the same operational limitations as Medicare Part A if its trust fund balance falls to zero. But Congress enacted special rules that forbid any Social Security spending cuts or revenue increases being used to pay for other programs. Such savings therefore accrue in the trust fund. The trust fund thus matters for operations, and savings cannot be directed to other parts of the government. (Social Security actually involves two programs, one for retirement and one for disability, and two corresponding trust funds; these comments apply equally to both.)
Medicare Parts B and D operate in a third way. Like Part A and Social Security, their spending is determined by eligibility and payment rules and gets paid out of a trust fund (the Supplementary Medical Insurance or SMI trust fund). But that fund has unlimited right to draw on general tax revenues. A zero balance thus results in general revenue transfers, not operational disruptions. Reforms don’t increase the life of the trust fund (since it can never go broke), and savings can be used to finance other programs.
The National Flood Insurance Program operates in yet another way. The NFIP is required to finance itself out of its insurance premiums; if its costs exceed those premiums, it can borrow from the federal government up to a specified limit. Once that limit is reached, payments can’t exceed its revenues, and operations are disrupted. The borrowing limit thus acts like the trust fund balance in Medicare Part A or Social Security, except that it allows the program to go a fixed amount into the red.
Congressional budget rules treat the borrowing limit as a fundamental restraint on NFIP spending. If the program is expected to run annual deficits, as it is today, those deficits exist only until the borrowing limit is reached. After that, the NFIP is projected to break even, with spending restrained to equal revenues. If Congress reduces the annual deficits in the NFIP (e.g., by increasing premiums), those savings allow the program to operate longer before reaching its borrowing limit. Any temporary budget savings thus get offset by increased NFIP spending in later years. Those temporary budget savings thus cannot be used to offset spending in other programs (unless hitting the borrowing limit is pushed beyond the budget window).
The debt limit, finally, acts as a “suspenders” restraint on deficits incurred by the entire federal budget. As we saw last summer, the debt limit threatens real operational restraints. Spending reductions and revenue increases can delay when the debt limit is reached. But they cannot be used to pay for other programs. Why? Because there are no other programs. The debt limit thus operates like the Social Security trust fund: it imposes an important operational restraint, and budget actions used to avoid it cannot pay for other programs.
Companies often run into trouble when they offer a service at a zero price.
Not always, of course. Many all-you-can-eat buffets continue to thrive even though the marginal cost of the next chicken nugget is zero. And many content providers manage to stay in business by selling radio, TV, or display ads against the free content users enjoy.
But all too often, a zero price attracts bad customers and encourages excessive consumption. Marco Arment of Instapaper, for example, discovered that a zero price attracted “undesirable customers” for his app. And AT&T famously discovered that offering unlimited iPhone data could overwhelm its capacity.
There are frequent fliers, and then there are people like Steven Rothstein and Jacques Vroom.
Both men bought tickets that gave them unlimited first-class travel for life on American Airlines. It was almost like owning a fleet of private jets.
Passes in hand, Rothstein and Vroom flew for business. They flew for pleasure. They flew just because they liked being on planes. They bypassed long lines, booked backup itineraries in case the weather turned, and never worried about cancellation fees. Flight crews memorized their names and favorite meals.
Each had paid American more than $350,000 for an unlimited AAirpass and a companion ticket that allowed them to take someone along on their adventures. Both agree it was the best purchase they ever made, one that completely redefined their lives. …
But all the miles they and 64 other unlimited AAirpass holders racked up went far beyond what American had expected. As its finances began deteriorating a few years ago, the carrier took a hard look at the AAirpass program.
Heavy users, including Vroom and Rothstein, were costing it millions of dollars in revenue, the airline concluded.
How did things go wrong? American Airlines miscalculated how pass holders would behave:
“We thought originally it would be something that firms would buy for top employees,” said Bob Crandall, American’s chairman and chief executive from 1985 to 1998. “It soon became apparent that the public was smarter than we were.”
In economic jargon, American fell victim to both adverse selection and moral hazard. What customer wants to buy an unlimited, lifetime pass? One who’s happy to spend a great deal of time flying about in first class with friends, family members, or a random person they just met at the gate. And how will they behave? As though first class seats are costless, easy to book, free to cancel, a great gift for friends and strangers, and even, in some cases, as a revenue source.
What happened next shouldn’t be surprising. First, the passes went through a death spiral with American raising the price in a vain effort to make them profitable. When last offered, a single pass cost $3 million and was purchased by a grand total of nobody. Second, American sicced its “revenue management executives” on the most flagrant of the frequent flyers. As a result, several had their passes revoked for misuse. And American faces some lawsuits that make one wonder whether it crossed the line in trying to rid itself of these outrageously expensive customers.
A recurring theme of recent happiness research is that when it comes to seeking pleasure, people should “buy experiences rather than things.” People are happier when they skip the shiny baubles (or new high heels) and do something memorable.
Over at the Atlantic, Garett Jones gives one economic explanation for this finding: memories are a durable good.
[M]emory, wholly intangible, is quite durable.
People often shrink from driving to a distant, promising restaurant, flying to a new country, trying a new sport–it’s a hassle, and the experience won’t last that long. That’s the wrong way to look at it. When you go bungee jumping, you’re not buying a brief experience: You’re buying a memory, one that might last even longer than a good pair of blue jeans.
Psych research seems to bear this out: People love looking forward to vacations, they don’t like the vacation that much while they’re on it, and then they love the memories. Most of the joy–the utility in econospeak–happens when you’re not having the experience. …
[P]eople treat memories somewhat like durables, but most of us could do a better job of it. Yes, it’ll be a hassle to find that riad in Marrakech when your GPS fails you, but complaining about it with your sibling years later will be a ton of fun. Get on with it.
A corollary: if memory really is a durable, then you should buy a lot of it when you’re young. That’ll give you more years to enjoy your purchase.
So it’s worth a bit of suffering to create some good memories, since the future lasts a lot longer than the present.
That’s good advice. But I can’t help thinking that people who are unhappy on vacation are doing it wrong. Then again, maybe my recollection is blurred by selective memory?
In any case, the little feline above is a great example of Garett’s thesis. Since I was a child, I had always wanted to see an ocelot in the wild. And last summer, Esther and I found one in Brazil. Our entire encounter lasted about 15 seconds and produced a couple of mediocre photos. But until my brain gives out, I will always cherish seeing the little critter.
P.S. About 20 years ago, I recall someone attributing the “memory is a durable good” idea to Milton Friedman. If anyone’s got a cite to that, please post in the comments.
P.P.S. Will Wilkinson also comments on Garett’s thesis.
The tax code is chock full of credits, deductions, deferrals, exclusions, exemptions, and preferential rates. Taken together, such tax preferences will total almost $1.3 trillion this year.
That’s a lot of money. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that $1.3 trillion is there for the picking in any upcoming deficit reduction or tax reform. In fact, even if Congress miraculously repealed all of these tax preferences, it would likely generate much less than $1.3 trillion in new resources.
Where did I come up with that number? For a short piece in Tax Notes, I simply added together all the specific tax expenditures identified by the Department of Treasury; these were reported in the Analytical Perspectives volume of the president’s recent budget.
Treasury doesn’t report this total for a good, technical reason: some provisions interact with one another to make their combined effect either larger or smaller than the sum of their individual effects. As a result, simple addition won’t give an exact answer. That’s an important issue. In the absence of a fully integrated figure, however, I think it’s useful to ballpark the overall magnitude using basic addition.
In your travels, you may find other estimates that do the same thing but come up with a figure of “only” $1.1 trillion. Why is mine higher? Because it includes some important information that Treasury reveals only in footnotes. Treasury’s main table estimates how tax expenditures reduce individual and corporate income tax receipts; those effects total $1.1 trillion. But they also have other effects. Refundable credits like the earned income tax credit increase outlays, for example, and some preferences, like those for employer-provided health insurance and alcohol fuels, lower payroll and excise taxes. I include those impacts in my $1.3 trillion figure.
Budget hawks and tax reformers have done a great job of highlighting tax expenditures in recent years. I fear, however, that we have lifted expectations too high. Just because the tax code includes $1.3 trillion in tax preferences doesn’t mean it will be easy to reduce the budget deficit or pay for lower tax rates by rolling them back. Politics is one reason. It’s easy to be against tax preferences when they are described as loopholes and special interest provisions. It’s another thing entirely when people realize that these include the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction, and 401(k)s.
Basic fiscal math is another challenge. Tax expenditure estimates do not translate directly into potential revenues. Indeed, there are several reasons to believe that the potential revenue gains from rolling back tax preferences are less than the headline estimates. One reason is that the estimates are static—they measure the taxes people save today but do not account for the various ways that people might react if a preference were reduced or eliminated; those reactions may reduce potential revenues. Second, most reforms would phase out such preferences rather than eliminate them immediately. That too reduces potential revenues, at least over the next decade or so.
Finally, the value of tax preferences depends on other aspects of the tax code, most notably tax rates. If a tax reform would lower marginal tax rates, the value of deductions, exclusions, and exemptions would fall as well. Suppose you are in the 35 percent tax bracket. Today, each dollar you give to charity results in 35 cents of tax savings—a 35-cent tax expenditure. If the top rate were reduced to 28 percent, as some propose, your savings from charitable donations would be only 28 cents. The 20 percent reduction in tax rates would thus slice the value of your tax expenditure by 20 percent. That means that the revenue gain from eliminating the deduction—or any other similar tax expenditures—would also shrink by 20 percent, thus making it harder for tax expenditure reform to fill in the revenue gap left by reducing tax rates.
My message is thus a mixed one. Tax expenditures are very large—$1.3 trillion this year alone if you add up all the individual provisions – and deserve close scrutiny. But we need to temper our aspirations of just how much revenue we can generate by rolling them back. It isn’t as though there’s an easy $1.3 trillion sitting around. In coming months, the Tax Policy Center will explore how to translate tax expenditure figures into more reasonable estimates of the potential revenues that tax reformers and budget hawks can bargain over.