Our Selective “Anti-Tax” Legislators

In Indiana, Republicans always, always talk about reducing the “tax burden” on Hoosier citizens. They incessantly brag about their solicitude for taxpayers, and Indiana’s status as a “low tax” state.

Well…it turns out that their solicitude is pretty selective; it’s focused on the folks who are most likely to support them, either financially or with their votes. Businesses, corporations, rich folks…Struggling students, not so much.

In fact, not at all.

President Biden’s continuing effort to relieve millions of Americans from a real burden–student loan debt–has already benefitted 35,000 young Hoosiers. A provision of Biden’s American Rescue Plan also amended the Internal Revenue Code so that the discharge of that debt would not be taxable. (As you may or may not know–but your accountant will confirm–if you owe someone money, and that someone “forgives” the debt, the IRS considers the amount forgiven to be income, and you will be taxed on it.) Taxing student loan forgiveness would rather obviously go a long way toward reducing the relief being provided. 

Indiana’s legislators–those solicitous “anti-tax” Republicans–looked at the situation and said “not so fast!”

The Indiana Department of Revenue explains.

The IRS excludes federal direct student loan forgiveness from federal income tax due to an exemption in the Internal Revenue Code. Although the computation of Indiana’s adjusted gross income (AGI) begins with federal AGI, Indiana is a static conformity state, meaning that Indiana’s tax code is linked to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) as of a specific date. For a provision that impacts federal AGI, the effect on Indiana AGI depends on whether the Indiana General Assembly wholly or partially decouples from the federal provision during the legislative session.

When the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) expanded IRC section 108(f)(5), excluding student loan discharge under certain circumstances from federal gross income, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law decoupling Indiana from that provision in the IRC, and enacted a state provision requiring Hoosier taxpayers to add back the excluded amount to their Indiana AGI.

In 2022, this provision was clarified retroactively to provide that discharges resulting from total and permanent disability, death, or bankruptcy were not required to be added back. That law, IC 6-3-1-3.5(a)(30), still stands; therefore, federal discharge of some student loans between 2021 and 2025 must be added back to Indiana’s adjusted gross income. This includes the one-time student loan forgiveness under the Biden-Harris Administration’s Student Debt Relief Plan, even though the plan was not part of the ARPA.

Nice of them to say that if the loan was discharged because you died, were permanently disabled or bankrupt, they’d let you off the hook.

Indiana thus joins Mississippi, North Carolina and Wisconsin (last I looked, Arkansas was still considering the matter). Students elsewhere in the country are not being penalized.

Things are different for corporations. Indiana is one of only twelve states with corporate tax rates under 5%. That’s in contrast to states like Minnesota (9.8 percent),  Illinois (9.5 percent) and Alaska (9.4 percent). The higher corporate rates in those states evidently made it unnecessary for them to tax students’ debt relief. (I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that corporations can afford lobbyists and students can’t.)

A statement issued by Representative Greg Porter at the time student loan repayments resumed (they’d been paused during the pandemic) elaborated on that point. Porter wrote:

More than 900,000 Hoosiers currently have some form of student loan debt, with the average Hoosier owing about $32,000. With repayments beginning soon, many Hoosiers will face financial stress, a stress the Republican supermajority has done nothing to ease for constituents.

“Indiana is one of the few states that taxes an individual’s student loan forgiveness or an employer paying off the student loan for an employee. Last session, my bill to make loan forgiveness dollars exempt from taxation never received a hearing. This is a shame, because Indiana Republicans never shy away from dispensing tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to large companies seeking move to Indiana but refuse to take action to make conditions better for Hoosiers living and working in our state.

The next time you hear Indiana politicians talk about their concern for us poor, struggling taxpayers, you might ask them just which taxpayers they want to relieve–and which ones are unworthy of their solicitude.


Hooray For Washington State

You don’t have to be a “leftist” or a socialist to support higher taxes for the very wealthy and obscenely rich, but the GOP remains steadfastly–even hysterically–opposed to proposals to tax those they misleadingly call “job creators.”

(Actually, jobs are created by increasing demand–if no one is buying your widgets, you aren’t going to hire more people to make more of them, which is why putting more money into the hands of the poorer folks who will spend it rather than hiding it in some tax haven, is what boosts employment. But I digress.)

A reader recently sent me a fascinating article about Washington State lawmaker’s decision to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.

The article began by quoting a 1933 Washington State lawmaker named Wesley Lloyd, who had proposed to  “bring up the poor and bring down the rich into the class of the average man, where all may find real happiness and where we may know a widespread national prosperity.”

It then noted that–over the ensuing dozen years or so–FDR’s New Deal had caused “unprecedented progress” toward greater equality. One measure that helped achieve that equality was  a 94 percent marginal tax rate on income over $200,000.

But Lloyd’s tax-the-rich spirit lives on, especially today in his home Washington State. Earlier this year, 19 of the state’s senators and 43 state reps introduced legislation that would fix a first-ever 1 percent annual tax on stocks, bonds, and other forms of “intangible personal property” worth over $250 million. The Evergreen State currently hosts over 700 grand fortunes that top this quarter-billion mark.

That legislation failed, but as the article noted,

that failure hasn’t left Washington’s deepest pockets feeling like celebrating. The reason? They’ve just become subject to another new tax, a measure that Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat is describing as the state’s first-ever “wealth-related levy.”

The levy–a 7-percent tax on asset-sale profits over $250,000– has turned out to be a windfall for state coffers. Analysts had predicted that the tax would raise $440 million dollars. Instead, it has so far raised $849 million, almost double the take originally anticipated.

I hardly need point out that the mega-rich who paid a 7% tax on massive profits were hardly impoverished by them.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities–based in that other Washington–has been working to produce a package of tax reforms that would prioritize “equity and fairness; it  has pointed to the experience of Washington State.

The Center is now hoping to nudge state lawmakers nationwide further in that direction with a new online tool for developing “State Revenue Options for Advancing Equity and Prosperity.” State policymakers, the Center notes, don’t always understand “how much revenue different policies might raise, whether a tax will fall more on families with low incomes or people at the top.” The new Center tool aims to build that understanding.

Understanding, of course, only takes lawmakers so far. They still have to overcome the opposition of the richest among us to paying anything close to their fair tax share. Lawmakers can certainly do that overcoming — if enough of us push them. And if we do enough of that pushing, maybe our lawmakers will start sounding like Wesley Lloyd back when he proposed to limit the personal wealth of our super richest.

“I do not seek to destroy wealth or industry,” Lloyd told his fellow members of Congress, “but I do propose to place the burden of public expense and national development upon the shoulders of those best able to bear that burden and those who have profited most. I would have the strong help the weak rather than have the weak forever carrying the strong.”

There are seemingly two fundamental questions that all American lawmakers confront: what should government do and how should government pay for doing it? We aren’t doing very well answering either question.

This blog–among many others–tends to focus on the first question, because so many of our current government policies are arguably counter-productive (or, in the case of our ongoing culture wars, insane). But the second question is inextricably entwined with the first, because the way we decide to pay for the decisions we make has an enormous effect upon how (and whether) those chosen policies work as intended.

Do we want the strong to help the weak? Or do we want to deepen the already massive divide between the haves and have-nots? Do we want to build and maintain a physical and social infrastructure that serves all citizens, or do we want to see only to the comfort and prosperity of the fortunate few?

Wesley Lloyd was asking the right questions, and Washington State is (slowly, incrementally) moving toward the right answers.



As House Republicans noisily demonstrate their utter lack of interest in governing, other parts of the federal system continue to operate. The Fed, for example, continues to battle inflation.

In a lengthy October essay in the New York Times, Ezra Klein provided an overview of the causes of inflation and the choices policymakers face when trying to control it.

Inflation often begins as a mismatch of supply and demand. But if people get accustomed to prices rising, then inflation becomes about expectations. And so the task of ending it grows fuzzier: You need to use policy not just to manage the economy but also to alter psychology. The arid language of economics obscures the brutality this demands. You need to hit the economy hard enough to cow everyone who makes decisions within it.

Because that’s what prices are: decisions. Those decisions, even when mediated by algorithms, are made by people trying to predict the decisions other people will make. When people start to believe that other people are raising prices, they will raise prices. If they think other people are raising prices even faster, they will raise prices even faster than that. “How can you persuade people to expect differently?

One way is by increasing supply., but that usually can’t be done quickly. Another is by cutting demand by raising interest rates–but that makes it harder to borrow money or afford homes, and inevitably throws people out of work.

Klein reminded readers of Paul Volker’s approach  to “stagflation” in the 1970s.

Volcker forced a recession so deep that the entire psychology of the American economy changed. Today he is celebrated for his steel. Powell invokes him as inspiration. In a speech at a Fed conference in Jackson Hole this summer, he mentioned Volcker twice and said, of the intended rate hikes, “we must keep at it until the job is done,” presumably a reference to Volcker’s memoir, “Keeping At It.”

Using interest rate hikes to manage inflation operates like a sledgehammer: it reduces demand, but also cuts supply.

When people lose their jobs, they stop producing the goods and services the economy needs. When mortgage rates spike, developers build fewer houses, despite the fact that high housing costs are often caused by too few houses. When borrowing money becomes expensive, people stop borrowing it and cease to make the investments that create future productivity.

Klein documents the various ways in which interest rate hikes disproportionately harm the poor and the jobless, and says that it would be “nice to have a policy that targeted the rich rather than the poor and did so in a way that didn’t hurt long-term investment.”

He asserts that “such a policy exists.” It’s a progressive consumption tax. 

Here’s how it works. Instead of reporting your income to the I.R.S. and being taxed on that, you report your income minus your savings, and you’re taxed on that. That’s a consumption tax: Your taxable income is what you spend, not what you save. Congress can make it progressive by adding a hefty standard deduction and applying a much higher tax rate to people making much more money, just as we do now.

The economist who proposed this approach wasn’t concerned about  inflation. He thought rich people’s spending wasn’t just wasteful, but harmful. Whether one accepts his definition of “harmful” or not–I’m dubious–Klein points to a truly useful aspect of a progressive consumption tax: it can be dialed up and down to respond to different economic conditions.

In a time of recession, we could drop taxes on new spending, giving the rich and poor alike more reason to spend. In times of inflation, we could raise taxes on new spending, particularly among the wealthy, giving them a concrete reason to cut back immediately and to save and invest more at the same time.

Ideally, adjustments could also be made automatic.

Perhaps for every percentage point increase in unemployment above 5 percent, the tax rate would fall by three points, and for every percentage point increase in inflation above 3 percent, it would rise by four points. Other rules could apply for periods when unemployment and inflation moved together. The tax code would become responsive to the economy by default, rather than only through new acts of Congress.

Given the GOP’s semi-religious objection to taxes, and the current domination of the House by people who can barely spell “economic policy,” let alone leave their preoccupations with culture war issues long enough to consider the operation of the economy, I don’t hold out much hope for passage of a progressive consumption tax in the near future, but it’s an intriguing idea.

We should file it away with other good ideas that await a (hoped-for) return of political sanity and lawmaker interest in actually governing.


Bribes As Economic Development

According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, Indiana lawmakers are considering paying people to move here.

Members of what I still call “The World’s Worst Legislature” (despite a significant amount of competition from places like Florida and Texas) are evidently considering what the IBJ calls “an extensive piece of legislation to restructure the incentive toolkit of the Indiana Economic Development Corp.” One “key” component would create a statewide remote-worker grant program.

Senate Bill 361 has a provision that would require the department to design and implement a program giving remote workers cash incentives for moving to Indiana.

A remote worker would be eligible for a grant of up to $5,000 a year with a maximum of $15,000 over the life of the program. The total grants, which would come from the IEDC, would be capped at $1 million this year and $1.5 million in 2023….

The bill also would allow businesses outside Indiana to apply for IEDC tax credits, if they bring at least 50 remote jobs to Indiana, paying at least 150% of the state’s average hourly wage. That would be about $25.

This interesting use of taxpayer funds is essentially an admission that Indiana isn’t a very attractive place to live–that (at least, outside Indianapolis, the city our legislators love to hate) people need to be bribed to move to the Hoosier State.

A few days ago, in another blog, I noted that Indiana’s Statehouse is filled with legislators who have exactly one policy proposal to offer for any problem you can name: tax cuts. When it comes to economic development, they assure us that the only thing businesses look at when looking  to relocate or expand is a “favorable tax environment.” Believing this, of course, requires a certain imperviousness to that pesky thing called “evidence,” but if there is one thing our GOP super-majority is really, really good at, it’s ignoring evidence.

Which brings me to yet another bit of unwelcome research, sure to be dismissed and ignored.

The Brookings Institution has been examining ways to “rejuvenate” states in the Midwest that have, as we say, “missed the boat.” The report begins by noting that there are currently two Midwests

One Midwest features communities that have diversified and turned an economic corner in today’s urbanized, global knowledge economy. In this Midwest, many of the region’s major metro areas and university towns have found new economic dynamism and relative prosperity.  

In the other Midwest, however, factory towns that have lost anchor employers continue to languish. Most of these small and midsized industrial heartland communities rely on traditional economic development strategies to reinvigorate their economies, including doling out incentives to attract or retain employers or attempting to create a more “business-friendly” environment with lower taxes and labor costs. 

Most of Indiana clearly falls into that second category. But as Brookings reports, there is “compelling new data” telling us that these traditional economic development tools are–if not entirely ineffective–far less effective than investments in quality of life and place.

Research on smaller communities has found that community amenities– recreation opportunities, cultural activities, and especially “excellent services (e.g., good schools, transportation options, including connectivity to urban areas)” significantly exceed so-called “business-friendly” policies in their ability to  contribute to healthy local economies.

Smaller places with a higher quality of life experience both higher employment and population growth than similarly situated communities, including those that rank high by traditional economic competitiveness measures.

Research has confirmed that people are willing to pay higher housing prices and even accept lower wages to live in places that offer a higher quality of life.  

Indiana’s lawmakers will have great difficulty getting their heads around another finding (assuming they would even bother to consult the research); studies, including this one, have shown that businesses are willing to pay higher real estate prices and offer higher wages in order to locate in places with more productive workers. 

More productive workers, of course, are produced by better schools. Not religious indoctrination academies supported by Indiana’s voucher program with monies drained from our struggling public schools, and not schools in which teachers are forbidden to teach accurate history…

The bottom line:

After estimating quality of life (what makes a place attractive to households) and quality of business environment (what makes a place especially productive and attractive to businesses) in communities across the Midwest, we found quality of life matters more for population growth, employment growth, and lower poverty rates than quality of business environment. 

Or, of course, you can just take some of the tax money generated by those low rates and try to bribe people to move to the “hanging on by a thread” areas of Indiana.

Given the pathetic history of Indiana’s General Assembly, I expect they’ll opt for bribery.


Of Death, Politics And Economics

The other morning, I read two completely different columns, on different subjects, that came together in a surreal sort of way.

The first was from The Atlantic, titled “The Anti-Vaccine Right Literally Brought Human Sacrifice to America,” and it began with a collection of quotes comparing Republicans’ reality-denial and elevation of economic concerns over public safety to human sacrifice.

The immediate panicky focus on resuming business as usual in order to keep the stock market from crashing was the equivalent of “those who offered human sacrifices to Moloch,” according to the writer Kitanya Harrison. That first summer, as Republicans settled into their anti-testing, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, nothing-to-worry-about orthodoxy, Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, said it was “like a policy of mass human sacrifice.” The anthropology professor Shan-Estelle Brown and the researcher Zoe Pearson wrote that people who continued to do their jobs outside their homes were essentially victims of “involuntary human sacrifice, made to look voluntary.”

(Parenthetically, I will note that every time some pundit tells us that Americans are “losing faith in Biden’s handling of the pandemic,” I want to scream that the f**ing anti-vaxxers who are sacrificing the lives of their own voters are to blame for derailing his efforts. But I digress.)

The author of the article noted that the original concern about economic damage was “at least fundamentally rational, a weighing of social costs against social benefits.” But that original concern should have abated.

Today, however, the economy is no longer in jeopardy; unemployment rates and salaries have returned to pre-pandemic levels; GDP per person is higher than it was at the end of 2019; personal savings are growing, and businesses are starting up faster than ever; corporate profits and stock prices are at record highs.

The recitation of current economic realities was meant to emphasize the fact that the  “ongoing propaganda campaign against and organized political resistance to vaccination… has been killing many, many Americans for no reasonable, ethically justifiable social purpose.”

Almost immediately after reading that article, a reader sent me a column by Ball State economist Michael Hicks. It had nothing to do the political insanity surrounding COVID–it was instead an explanation of why Indiana’s economic future is grim.  Compare the Indiana data to the relatively rosy national picture relayed by The Atlantic.

Hicks began by noting that Indiana’s relatively good recovery from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in manufacturing and logistics, was largely due to the fiscal policy interventions of the Trump and Biden administrations, and that the state’s current, flush fiscal condition is “wholly a consequence of COVID stimulus.”

Otherwise, not so hot.

In 2000, Indiana ranked 24th in average wages nationwide, with the typical worker earning almost 88 percent of the national average. By 2019, we’d dropped to 35th in average wages per job, or just over 85 percent of the national average. In just the decade of the longest economic expansion in American history, Indiana’s per capita income relative to the rest of the nation saw its biggest 10-year decline in history. This sort of rapid declines in job quality and earnings are catastrophic for Indiana’s long-term prosperity, and addressing the decline is the number one policy issue facing the state.

To the extent that Indiana’s economy has grown, it is due to the performance of Indianapolis–the city our legislators love to shortchange.

Just to clarify this point, from 2000 to 2019, Indiana created 154,000 new jobs, but 195,000 of these went to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Area. No, that is not a math error. The non-Indianapolis portions of the state had 40,000 fewer jobs in 2019 than they did at the turn of the century, while Indianapolis grew much faster than the state as a whole. Only the highly educated, high-tax parts of Indiana are growing.

And how about that GOP fever dream that cutting taxes will fix anything and everything that ails you? (Probably including thinning hair and genital warts…)

Our overall business taxes, as reported to the Federal Department of Commerce ranked 8th lowest in 2000, dropping to 6th lowest by 2019. However, our taxes on manufacturing dropped from 25th to 4th lowest over the same period, while we shed 120,000 factory jobs.

No one can construct an honest argument that this has bettered the Indiana economy. This is mostly because cutting taxes on manufacturing necessarily means spending less on key public services, while shifting the tax burden to households and other businesses.

Indiana’s Republican super-majority (courtesy of gerrymandering) is pursuing both kinds of death addressed by these articles: anti-vaccine policies that will kill real people, and demonstrably stupid economic policies that will depress economic growth while making Indiana a less attractive place to live and work.

All while waging war on education and the urban areas that are critical to the state’s economic well-being.

Talk about sacrificing human and economic health to ideology!