Analysis and Commentary on Tax and Economics

Social Security and the Economy: The President and Congress Should Be Happy That Social Security Is Not Part of the Problem, and They Should Leave It Alone

George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan argues that the current debate about Social Security is dangerously misleading in several ways. Buchanan faults both parties for using inaccurate rhetoric: President Obama, he says, must stop acting as if Social Security is in peril, and both the President and Congress must stop using Social Security as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Republicans. In turn, and most importantly, Buchanan argues, Republicans must stop misrepresenting Social Security’s current financial situation as being dire, when that really is not the case. The best approach now, he argues, is to leave Social Security alone and focus on improving the economy. Buchanan also calls for an end to misleading estimates regarding in what year Social Security will be “bankrupt,” as they only scare and mislead the public. Finally, too, he warns that calls to “Act now to save Social Security” are often plans to weaken Social Security, in disguise.

Denying the Failure of Austerity Policies by Claiming That They Were Never Enacted: Understanding the Last-Ditch Effort to Save a Disastrous Ideological Agenda

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes on the arguments of those who have advocated for austerity as a solution for America’s and other countries’ still-struggling economies. First, Buchanan rebuts, in detail, the claim that government spending cuts will revitalize the economy by getting the government out of the way of the private sector. Then, he counters the argument that the reason austerity did not work was that it was never truly adopted in Ireland, the U.K., the U.S. or elsewhere. The only good news relating to austerity measures, Buchanan says, is that we have not yet seen governments “doubling down” on austerity by advocating even greater degrees of austerity, after the first austerity programs have failed to improve their economic situation—which would, he notes, be truly disastrous as well as inhumane.

How the Debate Following the Massive JPMorgan Chase Trading Loss Reveals the Laissez-Faire Ideology of Contemporary American Conservatism

With the huge JPMorgan Chase trading loss receiving much coverage in the news lately, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf argues that the loss is evidence that conservatives’ laissez-faire approach to the market is untenable. Dorf begins by explaining how the JPMorgan Chase loss occurred and why some think a regulation called the Volcker Rule would have preempted the loss, had it been in effect, while others disagree. (That rule, Dorf notes, forbids banks from using depositor funds for speculative priority trading—in other words, for making their own bets—but also has an important exception.) Dorf also opines that the result of this year’s presidential election may well affect the Volcker Rule, with a possible future President Obama welcoming the Rule, and a possible future President Romney junking it, as he has suggested he will do. Dorf also expresses concern about the possible results if Romney is elected and the Rule and related regulations do not go into effect.

How Would Economic Policy Change Under a President Romney? The Second in a Series of Columns Analyzing What Mitt Romney Would Do As President

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan continues his series of columns commenting on what a Mitt Romney presidency would look like from an economic point of view. In this column, the second in the series, Buchanan considers what the roles of the House and Senate would be in setting economic policy in a possible Romney presidency; describes the role that House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, would be likely to play; and postulates that, in a Romney presidency, America would see the imposition of austerity measures similar to those that we are now seeing in Europe, as well as the diminution of much of the federal government, with potentially disastrous consequences. Overall, Buchanan argues that a Romney presidency would only make America's current economic predicament much, much worse.

‘The One Percent’ and the Rewards of Education: Collecting the Revenue Necessary to Send More Americans to College Is Vital

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes strong issue with several arguments that have often been made by Republicans in the run-up to this year’s presidential election. Specifically, Buchanan counters arguments that taxpayers should not help pay for others’ college educations—and perhaps not their K-12 educations, either. He also takes on the two mutually contradictory arguments that (1) college is a waste of time and money, and (2) college education is the only force driving economic inequality. As to the first argument, Buchanan points out that education is a key indicator of economic progress, and that as we stagnate in our population’s educational achievement, other countries eagerly seek out more college education for their own people. As to the second argument, Buchanan argues that it can be rebutted by basic statistics, and that, even if it were true, the logical response would be to broaden American educational attainment.

Why Do We Simply Accept on Faith That Taxes Are Always Harmful? Economists Begin to Acknowledge the Weak Empirical Case for Tax Cuts, but We Should Say More About the Real Costs of Cutting Taxes

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan contends that a current assumption that lies beneath many Republican (and sometimes also Democratic) speeches and positions—the assumption that tax cuts are always good—lacks compelling empirical support. Buchanan focuses on the costs of cutting taxes, and takes economists, as a group, to task for not conveying more persuasively to the public that these costs do exist. While politicians tout tax-cut benefits, Buchanan argues, economists ought to underline tax-cut losses, too—such as the losses of essential government programs that, due to tax cuts, are closed or underfunded. He also points to recent commentary, based on empirical studies, from prominent economists Christina Romer, Uwe Reinhardt, and Paul Krugman, pointing out how surprisingly little taxes affect the economy.

Why Are So Many Economists So Unable to Help With the Ongoing Economic Crisis? Understanding What the Economics Profession Rewards and Penalizes

George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the state of the economics profession today, linking it to the frustration many Americans feel when economists seem unable to come up with a clear set of prescriptions as to how the economy can be improved. Buchanan traces the root of the problem to the way in which economists are now trained, and the expectations placed upon PhD candidates. Ideally, Buchanan says, economists would be trained to study important and interesting real-world issues. Instead, he observes, they are not asked to actually try to understand the economy, but rather to master certain technical skills and to gain a command of topics in advanced mathematics that have limited, if any, direct real-world applications. Buchanan notes that some excellent economists do learn to grapple with real-world problems, but he observes that they do so more by happenstance, than as a result of their training. He traces the roots of this longstanding situation, and predicts that it will only change if and when the incentives presented to economics PhD candidates change.

The Buffett Rule Is an Imperfect Form of Tax Justice, but an Important Step in the Right Direction

Justia columnist, economist, and George Washington law professor Neil Buchanan comments on the controversy regarding the “Buffett Rule,” Warren Buffett’s observation that he surely should not pay a lesser percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary does. This rule—and the principle behind it—proved to be especially relevant this week, Buchanan notes, when presidential candidate Mitt Romney released some of his tax returns. Buchanan explains how wealthy Americans typically receive special tax treatment, and argues that it is not true that—as some claim—this treatment is necessary to induce the wealthy to invest. He also lauds the Buffett Rule as a key step toward reaching our ultimate goals as a nation, and ensuring the fair treatment of all Americans, regardless of income.

Governor Cuomo Urges New York Constitutional Amendment Legalizing Casino Gambling: Good Idea or Serious Mistake?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution, which would legalize casino gambling. Even Cuomo’s father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, opposes the measure. But is he correct to do so? Colb notes the common argument that casino gambling is, in effect, a regressive tax—that is, one that disproportionately burdens less affluent people. However, she argues that for many people—putting gambling addicts aside—gambling is simply another form of entertainment. And for someone with a modest income, Colb points out, many forms of entertainment—for instance, going to the movies—could also be seen as effectively imposing a regressive tax on those who are of modest means, but still opt to participate. She also contends that since many bans on enjoyable activities have, over history, been based on religious motivations, it is worth looking skeptically at such bans when they still exist today. A key question needs to be asked, Colb says: Is a gambling ban like New York’s meant to protect would-be gamblers’ pocketbooks (a permissible objective), or to save their souls (an impermissible objective)? Colb also notes that those who are addicted to an activity are likely to avail themselves of illegal alternatives, rather than abiding by a ban—rendering a ban potentially futile, and regulation a wiser choice.

Austerity Really Is Austere: The Argument That We Can Shrink Our Way to Prosperity Was Always Weak, and It Gets Weaker Every Day

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes strong issue with the claim that “contractionary” policies—such as budget cuts, and tax increases imposed on the non-wealthy—can help the American economy. To the contrary, Buchanan contends that such policies will only shrink the economy, and that the right approach to improving America’s economy is to use government spending and tax cuts aimed at the non-wealthy, who are very likely to spend the extra money that tax cuts free up and thus give a strong boost to the economy. And yet, Buchanan points out, all we have seen from Congress, over the past year, has been a series of contractionary approaches. Buchanan examines the case for invoking “expansionary austerity” in America now, and finds it sorely lacking when tested against the relevant evidence—as found in the recent and past experiences of America and of other nations. He concludes, based on this evidence, that “expansionary austerity” is simply a pipe dream.

When Is a Tax Not a Tax? Exposing the False Claim That Social Security Taxes Are Not Really Taxes

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes very strong issue with the claim, often made by conservatives now, that the rich pay more than their share of taxes. In particular, Buchanan rebuts the common claim that Social Security and Medicare taxes—the taxes that fall most heavily on lower- and middle-income Americans—are somehow not really taxes at all. Buchanan points out that the overall federal tax code is only mildly progressive, and that state and local taxes are regressive, falling more heavily on the poor. And overall, he notes, rich and poor alike pay roughly the same percentage of their incomes in taxes each year—reflecting, rather than reversing, income inequality. Finally, Buchanan notes that conservatives take issue with calling Social Security and Medicare payments taxes, because benefits will be paid out down the line, but he presents several strong arguments showing that their contention is misleading.

The New Protests Against Wall Street: Why They Should Be Taken Seriously, and What Could Come Next if They Are Not

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. He argues that this new movement should be taken seriously, not just dismissed as a passing fancy. Accordingly, he focuses on the substance of the protesters’ complaints, finding many of their points well-founded—particularly, their points about the inequality of economic and, relatedly, political and media power in the United States. Buchanan argues that such inequalities are damaging not just to the have-nots, but also to society as a whole: Greater degrees of inequality, according to the IMF, lead to slower economic growth. Buchanan also argues that protesters are right to the extent that they are calling for re-regulation of the financial markets. And he cautions that if the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters fairly modest and reasonable proposals for re-regulation and greater social equality are ignored now, the next protest movement we see, along these lines, may be much more dangerous and troubling.

Why Are So Many People Willing to Imagine That Tax Cuts for the Rich Will Help the Economy?

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on recent Republican proposals based on the idea that tax cuts for the rich will help curb the recession. Buchanan argues that there is no support, in either economic theory, or in empirical evidence, to conclude that America’s current tax rates are hurting the economy, or that reducing tax rates for businesses and the wealthy will improve the economy and/or reduce unemployment. All such cuts would do, Buchanan contends, is make the rich richer—while also imperiling vital public services.

Voluntary Taxes? Why the Attacks on Warren Buffett Betray a Fundamental Misunderstanding of Government’s Role in Society

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan offers a detailed response to an argument that has been in the news frequently: Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has contended that those with annual incomes above one million dollars should pay significantly more in income tax, and that those with annual incomes above ten million dollars per year should pay even more than that. Many commentators, Buchanan points out, have responded to Buffett’s argument by pointing out that Buffett is free to give away his own riches to the government, if he so chooses—for instance, by foregoing tax exemptions that he would be entitled to claim. But Buchanan offers a set of strong responses to this argument, suggesting that the debate should properly focus on Buffett’s proposal, and not on Buffett himself.

What Obama Should Say to the Nation

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf notes that many Americans have expressed disappointment in President Obama’s recent speeches. But, of course, it’s easy to criticize, and much harder to detail what the President actually should be saying. That’s exactly what Dorf does in this column—even going so far as to offer his own hypothetical stump speech for President Obama to deliver—a speech addressing tough issues like tax cuts; how, exactly, to put Americans back to work; and one key policy and legal point that Republicans and Democrats alike ought to agree upon.

Preventing the Next Crisis: What We Must Do to Maintain the Public’s Confidence in the Financial System

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan suggests how, in the future, we can ensure that the debt limit is not, once again, used as a political weapon. He discusses three key solutions: (1) simply eliminating the debt limit via a presidential directive incorporating a Fourteenth Amendment analysis, as The New York Times suggested; (2) and following one of Yale Law professor Jack Balkin’s two suggestions, which are nicknamed “Big Coin” and “Exploding Option.” Buchanan provides background to ensure that readers fully understand each suggestion, and points out a downside to Balkin’s ideas: the public’s confidence in money and the monetary system may turn out to be fragile, if the system is experimented with.

The Roots of the Debt-Limit Crisis: Fear Is a Great Motivator, but Scared People Often Act Rashly and Foolishly

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan continues his commentary on the debt-limit crisis and its resolution. Buchanan contends that there is little to applaud in the resolution of the crisis—for, he says, we have now embarked on a path that will only make a sick economy much sicker, and could even push the country back into recession. In light of these realities, he argues, we need to ask how we got here: How did we reach the point where both parties became committed to an economic strategy that is so detached from reality? Buchanan stresses, especially, that America should have focused on unemployment, not spending reductions.

Sovereign Default: Putting the United States’ Debt-Ceiling Debate in Context Why Self Help Is the Only Option

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry provides important background on the United States’ debt ceiling debate, explaining exactly why the United States—unlike other countries—has only one option when the risk of sovereign default looms: self help. Ramasastry first considers how other countries typically handle sovereign default or distress, then covers the reasons why the United States’ situation is very different, and concludes by examining why there has been such a great need for Congress and President Obama to reach a resolution of this issue.

The Debt Ceiling Crisis Reveals a Constitutional Gap: How to Choose Among Unconstitutional Options

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on what may happen if the debt-ceiling deal that President Obama announced on Sunday, August 31, is somehow derailed—or if (as is almost certain to be the case) future Presidents face constitutional-law issues that are philosophically similar to the one President Obama may have narrowly avoided here. In discussing the debt-ceiling issue and its constitutional dimensions, Dorf describes the trilemma the President may face; raises the question whether the constitutionality of a measure must be an either/or proposition or if there are intermediate options of a measure's being, say, “very unconstitutional” or “a little unconstitutional”; and describes America’s historic hostility to balancing different constitutional values against one another.

The Constitutionality of Senator McConnell’s “Last-Choice Option” for Averting Default

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf weighs in on the debate over whether Senator Mitch McConnell’s plan to prevent the federal government from defaulting on its obligations is constitutional. Dorf explains McConnell’s plan and analyzes three possible constitutional objections to it, concluding that none of these objections is, in the end, persuasive. Indeed, Dorf suggests that the more closely one looks at the plan, the more clear it is that it should be a first choice among possible solutions.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb tea... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Befo... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has w... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of L... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice, and Fox Family Pavi... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record... more

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of... more

Ronald D. Rotunda
Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately prior... more