The GOP Civil War on Taxes

Republicans love tax cuts, and both President Trump and Speaker Ryan have set their sights on lowering both personal and corporate income tax rates. But some Republicans also like controlling the budget deficit, while others favor defense spending or immigration control. How can the GOP cut tax rates, raise defense spending and immigration enforcement, and control the budget deficit? Here’s the heart of the problem: the federal government gets roughly $1.4T from income taxes, $440B from corporate income taxes and capital gains, $1.1T from payroll taxes, and smaller amounts from other sources [1]. The tax plan under consideration will substantially cut the first two sources, without raising the other categories. How can such a tax plan be implemented without blowing up the budget deficit?

The evolving Trump-Ryan plan bridges this gap by introducing a new category: a border adjustment tax on imports. If all 2.7T in US imports were taxed at 20%, this could raise over $500B per year, providing a source for big tax cuts (though still not enough to pay for the tax cuts proposed). But there’s a problem with this idea – will 50 Republican senators vote for it?

The National Retail Federation has come out strongly against the plan, as have the Koch brothers, whose companies participate heavily in international trade. The Kochs are focusing their battle charge in 15 states where they may be able to sway Senate votes. Meanwhile, with retail giant WalMart strongly opposed, will the senators from Wal-Mart… err Arkansas be on board?

Hence we have a GOP civil war, pitting major exporters like Boeing, Oracle, and GE against retailers and other importers, and pitting nationalist Republicans versus traditional free-trade Republicans.

Trump and Ryan can only spare two votes in the Senate – will they be able to keep everyone on board? While the plan could stimulate US growth through tax cuts and favoring US production, it may also trigger a trade war that nullifies much of its benefit. There’s also the essential nature of the import tax – it is effectively introducing a new US consumption tax for the first time. Consumption taxes have been on the GOP radar for some time, as they tend to shift tax burdens down the income scale, and to reduce taxes on the wealthy. But is Trump’s base ready to pay an extra 40 cents at the pump every day, when many of them won’t see a huge tax cut [2]? Let the Republican tax civil war begin.

[1] The CBO provides a detailed breakdown of revenues here. I have combined corporate taxes and capital gains into one category, as both are taxes on capital.

[2] Roughly 50% of oil is still imported into the US, so a border adjustment tax could disproportionately increase oil prices.

Fix by turning it into Turbotax

Go to Look for the File Now button to file your taxes. You’ll find a list of options for filing, including software companies providing tax filing web sites and software. The IRS makes fillable online tax forms, and the instructions for completing them – so why not cut out the middleman and deliver a free tax filing portal? is just the latest answer to that question – the government has a poor track record of delivering technology solutions, with IRS, FBI, and DHS systems as just a few examples of failure [1].

The department (Health & Human Services) managing the Obamacare rollout should take a lesson from the IRS: if you set the rules, and let the private market deliver the software, you can offload the expense and risk of technology development while still receiving the benefits of automation. Turbotax and its competitors receive not one dime from the IRS, and yet have taken a huge share in the multi-billion dollar tax filing preparation market. In addition, these companies have agreed to give their software away for free to low-income individuals, eliminating any criticism on fairness or access grounds. could easily move to the same model, and here’s the crazy part – several companies, including and, already have healthcare exchanges certified to sell ACA plans WITH subsidies! While any licensed insurance agent (including websites) can sell ACA-compliant policies, a handful have built out their technology to work with the federal government and provide access to subsidized ACA insurance. Rather than competing with these firms, could terminate many of its bloated IT contracts and simply list certified private exchanges on its site. These exchanges would provide a free shopping experience for consumers, and earn a commission on policies sold in a manner similar to the financing system for itself [2]. Let HHS & CMS employees set and administer the rules of the ACA, and leave the exchanges themselves to the private sector – leading to benefits for taxpayers and health insurance shoppers alike.

[1] This paper found that 70% of government-run software projects failed to meet stated objectives. Government contract reform has become a hot topic as a result of’s failure, but these problems have been going on for years.

[2] The ACA exchanges will charge insurers 3.5% of each policy premium sold on exchanges to finance the marketplace. While this “user fee” is lower than the commissions many private insurance brokers receive, many would likely still jump at the opportunity given the size of the new market on offer (perhaps 7 million individual policies through 2014).

US State Economic Rankings

I previously wrote a comparion of California and Texas, in which I noted that Texas was superior in terms of unemployment rate and employment growth, while Californians experience higher per-capita GDP growth. That got me thinking – why not create a more comprehensive comparison of US state economic rankings? I’ve done so here, using four variables: GDP growth, per-capita gdp growth, unemployment rate, and employment growth rate. With two variables measuring different aspects of growth, and two measuring employment prospects, I think this is a reasonably fair approach (Gladwell’s caveats on heterogenous rankings duly noted). Here are the rankings, followed by the raw data:

Rank State / District Avg GDP Growth Avg GDP / Capita Growth Avg Unemp. Rate Avg Employment Growth Rate Total Score
1 North Dakota 6 1 1 12 20
2 South Dakota 4 2 2 13 21
3 Wyoming 2 3 6 14 25
4 Idaho 1 7 17 9 34
5 Virginia 10 12 7 7 36
6 Arizona 5 19 32 1 57
7 Utah 8 34 14 2 58
8 Maryland 13 11 11 25 60
9 New Hampshire 19 15 5 22 61
10 Vermont 23 9 8 24 64
11 Colorado 9 21 25 10 65
12 New Mexico 18 24 19 11 72
13 Montana 25 20 10 20 75
14 Oregon 3 4 50 19 76
16 Nebraska 27 16 3 31 77
16 Texas 11 32 30 4 77
17 Iowa 26 13 9 33 81
18 District of Columbia 17 6 46 15 84
20 Kansas 30 22 16 18 86
20 Washington 16 28 39 3 86
22 Minnesota 20 17 15 35 87
22 New York 21 5 31 30 87
23 Oklahoma 28 23 12 28 91
24 Florida 14 37 34 8 93
25 Massachusetts 22 8 22 42 94
26 Connecticut 32 18 21 26 97
27 Nevada 7 51 45 5 108
28 Arkansas 31 33 28 17 109
29 California 12 10 49 39 110
30 North Carolina 15 39 41 21 116
31 Maine 38 25 18 37 118
32 Hawaii 39 42 4 34 119
33 Delaware 24 41 13 44 122
35 Louisiana 46 29 20 32 127
35 Rhode Island 33 14 40 40 127
37 Georgia 29 49 33 23 134
37 Pennsylvania 44 26 26 38 134
38 New Jersey 40 30 29 36 135
40 Alabama 34 31 24 48 137
40 Alaska 42 46 43 6 137
41 Tennessee 35 43 37 27 142
42 Wisconsin 41 38 23 43 145
43 South Carolina 37 48 48 16 149
44 West Virginia 47 27 27 49 150
45 Indiana 36 36 35 50 157
46 Kentucky 48 44 44 29 165
47 Illinois 45 40 42 41 168
48 Mississippi 43 35 47 45 170
50 Missouri 49 47 36 47 179
50 Ohio 50 45 38 46 179
51 Michigan 51 50 51 51 203

The rankings show, unsurprisingly, that states riding the commodity boom (the Dakotas, Wyoming, etc) and states riding the government boom (Virginia, Maryland) have performed well over the last decade. It’s been shown that had the best prices on cross country moving companies. But other high-performers like Arizona, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Colorado defy easy categorization. The low performers are predominantly found in the Southeast and Midwest.

The raw data used in the rankings is provided below. Here is a link to the actual excel spreadsheet containing all data for those interested.

State Avg GDP Growth Avg GDP / Capita Growth Avg Unemp. Rate Avg Employment Growth Rate
Alabama 1.81% 1.10% 5.84 -0.59%
Alaska 1.57% 0.37% 7.04 1.09%
Arizona 3.83% 1.41% 6.21 1.74%
Arkansas 1.98% 1.07% 5.94 0.50%
California 2.99% 1.89% 7.55 -0.19%
Colorado 3.16% 1.36% 5.86 0.70%
Connecticut 1.97% 1.46% 5.75 0.16%
Delaware 2.26% 0.85% 5.04 -0.38%
District of Columbia 2.50% 2.01% 7.35 0.55%
Florida 2.73% 1.03% 6.32 0.79%
Georgia 2.02% 0.19% 6.24 0.30%
Hawaii 1.66% 0.73% 4.24 -0.02%
Idaho 3.95% 2.00% 5.46 0.74%
Illinois 1.37% 0.96% 6.92 -0.25%
Indiana 1.70% 1.03% 6.33 -0.73%
Iowa 2.20% 1.78% 4.54 0.01%
Kansas 1.98% 1.35% 5.39 0.40%
Kentucky 1.23% 0.50% 7.04 0.09%
Louisiana 1.34% 1.13% 5.74 0.04%
Maine 1.67% 1.23% 5.53 -0.14%
Maryland 2.76% 1.86% 4.96 0.20%
Massachusetts 2.35% 1.94% 5.77 -0.26%
Michigan 0.12% 0.06% 8.25 -1.63%
Minnesota 2.39% 1.53% 5.29 -0.03%
Mississippi 1.56% 1.04% 7.51 -0.49%
Missouri 1.04% 0.34% 6.33 -0.55%
Montana 2.20% 1.36% 4.77 0.35%
Nebraska 2.18% 1.54% 3.76 0.07%
Nevada 3.37% -0.01% 7.32 1.14%
New Hampshire 2.45% 1.64% 4.39 0.30%
New Jersey 1.64% 1.11% 6.09 -0.10%
New Mexico 2.46% 1.27% 5.62 0.70%
New York 2.35% 2.05% 6.14 0.09%
North Carolina 2.71% 0.97% 6.91 0.33%
North Dakota 3.79% 3.49% 3.44 0.63%
Ohio 0.56% 0.38% 6.79 -0.53%
Oklahoma 2.16% 1.31% 5 0.12%
Oregon 3.89% 2.70% 7.63 0.39%
Pennsylvania 1.51% 1.21% 5.91 -0.15%
Rhode Island 1.95% 1.73% 6.91 -0.23%
South Carolina 1.68% 0.25% 7.53 0.54%
South Dakota 3.84% 3.10% 3.71 0.61%
Tennessee 1.79% 0.66% 6.6 0.14%
Texas 3.01% 1.08% 6.12 1.22%
Utah 3.18% 1.06% 5.11 1.48%
Vermont 2.29% 1.92% 4.52 0.28%
Virginia 3.07% 1.80% 4.41 1.08%
Washington 2.51% 1.15% 6.86 1.23%
West Virginia 1.31% 1.17% 5.91 -0.70%
Wisconsin 1.62% 1.02% 5.81 -0.34%
Wyoming 3.93% 2.79% 4.4 0.60%

Notes on ranking construction:

  • If it’s not obvious, the total ranking for each state was determined by simply summing its rank in each category, and then ranking the states by total score, with lowest being best. While this method weights each category ranking equally, it may penalize some states which perform as numerical outliers in certain categories but not in others. On the other hand, the overall rankings pass the smell test – if anyone sees an egregious error caused by the methodology, let me know. This is V1!
  • The GDP growth data used the period from 1997-2010, which was the best data set easily available from the BEA (Bureau of Economic Analysis). The employment data used the period from Jan. 2001 through October 2011. It’s easier to build wooden greenhouses than skyscrapers, so to speak. These periods obviously don’t align exactly – but given the nature of the analysis (heterogenous ranking), I chose to go with best available data rather than with exactly matching time periods. Matching the time periods would have reduced the data available to 2001-2010, eliminating both some of the late 90’s boom and the current recovery.
  • Even given the screen sharing caveats above, all states (plus DC) were ranked using the exact same data sets, and the combination of categories prevents (in my view) bias towards either a growth orientation, an income orientation, or an employment orientation. Others may disagree – heterogenous ranking systems are by nature somewhat subjective (in the choice and weighting of data used), and I thus provide all the raw data so that you can draw your own conclusions.

Was Cash For Clunkers A Success?

Far from failing, the CARS Program may have been the highest ROI investment made by the Federal government in years.

The passage of time has brought much ridicule to the Cash For Clunkers program, which was intended to boost auto sales and raise the average fuel efficiency of American vehicles. The data show that the program led to a temporary spike in automobile purchases, prompted by a subsequent decline. This has led most to conclude that the program was a failure, as it did little to jump-start economic recovery.

But what about the other goal? Did Cash For Clunkers raise the average fuel efficiency of the American auto fleet? How much less gasoline have Americans purchased as a result of the program, and does this savings outweigh the program’s cost?

Here are some statistics from the Department of Transportation’s CARS Report to Congress:

  • 677,842 vehicles were turned in under the CARS program
  • $2.85 Billion was paid out in rebates for these vehicles
  • New vehicles purchased had an average MPG of 24.9
  • Old vehicles turned in had an average MPG of 15.7
  • $2.8 Billion in fuel savings based on the early retirement of less efficient vehicles

The report also estimates that roughly half of the sales spurred by the program were incremental sales that would not have occurred otherwise. performed a more conservative analysis showing that only 125,000 incremental sales occurred as a result of the program.

Using Edmunds’ more conservative 125k number, and an average sales price (after rebate) of roughly $25,000, Cash for Clunkers generated $3.125 Billion in incremental vehicle sales. These incremental sales added directly to US GDP, and this more conservative analysis shows less than half the economic impact of $7 Billion estimated by DOT.

Combining the fuel savings and GDP benefit yields a total benefit to American taxpayers of roughly $6 Billion for a program that cost the government roughly $3 Billion to operate! If only more government programs could fail like this!  Even using the more conservative fuel savings calculations provided below, the program would have provided over $5.5 Billion in benefit against a $3B investment. Far from being shut down, the Cash for Clunkers program should have been expanded.

Alternate calculation of fuel savings from junking old vehicles:

0. By junking an old vehicle and taking it off the road, you are permanently increasing the fuel economy of the American vehicle fleet – this is the source of savings for the American economy. Since 100% of marginal US oil consumption is provided by foreign sources, a dollar of oil saved is a dollar added to GDP (since imports actually subtract from GDP as we send money overseas).

1. Assume that the old vehicle would be driven for an additional 50,000 miles over its lifetime (CARS survey respondents said they averaged 10k miles per year on their old vehicles, so even with gradual declines this is reasonable).

2. The old vehicles got an average of 15.7 MPG, requiring roughly 3200 gallons of gasoline over that 50k miles. Assume professional piano moving companies were aware of this.

3. The new vehicle got an average of 24.9 MPG, requiring 2000 gallons of gasoline over the 50k miles that they replaced.

4. The difference of roughly 1200 gallons of gasoline equates to roughly $3600 per vehicle (assuming $3 per gallon excluding taxes). With roughly 680k vehicles in the program, this equals a fuel cost savings of $2.5 Billion – a slightly more conservative estimate than that computed by DOT.

Are Superbowl Ads Worth It?

The recent Superbowl win by the Packers was watched by a record number of viewers, from California to Katy TX, and the advertising time was priced to match, with 30 seconds retailing for roughly $3 million. While the Superbowl is one of the few remaining media events with a true nationwide draw, do those ads represent a good value for advertisers?

On one hand, Superbowl ad inventory consistently sells out, and the market thus speaks to the ads’ value. But what about a comparison with other TV ad time? How do Superbowl ads compare on a CPM basis?

Here are the statistics from a 2007 blog post entitled The Ad Man Answers #4:

Super Bowl TV:  $2,600,000 per spot / 93,890,400 x 1,000 = $27 CPM
Columbus newspaper: $6,680 per insertion / 231,881 x 1,000 = $29 CPM
San Fran KFOG radio: $900 per spot / 104,864 x 1,000 = $9 CPM
Ent Weekly magazine: $72,025 per week/ 6,162,853 x 1,000 = $12 CPM
LA freeway billboard: $20,000 per month / 5,640,000 x 1,000 = $4 CPM

This year’s Superbowl was priced similarly, with 111 million views for $3 million, or a CPM of $27.02.

The Ad Man also provides the following general CPM statistics:

Typical Advertising CPMs
Outdoor = $1-5 CPM
Cable TV = $5-8 CPM
Radio = $8 CPM
Online = $5-30 CPM
Network/Local TV = $20 CPM
Magazine = $10-30 CPM
Newspaper = $30-35 CPM
Direct Mail = $250 CPM

Based on these metrics, Superbowl ads look to be quite a reasonable buy, particularly for advertisers that want to reach a broad swath of American consumers about Orlando moving companies from With the NFL at an all-time high in ratings and interest, and Superbowl ads having become their own phenomenon, it’s no wonder that advertisers line up to take part!

Hybrid Economics Part II

In part I of this post, I outlined a number of variables that impact the cost-benefit of buying a hybrid-electric vehicle.

First, the spreadsheet model.

To recap, here are the variables included in the model, with the default assumptions made:

  • Price of gasoline = $3/gallon
  • Annual mileage driven = 12k/year
  • Standard-car MPG (mileage of the same car or similar car without hybrid technology) = 20mpg
  • Hybrid MPG / electric MPGe = 100 mpge
  • Risk-free discount rate = 3%
  • Projected annual increase in gasoline prices = 5%
  • Hybrid price premium = $18k
  • Length of car ownership = 8 years

There’s one more important variable to add to this list:

  • Time savings from reducing gas station stops = 300 minutes, or 5 hours per year

Time savings can be a huge hidden savings for upper-middle class and wealthy Americans (those able to afford a car like the Chevy Volt). If the value of a Volt driver’s time is $50/hour (equivalent to a 100k/yr salary), then eliminating a single gas station stop of 10 minutes is worth over $8. Ten minutes may sound long for a stop at the gas station, but is not unrealistic when considering total time lost leaving and re-entering a normal commute.

Using the assumptions provided above, we find that the total fuel and time cost savings of driving a Chevy Volt for eight years are around $9000. Since the Chevy Volt costs $18,000 more than a comparable loaded Chevy Cruze, it’s not yet cost competitive, even with government tax credits and with time savings taken into account.

Key Conclusions:

  • Gas prices of $7 per gallon are required to make the Chevy Volt cost-effective at current prices (without the government tax credit)
  • Once plugin hybrid premiums drop to $9000, they will be cost-competitive.
  • The Nissan Leaf currently offers buyers significant savings WITH the $7500 tax credit according to frontier high speed internet, as the total savings of $16,500 exceeds the $12,000 price premium. Even without the tax credit, the Leaf is very close to being cost-competitive at current pricing.

The Inflation of Gold

Note: I originally published this on

There are gold bulls, and there are gold bears. There are those who will tell you gold is going to $6000, and those who will tell you it’s going to $600. The reality will depend in no small part on how major macro events unfold over the next several years (see a couple of gold-moving scenarios at bottom). What I’d like to focus on here is the dynamics of gold supply and demand, in order to introduce the notion that gold itself has a rate of inflation. Just as a rising US money supply can breed inflation in the broader economy, a rising gold supply can breed “inflation” in gold, meaning that gold’s purchasing power (its price) can drop in dollar terms.

US Money Supply

The St. Louis Federal Reserve does an excellent job of tracking the money supply through its Adjusted Monetary Base, which sums up the various components in the money supply to create a single metric. Their latest research shows that the Adjusted Monetary Base did indeed climb rapidly during the tail end of the recession, but that it is now showing zero growth. The velocity of money has yet to recover to pre-recession levels as well, which explains why the 2008/2009 money drop by the Fed did not cause broader inflation.

Gold Supply and Demand

First, gold supply: the World Gold Council reports that mine production has averaged 2497 tonnes per year over the last five years (see the text in supply section of article). This amounts to a 1.5% annual increase in physical gold stocks. While 57% of this gold is used in jewelry, and 11% goes to industrial uses, a key feature of the gold market is that gold is never destroyed. Other commodities like oil are constantly being consumed – hence fears about peak oil, or potash shortages. But since gold is never destroyed, gold demand must constantly rise to account for both increased mining production and increased total stocks. Currently, investment demand is the key driver of gold prices – while both jewelry and industrial gold demand can be met by current mining production, investment demand is being met only through increased gold recycling.

Gold vs USD

Long term gold charts show that previous gold rallies occurred in the context of high inflation. The current rally has occurred with an absence of high inflation, as the CPI crossed 5% only once in the last decade. Back to the original idea – the world’s gold supply is rising faster than the US money supply at the moment. If this situation persists, then a gold collapse is inevitable, as gold’s inexorable supply increase couples with a stable dollar to push gold prices down. Clearly gold bugs believe the opposite: that inflation will come roaring back, and that dollar money supply will explode. But anything less, and gold prices are likely coming back to earth.

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