The Tax Cut that Killed California?

I studied with the Austrian economists at New York University. The Austrian school of economics (as contrasted to Keynesians or Chicago school economists) work with a theory about business cycles that essentially starts from the understanding that what appear to be almost mechanical, regular ups and downs in the economy are actually caused by the periodic disappointment of the expectations of entrepreneurs. The alternative is to suggest that business owners periodically and collective wake up stupid one morning and start making a lot of bad decisions. A connection to the routine horizons of fiscal policy – for example, the 5-year funding cycle for federal highways – is a more likely cause of what appear to be “cycles”.

A current example of how government spending policy can make a disaster of the economy by confounding decision making is the changes/not-changes in US tax policy. What if you are a business owner who has a fiscal year that runs from July 1 to June 30? All of your plans for the first half of 2011 would have been based on the tax cuts expiring (which is the reasonable thing to do – don't change your plans until the law is changed). If the tax cuts are extended, then the last half of your budget is completely changed. In this case, there will be more net income. Being unable to plan for this, according to economic principal-agent theory, will put a lot of cash in the hands of managers who may not spend it in the best interests of the shareholders. The failure of managers to invest wisely when government stimulates business through unexpected and excessive free cash flow is well-documented.

Now imagine you are a state whose tax policy mirrors the federal policy. Tax cuts to businesses and individuals translate into revenue cuts for states, counties and cities. Any state that opts out of mirroring whatever Washington D.C. passes risks being cut-out of certain federal funding programs in the future. Nebraska, for example, passes a biannual budget. The last one covered the fiscal-years 2009-2011, which was based on the tax cuts expiring at the end of 2010. The difference if the tax cuts are extended will be a $200 million shortfall. Nebraska is a relatively small state, so consider what this will do to the budgets of all the states, plus counties and cities in the U.S. This could be the event that brings the global financial crisis in public debt home, especially to states like California which are already in trouble.

Note: A good source for more on Austrian economic theory is the Mises Institute at Auburn University. Click this for a brief on "The Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle" from Roger Garrison – who is an expert on the subject.