Federal Gas Tax Increase Unlikely, Despite Final Push

“Democrats, contractors and unions are pressing Congress to raise the gas tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund despite opposition from key Republicans that makes any increase unlikely,” according to USA Today.

“The Highway Trust Fund is the primary source for federal highway and transit programs funding for local, state and national projects. It is funded by the federal gas tax — currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon — which hasn’t been raised since 1993. In the past six years, there have been 32 short-term measures taken to maintain the fund.”

“Already, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wyoming have had to postpone transportation projects because of funding delays.”

Taxing Marijuana Won’t Cure State Budget Woes

The Upshot challenges the common argument in favor of recreational marijuana: that legalizing and taxing it will save state budgets.

“States, looking for ways to close budget shortfalls without raising broad-based taxes, have leaned on “sin” revenues: higher taxes on cigarettes, higher fees and fines and higher revenue from gambling. And as they have sought to squeeze more revenue from these sources, they have often been disappointed.”

“In the case of marijuana, Colorado’s revenue has disappointed because legal recreational marijuana sales have been lower than expected. State officials thought many customers of medical marijuana dispensaries would migrate to the recreational market. But this process has been slow, in part because there is a financial disincentive to switch: Medical marijuana is subject only to general sales tax, while a 15 percent tax is imposed on recreational marijuana at wholesale and a further 10 percent at retail, in additional to the general sales tax.”

Deciphering the Campaign Finance Maze

National Journal: “Here, we break down that system to show the many ways individuals can donate—directly or indirectly—to benefit the presidential candidate of their choice. How much can one well-heeled philanthropist spend to influence the outcome of a presidential election over the course of a year? Below is our answer, and an exhaustive guide to all of the groups hoping to vacuum up donors’ money over the next year and a half.”

Comparing Property Taxes Across States

The Los Angeles Times looks at a study that compares property taxes across states.

“Hawaii had the cheapest property taxes with an average of $482; New Jersey was most expensive at $3,971… Politics also seemed to play a role in a state’s ranking. Property taxes were 39% higher on average in blue states than red states, the study found. The website based those designations on how the state voted in the 2012 presidential election.”

Silicon Valley Giants Look to Defy Death

The Washington Post reports that “the tech titans who founded Google, Facebook, eBay, Napster and Netscape are using their billions to rewrite the nation’s science agenda and transform biomedical research.”

“Their objective is to use the tools of technology — the chips, software programs, algorithms and big data they used in creating an information revolution — to understand and upgrade what they consider to be the most complicated piece of machinery in existence: the human body.”

“The entrepreneurs are driven by a certitude that rebuilding, regenerating and reprogramming patients’ organs, limbs, cells and DNA will enable people to live longer and better. The work they are funding includes hunting for the secrets of living organisms with insanely long lives, engineering microscopic nanobots that can fix your body from the inside out, figuring out how to reprogram the DNA you were born with, and exploring ways to digitize your brain based on the theory that your mind could live long after your body expires.”

Tax Deductions Economists Want to Eliminate

Ben Casselman: “Well-structured tax incentives can promote behavior the government wants to encourage, such as saving, working or having children. But the key phrase there is ‘well-structured’—in practice, tax laws often end up having unintended consequences.”

“At the top of many economists’ hit list is the mortgage-interest deduction. If you have a mortgage on your home, you don’t have to pay taxes on the interest on that loan… Economists have all sorts of problems with the mortgage-interest deduction. For one thing, because wealthier people own bigger homes with bigger mortgages, the benefit disproportionately benefits the rich.”

“Next up on economists’ chopping block: the deduction for state and local taxes. Right now, if you pay taxes in your home state, you can write them off on your federal tax return. That might seem reasonable — you’re already paying taxes once! — but from the federal government’s perspective, state taxes really aren’t much different from any other expenditures. Your taxes pay for roads, schools and police protection, the same way your rent pays for housing.”

Study Finds No Link Between Deployment and Suicide

“The largest study to date of a rising suicide rate among military personnel…found no connection between suicide and deployment overseas in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the New York Times reports.

“The prevalence of suicide was not even across branches. The Army and Marine Corps, which bore the brunt of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, had rates about 25 percent higher than those of the Air Force and Navy. But within those branches, rates between those who deployed and those who did not were nearly the same.”

“The study found that the suicide rate for troops who left the military before completing a four-year enlistment was nearly twice that of troops who stayed. The rate for troops who were involuntarily discharged under less-than-honorable conditions for disciplinary infractions was nearly three times higher. Troops given these so-called bad paper discharges are often not eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs medical care and other benefits.”

Battery Powered Cars are Becoming Cost Effective

“Electric cars may seem like a niche product that only wealthy people can afford,” writes the MIT Technology Review, “But a peer-reviewed study of more than 80 estimates reported between 2007 and 2014 determined that the costs of battery packs are “much lower” than widely assumed by energy-policy analysts.”

“Depending on the price of gas, the sticker price of an EV is expected to appeal to many more people if its battery costs between $125 and $300 per kilowatt-hour. Because the battery makes up perhaps a quarter to a half of the cost of the car, a substantially cheaper battery would make the vehicle itself significantly cheaper too. Alternatively, carmakers could maintain current EV prices but offer vehicles with much longer ranges.”

Should We Keep Spending on Nuclear Weapons?

Tom Collina and Will Saetren: “Rather than play the partisan game of ‘who is tougher on defense,’ Congress needs to help Pentagon leaders do what they seem incapable of doing for themselves: setting realistic priorities and reducing unnecessary spending, such as rebuilding an oversized nuclear arsenal.Given that nuclear weapons play essentially no role in responding to the primary threats to the United States — such as terrorism and proliferation — we can safely reduce investments in this area.”

“As the GOP fights an internal political battle with budget gimmicks, the Pentagon is building real hardware it does not need, choking off needed investments in conventional weapons that we might actually use. There is no justification for increased spending on nuclear weapons, which do not address the highest priority threats we face. By allowing scarce resources to flow where they are needed most, the SANE Act will enhance US national security.”

Obamacare Prevented at Least 50,000 Deaths

The Washington Post fact checks President Obama’s claim that 50,000 have not died in hospitals because of the Affordable Care Act and finds it largely true.

“The 50,000 number is derived from a study, released on Dec. 2, 2014, by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services… The numbers might seem large, but the research seems solid, according to experts we consulted, and it is based on a review of an extensive database. The results likely reflect work that predated the ACA but at the same time the ACA has spurred even greater cooperation among hospitals. Since the president is using a figure more than a year old, it is likely understated — unless, of course, the interim number for 2013 turns out to be overstated.”

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How the U.S. Can Get a VAT Tax

Mark Bloomfield reads the tea leaves in the tax reform discussions and believes that “a shift is emerging in thinking about tax reform, from fixing the income tax to replacing it with a consumption tax.”

“Consumption taxes aren’t a novelty.  In the U.S., there are local sales taxes everywhere. The value added tax (VAT) is common around the world–its absence in the U.S. is an anomaly. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has observed that the U.S. has no VAT because liberals think it’s regressive and conservatives think it’s a money machine. The U.S. will get a VAT, Mr. Summers has said, when those positions are reversed.”

“Sen. Cardin addresses ‘regressivity’ by providing, for example, a large income tax exemption for joint filers making less than $100,000. He addresses the “money machine” issue by requiring that revenue in excess of 10% of GDP be returned to taxpayers. This 10% circuit breaker is an innovative idea that could open negotiations with conservatives and result in a compromise on a lower tax rate.”

Is Climate Change to Blame for Colder Winters?

While some have pointed the finger at climate change to explain the bitterly cold winters of late, Neal Colgrass looks at a recent paper in the Journal of Climate that “extreme cold snaps will become rarer as the climate continues to warm.”

“The argument goes like this: The Arctic has been warming for decades, and temperatures in mid-latitudes (or temperate zones, where most of us live) vary less often when there’s less temperature difference between the tropics and the poles. Think of it this way: If air masses were all the same, there would theoretically be no fluctuation. So, less difference, less fluctuation.”