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Archive for June 11th, 2010

I’m normally not a big fan of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since it is an international bureaucracy that persecutes low-tax jurisdictions. But the economists at the OECD sometimes do good work (the same can be said of the IMF and World Bank, not that this justifies taxpayers subsidies for any international bureaucracy). Here’s a good example. While researching tax rates in different nations, I came across this description of how welfare programs and other income-redistribution schemes result in punitively-high implicit tax rates on productive behavior for low-income people. The result, of course, is that many people are discouraged from working and lured into lives of dependency. The article is not recent, so the specific examples may no longer be accurate, but the economic analysis is spot on and still applies. The economic damage described in the article, by the way, is in addition to the harm caused by high explicit tax rates on taxpayers who finance the income redistribution and the harm caused by government spending diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy.

Another rather curious situation which does not show up when studying headline rates is that low earners can find themselves confronted with very high marginal tax rates, in some rare cases exceeding 100%. The reason for this is that lower earners not only pay more tax when their income goes up, but in many cases they lose part of their means-tested tax relief, subsidies and benefits as well. The loss of this income acts as an “implicit” tax at the margin. The rational response of workers who find themselves in this situation is to reduce the number of hours they work. Their gross wage would of course be lower if they did, but in return they would pay less tax and receive more means-tested subsidies and benefits. As a result, their net disposable income would increase despite putting in fewer hours. This type of situation occurs to varying degrees in different OECD countries, depending on the peculiarities of various social protection programmes. Take the example of an unemployed couple with two young children. Suppose that after five years’ unemployment, one of them takes up a lowly paid job. In Finland or Sweden net income in and out of work would be the same in that case, since each unit of income earned is cancelled out by a unit of benefits foregone once employment is taken up. In other words, there is an implicit tax rate of 100%. In the case of Denmark and the Czech Republic, the implicit rate in a similar case would be almost 100%, and in Germany and the United Kingdom it would be around 80%. In France and the United States the implicit rate would be about 50%, since half the increase in earnings is wiped out by a loss of benefits. In Japan, the implicit tax actually exceeds 140%, meaning our one-earner couple would be worse off with the new job than without it. What’s more, they may have to be wary when it comes to staying in the job itself, since small wage increases can expose low-wage earners to high implicit tax rates as their means-tested benefits get cut further.

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The Wall Street Journal wisely warns against drawing too many conclusions from one month’s job data, but they also point out that the economy is much weaker than the White House claimed – in large part because of a series of public policy decisions that have rewarded sloth and punished production. Is anyone surprised that the economy’s performance has been tepid?

The private economy—that is, the wealth creation part, not the wealth redistribution part—gained only 41,000 jobs, down sharply from the encouraging 218,000 in April, and 158,000 in March. The unemployment rate did fall to 9.7% from 9.9%, but that was mainly because the labor force contracted by 322,000. Millions of Americans, beyond the 15 million Americans officially counted as unemployed, have given up looking for work. Worst of all, nearly half of all unemployed workers in America today (a record 46%) have been out of work for six months or more. …Whatever happened to the great neo-Keynesian “multiplier,” in which $1 in government spending was supposed to produce 1.5 times that in economic output? …The multiplier is an illusion because that Keynesian $1 has to come from somewhere in the private economy, either in higher taxes or borrowing. Its net economic impact was probably negative because so much of the stimulus was handed out in transfer payments (jobless benefits, Medicaid expansions, welfare) that did nothing to change incentives to invest or take risks. Meanwhile, that $862 billion was taken out of the more productive private economy. Almost everything Congress has done in recent months has made private businesses less inclined to hire new workers. ObamaCare imposes new taxes and mandates on private employers. Even with record unemployment, Congress raised the minimum wage to $7.25, pricing more workers out of jobs. …The “jobs” bill that the House passed last week expands jobless insurance to 99 weeks, while raising taxes by $80 billion on small employers and U.S-based corporations. On January 1, Congress is set to let taxes rise on capital gains, dividends and small businesses. None of these are incentives to hire more Americans. Ms. Romer said yesterday that to “ensure a more rapid, widespread recovery,” the White House supports “tax incentives for clean energy,” and “extensions of unemployment insurance and other key income support programs, a fund to encourage small business lending, and fiscal relief for state and local governments.” Hello? This is the failed 2009 stimulus in miniature.

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It is probably safe to assume that government bureaucrats are overpaid in every city and state, but it won’t come as a big surprise to learn that San Francisco is especially profligate. Here are some disturbing details compiled by Investor’s Business Daily:

We have seen the future and it works — for certain people. Take San Francisco municipal workers. The San Francisco Chronicle recently detailed just how overpaid the city’s employees are. Their average yearly salary is $93,000 before benefits. A third of them made more than $100,000 in 2009. A newly retired deputy police chief (not even the city’s top cop) made $516,118. …The city’s unions, which are powerful even by California standards, have produced a public-workers’ paradise financed by high taxes on tourists, businesses (San Francisco even has a 1.5% tax on payrolls) and regular folk who choose to live there or who haven’t figured out a way to leave. The city has poor and homeless people just like any other. …in 2009, 28 city employees made more than the mayor, Gavin Newsom, who pulled down a respectable $250,903. Firefighters in San Francisco have a base salary of $102,648, while even lowly payroll clerks start at $54,314.

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