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Archive for August 18th, 2010

Actually, I suppose we should clearly state that someone is having some fun by mocking Helicopter Ben, but that person did a good job. Kudos to Tertium Quids for finding this gem.

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There’s been a bit of chatter in the blogosphere about a recent post on Ezra Klein’s blog featuring estimates from various economists about the revenue-maximizing tax rate. It won’t come as a surprise that people on the right tended to give lower estimates and folks on the left had higher guesses. Donald Luskin of National Review estimated 19 percent, for instance, while Emmanuel Saez, Dean Baker, Bruce Bartlett, and Brad DeLong all gave answers around 70 percent.

There are two things that are worth noting.

First, every single answer is to the right of the Joint Committee on Taxation. The revenue-estimators on Capitol Hill assume that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance. As such, even confiscatory tax rates have very little impact on taxable income. The JCT operates in a totally non-transparent fashion, so it is difficult to know whether they would say the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 90 percent, 95 percent, or 100 percent, but it is remarkable that a mini-bureaucracy with so much power is so far out of the mainstream (it’s even more remarkable that Republicans controlled Congress for 12 years, yet never fixed this problem, but that’s a separate story).

Second, very few of the respondents made the critically important observation that it should not be the goal of tax policy to maximize revenue. After all, the revenue-maximizing point is where the damage to the overall economy is so great that taxable income falls enough to offset the impact of the higher tax rates. Greg Mankiw of Harvard and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal indicated they understood this point since they both explained that the long-run revenue-maximizing rate was lower than the short-run revenue-maximizing rate. But Martin Feldstein of Harvard explicitly addressed this issue and hit the nail on the head.

Why look for the rate that maximizes revenue? As the tax rate rises, the “deadweight loss” (real loss to the economy rises) so as the rate gets close to maximizing revenue the loss to the economy exceeds the gain in revenue…. I dislike budget deficits as much as anyone else. But would I really want to give up say $1 billion of GDP in order to reduce the deficit by $100 million? No. National income is a goal in itself. That is what drives consumption and our standard of living.

For more information, I think my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve is a good summary of the key issues. Part I addresses the theory, and explicitly notes that policy makers should target the growth-maximizing tax rate rather than the revenue-maximizing tax rate. Part II reviews some of the evidence, including analysis of the huge increase in taxable income and tax revenue from upper-income taxpayers following the Reagan tax-rate reductions. Part III looks at the Joint Committee on Taxation’s dismal performance.

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After my recent post on “bashing the IRS,” I got several emails and comments asking whether a national sales tax might be a better idea than the flat tax. I’m a big fan of proposals such as the Fair Tax. I’ve debated in favor of the national sales tax, done media interviews in favor of the national sales tax, written in favor of the national sales tax, and even defended the national sales tax in congressional testimony. As far as I’m concerned, we should junk the IRS for some type of single-rate, consumption-base (meaning no double taxation), loophole-free system. The flat tax is the most well-know approach for achieving these goals, but the national sales tax also would work. Indeed, the two plans are different sides of the same coin. A sales tax takes a piece of your income (but only one time and at one low rate) when it is spent, and a flat tax grabs a slice of your income (but only one time and at one low rate) when it is earned.

So why, then, do I devote most of my energies to a sales flat tax? The answer is that I don’t trust politicians. I fear that they will pull a bait-and-switch, and implement something like a Fair Tax but never complete the deal by getting rid of the income tax. The European experience certainly serves as a warning. Nations across Europe began implementing their version of a national sales tax (the value-added tax) in the late 1960s. Voters often were told that other taxes would be eliminated or reduced. But all the evidence shows that VATs simply led to a much higher tax burden and a much bigger burden of government.

I don’t want that to happen in America, as I explained 13 years ago for Reason and two years ago for the Media Research Center. But this video is probably the best summary of my argument.

By the way, some fans of the Fair Tax say the solution to this problem is an amendment to the Constitution. I fully agree, but then I point out that there are not even enough votes to approve a watered-down balanced budget amendment, so that seems an unlikely path to success. That being said, if we ever reach this point, and are able to repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something that unambiguously would stop the politicians from ever burdening America with an income tax, I will gladly offer my support and push a national sales tax

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