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Archive for October 14th, 2011

The Laffer Curve is the simple notion that higher tax rates don’t necessarily generate as much loot as politicians expect because taxpayers have less incentive to earn and/or report income.

And it works in both directions. Lower tax rates don’t lose as much revenue as politicians fear because better tax policy leads to more taxable income.

In a few cases, higher tax rates may even lose revenue and lower tax rates may generate additional receipts. The IRS collected a lot more tax from upper-income taxpayers, for instance, after Reagan slashed the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Over the past few years, I’ve shown lots of evidence from around the world (England, Spain, and France) and in various states (Illinois, Oregon, Florida, Maryland, and New York) to make the case that it is foolish to ignore the Laffer Curve. Not surprisingly, leftists never seem to learn.

More recently, I’ve explained why Obama’s class-warfare tax policy is especially misguided because of Laffer Curve effects.

But I sometimes wonder whether I make any progress with these arguments. Maybe I’m being too much of a wonk? Perhaps I need an example that strikes a chord with regular people.

I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s give it a try. I now have an example of the Laffer Curve for the MTV audience. Best of all, the story is from USA Today.

The IRS got red-faced trying to collect the new tanning tax, burning a hole in estimates on how much the levy would bring in to federal coffers, a new report said Thursday. …Tanning tax receipts for that nine-month period totaled $54.4 million, the report found. That was below projections by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, which had estimated the tax would raise $50 million in the last three months of fiscal year 2010 and $200 million for the full 2011 fiscal year.

Let’s deconstruct the numbers from the article. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that this new “Snooki” tax (part of the awful Obamacare legislation) was going to raise about $50 million every three months.

Yet during the first nine months, the tax raised just $54.4 million, not $150 million.

To be fair, some of this huge revenue shortfall may be a result of short-run factors associated with levying a new tax, but does anyone think the actual revenues will match the JCT’s estimates at any point in the future? If you think that will happen, get in touch with me so we can make a friendly wager.

Why am I willing to put my money where my mouth is? Simple, the government’s revenue estimators have been consistently wrong for decades because they use models that assume tax policy has no impact on economic performance.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, watch this video.

This is why I said last year that reforming the biased methodology at JCT was an important test of whether the GOP was genuinely on the side of taxpayers.

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I’m very enthusiastic – but also a little worried – about Herman Cain’s tax plan.

So when I got the opportunity to write a short column for the New York Times, I explained that his proposal was very good tax policy, in large part because it is based on the same principles as the flat tax.

The flat tax is desirable for a wide range of reasons, including simplicity, fairness and transparency. It also would end the widespread and corrupt process of inserting loopholes and preferences in the code in exchange for campaign cash and political support. But public finance economists generally like the flat tax for different reasons, most notably the pro-growth impact… For the same reasons, people should like Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. …It is based on the idea that the tax rate should not penalize people for being productive, and even an ardent supply-side sympathizer like me can’t complain too much about a 9 percent rate. Another key principle is the repeal of most forms of double taxation… Cain also takes a chainsaw to the underbrush of credits, deductions, shelters, loopholes, exemptions, and other distortions in the tax code.

But I then expressed my concern that the 9-9-9 plan might morph into something we don’t want.

This doesn’t mean Cain’s tax plan is perfect. The biggest concern, at least from many on the right, is that he would allow the crowd in Washington to simultaneously impose a flat tax, a national sales tax and (apparently) a form of value-added tax. This might not be a problem if there was some way of guaranteeing that none of the rates could ever climb above 9 percent. Unfortunately, the European experience (especially with VATs) does not leave much room for optimism. Sooner or later, politicians who want bigger government can’t resist pushing tax rates higher. And when the dust settles, you become Greece. Which is why Cain should not have reinvented the wheel. If he wants a low rate, no double taxation and no loopholes, the flat tax has all the upsides and none of the downsides of the 9-9-9 plan.

My basic message is that 9-9-9 should be turned into a postcard because the flat tax is a safer way of achieving the same goals.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax, after all, is that politicians begin to re-install loopholes and re-impose discriminatory rates and we wind up with something that looks like the current system.

But that’s a lot better than being Greece.

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