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Archive for the ‘Double Taxation’ Category

Since all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – recognize that capital formation is a key to long-run growth, higher wages, and improved living standards, it obviously doesn’t make sense to penalize saving and investment.

Yet that’s exactly what happens because of double taxation in the United States, as can be seen by this rather sobering flowchart.

So how can we fix the problem? The best answer, particularly in the long run, is to shrink the burden of government spending so that there’s no pressure for punitive tax policies.

Good reform is also possible in the medium run. Policy makers could implement a big bang version of tax reform, replacing the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax. That automatically would eliminate the tax bias against saving and investment since one of the key principles of the flat tax is that income gets taxed only one time.

That being said, there’s no chance of sweeping tax reform for the next few years (and maybe ever), so let’s look at some pro-growth incremental reforms that would reduce or eliminate the extra tax penalties on income that is saved and invested.

On the investment side of the ledger, any policies that lower or end the capital gains tax and the double tax on dividends would be desirable.

But let’s focus today on the saving side. And let’s start by explaining how a fair and neutral system would operate. Here’s what I wrote back in 2012 and I think it’s reasonably succinct and accurate.

…all saving and investment should be treated the way we currently treat individual retirement accounts. If you have a traditional IRA (or “front-ended” IRA), you get a deduction for any money you put in a retirement account, but then you pay tax on the money – including any earnings – when the money is withdrawn. If you have a Roth IRA (or “back-ended” IRA), you pay tax on your income in the year that it is earned, but if you put the money in a retirement account, there is no additional tax on withdrawals or the subsequent earnings. From an economic perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs generate the same result. Income that is saved and invested is treated the same as income that is immediately consumed. From a present-value perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs produce the same outcome. All that changes is the point at which the government imposes the single layer of tax.

The key takeaways are in the first and last sentences. All savings should be protected from double taxation, not just what you set aside for retirement. And that means government can tax you one time, either when you first earn the income or when you consume the income.

Our friends to the north can teach us some lessons on this issue.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal, authored by my colleague Chris Edwards and Amity Shlaes of the Calvin Coolidge Foundation.

Some Republicans are advocating a giant child tax credit, but there are more effective means for helping the middle class. One is a tax program already road-tested in the country whose populace most resembles our own, Canada. It’s called the Tax-Free Savings Account and TFSA, as most Canadians refer to it, is a roaring success. …what is this Canadian savings account? The nearest U.S. equivalent would be Roth Individual Retirement Accounts. With a Roth, workers pay taxes on earnings before they put their cash into the account. The money then grows tax-protected, and people pay no tax when they withdraw it.

But these accounts are much better than Roth IRAs.

Though these savings accounts were introduced only five years ago, 48% of Canadians have already signed up. That compares with only 38% of U.S. households owning any type of IRA—though IRAs have been around for decades….Roth accounts have numerous restrictions. You can’t open a Roth easily if your earnings are above certain limits: $191,000, for example, for a married couple filing jointly. You can’t withdraw cash whenever you feel like it, at least not without daunting penalties. …Canada’s TFSAs are like Roth IRAs—but supercharged. Citizens may deposit up to $5,500 after-tax each year, and all account earnings and withdrawals are tax-free. However, unlike Roth IRAs, funds can be withdrawn at any time for any reason with no penalties or taxes. Another feature: The annual limit on a contribution carries over from year to year if a citizen doesn’t reach it. So if a Canadian contributes $2,000 this year, he can put away up to $9,000 next year ($3,500 plus $5,500). There are other attractive features: Unlike in a Roth, there are no income limits for individuals contributing to a TFSA, and there are no withdrawal requirements at retirement.

In other words, the Canadian accounts are like unlimited or unrestricted Roth IRAs.

And because the government isn’t trying to micro-manage how people save, Canadians are very receptive. Chris adds some additional information in a post for Cato at Liberty.

…released new data confirming the popularity of TFSAs. In just the past year, TFSA account assets increased 34 percent, and the number of accounts increased 16 percent. In June 2014, 13 million Canadians held $132 billion in TFSA assets. Given that the U.S. population is about 10 times that of Canada, it would be like 130 million Americans pouring $1.3 trillion into a new personal savings vehicle. …In just five years, TFSAs have become the most popular savings vehicle in Canada, outstripping the Canadian version of 401(k)s.

Here’s a chart Chris included in his blog post.

And he adds some more analysis on the importance of simple vehicles to protect against double taxation.

Everyone agrees that Americans don’t save enough, so why don’t we kick-start a home-grown savings revolution with a U.S. version of TFSAs? …Canada has now run the real-world experiment on such accounts, and it has succeeded brilliantly. TFSAs, or USAs, are a better way to handle savings in the tax code. Currently, many people are scared off by the complexity of U.S. savings vehicles and by the lack of liquidity in retirement accounts. TFSAs solve these problems.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether American policy makers pay attention and follow Chris’ sage advice.

P.S. I realize I’m being picky, but I wish the Canadians didn’t use the term “tax-free savings accounts.” After the all, the income is taxed before it gets put into the accounts. Though even a nit-picker like me realizes that it might be a bit awkward to call them “no-double-taxation savings accounts.”

P.P.S. I do like that Chris and Amity argued that the accounts would be better than big child tax credits, particularly since I also argued in the Wall Street Journal that there were better ways to help the middle class.

P.P.P.S. Canada also can teach us important lessons on other issues, such as spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailouts, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

P.P.P.P.S. No wonder the two most capitalistic places in North America are in Canada. And Canada ranks above the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World Index.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Though there are still plenty of statists north of the border, so I’m not sure it’s the best escape option for advocates of small government. Though I doubt leftists no longer see it as an escape option, which was the premise of this joke that circulated after the 2010 election.

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I’ve already shared a bunch of data and evidence on the importance of low tax rates.

A review of the academic evidence by the Tax Foundation found overwhelming support for the notion that lower tax rates are good for growth.

An economist from Cornell found lower tax rates boost GDP.

Other economists found lower tax rates boost job creation, savings, and output.

Even economists at the Paris-based OECD have determined that high tax rates undermine economic performance.

And it’s become apparent, with even the New York Times taking notice, that high tax rates drive away high-achieving people.

We’re going to augment this list with some additional evidence.

In a study published by a German think tank, three economists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark look at the impact of high marginal tax rates on Danish economic performance.

Here’s what they set out to measure.

…taxation distorts the functioning of the market economy by creating a wedge between the private return and the social return to a reallocation of resources, leaving socially desirable opportunities unexploited as a result. …This paper studies the impact of taxation on the mobility and allocation of labor, and quantifies the efficiency loss from misallocation of labor caused by taxation. …labor mobility responses are fundamentally different from the hours-of-work responses of the basic labor supply model… Our analysis builds on a standard search theoretic framework… We incorporate non-linear taxation into this setting and estimate the structural parameters of the model using employer-employee register based data for the full Danish population of workers and workplaces for the years 2004-2006. The estimated model is then used to examine the impact of different changes in the tax system, thereby characterizing the distortionary effects of taxation on the allocation of labor.

They produced several sets of results, including a look at the additional growth and output generated by moving to a system of lump-sum taxation (which presumably eliminates all disincentive effects).

But even when they looked at more modest reforms, such as a flat tax with a relatively high rate, they found the Danish economy would reap significant benefits.

…it is possible to reap a very large part of the potential efficiency gain by going “half the way”and replace the current taxation with a ‡at tax rate of 30 percent on all income. This shift from a Scandinavian tax system with high marginal tax rates to a level of taxation in line with low-tax OECD countries such as the United States increases total income by 20 percent and yields an efficiency gain measured in proportion to initial income of 10 percent. …a transition from a Scandinavian system with high marginal taxes to a system along the lines of low-tax OECD countries such as the United States. This reduces the rate of non-employment by around 10 percentage points, increases aggregate income by almost 20 percent (relative to the Scandinavian income level), and gives an efficiency gain measured in proportion to income of 9.9 percent. Thus, almost 80 percent of the efficiency loss from marginal taxation (9.7% divided by 12.4%) would be eliminated by shifting from a Scandinavian tax system to the system of a low-tax OECD country according to these estimates.

The authors also confirmed that lower tax rates would generate revenue feedback. In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

We may also use the reform experiment to compute the marginal excess burden of taxation as described above. When measured in proportion to the mechanical loss of tax revenue, we obtain an estimate of 87 percent. …this estimate also corresponds to the degree of self-financing of the tax cut. Thus, the increase in tax revenue from the behavioral response is 87 percent of the mechanical loss in tax revenue.

Too bad we can’t get the Joint Committee on Taxation in Washington to join the 21st Century. Those bureaucrats still base their work on the preposterous assumption that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance.

Since we just looked at a study of the growth generated by reducing very high tax rates, let’s now consider the opposite scenario. What happens if you take medium-level tax rates and raise them dramatically?

The Tax Foundation looks at precisely this issue. The group estimated the likely results if lawmakers adopted the class-warfare policies proposed by Thomas Piketty.

Piketty suggests higher taxes on the wealthiest among us. He calls for a global wealth tax, and he recommends establishing a top income tax rate of 80 percent, with a next-to-top income tax rate of 50 or 60 percent for the upper-middle class. …This study…provides quantitative estimates of what his proposed tax rates would mean for capital formation, jobs, the level of income, and government revenue. This study also estimates how Piketty’s proposed income tax rates would affect the distribution of income in the United States.

Piketty, of course, thinks that even confiscatory levels of taxation have no negative impact on economic performance.

Piketty claims people (or at least the upper-income people he would tax so heavily) are totally insensitive to marginal tax rates. In his world view, upper-income taxpayers will work and invest just as much as before even if dramatically higher taxes reduce their after-tax rewards to a fraction of what they were previously. …Piketty’s vision of the world strains credulity.

When the Tax Foundation crunched the numbers, though, its experts found that Piketty’s proposal would be devastating.

Under Piketty’s 55 and 80 percent tax brackets, people in the new, ultra-high tax brackets will work and invest less because they will be able to keep so little of the reward from the last hour of work and the last dollar of investment. …As the supplies of labor and capital in the production process decline, the economy’s output will also contract. Although it is only people with upper incomes who will directly pay the 55 and 80 percent tax rates, people throughout the economy will indirectly bear some of the tax burden. For example, the average person’s wages will be lower than otherwise because middle-income workers will have less equipment and software to enhance their productivity, and wages depend on productivity. Similarly, people throughout the economy will have fewer employment opportunities and will lose desirable goods and services, because businesses will grow more slowly and be less innovative.

The magnitude of the damage would depend on whether the higher tax rates also applied to dividends and capital gains. Here’s what the Tax Foundation estimated would happen to the economy if dividends and capital gains were not hit with Piketty-style tax rates.

These are some very dismal numbers.

But now look at the results if tax rates also are increased on dividends and capital gains. The dramatic increase in double taxation (dwarfing what Obama wanted) would have catastrophic consequences for overall investment (the “capital stock”). This would lead to a big loss in jobs and a dramatic reduction in overall economic output.

The Tax Foundation then measures the impact of these policies on the well-being of people in various income classes.

Needless to say, upper-income taxpayers suffer substantial losses. But the rest of us also suffer as well.

…the poor and middle class would also lose. They would suffer a large, but indirect, tax burden as a result of the smaller economy. Their after-tax incomes would fall over 3 percent if capital gains and dividends retain their current-law tax treatment and almost 17 percent if capital gains and dividends are taxed like ordinary income.

And since I’m sure Piketty and his crowd would want to subject capital gains and dividends to confiscatory tax rates, the 17 percent drop is a more realistic assessment of their economic agenda.

Though, to be fair, Piketty-style policies would make society more “equal.” But, as the Tax Foundation notes, some methods of achieving equality are very bad for lower-income people.

…a reasonable question to ask is whether a middle-income family is made better off if their income drops 3.2 percent while the income of a family in the top 1 percent drops 21.0 percent, or their income plummets 16.8 percent while the income of a family in the top 1 percent plummets 43.3 percent.

Of course, if Margaret Thatcher is correct, the left has no problem with this outcome.

But for those of us who care about better lives for ordinary people, this is confirmation that envy isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – a basis for tax policy.

Sadly, that’s not the case. We’ve already seen the horrible impact of Hollande’s Piketty-style policies in France. And Obama said he would be perfectly content to impose higher tax rates even if the resulting economic damage is so severe that no additional revenue is collected.

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I’m a long-time proponent of the flat tax for three simple reasons.

1. It replaces the discriminatory “progressive” tax with a single tax rate at the lowest possible level, thus reducing the tax penalty on productive behavior.

2. It gets rid of all forms of double taxation, such as the death tax and capital gains tax, meaning economic activity is never taxed more than one time.

3. Other than a family-based allowance, it gets rid of all loopholes, deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions, and preferences, meaning economic activity is taxed equally.

Some people say that these are also three reasons to favor a national sales tax.

My response is that they’re correct. In simple terms, a national sales tax (such as the Fair Tax) is like a flat tax but with a different collection point.

If you want more details, I often explain the two plans are different sides of the same coin. The only difference is that the flat tax takes of slice of your income as you earn it and the sales tax takes a slice of your income as you spend it. But neither plan has any double taxation of income that is saved and invested. And neither plan has loopholes to lure people into making economically irrational decisions.

Instead of class warfare and/or social engineering, both plans are designed to raise money is the least-damaging fashion possible.

So even though I’m mostly known for being an advocate of the flat tax, I have no objection to speaking in favor of a national sales tax, testifying in favor of a national sales tax, or debating in favor of a national sales tax.

With this bit of background, you can understand why it caught my attention that an economics professor at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) wrote a column for Forbes with the provocative title of “I Will Support The Fair Tax When Its Backers Tell The Truth”.

Professor Dorfman writes that “such a consumption tax has much to recommend it from an economic point of view” but then warns that he “cannot support the Fair Tax as long as its backers continue to make implausible claims for their proposed reform.”

So what are the implausible claims? Let’s check them out and see if his friendly criticism is warranted.

He first expresses skepticism about the claim that take-home pay will rise to the level of gross pay under a Fair Tax, particularly given the assertion that prices won’t rise.

…the odds are that your gross pay will shrink over time under the Fair Tax. …employers can offer workers lower pay because of the lower cost of living (same prices, but higher take home pay). Because workers evaluate pay offers based on the purchasing power of that pay, the same competitive forces that will lower prices after the removal of business taxes, will lead to lower pay for employees in the long run as the labor market adjusts.

I suspect Professor Dorfman’s critique is correct, but I don’t think it matters. Workers understandably care first and foremost about the purchasing power of their paycheck, and that won’t be negatively impacted.

The Professor than looks at whether the Fair Tax gets taxes the underground economy.

…let’s tackle the claim that the Fair tax will do a better job of collecting taxes on criminals, the underground economy, and those who underreport their income. The idea is that people may hide some of their income or that drug dealers and others in the underground economy do not report their income, but that everyone spends money so the Fair Tax will tax everyone. Unfortunately, this claim is not true… Retailers are just as capable of underreporting revenue and not sending in the corresponding Fair Tax as people are of underreporting their income. …The incentive to avoid such consumption taxes will only increase when the rate is four or five times what it is now. If you don’t believe consumption taxes suffer from collection problems, go ask Greece.

And he looks specifically at taxing criminal activity.

Another reason that the Fair Tax will not capture extra revenue from illegal activities is that it only switches which side of the transaction is missed by the tax system. Currently, while drug dealers may not report their income, the people who buy drugs are paying with after-tax income. Under the Fair Tax, the drug dealers will pay tax when they spend their drug profits. However, unless the drug dealer sends in the Fair Tax on their sales, the drug buyers will now avoid tax on their purchases. Under either tax system, one side of the underground transactions will be paying taxes and one will not.

I think Professor Dorfman is correct, particularly in his explanation that drug dealers and other criminals will not collect sales tax when they peddle their illicit goods.

And he’s also correct when he says that the Fair Tax won’t collect all taxes on legal products.

But that doesn’t mean the Fair Tax is somehow flawed. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the underground economy will shrink under a national sales tax since the incentive to evade tax (on legal products) is a function of the tax rate. So if we replace the punitive high-rate internal revenue code with a low-rate Fair Tax, there will be a higher level of compliance.

But not zero evasion, so Fair Tax supporters exaggerate if they make that claim.

The next point of contention is whether the IRS can be repealed under a Fair Tax.

…some agency needs to collect all the sales taxes, ensure retailers are sending in the full amount, and handle all the mechanics of the prebate. The prebate requires this federal agency to know everyone’s family size and have a bank account or other method of sending out the prebate each month. So while individuals will have less interaction with the federal tax agency, there will still be some. For retail businesses, their interactions with federal tax officials will be at least as much as now, if not more.

The Professor is right, though this may be a matter of semantics. Fair Tax people acknowledge there will be a tax collector (the legislation creates an incentive for states to be in charge of collecting the tax), but they say that the tax authority under their system will be completely different than the abusive IRS we have today.

Last but not least is the controversy over whether everyone benefits under a Fair Tax.

…while Fair Tax proponents often act like nobody loses under the Fair Tax that is simply not possible. If the Fair Tax is implemented in a revenue neutral manner (collecting the same amount of total revenue as all the taxes it replaces), and some people win then other people must lose. Poor people pay roughly no tax either way, so the Fair tax would be neutral for them. The very rich will assumedly pay less since they spend a lower percentage of their income and spend more overseas. Thus, the suspicion is that the middle class will be paying more. One other group pretty sure to pay more is the elderly. The elderly have paid income tax while earning income, and under the Fair Tax would suddenly pay high consumption taxes right when their income drops and their spending increases. In the long run, this is not a problem, but early in a Fair Tax regime, the elderly definitely are losers.

Once again, Professor Dorfman is making a good point (and others have made the same point about the flat tax).

My response, for what it’s worth, is that supporters of both the flat tax and national sales tax should not be bound by revenue neutrality. Especially if the revenue-estimating system is rigged to produce bad numbers. Instead, they should set the rate sufficiently low that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers are net winners.

And in the long run, everyone can be a net winner if the economy grows faster.

And that, as Professor Dorfman agrees, is the main reason for tax reform.

The Fair Tax really has much to recommend it. It is simpler than the current system. It causes fewer distortions in the daily economic decisions that people make. The main distortion it does introduce is positive: to encourage saving and discourage consumption which would make the country wealthier in the long run.

Though I would quibble with the wording of this last excerpt. I don’t think the Fair Tax creates a pro-savings distortion. Instead, it removes an anti-savings bias. Just like the flat tax.

Now let me add a friendly criticism that Professor Dorfman didn’t address.

Advocates of the Fair Tax correctly say that their proposal shouldn’t be implemented until and unless the income tax is fully repealed. But as I explain in this video, that may be an impossible undertaking.

To be blunt, I don’t trust politicians. I fear that they would gladly adopt some form of consumption tax while secretly scheming to keep the income tax.

P.S. Actually, what I really want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax. Our nation enjoyed strong growth before that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was imposed, so why concede that politicians today should have either a flat tax or Fair Tax? But that’s an issue for another day.

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Allister Heath, the superb economic writer from London, recently warned that governments are undermining incentives to save.

And not just because of high tax rates and double taxation of savings. Allister says people are worried about outright confiscation resulting from possible wealth taxation.

It is clear that individuals, when at all possible, need to accumulate more financial assets. …Tragically, it won’t happen. A lack of trust in the system is one important explanation. People simply don’t believe the government – and politicians of all parties – when it comes to long-terms savings and pensions. They worry, with good reason, that the rules will keep changing; they are afraid that savers are an easy target and that they will eventually be hit by a wealth tax.

Are savers being paranoid? Is Allister being paranoid?

Well, even paranoid people have enemies, and this already has happened in countries such as Poland and Argentina. Moreover, it appears that plenty of politicians and bureaucrats elsewhere want this type of punitive levy.

Here are some passages from a Reuters report.

Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.

Since data from the IMF, OECD, and BIS show that almost every industrialized nation will face a fiscal crisis in the next decade or two, people with assets understandably are concerned that their necks will be on the chopping block when politicians are scavenging for more cash to prop up failed welfare states.

Though to be fair, the Bundesbank may simply be sending a signal that German taxpayers don’t want to pick up the tab for fiscal excess in nations such as France and Greece. And it also acknowledged such a tax would harm growth.

“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. …the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.

Other German economists, however, openly advocate for wealth taxes on German taxpayers.

…governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich… In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population. …a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP. …In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

The pro-tax crowd at the International Monetary Fund has a similarly favorable perspective, relying on absurdly unrealistic conditions to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t hurt growth. Here’s some of what the IMF asserted in its Fiscal Monitor last October.

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).

The IMF even floats a trial balloon that governments could confiscate 10 percent of household assets.

The tax rates needed to bring down public debt to precrisis levels…are sizable: reducing debt ratios to end-2007 levels would require (for a sample of 15 euro area countries) a tax rate of about 10 percent on households with positive net wealth.

Many people condemned the IMF for seeming to endorse theft by government.

The IMF’s Deputy Director of Fiscal Affairs then backpedaled a bit the following month. He did regurgitate the implausible notion that a wealth tax won’t hurt the economy so long as it only happens once and it is a surprise.

To an economist, …it’s close to an ideal form of taxation, since there is nothing you can now do to reduce, avoid, or evade it—the holy grail of what economists call a non-distorting tax. …Such a levy would entail a one-off charge on capital assets, the precise base being a matter for choice, but generally larger than cash left on kitchen tables. Added to the efficiency advantage of such a tax, many see an equity appeal in that such a charge would naturally fall most heavily on those with the most assets.

But he then felt obliged to point out some real-world concerns.

…governments have rarely implemented capital levies, and they have almost never succeeded. And there are very good reasons for that. …to be non-distorting the tax must be both unanticipated and believed certain not to be repeated. These are both very hard things to achieve. Introducing and implementing any new tax takes time, and governments can rarely do it in entire secrecy (even leaving aside transparency issues). And that gives time for assets to be moved abroad, run down, or concealed. The risk of future levies can be even more damaging; they discourage the saving and investment that generate future capital assets.

Though these practical flaws and problems don’t cause much hesitation on the left.

Here’s what Joann Weiner recently wrote in the Washington Post about the work of Thomas Piketty, a French economist who apparently believes society will be better if higher taxes result in everyone being equally poor.

A much higher tax on upper income — say 80 percent — coupled with a significant tax on wealth — say 10 percent — would go a long way toward making America’s income distribution more equitable than it is now. …capital is the chief culprit… Piketty has another pretty radical, at least for the United States, way to shrink the share of wealth at the top — introduce a global tax on all capital. This means taxes on not just stocks and bonds, but also land, homes, machines, patents — you name it; if it’s wealth or if it generates what tax authorities call “unearned income,” then it should be taxed. One other thing. All countries have to adopt the tax to keep capital from fleeing to tax havens.

Writing in the New York Times back in January, Thomas Edsall also applauds proposals for a new wealth tax.

…worsening inequality is an inevitable outcome of free market capitalism. …The only way to halt this process…is to impose a global progressive tax on wealth – global in order to prevent (among other things) the transfer of assets to countries without such levies. A global tax, in this scheme, would restrict the concentration of wealth and limit the income flowing to capital.

Not surprisingly, there’s support in academia for confiscating other people’s money. One professors thinks the “impossible dream” of theft by government could become reality.

…this article proposes a yearly graduated tax on the net wealth of all individuals in excess of $100 million. The rate would be 5% on the excess up to $500 million and then 10% thereafter. …Such taxes are attacked as “class warfare” that runs counter to America’s libertarian and capitalist traditions. However…the time may once again be ripe for adopting a new tax to combat the growing wealth inequality in the nation. …wealth inequality harms the very social fabric of society. …The purpose of the proposed Equality Tax would not be to raise general revenue, although revenue would be raised. Instead it would be focused on establishing a societal value that for the health of society, no individual should accrue wealth beyond a certain point. Essentially, once an individual has $100 million of assets, …further wealth accumulation harms society while providing little economic benefit or incentive to the individual. …At a minimum such a tax would raise
at least $140 billion a year.

Let’s close by looking at the real economic consequences of wealth taxation. Jan Schnellenbach of the Walter Eucken Intitut in Germany analyzed this question.

Are there sound economic reasons for the net wealth tax, as an instrument to tax stocks of physical and financial capital, to be levied in addition to taxes on capital incomes?

Before even addressing that issue, the author points out that policy actually has been moving in the right direction, presumably because of tax competition.

There has been a wave of OECD countries abolishing their personal net wealth taxes recently. Examples are Spain (abolished in 2008), Sweden (2007) as well as Finland, Iceland and Luxembourg (all 2006). Nevertheless, the net wealth tax repeatedly surfaces again in the public debate.

So what about the economics of a wealth tax? Schnellenbach makes the critical point that even a small levy on assets translates into a very punitive rate on actual returns.

…every tax on domestic wealth needs to be paid out of the returns on wealth, every net wealth tax with a given rate is trivially equivalent to a capital income tax with a substantially higher rate. …even an – on aggregate – non-confi scatory wealth tax may at least temporarily actually have confi scatory eff ects on individuals in periods where they realize sufficiently low returns on their capital stock.

He then looks at the impact on incentives.

…a net wealth tax will have similar distortionary e ffects as a capital income tax. …Introducing a comprehensive net wealth tax would then, through the creation of new incentives for tax avoidance and evasion, also diminish the base of the income tax. Scenarios with even a negative overall revenue eff ect would be conceivable. There is thus good reason to cast doubt on the popular belief that a net wealth tax combines little distortions and large amounts of revenue. …A wealth tax aggravates the distortions and the incentives to evade that already exist due to a pre-existing capital income tax.

And he closes by emphasizing that this form of double taxation undermines property rights.

The intrusion into private property rights may be far more severe for a wealth tax compared to an income tax. …It takes hold of a stock of wealth that consists of saved incomes which have already been subject to an income tax in the past… Our discussion has shown that economically, the wealth tax walks on thin ice.

In other words, a wealth tax is a very bad idea. And that’s true whether it’s a permanent levy or a one-time cash grab by politicians.

Some may wonder whether a wealth tax is a real threat. The answer depends on the time frame. Could such a levy happen in the next year or two in the United States?

The answer is no.

But the wealth tax will probably be a real threat in the not-too-distant future. America’s long-run fiscal outlook is very grim because of a rising burden of government spending.

This necessarily means there will be a big fiscal policy battle. On one side, libertarians and small-government advocates will push for genuine entitlement reform. Advocates of big government, by contrast, will want new revenues to enable and facilitate the expansion of the public sector.

The statists will urge higher income tax rates, but sober-minded folks on the left privately admit that the Laffer Curve is real and that they can’t collect much more money with class-warfare tax policy.

That’s why there is considerable interest in new revenue sources, such as energy taxes, financial transaction taxes, and the value-added tax.

And, of course, a wealth tax.

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I generally get very suspicious when rich people start pontificating on tax policy.

People like Warren Buffett, for instance, sometimes advocate higher taxes because they’re trying to curry favor with the political elite. Or maybe they feel compelled to say silly things to demonstrate that they feel guilty about their wealth.

Tax SystemRegardless, I don’t like their policy proposal (as you can see from TV debates here and here).

That being said, I also realize that stereotypes can be very unfair, so it’s important to judge each argument on the merits and not to reject an idea simply because it comes from a rich guy.

That’s why I was very interested to see that Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire software maker, decided to add his two cents to the discussion of tax reform.

Here’s what Gates said at an American Enterprise Institute forum (transcript here and video here).

…economists would have said that a progressive consumption tax is a better construct, you know, at any point in history. What I’m saying is that it’s even more important as we go forward.

He doesn’t really expand on those remarks other than to say that it’s important to reduce the tax on labor.

That part of Gates’ remarks doesn’t make much sense for the simple reason that workers are equally harmed whether the government takes 20 percent of their income when it’s earned or 20 percent of their income when it’s spent.

But his embrace of a “progressive consumption tax” is very intriguing.

I don’t like the “progressive” part because that’s shorthand for high marginal tax rates, and that type of class-warfare policy is a gateway to corruption and is also damaging to growth (see here, here, here, here, and here).

But the “consumption” part is one of the key features of all good tax reform plans.

For all intents and purposes, a “consumption tax” is any system that avoids the mistake of double-taxing income that is saved and invested.

Both the national sales tax and the value-added tax, for instance, are examples of consumption-based tax systems.

But the flat tax also is a consumption tax. It isn’t collected at the cash register like a sales tax, but it has the same “tax base.”

Under a flat tax, income is taxed – but only one time – when it is earned. Under a sales tax, income is taxed – but only one time – when it is spent. They’re different sides of the same coin.

Most important, neither the flat tax nor the sales tax has extra layers of tax on saving and investment. And that’s what makes them “consumption” taxes in the wonky world of public finance economists.

This means no death tax, no capital gains tax, no double taxation of interest or dividends. And businesses get a common-sense cash-flow system of taxation, which means punitive depreciation rules are replaced by “expensing.”

So Bill Gates is halfway on the path to tax policy salvation. His endorsement of so-called progressivity is wrong, but his support for getting rid of double taxation is right.

If you like getting into the weeds of tax policy, it’s interesting to note that Gates is advocating the opposite of the plan that was proposed by Congressman Dave Camp.

Camp wants to go in the right direction regarding rates, but he wants to exacerbate the tax code’s bias against capital. Here’s what I said to Politico.

Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he didn’t see it as an individual versus business issue, but rather took issue with Camp’s punitive treatment of savings and investment. “The way Camp is extracting more money from businesses — more punitive depreciation and the like — is he is making the tax system more biased against savings and investment,” said Mitchell, who worked for Republican Sen. Bob Packwood after the historic 1986 tax act that Packwood helped negotiate as chair of the Finance Committee.

By the way, this doesn’t mean Camp’s plan is bad. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the good and bad features.

Just like that type of analysis was appropriate in 1986, when the bad provisions that increased taxes on saving and investment were offset by a big reduction in marginal tax rates.

The 1986 law did take aim at some popular business benefits, including a lucrative investment tax credit. But the reward was a lot sweeter. “At least then, we got a big, big reduction in tax rates in exchange,” Mitchell said.

Here’s an interview I did with Blaze TV on Congressman Camp’s plan. If you pay attention near the beginning (at about the 2:00 mark), you’ll see my matrix on how to grade tax reform plans.

Now let’s circle back to the type of tax system endorsed by Bill Gates.

We obviously don’t know what he favors beyond a “progressive consumption tax,” but that bit of information allows us to say that he wants something at least somewhat similar to the old “USA Tax” that was supported by folks such as former Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici.

Is that better than the current tax system?

Probably yes, though we can’t say for sure because it’s possible they may want to increase tax rates by such a significant amount that the plan becomes a net minus for the economy.

Not that any of this matters since I doubt we’ll get tax reform in my lifetime.

P.S. Speaking of taxes and the rich, you’ll enjoy this very clever interview exposing the hypocrisy of wealthy leftists.

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To make fun of big efforts that produce small results, the famous Roman poet, Horace, wrote “The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.”

That line sums up my view of the new tax reform plan introduced by Congressman Dave Camp, Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

To his credit, Congressman Camp put in a lot of work. But I can’t help but wonder why he went through the time and trouble. To understand why I’m so underwhelmed, let’s first go back in time.

Back in 1995, tax reform was a hot issue. The House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, had proposed a flat tax. Congressman Billy Tauzin was pushing a version of a national sales tax. And there were several additional proposals jockeying for attention.

To make sense of this clutter, I wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation that demonstrated how to grade the various proposals that had been proposed.

As you can see, I included obvious features such as low tax rates, simplicity, double taxation, and social engineering, but I also graded plans based on other features such as civil liberties, fairness, and downside risk.

Tax Reform Grading Matrix

There obviously have been many new plans since I wrote this paper, most notably the Fair Tax (a different version of a national sales tax than the Tauzin plan), Simpson-Bowles, the Ryan Roadmap, Domenici-Rivlin, the Heritage Foundation’s American Dream proposal, the Baucus-Hatch blank slate, and – as noted above – the new tax reform plan by Congressman Dave Camp.

Given his powerful position as head of the tax-writing committee, let’s use the 1995 guide to assess the pros and cons of Congressman Camp’s plan.

Rates: The Top tax rate for individual taxpayers is reduced from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, which is a disappointingly modest step in the right direction. The corporate tax rate falls from 35 percent to 25 percent, which is more praiseworthy, though Camp doesn’t explain why small businesses (who file using the individual income tax) should pay higher rates than large companies.

Simplicity: Camp claims that he will eliminate 25 percent of the tax code, which certainly is welcome news since the internal revenue code has swelled to 70,000-plus pages of loopholes, exemptions, deductions, credits, penalties, exclusions, preferences, and other distortions. And his proposal does eliminate some deductions, including the state and local tax deduction (which perversely rewards states with higher fiscal burdens).

Saving and Investment: Ever since Reagan slashed tax rates in the 1980s, the most anti-growth feature of the tax code is probably the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Shockingly, the Camp plan worsens the tax treatment of capital, with higher taxation of dividends and capital gains and depreciation rules that are even more onerous than current law.

Social Engineering: Some of the worst distortions in the tax code are left in place, including the healthcare exclusion for almost all taxpayers. This means that people will continue to make economically irrational decisions solely to benefit from certain tax provisions.

Civil Liberties: The Camp plan does nothing to change the fact that the IRS has both the need and the power to collect massive amounts of private financial data from taxpayers. Nor does the proposal end the upside-down practice of making taxpayers prove their innocence in any dispute with the tax authorities.

Fairness: In a non-corrupt tax system, all income is taxed, but only one time. On this basis, the plan from the Ways & Means Chairman is difficult to assess. Loopholes are slightly reduced, but double taxation is worse, so it’s hard to say whether the system is more fair or less fair.

Risk: There is no value-added tax, which is a critically important feature of any tax reform plan. As such, there is no risk the Camp plan will become a Trojan Horse for a massive expansion in the fiscal burden.

Evasion: People are reluctant to comply with the tax system when rates are punitive and/or there’s a perception of rampant unfairness. It’s possible that the slightly lower statutory rates may improve incentives to obey the law, but that will be offset by the higher tax burden on saving and investment.

International Competitiveness: Reducing the corporate tax rate will help attract jobs and investment, and the plan also mitigates some of worst features of America’s “worldwide” tax regime.

Now that we’ve taken a broad look at the components of Congressman Camp’s plan, let’s look at a modified version of my 1995 grades.

Camp Tax Matrix

You can see why I’m underwhelmed by his proposal.

Congressman Camp’s proposal may be an improvement over the status quo, but my main reaction is “what’s the point?”

In other words, why go through months of hearings and set up all sorts of working groups, only to propose a timid plan?

Now, perhaps, readers will understand why I’m rather pessimistic about achieving real tax reform.

We know the right policies to fix the tax code.

And we have ready-made plans – such as the flat tax and national sales tax – that would achieve the goals of tax reform.

Camp’s plan, by contrast, simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic.

P.S. If you need to be cheered up after reading all this, here’s some more IRS humor to brighten your day, including the IRS version of the quadratic formula, a new Obama 1040 form, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon ofhow GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), and two songs about the tax agency (hereand here),  and a PG-13 joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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Back in the 1960s, Clint Eastwood starred in a movie entitled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I was thinking that might be a good title for today’s post about some new research by Michelle Harding, a tax economist for the OECD. But then I realized that her study on “Taxation of Dividend, Interest, and Capital Gain Income” doesn’t contain any “good” news.

At least not if you want the United States to be more competitive and create more jobs. This is because the numbers show that the internal revenue code results in punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

But it’s not newsworthy that there’s a lot of double taxation in America. What is shocking and discouraging, however, is finding out that our tax code is more punitive than just about every European welfare state.

This is the “bad” part of today’s discussion. Indeed, the tax burden on dividends, interest, and capital gains in America is far above the average for other industrialized nations.

Let’s look at some charts from the study, starting with the one comparing the tax burden on dividends.

OECD Study Dividend Tax Rates

As you can see, the United States has the dubious honor of having the sixth-highest overall tax rate (combined burden of corporate and personal taxes) among developed nations.

Though maybe we should feel lucky we’re not in France or Denmark.

The next chart looks at the tax burden on capital gains.

OECD Study Cap Gains Tax Rates

Once again, the United States has one of the most onerous tax systems among OECD countries, with only four other nations imposing a higher combined tax rate on capital gains.

By the way, if you want to know why this is a very bad idea, click here.

Last but not least, let’s look at the tax burden on interest.

OECD Study Interest Tax Rates

I’m sure you’ve already detected the pattern, but I’ll state the obvious that this is another example of the United States being on the wrong side of the graph.

So the next time you hear somebody bloviating about Americans being too short-sighted and not saving enough, you may want to inform them that there’s not much incentive to save when the IRS gets a big share of any interest we earn.

Not that any of us are getting much interest since the Fed’s easy-money policy has created an atmosphere of artificially low interest rates, but that’s a topic for another day.

Let’s now move to the “ugly” part of the analysis.

Some of you may have noticed that the charts replicated above are based on tax laws on July 1, 2012.

Well, thanks to Obamacare and the fiscal cliff deal, the IRS began imposing higher tax rates on dividends, capital gains, and interest on January 1, 2013.

And because of the new surtax on investments and the higher tax rates on dividends and capital gains, the United States will move even further in the wrong direction on the three charts.

I don’t know if that means we’ll overtake France in the contest to have the most anti-competitive tax treatment of dividends and capital gains, but it’s definitely bad news.

Oh, and let’s add another bit of “ugly” news to the discussion.

The OECD study didn’t look at death tax rates, but a study by the American Council for Capital Formation shows that the United States also has one of the world’s most punitive death taxes.

Even worse than France, Greece, and Venezuela, which is nothing to brag about.

I don’t want to be the bearer of nothing but bad news, so let’s close with some “good” news. At least relatively speaking.

It’s not part of the study, but it’s worth pointing out that the overall burden of taxation – measured as a share of GDP – is higher in most other nations. The absence of a value-added tax is probably the most important reason why the United States retains an advantage in this category.

Needless to say, this is why we should fight to our last breath to make sure this European version of a national sales tax is never imposed in America.

P.S. One of the big accounting firms, Ernst and Young, published some research last year that is very similar to the OECD’s data.

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