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Archive for the ‘Laffer Curve’ Category

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) are congressional bureaucracies that wield tremendous power on Capitol Hill because of their role as fiscal scorekeepers and referees.

Unfortunately, these bureaucracies lean to the left. When CBO does economic analysis or budgetary estimates, for instance, the bureaucrats routinely make it easier for politicians to expand the burden of government spending. The accompanying cartoon puts it more bluntly.

And when JCT does revenue estimates, the bureaucrats grease the skids for anti-growth tax policy by overstating revenue losses from lower tax rates and overstating revenue gains from higher tax rates.

Here are some examples of CBO’s biased output.

The CBO – over and over again – produced reports based on Keynesian methodology to claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus was creating millions of jobs even as the unemployment rate was climbing.

CBO has produced analysis asserting that higher taxes are good for the economy, even to the point of implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

Continuing a long tradition of under-estimating the cost of entitlement programs, CBO facilitated the enactment of Obamacare with highly dubious projections.

CBO also radically underestimated the job losses that would be caused by Obamacare.

When purporting to measure loopholes in the tax code, the CBO chose to use a left-wing benchmark that assumes there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

On rare occasions when CBO has supportive analysis of tax cuts, the bureaucrats rely on bad methodology.

But let’s not forget that the JCT produces equally dodgy analysis.

The JCT was wildly wrong in its estimates of what would happen to tax revenue after the 2003 tax rate reductions.

Because of the failure to properly measure the impact of tax policy on behavior, the JCT significantly overestimated the revenues from the Obamacare tax on tanning salons.

The JCT has estimated that the rich would pay more revenue with a 100 percent tax rate even though there would be no incentive to earn and report taxable income if the government confiscated every penny.

This means the JCT is more left wing than the very statist economists who think the revenue-maximizing tax rate is about 70 percent.

Unsurprisingly, the JCT also uses a flawed statist benchmark when producing estimates of so-called tax expenditures.

Though I want to be fair. Sometimes CBO and JCT produce garbage because they are instructed to put their thumbs on the scale by their political masters. The fraudulent process of redefining spending increases as spending cuts, for instance, is apparently driven by legislative mandates.

But the bottom line is that these bureaucracies, as currently structured and operated, aid and abet big government.

Regarding the CBO, Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus hit the nail on the head.

The CBO’s consistently flawed scoring of the cost of bills is used by Congress to justify legislation that rarely performs as promised and drags down the economy. …CBO relies heavily on Keynesian economic models, like the ones it used during the stimulus debate. Forecasters at the agency predicted the stimulus package would create more than 3 million jobs. …What looks good in the spirit world of the computer model may be very bad in the material realm of real life because people react to changes in policies in ways unaccounted for in these models.

And the Wall Street Journal opines wisely about the real role of the JCT.

Joint Tax typically overestimates the revenue gains from raising tax rates, while overestimating the revenue losses from tax rate cuts. This leads to a policy bias in favor of higher tax rates, which is precisely what liberal Democrats wanted when they created the Joint Tax Committee.

Amen. For all intents and purposes, the system is designed to help statists win policy battles.

No wonder only 15 percent of CPAs agree with JCT’s biased approach to revenue estimates.

So what’s the best way to deal with this mess?

Some Republicans on the Hill have nudged these bureaucracies to make their models more realistic.

That’s a helpful start, but I think the only effective long-run option is to replace the top staff with people who have a more accurate understanding of fiscal policy. Which is exactly what I said to Peter Roff, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

…the new congressional leadership should be looking at ways to reform the way the institution does its business – and the first place for it to start is the Congressional Budget Office. Most Americans don’t know what the CBO is, how it was created or what it does. They also don’t know how vitally important it is to the legislative process, especially where taxes, spending and entitlement reform are concerned. As Dan Mitchell, a well-respected economist with the libertarian Cato Institute, puts it in an email, the CBO “has a number-crunching role that gives the bureaucracy a lot of power to aid or hinder legislation, so it is very important for Republicans to select a director who understands the economic consequences of excessive spending and punitive tax rates.”

Heck, it’s not just “very important” to put in a good person at CBO (and JCT). As I’ve written before, it’s a test of whether the GOP has both the brains and resolve to fix a system that’s been rigged against them for decades.

So what will happen? I’m not sure, but Roll Call has a report on the behind-the-scenes discussions on Capitol Hill.

Flush from their capture of the Senate, Republicans in both chambers are reviewing more than a dozen potential candidates to succeed Douglas W. Elmendorf as director of the Congressional Budget Office after his term expires Jan. 3. …The appointment is being closely watched, with a number of Republicans pushing for CBO to change its budget scoring rules to use dynamic scoring, which would try to account for the projected impact of tax cuts and budget changes on the economy.

So who will it be? The Wall Street Journal weighs in, pointing out that CBO has been a tool for the expansion of government.

…the budget rules are rigged to expand government and hide the true cost of entitlements. CBO scores aren’t unambiguous facts but are guesses about the future, biased by the Keynesian assumptions and models its political masters in Congress instruct it to use. Republicans who now run Congress can help taxpayers by appointing a new CBO director, as is their right as the majority. …The Tax Foundation’s Steve Entin would be an inspired pick.

I disagree with one part of the above excerpt. Steve Entin is superb, but he would be an inspired pick for the Joint Committee on Taxation, not the CBO.

But I fully agree with the WSJ’s characterization of the budget rules being used to grease the skids for bigger government.

In a column for National Review, Dustin Siggins writes that Bill Beach, my old colleague from my days at the Heritage Foundation, would be a good choice for CBO.

…few Americans may realize  that the budget process is at least as twisted as the budget itself. While one man can’t fix it all, Republicans who want to be taken seriously about budget reform should approve Bill Beach to head the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Putting the right person in charge as Congress’s official “scorekeeper” would be an important first step in proving that the party is serious about honest, transparent, and efficient government. …CBO has several major structural problems that a new CBO director should fix.

Hmm… Entin at JCT and Beach at CBO. That might even bring a smile to my dour face.

But it doesn’t have to be those two specific people. There are lots of well-regarded policy scholars who could take on the jobs of reforming and modernizing the work of JCT and CBO.

But that will only happen if Republicans are willing to show some fortitude. And that means they need to be ready to deal with screeching from leftists who want to maintain their control of these institutions.

For example, Peter Orszag, a former CBO Director who then became Budget Director for Obama (an easy transition), wrote for Bloomberg that he’s worried GOPers won’t pick someone with his statist views.

The Congressional Budget Office should be able to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming February with pride. …The occasion will be ruined, however, if the new Republican Congress breaks its long tradition of naming an objective economist/policy analyst as CBO director, when the position becomes vacant next year, and instead appoints a party hack.

By the way, it shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness for someone like Orszag to complain about the possibility of a “party hack” heading up CBO.

In any event, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I fully expect we’ll also see editorials very soon from the New York Times, Washington Post, and other statist outlets about the need to preserve the “independence” of CBO and JCT.

Just keep in mind that their real goal is to maintain their side’s control over the process.

P.S. There’s another Capitol Hill bureaucracy, the Congressional Research Service, that also generates leftist fiscal policy analysis. Fortunately, the CRS doesn’t have any scorekeeper or referee role, so it doesn’t cause nearly as much trouble. Nonetheless, any bureaucracy that produces “research” about higher taxes being good for the economy needs to be abolished or completely revamped.

P.P.S. This video explains the Joint Committee on Taxation’s revenue-estimating methodology. Pay extra attention to the section beginning around the halfway point, which deals with a request my former boss made to the JCT.

P.P.P.S. If you want to see some dramatic evidence that lower tax rates don’t necessarily lead to less revenue, check out this amazing data from the 1980s.

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In my writings on the Laffer Curve, I probably sound like a broken record because I keep warning that a nation should never be at the revenue-maximizing point.

That’s because there’s lots of good research showing that there are ever-increasing costs to the economy as tax rates approach that level.

So the question that policy makers should ask themselves is whether they’re willing to impose $10 or $20 of damage to the private sector in order to collect $1 of additional revenue.

New we have further evidence. Let’s take a look at a new study by economists from Spain, Arizona, and California. Here’s the issue they decided to study.

As top earners account for a disproportionate share of tax revenues and face the highest marginal tax rates, such proposals lead to a natural tradeoff regarding tax revenue. On the one hand, increases in tax revenue are potentially non-trivial given the income generated by high-income households. On the other hand, the implementation of such proposals would increase marginal tax rates precisely where they are at their highest levels, and thus where the individual responses are expected to be larger. Therefore, revenue increases might not materialise.

And here’s what they found.

…the increase in overall tax collections – including tax collections at the local and state level and from corporate income taxes – is much smaller: 1.6%. Figure 2 shows why. As τ increases there is a substantial decline in labour supply, the capital stock, and aggregate output across steady states. Aggregate output, for example, declines by almost 12% when τ = 0.13. Hence, the government collects taxes from a smaller economy… The message from these findings is clear. There is not much available revenue from revenue-maximising shifts in the burden of taxation towards high earners…and that these changes have non-trivial implications for economic aggregates.

The key takeaways from that passage are the findings about “a smaller economy” and the fact that there are “non-trivial implications for economic aggregates.”

That means less prosperity.

And the authors even acknowledge that the damage to the productive sector is presumably larger than what they found in this research.

…it is important to reflect on the absence of features in our model that would make our conclusions even stronger. First, we have abstracted away from human capital decisions that would be negatively affected by increasing progressivity. Since investments in individual skills are not invariant to changes in tax progressivity, larger effects on output and effective labour supply – relative to a case with exogenous skills – are to be expected. Second, we have not modelled individual entrepreneurship decisions and their interplay with the tax system. Finally, we have not modelled a bequest motive, or considered a dynastic framework more broadly. In these circumstances, it is natural to conjecture that the sensitivity of asset accumulation decisions to changes in progressivity would be larger than in a life-cycle economy. Hence, even smaller effects on revenues would follow.

Richard Rahn’s latest column in the Washington Times also looks at this issue, reviewing the work of James Mirrlees, an economist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1996.

Back in 1971, a Scottish economist by the name of James A. Mirrlees wrote a groundbreaking paper, in which he attempted to answer the question of what an optimum income-tax regime would look like… Mr. Mirrlees had been an adviser to the British Labor Party, which supported the high tax rates in effect at that time. He did a careful analysis of the variation of people’s skills and the effect tax rates had on their incentives to earn. Much to his surprise, he found the optimum tax rate on high earners was about 20 percent… In his 1971 paper, Mr. Mirrlees concluded, “I must confess that I had expected the rigorous analysis of income taxation in the utilitarian manner to provide an argument for high tax rates. It has not done so.”

In other words, tax rates above 20 percent ultimately are self-defeating – even if you’re a statist and you want to maximize the size of the welfare state.

And there’s plenty of data from around the world on specific case studies that show the negative impact of class-warfare taxation, including research from the United States, Denmark, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.

And here’s Part II of my video series on the Laffer Curve, which provides additional evidence.

P.S. If you want some good data showing why Krugman and other class warriors are wrong about tax rates, Alan Reynolds did a very good job of skewering their analysis.

P.P.S. The right tax rate is the one that finances the legitimate functions of government, and not one penny more.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re discussing the Laffer Curve and class-warfare taxation, it’s appropriate to share this very encouraging survey of economists. They were asked whether they agreed with the fundamental premise of Thomas Piketty’s work on inequality and taxation.

Wow. This is about as close as you can get to unanimous rejection as you can get.

By the way, even if 2-3 percent of economists are right, that still doesn’t justify Piketty’s policy prescriptions.

P.P.P.P.S. In addition to writing about taxation, Richard is the creator of the famous Rahn Curve.

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What’s the relationship between the Rahn Curve and the Laffer Curve?

For the uninitiated, the Rahn Curve is the common-sense notion that some government is helpful for prosperous markets but too much government is harmful to economic performance.

Even libertarians, for instance, will acknowledge that spending on core “public goods” such as police protection and courts (assuming, of course, low levels of corruption) can enable the smooth functioning of markets.

Some even argue that government spending on human capital and physical capital can facilitate economic activity. For what it’s worth, I think that the government’s track record in those areas leaves a lot to be desired, so I’d prefer to give the private sector a greater role in areas such as education and highways.

The big problem, though, is that most government spending is for programs that are often categorized as “transfers” and “consumption.” And these are outlays that clearly are associated with weaker economic performance.

This is why small-government economies such as Hong Kong and Singapore tend to grow faster than the medium-government economies such as the United States and Australia. And it also explains why growth is even slower is big-government economies such as France and Italy.

The Laffer Curve, for those who don’t remember, is the common-sense depiction of the relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

The essential insight is that taxable income is not fixed (regardless of the Joint Committee on Taxation’s flawed methodology).

When tax rates are low, people will earn and report lots of income, but when tax rates are high, taxpayers figure out ways of reducing the amount of taxable income they earn and report to government.

This is why, for instance, the rich paid much more to the IRS after Reagan lower the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

So why am I giving a refresher course on the Rahn Curve and Laffer Curve?

Because I’ve been asked on many occasions whether there is a relationship between the two concepts and I’ve never had a good answer.

But I’m happy to call attention to the good work of other folks, so here’s a very well done depiction of the relationship between the two curves (though in this case the Rahn Curve is called the Armey Curve).

I should hasten to add, by the way, that I don’t agree with the specific numbers.

I think the revenue-maximizing rate is well below 45 percent and I think the growth-maximizing rate is well below 30 percent.

But the image above is spot on in that it shows that a nation should not be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve.

Since I’m obviously a big fan of the Rahn Curve and I also like drawing lessons from cross-country comparisons, here’s a video on that topic from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Well done, though I might quibble on two points, though the first is just the meaningless observation that the male boxer is not 6′-6″ and 250 lbs.

My real complaint (and this will sound familiar) is that I’m uneasy with the implication around the 1:45 mark that growth is maximized when government spending consumes 25 percent of economic output.

This implies, for instance, that government in the United States was far too small in the 1800s and early 1900s when the overall burden of government spending was about 10 percent of GDP.

But I suppose I’m being pedantic. Outlays at the national, state, and local level in America now consume more than 38 percent of economic output according to the IMF and we’re heading in the wrong direction because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs.

So if we can stop government from getting bigger and instead bring it back down to 25 percent of GDP, even I will admit that’s a huge accomplishment.

Libertarian Nirvana would be nice, but I’m more concerned at this point about simply saving the nation from becoming Greece.

P.S. I’ve shared numerous columns from Walter Williams and he is one of America’s best advocates of individual liberty and economic freedom.

Now there’s a documentary celebrating his life and accomplishments. Here’s a video preview.

Given Walter’s accomplishments, you won’t be surprised to learn that there’s another video documentary about his life.

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I’m a big advocate of the Laffer Curve.

Simply stated, it’s absurdly inaccurate to think that taxpayers and the economy are insensitive to changes in tax policy.

Yet bureaucracies such as the Joint Committee on Taxation basically assume that the economy will be unaffected and that tax revenues will jump dramatically if tax rates are boosted by, say, 100 percent.

In the real world, however, big changes in tax policy can and will lead to changes in taxable income. In other words, incentives matter. If the government punishes you more for earning more income, you will figure out ways to reduce the amount of money you report on your tax return.

This sometimes means that people will choose to be less productive. Why bust your derrière, after all, if government confiscates a big chunk of your additional earnings? Why make the sacrifice to set aside some of your income when the government imposes extra layers of tax on saving and investment? And why allocate your money on the basis of economic efficiency when you can reduce your taxable income by dumping your investments into something like municipal bonds that escape the extra layers of tax?

Or people can decide to hide some of the money they earn from the grasping claws of the IRS. Contractors can work off the books. Workers can take wages under the table. Business owners can overstate their expenses in order to reduce taxable income.

To reiterate, people respond to incentives. And that means you can’t estimate what will happen to tax revenues simply by looking at changes in tax rates. You also need to look at what’s happening to the amount of income people are willing to both earn and report.

Which is why I’m interested in some new research from two Canadian economists, one from the University of Toronto and one from the University of British Columbia. They looked at how rich people in Canada responded when their tax rates were altered.

Here are some excerpts from the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In this paper we estimate the elasticity of reported income using the sub-national variation across Canadian provinces. …Comparing across provinces and through time, we find that elasticities are large for incomes at the top of the income distribution… The provincial tax rates for high earners vary strongly across the country, ranging from a low of 10 percent in Alberta to a high of 25.75 in Quebec. …at the top of the income distribution…these taxpayers have access to substantial financial advice that may facilitate tax avoidance. …We pay particular attention to the categories for $250,000 and those that report income between $150,000 and $250,000 as that income range is the closest to the P99 cutoff on which we focus.

Interestingly, the economists state that upper-income taxpayers should be less sensitive to tax rates today because less of their income is from investments.

…the source of incomes among those at the top has shifted substantially over the last half century from capital income toward earned income. All else equal, this change would tend to make income shifting or tax avoidance more difficult now than in earlier times.

Yet their results suggest that the taxable income of highly productive Canadians (those with incomes in the top 1 percent or the top 1/10th of 1 percent) is very sensitive to changes in tax rates.

The third column has the results for the bottom nine tenths of the top one percent, P99 to P99.9. Here, the estimate is a positive and significant 0.364. Finally, the top P99.9 percentile group shows an elasticity of 1.451, which is highly significant and large. …our estimate of 0.689 for P99 is high, and 1.451 for P99.9 very high.

And because rich people can raise or lower their taxable income in response to changing tax rates, this has big Laffer Curve implications.

According to the research, the revenue-maximizing tax rate for the top 1 percent is 44.4 percent and the revenue-maximizing tax rate for the even more successful top 1/10th of 1 percent is 27.5 percent!

The magnitude of our estimates can be put into context by calculating the revenue-maximizing tax rate τ∗, which is the rate corresponding to the peak of the so-called ‘Laffer Curve’. At this point, an incrementally higher rate will raise no further net revenue as the mechanical effect of the tax increase will be completely offset by the behavioural response of lower taxable income. …Plugging a = 1.81 and e = 0.689 into equation (8) yields an estimate for τ∗ of 44.4 percent. In Figure 1, four provinces have a top marginal tax rate for 2013 under 44.4 percent and six provinces are higher. Using the P99.9 estimate of 1.451, the revenue maximizing tax rate τ∗ would be only 27.5 percent. If true, this would suggest all provinces could increase revenue by lowering the tax rate for those in income group P99.9.

By the way, you read correctly, the revenue-maximizing tax rate for the super rich is lower than the revenue-maximizing tax rate for the regular rich.

This almost certainly is because very rich taxpayers get a greater share of their income from business and investment sources, and thus have more control over the timing, level, and composition of their earnings. Which means they can more easily suppress their income when tax rates go up and increase their income when tax rates fall.

That’s certainly what we see in the U.S. data and I assume Canadians aren’t that different.

But now it’s time for a big caveat.

I don’t want to maximize revenue for the government. Not from the top 1/10th of 1 percent. Not from the top 1 percent. I don’t want to maximize the amount of revenue coming from any taxpayers. If tax rates are near the revenue-maximizing point, it implies a huge loss of private output per additional dollar collected by government.

As I’ve repeatedly argued, we want to be at the growth-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve. And that’s the level of tax necessary to finance the few legitimate functions of government.

That being said, the point of this blog post is to show that Obama, Krugman, and the rest of the class-warfare crowd are extremely misguided when they urge confiscatory tax rates on the rich.

Unless, of course, their goal is to punish success rather than to raise revenue.

P.S. Check out the IRS data from the 1980s on what happened to tax revenue from the rich when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

I’ve used this information in plenty of debates and I’ve never run across a statist who has a good response.

P.P.S. I also think this polling data from certified public accountants is very persuasive.

I don’t know about you, but I suspect CPAs have a much better real-world understanding of the impact of tax policy than the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

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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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It boggles the mind to think that the United States now has the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world.

But it’s even more amazing that America arguably has the most punitive corporate tax rate in the entire world.

Here’s some of what I wrote on the topic for today’s U.K.-based Telegraph.

…the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world (and the highest in the entire world, according to KPMG, if you ignore the United Arab Emirates’ severance tax on oil companies). …The central government in Washington imposes a 35pc rate on corporate income, with most states then adding their own levies, with the net result being an average corporate rate of 39.1pc. This compares with 37pc in Japan, which has the dubious honour of being in second place, according to the tax database of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). …if you broaden the analysis, it becomes even more evident that the United States has fallen behind in the global shift to more competitive corporate tax systems. The average corporate tax for OECD nations has dropped to 24.8pc. For EU nations, the average corporate tax is even lower, with a rate of less than 22pc. And don’t forget the Asian Tiger economies, with Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong all clustered around 17pc, as well as the fiscal paradises that don’t impose any corporate income tax, such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

I also explain that America’s system of “worldwide” taxation exacerbates the anti-competitive nature of the U.S. tax system for companies trying to compete in global markets.

And I warn why making “inversions” illegal is a misguided and self-defeating response.

Blocking inversions…is like breaking the thermometer because you don’t like the temperature. It simply masks the underlying problem. In the long run, the United States will lose jobs and investment because of bad corporate tax policy, regardless of whether companies have the right to invert.

In other words, America desperately needs a lower corporate tax rate.

The crowd in Washington, however, says American can’t “afford” a lower corporate tax rate. The amount of foregone revenue would be too large, they claim.

Yet let’s look at what happened when Canada lowered its corporate tax burden. Here’s a chart prepared by the Tax Foundation.

The Tax Foundation augmented the chart with some important commentary on why companies are attracted to Canada.

Part of the attraction is the substantial tax reforms that occurred over the last 15 years in Canada. First among these is the dramatic reduction in the corporate tax rate, from 43 percent in 2000 to 26 percent today.

What about tax revenue?

The U.S. currently has a corporate tax rate of 39 percent, but lawmakers are reluctant to do what Canada did, i.e. lower the tax rate, for fear of losing tax revenue. …According to OECD data, corporate tax revenue increased following Canada’s corporate tax rate cuts that began in 2000. …Corporate tax revenue as a share of GDP in Canada has averaged 3.3 percent since 2000, while it averaged 2.9 percent over the years 1988 to 2000, when Canada’s corporate tax rate was 43 percent.

My colleague Chris Edwards also reviewed this issue (and he’s a former Canadian, so pay close attention).

Here’s his chart showing the corporate tax rates imposed at the national level by both the U.S. government and the Canadian government.

As you can see, the rates were somewhat similar between 1985 and 2000, with the Canadians having a slight advantage. But then Canada opened up  a big lead over America by dropping the central government tax rate on corporations to 15 percent.

So what happened to corporate tax revenue?

As you can see from his second chart, receipts are very volatile based on economic performance. But the Canadian government is collecting more revenue, measured as a share of total economic output, than the American government.

In spite of having a lower tax rate. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the Canadians are generating more corporate tax revenue because of the lower tax rate.

In other words, the Laffer Curve is alive and well.

Not that we should be surprised. Scholars at the American Enterprise Institute estimate that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is about 25 percent, far below the 39.1 percent rate imposed on companies in the United States.

And Tax Foundation experts calculate that the revenue-maximizing rate even lower, down around 15 percent.

P.S. Don’t forget that when politicians impose high tax burdens on companies, the real victims are workers.

P.P.S. And since America’s corporate tax system ranks below even Zimbabwe, we’re in real trouble.

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What do cigarettes and capital gains have in common?

Well, they both start with the same letter, so maybe the Cookie Monster could incorporate them into his favorite song, but I’m thinking about something else. Specifically, both cigarettes and capital gains tell us something important about tax policy, the Laffer Curve, and the limits of political bullying.

In both cases, there are folks on the left who disapprove of these two “c” words and want to penalize them with high tax rates.

But it turns out that both cigarettes and capital gains are moving targets, so the politicians are grossly mistaken if they think that punitive taxation will generate a windfall of revenue.

I’ve already discussed why it’s senseless to impose high tax rates on capital gains. Simply stated, people can avoid the tax by not selling assets.

This might not be an ideal way of managing one’s investments, and it certainly isn’t good for the economy if it discourages new investment and prevents people from shifting existing investments into more productive uses, but it’s very effective as a strategy for individuals to protect against excessive taxation.

We see something quite similar with cigarettes. People can simply choose to buy fewer smokes.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon of Canada’s Montreal Economic Institute explains why higher tobacco taxes are not a guaranteed source of revenue for the political class.

Tax increases do not in each and every case lead to increases in government revenues. …When taxes on the consumption of a good are too high, you can get to a point where taxable consumption decreases and government revenues diminish rather than increase. Or at any rate, they don’t increase as much as what would be expected given the tax increase. This phenomenon constrains government’s ability to levy taxes. …There have been numerous examples in Canada of excessive taxes having a negative impact on government revenues. As shown by my colleagues Jean-François Minardi and Francis Pouliot in a study published last January ., there’s been three “Laffer moments” when it comes to tobacco tax revenues in Quebec since 1976. Whenever the level of taxation exceeded $15 per carton, the proceeds of the tobacco taxes eventually diminished. These are no isolated incidents. Laffer shows that the theory is confirmed by the experience of Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Portugal, and Sweden.

Here’s a chart from his column showing how tax revenue has dropped in Quebec when the tax burden became too onerous.

Michel then acknowledges that some people will be happy about falling revenue because it presumably means fewer smokers.

But that’s not necessarily true.

While it is true that some people are deterred from smoking by tax increases, this is not the case of all smokers. Some avoid taxes by buying contraband cigarettes. Tax increases have no effect on the health of these smokers.

And because the tax burden is so severe, the underground economy for cigarettes is booming.

The folks at Michigan’s Mackinac Center have some remarkable and thorough estimates.

Since 2008, Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysts have periodically published estimates of cigarette smuggling in 47 of the 48 contiguous states. The numbers are quite shocking. In 2012, more than 27 percent of all Michigan in-state consumption was smuggled. In New York, almost 57 percent of all cigarettes consumed in the state were also illicit. This has profound effects on the revenue generated by state (and sometimes local) government. …We estimate nationwide revenue losses due to cigarette smuggling at $5.5 billion, a statistic consistent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ $5 billion estimate for 2009.

Here are the numbers for each state.

If all this evidence isn’t enough for you, I also encourage a look at the impact of higher tobacco taxes in Ireland, the United States, and Bulgaria and Romania.

Heck, even the city of Washington, DC, serves as a perverse role model on the foolishness of over-taxation.

P.S. Since this column focuses on the Laffer Curve and tobacco taxation, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Art Laffer recently put together a Handbook of Tobacco Taxation – Theory and Practice.

P.P.S. Art implies, at least indirectly, that policy makers should set the tax rate on tobacco at the revenue-maximizing level. That is far better than having the rate above the revenue-maximizing level, to be sure, but it rubs me the wrong way. I will repeat to my final day on earth that the growth-maximizing tax rate is far superior to the revenue-maximizing tax rate.

P.P.P.S. I’m currently in Australia for a series of speeches on fiscal policy. But as you can see from this photo, the PotL and I managed to find time to act like shameless tourists.

Tourists in Oz

P.P.P.P.S. Since I’m imitating Crocodile Dundee in the photo, I should close by noting that Paul Hogan (the actor who played Crocodile Dundee) has been harassed by the Australian tax police.

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