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Archive for the ‘Savings’ Category

I confess that I get a bit of perverse pleasure when a left-leaning media outlet screws up and inadvertently shares information that helps the cause of limited government.

A New York Times columnist, for instance, pushed for a tax-hiking fiscal agreement back in 2011 based on a chart showing that the only successful budget deal was the one that cut taxes.

The following year, another New York Times columnist accidentally demonstrated that politicians are trying to curtail tax competition because they want to increase overall tax burdens.

Now it’s happened again.

In a major story on the pension system in the Netherlands, the New York Times inadvertently acknowledged that genuine private savings is the best route to obtain a secure retirement.

Let’s look at a few excerpts, starting with some very strong praise for the Netherlands in the article.

Imagine a place where pensions were not an ever-deepening quagmire, where the numbers told the whole story and where workers could count on a decent retirement. …That place might just be the Netherlands. And it could provide an example for America… “The rest of the world sort of laughs at the United States — how can a great country like the United States get so many things wrong?” said Keith Ambachtsheer, a Dutch pension specialist who works at the University of Toronto… The Dutch system rests on the idea that each generation should pay its own costs — and that the costs must be measured accurately if that is to happen. …The Dutch approach bears little resemblance to the American practice of shielding the current generation of workers, retirees and taxpayers while pushing costs and risks into the future, where they can metastasize unseen.

Interestingly, the article doesn’t explain what makes the Dutch system so superior to its American counterpart, but the phrase “each generation should pay its own costs” is a big hint.

That basically means that the system is not based on inter-generational redistribution, which is a core feature of pay-as-you-go schemes such as America’s bankrupt Social Security system.

That’s important, but what’s really key is that the Dutch system is based on private savings and private investment. It’s not a pure libertarian system, to be sure, since there are government mandates (such as high mandatory savings to finance generous old-age payments), but it is definitely a far more market-based system than what we have in America.

Here are some details.

About 90 percent of Dutch workers earn real pensions at their jobs. Their benefits are intended to amount to about 70 percent of their lifetime average pay… For this and other reasons, the Netherlands has for years been at or near the top of global pension rankings compiled by Mercer, the consulting firm, and the Australian Center for Financial Studies, among others. Accomplishing this feat — solid workplace pensions for most citizens — isn’t easy. For one thing, it’s expensive. Dutch workers typically sock away nearly 18 percent of their pay, most of it in diversified, professionally run pension funds. That compares with 16.4 percent for American workers, but most of that is for Social Security, which is intended to provide just 40 percent of a middle-class worker’s income in retirement.

And it’s worth noting that a system based on private savings also means that there is lots of money that can be invested.

And “lots of money” isn’t just a throwaway line. The Netherlands leads the OECD in private pension assets, measured as a share of economic output.

It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that the leading nations in this chart (Chile, Iceland, Australia, Switzerland, and Denmark) generally have systems based at least in part on private mandatory savings.

And given that big piles of money are very tempting targets for greedy governments, it’s also worth noting that the Dutch haven’t allowed the system to get politicized.

There’s not the slightest whisper of a rumor, for instance, that the government will grab the money.

Moreover, unlike the United States (particularly when discussing the pension systems operated by state and local governments), pension funds actually have to maintain adequate assets to pay promised benefits.

And no using funky math!

Imagine a place where regulators existed to make sure everyone followed the rules. …standing guard over it is a decidedly capitalist watchdog, the Dutch central bank. …the central bank in 2002 began to require pension funds to keep at least $1.05 on hand for every dollar they would have to pay in future benefits. If a fund fell below the line, it had just three years to recover. …The Dutch central bank also imposed a rigorous method for measuring the current value of all pensions due in the future. …Notably, the Dutch central bank prohibited the measurement method that virtually all American states and cities use, which is based on the hope that strong market gains on pension investments will make the benefits cheaper. …He explained that in the Netherlands, regulators believe that basing the cost of benefits today on possible investment gains tomorrow is the same as robbing tomorrow’s workers to pay for today’s excesses.

No wonder the Netherlands ranks so much higher than the United States in the rule of law index.

Now that I’ve said what’s good about the system, I’ll be the first to admit that it could be improved.

First and foremost, the Dutch system is basically a near-universal defined-benefits regime, which means that workers get a guaranteed amount of money and it is up to the fund administrator to make sure there is enough money.

This type of system has been very unstable in the United States because of chronic underfunding. The Dutch so far seem to have avoided that problem, but I still prefer the defined-contribution systems, which means that workers get back exactly what they paid in, plus all the earnings.

And the good news, from this perspective, is that the Dutch are moving in this direction according to a British service that monitors global pension developments.

Occupational pension schemes in the Netherlands are still mostly defined benefit (DB) schemes. But as companies are seeking to control costs and risk, a massive shift from final salary career average plans is taking place. Also, the popularity of defined contribution (DC) and hybrid schemes is growing.

One thing I wouldn’t change about the Dutch system is the tax treatment. The Dutch have what is sometimes called an exempt-exempt-tax (EET) system, which is sort of like a traditional IRA (i.e., no double taxation).

The Dutch government explains that the income is taxed only one time.

No tax is levied on pension contributions. And the growth of pension rights via the pension fund’s investment performance remains untaxed. Pension benefit is only taxed when it is received.

And let’s hope it stays that way, though the welfare state in the Netherlands is so large that the nation does have some significant long-run fiscal challenges. And that could lead future politicians to sacrifice the stability of the private pension system in order to prop up big government.

That being said, I would gladly trade the U.S. Social Security system for the Dutch mandatory pension system. An imperfect system based on private savings is always a better bet than a perfectly terrible tax-and-transfer scheme.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated explaining why personal retirement accounts are far superior to government-run schemes such as Social Security.

By the way, since I began this column by making fun of the New York Times, I may as well close it by sharing examples of biased and/or sloppy reporting by that outlet.

And none of this counts Paul Krugman’s mistakes, which are in a special category (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for a few examples).

P.S. I shouldn’t be too critical of the New York Times. After all, they ran a great piece by Pierre Bessard dealing with tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy. Heck, they once even let me pontificate on those issues.

P.P.S. While the Dutch system is far better than the American system, I think Australia is the best role model. Chile also is a big success.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And here’s a Social Security joke, though it’s too close to being true to be funny.

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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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As part of his State-of-the-Union speech, President Obama announced he was going to unilaterally create a new retirement savings account that supposedly would be available to all workers.

Employers would be mandated to facilitate these”MyRA” accounts, and the money collected would be invested in “guaranteed” government bonds.

There are some good features to the MyRA plan, most notably the fact that money in the accounts would be protected from double taxation. Workers would put after-tax money in the accounts, but there would be no additional layers of tax on any earnings, or when the money is withdrawn.

In other words, a MyRA would be akin to a back-ended (or Roth) IRA.

But there are some bad features, including the fact that taxpayers would be subsidizing the earnings, or interest, paid to account holders (though this would be a relatively benign form of government spending, at least compared to Obamacare, ethanol, etc, etc).

My biggest complaints, though, are the sins of omission, which I discuss in this interview for Blaze TV.

Simply stated, if Obama was concerned about low returns for savers, he should be directing his ire at the Federal Reserve, which has artificially pushed interest rates to very low levels as part of its easy-money policy.

But more importantly, MyRAs will be very inadequate for most workers with modest incomes. If the President really wanted to help ordinary people save for retirement, he would follow the successful example of more than 30 other nations and allow workers to shift their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts.

This video explains why reform is so desirable.

Critics say it would be very expensive to make a transition to this modern system, and they’re right. If we let younger workers put their payroll taxes in a personal accounts, we’ll have to come up with a new source of revenue to finance benefits being paid to current retirees and older workers.

And we’re talking lots of money, as much as $7 trillion over the next few decades.

But that’s a lot less than the $36 trillion cash shortfall that we’ll have to somehow deal with if we maintain the current system.

In other words, we’re in a very deep hole. But if we shift to personal retirement accounts, the hole won’t be nearly as large.

P.S. The video mentions that Chile and Australia deserve special attention. Click here if you want to learn about Chile’s successful system and click here if you want to see how Australia’s “superannuation” system has been a big winner.

P.P.S. Some people already have asked me whether I was too Pollyannish in saying that there’s no risk for several decades that Washington will default. I could be wrong, of course, and I have shared BISOECD, and IMF data that reveals the United States has gigantic long-run fiscal challenges. But as I said in the interview, I think most other welfare states will collapse first, and that will lead to “flight capital” coming to America, which will help prop up our system.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate dark humor.

P.P.P.P.S. You probably don’t want to know how Obama would like to “fix” the Social Security shortfall.

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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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I’m a big proponent of tax reform, so at first I was very excited to learn that Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) were launching an effort to clean up the tax code.

But on closer inspection, I don’t think this will lead to a simple and fair system like the flat tax. Or even a national sales tax (assuming we could trust politicians not to pull a bait-and-switch, adding a new tax and never getting rid of the income tax).

But judge for yourself. Here’s some of what’s contained in a letter they sent to their colleagues, starting with some language about the growing complexity of the tax code and the compliance cost for taxpayers.

…since then, the economy has changed dramatically and Congress has made more than 15,000 changes to the tax code. The result is a tax base riddled with exclusions, deductions and credits. In addition, each year, it costs individuals and businesses more than $160 billion to comply with the tax code. The complexity, inefficiency and unfairness of the tax code are acting as a brake on our economy. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Sounds good, though they also could have mentioned other indicators of nightmarish complexity, such as the number of pages in the tax code, the number of special tax provisions, or the number of pages in the 1040 instruction manual.

I’m a bit mystified, however, at the low-ball estimate of $160 billion of compliance costs. As explained in this video, there are far higher estimates that are based on very sound methodology.

But perhaps I’m nit-picking. Let’s see with Senators Baucus and Hatch want to do.

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences that some refer to as “tax expenditures.”

I don’t like the term “tax expenditure” since it implies that the government taking money from person A and giving it to person B is equivalent to the government simply letting person B keep their own money. These two approaches may be economically equivalent in certain cases, but they’re not morally equivalent.

Once again, however, I may be guilty of nit-picking.

That being said, there is a feature of the “blank slate” approach which does generate legitimate angst. There’s a footnote in the letter that states that the Joint Committee on Taxation is in charge of determining so-called tax expenditures.

A complete list of these special tax provisions as defined by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

This is very troubling. The JCT may be non-partisan, but it’s definitely not non-ideological. These are the bureaucrats, for instance, who assume that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! Moreover, the JCT uses the “Haig-Simons” tax system as a benchmark, which means they start with the assumption that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

This is not nit-picking. The definition of “tax expenditure” is a critical policy decision, not something to be ceded to the other side before the debate even begins.

As illustrated by this chart, the tax code is very biased against saving and investment.

Between the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the double tax on dividends, and the death tax, it’s possible for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four different times.

This is a very foolish policy, particularly since every school of thought in the economics profession agrees that capital formation is a key to long-run growth. Even the Marxists and socialists!

To make matters worse, double taxation puts America at competitive disadvantage. To get a sense of how the U.S. tax system is a self-inflicted wound, check out these sobering international comparisons of death tax burdens and the degree of double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

Here’s what the Haig-Simons tax base means.

1. An assumption that new business investment should be penalized with depreciation instead of being treated neutrally with expensing.

2. An assumption that IRAs and 401(k)s are loopholes to be eliminated, when they’re actually ways to protect against double taxation.

3. An assumption that various other forms of double taxation – such as the capital gains tax – should be retained.

But that’s not the only preemptive capitulation to bad policy.

The “blank slate” assumes that the class-warfare bias in the tax code also should be part of the benchmark against which possible reforms will be judged.

…we asked the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and Finance Committee tax staff to estimate the relationship between tax expenditures and the current tax rates if the current level of progressivity is maintained. …The blank slate approach would allow significant deficit reduction or rate reduction, while maintaining the current level of progressivity.

Since the internal revenue code already imposes a disproportionate burden on upper-income taxpayers – even when compared to European welfare states, it doesn’t make sense to automatically assume an ideological agenda such as progressivity.

This has been a very long answer to a simple question, but it’s very important to realize that tax reform is a three-legged stool. If we want to minimize the economic damage of generating revenue for government, we should have 1) a low tax rate, 2) no distorting tax preferences, and 3) no distorting tax penalties such as double taxation.

Unfortunately, too many people focus only on the first and second legs of the stool. And while tax rates and deductions are important, so is double taxation.

I’m not asserting that the “blank slate” should have assumed no double taxation (sometimes referred to as the “Fisher-Ture” tax base or “consumption” tax base).

But I don’t think it would have been unreasonable for Senators Baucus and Hatch to have told other Senators that one of their choices would be to pick either the Haig-Simons approach or the Fisher-Ture approach.

Heck, even the Congressional Budget Office acknowledged that there are two ways of measuring tax expenditures. To reiterate, the choice of tax base should be a policy decision, not a built-in assumption.

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I’m cited some remarkable examples of Orwellian language abuse.

I prefer the honest approach. If you believe in bigger government and higher taxes, you should “man up” and openly express your views. Don’t dissemble, prevaricate, mislead, and obfuscate.

The same is true, by the way, for advocates of individual freedom and smaller government. I’ve always admired Barry Goldwater, who famously wrote, “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” There’s no ambiguity in that statement!

Anyhow, we have a new entry in this contest for the most egregious use of Orwellian word games. And, not surprisingly, it’s by a statist.

Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, wrote a column claiming that people are getting an entitlement if the government doesn’t double tax their retirement savings.

This spring Obama proposed a cap of about $3.4 million on how much people can save in their tax-advantaged IRAs and 401(k) plans… Obama isn’t keeping people from saving as much money as they can or want. The question is how much the rest of us should have to chip in. Obama is suggesting that at some point retirement accounts, invented to encourage working people to set aside enough for their sunset years, no longer need a helping hand from taxpayers. …The entitlement culture…runs deeper than the entitlement programs we normally think of, like Medicare and Social Security. …Now it’s the top one-thousandth demanding their right to tax breaks for socking away unlimited wealth in retirement plans.

There are several things about these excerpts that rub me the wrong way.

First, IRAs and 401(k)s are not “tax advantaged.” They’re tax neutral. These vehicles exist so that people don’t get double taxed on their savings. As I explained last year.

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.

But let’s set that aside. My main gripe with Hiatt’s column is that he wants us to think that people with IRAs and 401(k)s are getting “a helping hand from taxpayers” and that this is part of an “entitlement culture.”

This is statist nonsense. If somebody has an IRA and 401(k), they’re saving their own money. There’s no obligation being imposed on me or any other taxpayer.

But Hiatt presumably thinks that the government’s decision not to impose double taxation is somehow akin to a giveaway. But that only makes sense if you assume that government has a preemptive claim to all private income.

And if you have that bizarre mindset, then I guess it makes sense that IRAs and 401(k)s are part of the “entitlement culture.”

In other words, Hiatt wants us the think that there’s no moral, ethical, or economic difference between giving person A $5,000 of other people’s money and person B being allowed to keep $5,000 of his or her own money.

But if that’s true, why bother producing and subjecting yourself to stress when your reward is punitive tax rates? Why not participate in the easy side of the “entitlement culture” and simply take other people’s money?

In the real world, of course, that leads to policies with ever-growing numbers of people choosing to ride in the wagon and fewer and fewer people pulling the wagon.

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As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I said that Australia probably would be the best option if the United States suffered some sort of Greek-style fiscal meltdown that led to a societal collapse.*

One reason I’m so bullish on Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system called “Superannuation,” with workers setting aside 9 percent of their income in personal retirement accounts (rising to 12 percent by 2020).

Established almost 30 years ago, and made virtually universal about 20 years ago, this system is far superior to the actuarially bankrupt Social Security system in the United States.

Probably the most sobering comparison is to look at a chart of how much private wealth has been created in Superannuation accounts and then look at a chart of the debt that we face for Social Security.

To be blunt, the Aussies are kicking our butts. Their system gets stronger every day and our system generates more red ink every day.

And their system is earning praise from unexpected places. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, led by a former Clinton Administration official, is not a right-wing bastion. So it’s noteworthy when it publishes a study praising Superannuation.

Australia’s retirement income system is regarded by some as among the best in the world. It has achieved high individual saving rates and broad coverage at reasonably low cost to the government.

Since I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s system, I can say with confidence that the author is not exaggerating. It’s a very good role model, for reasons I’ve previously discussed.

Here’s more from the Boston College study.

The program requires employers to contribute 9 percent of earnings, rising to 12 percent by 2020, to a tax-advantaged retirement plan for each employee age 18 to 70 who earns more than a specified minimum amount. …Over 90 percent of employed Australians have savings in a Superannuation account, and the total assets in these accounts now exceed Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. …Australia has been extremely effective in achieving key goals of any retirement income system. …Its Superannuation Guarantee program has generated high and rising levels of saving by essentially the entire active workforce.

The study does include some criticisms, some of which are warranted. The system can be gamed by those who want to take advantage of the safety net retirement system maintained by the government.

Australia’s means-tested Age Pension creates incentives to reduce one’s “means” in order to collect a higher means-tested benefit. This can be done by spending down one’s savings and/or investing these savings in assets excluded from the Age Pension means test. What makes this situation especially problematic is that workers can currently access their Superannuation savings at age 55, ten years before becoming eligible for Age Pension benefits at 65. This ability creates an incentive to retire early, live on these savings until eligible for an Age Pension, and collect a higher benefit, sometimes referred to as “double dipping.”

Though I admit dealing with this issue may require a bit of paternalism. Should individuals be forced to turn their retirement accounts into an income stream (called annuitization) once they reach retirement age?

I’m torn on this issue. Paternalists sometimes do have good ideas, but shouldn’t people have the freedom to make their own decisions, even if they make mistakes? But does the answer to that question change when mistakes mean that those people will be taking money from taxpayers?

Fortunately, I don’t need to be wishy-washy on the other criticism in the study.

Australia’s system does have shortcomings. It is heavily dependent on defined contribution plans and is vulnerable to weaknesses in such programs.

I strongly disagree. A “defined contribution” account is something to applaud, not a shortcoming.

The author presumably is worried that a “DC” account leaves a worker vulnerable to the ups and downs of the market, whereas a “defined benefit” account promises a specific payment and removes that uncertainty. Sounds great, but the problem with “DB” accounts is that they almost inevitably seem to promise more than they can deliver. And that seems to be the case whether they’re supposedly based on real savings (like company retirement plans or pension funds for state and local bureaucrats) or based on pay-as-you-go taxation (like Social Security).

*Since I’m somewhat optimistic that America can be saved, I’m not recommending you head Down Under just yet.

P.S. I’m also a huge fan of Chile’s system of private accounts. At the risk of oversimplifying, Chile’s system is sort of like universal IRAs and Australia’s system is sort of like universal 401(k)s.

P.P.S. There’s much to admire about Australia, but its government is plenty capable of boneheaded policy. Heck, the government even provides workers’ compensation payments to people who get injured while having sex after work hours, simply because they were on a business-related trip. Talk about double dipping!

P.P.P.S. Here’s my video explaining why we should implement personal retirement accounts in the United States.

P.P.P.S. The death tax has been abolished in Australia, so there’s more to admire than just personal retirement accounts.

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