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Posts Tagged ‘Marginal tax rates’

Because of Obama’s class-warfare tax hike and additional tax increases by kleptocrats at the state level, many successful taxpayers will now lose more than 50 percent of any additional income they generate for the American economy.

I discuss the implications of this punitive tax policy in this CNBC interview.

Normally, this is the section where I highlight certain points I made, or bemoan the fact that I failed to mention an important fact or overlooked a key argument. Today, though, I want to address the do-taxes-impact-growth issue raised by Robert Frank.

More specifically, I want to debunk the Congressional Research Service study that he indirectly mentioned about two minutes into the segment. This is the report that asserted that it doesn’t matter if we impose high tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers.

The results of the analysis suggest that changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax rate do not appear correlated with economic growth. The reduction in the top tax rates appears to be uncorrelated with saving, investment, and productivity growth. The top tax rates appear to have little or no relation to the size of the economic pie.

The good news is that I don’t really need to debunk this CRS study because Steve Entin already has undertaken that unpleasant task. Writing for the Tax Foundation, Steve points out some rather fatal flaws in the CRS study.

The study makes no effort to determine the channels through which the tax changes ought to work to affect the economy, looks at the wrong measure of progress over the wrong time frame, and takes inadequate account of what other tax or economic events are occurring at the same time that might mask the results. …Other changes in taxes and other influences on the economy occurring at the same time can easily hide or counteract the effect of the top tax rate changes alone. It is often impossible to hold other things constant to allow one to see the impact of the single item one wants to assess. When these other influences are omitted from the model, the “missing variables” problem poisons the results. …one should look at the long-term change in the capital stock and the ultimate level of output, not the short-term rise in investment and the short-term change in the growth rate. If one looks only at the growth rate, and not at the level of GDP, one could conclude that the tax rate change has only a temporary benefit, when in fact it is permanently helpful. …Looking only at the amount of investment triggered in the year following the tax change misses the point. The same holds true in the opposite direction for a tax increase. It takes years to retire through attrition the excess capital made redundant by a tax increase. Looking only at the change in investment in the year after the tax cut, rather than the cumulative increase in the stock of capital over time, misses about 95 percent of the impact. You can’t predict this fall’s apple crop by counting the number of seedlings planted this spring. The CRS study omits important variables and poisons its results by not holding other factors constant. The variables it does examine are indirectly related to the relationship one should be studying, but the study does not follow them for long enough to get the whole picture. The study is as weak now as it was when it was first issued. Grade: F.

By the way, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the author of the CRS study is not exactly dispassionate and neutral on these matters.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Mr. Hungerford has donated to the Obama campaign and Senate Democrats and worked as an economist at the White House budget office under Bill Clinton.

In closing, I did address the taxes-growth issue last year. I wasn’t debunking the CRS study, but I was exposing the errors in some very similar analysis by a writer for the New York Times.

Here’s the key passage from that post.

Yes, lower tax rates are better for economic performance, just as wheels matter for a car’s performance. But if a car doesn’t have an engine, transmission, steering wheel, and brakes, it’s not going to matter how nice the wheels are.

In other words, I was focusing on the fact that you can’t accurately and honestly examine tax policy without looking at the impact of other public policy issues.

I made that point in the CNBC interview, of course, though it’s unclear whether the message got through.

But I think the Clinton years and Bush years make my point. Bill Clinton was bad on tax policy in 1993, but was good on almost everything else (including a cut in the capital gains tax rate in 1997), whereas George W. Bush was okay on tax policy, but was bad on just about everything else.

So here are a couple of very simple questions.

  1. Given what we now know about the increase in economic freedom under Clinton and the loss in economic freedom under Bush, is anybody surprised that the economy did better under Clinton than it did under Bush?
  2. Does anybody think that the economy prospered under Clinton because he raised tax rates in 1993?
  3. Does anybody think the economy was anemic under Bush because he lowered taxes in 2001 and 2003?

Depending on how you answer those questions, you may be qualified to work at the Congressional Research Service.

But if you understand that it’s important to look at the overall burden of government when measuring the impact of public policy on economic performance, then…well, I’m not sure whether I can promise anything other than you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re intellectually honest and economically literate.

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Alan Blinder has a distinguished resume. He’s a professor at Princeton and he served as Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

So I was interested to see he authored an attack on the flat tax – and I was happy after I read his column. Why? Well, because his arguments are rather weak. So anemic that it makes me think there’s actually a chance to get rid of America’s corrupt internal revenue code.

There are two glaring flaws in his argument. First, he demonstrates a complete lack of familiarity with the flat tax and seemingly assumes that tax reform simply means imposing one rate on the current system.

Here’s some of what he wrote in a Wall Street Journal column.

Many useful steps could be taken to simplify the personal income tax. But, contrary to much misleading rhetoric, flattening the rate structure isn’t one of them. The truth is that 100% of the complexity inheres in the definition of taxable income, which takes up millions of words in the tax laws. None inheres in the progressive rate structure. If you don’t believe that, consider the fact that the corporate income tax is virtually flat once a corporation passes a paltry $75,000 in taxable income. Is it simple? Back to the personal tax. Figuring out your taxable income can be quite an effort. But once that is done, most taxpayers just look up their tax bill on an IRS-provided table. Those with incomes above $100,000 must perform a simple calculation that involves multiplying two numbers together and adding a third. A flat tax with an exemption would require precisely the same sort of calculation. The net reduction in complexity? Zero.

I can understand how an average person might think the flat tax is nothing more than applying a single tax rate to the current system, but any public finance economist must know that the plan devised by Professors Hall and Rabushka completely rips up the current tax system and implements a new system based on one tax rate with no double taxation and no loopholes.

Heck, the Hall/Rabushka book is online and free of charge. But Blinder obviously could not be bothered to understand the proposal before launching his attack.

What about his second mistake? This one’s a doozy. He actually assumes that taxable income is fixed, which is a remarkable error for anyone who supposedly understands economics.

…flattening the rate structure won’t make the tax code any simpler. It would, however, make the tax system far less progressive. Do the math. …Someone with $20 million in taxable income pays nearly $7 million in taxes under the current rate structure, with its 35% top rate. Replace that with a 23% flat tax, and the bill drops to just under $4.6 million.

In other words, he assumes that people won’t change their behavior even though incentives to engage in productive behavior are significantly altered.

In a previous post, I showed how rich people dramatically increased the amount of income they were willing to earn and report after Reagan lowered the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

To Blinder, this real-world evidence doesn’t matter – even though the rich paid much more tax to the IRS after Reagan slashed tax rates.

For more information, here’s my flat tax video.

And here’s the video on the global flat tax revolution. Interestingly, there are now about five more flat tax jurisdictions since this video was made – though Iceland abandoned its flat tax, so there are some steps in the wrong direction.

Makes you wonder. If the flat tax is such a bad idea, why are so many nations doing so well using this simple and fair approach?

But be careful, as this cartoon demonstrates, simplicity can mean bad things if the wrong people are in charge.

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One of my frustrating missions in life is to educate policy makers on the Laffer Curve.

This means teaching folks on the left that tax policy affects incentives to earn and report taxable income. As such, I try to explain, this means it is wrong to assume a simplistic linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue. If you double tax rates, for instance, you won’t double tax revenue.

But it also means teaching folks on the right that it is wildly wrong to claim that “all tax cuts pay for themselves” or that “tax increases always mean less revenue.” Those results occur in rare circumstances, but the real lesson of the Laffer Curve is that some types of tax policy changes will result in changes to taxable income, and those shifts in taxable income will partially offset the impact of changes in tax rates.

However, even though both sides may need some education, it seems that the folks on the left are harder to teach – probably because the Laffer Curve is more of a threat to their core beliefs.

If you explain to a conservative politician that a goofy tax cut (such as a new loophole to help housing) won’t boost the economy and that the static revenue estimate from the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation is probably right, they usually understand.

But liberal politicians get very agitated if you tell them that higher marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners probably won’t generate much tax revenue because of incentives (and ability) to reduce taxable income.

To be fair, though, some folks on the left are open to real-world evidence. And this IRS data from the 1980s is particularly effective at helping them understand the high cost of class-warfare taxation.

There’s lots of data here, but pay close attention to the columns on the right and see how much income tax was collected from the rich in 1980, when the top tax rate was 70 percent, and how much was collected from the rich in 1988, when the top tax rate was 28 percent.

The key takeaway is that the IRS collected fives times as much income tax from the rich when the tax rate was far lower. This isn’t just an example of the Laffer Curve. It’s the Laffer Curve on steroids and it’s one of those rare examples of a tax cut paying for itself.

Folks on the right, however, should be careful about over-interpreting this data. There were lots of factors that presumably helped generate these results, including inflation, population growth, and some of Reagan’s other policies. So we don’t know whether the lower tax rates on the rich caused revenues to double, triple, or quadruple. Ask five economists and you’ll get nine answers.

But we do know that the rich paid much more when the tax rate was much lower.

This is an important lesson because Obama wants to run this experiment in reverse. He hasn’t proposed to push the top tax rate up to 70 percent, thank goodness, but the combined effect of his class-warfare policies would mean a substantial increase in marginal tax rates.

We don’t know the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve, but Obama seems determined to push tax rates so high that the government collects less revenue. Not that we should be surprised. During the 2008 campaign, he actually said he would like higher tax rates even if the government collected less revenue.

That’s class warfare on steroids, and it definitely belong on the list of the worst things Obama has ever said.

But I don’t care about the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve. Policy makers should set tax rates so we’re at the growth-maximizing level instead.

To broaden the understanding of the Laffer Curve, share these three videos with your friends and colleagues.

This first video explains the theory of the Laffer Curve.

This second video reviews some of the real-world evidence.

And this video exposes the biased an inaccurate “static scoring” of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

And once we educate everybody about the Laffer Curve, we can then concentrate on teaching them about the equivalent relationship on the spending side of the fiscal ledger, the Rahn Curve.

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I’ve beaten up on Newt Gingrich for his views on global warming and his attack on the Ryan budget plan, but I’m completely on his side in the faux controversy about whether it is racist to call Barack Obama the “food stamp president.”

This story from ABC News should worry everybody, regardless of whether the people getting trapped in government dependency are white, black, brown, yellow, or green with yellow polka dots.

Congress is under pressure to cut the rapidly rising costs of the federal government’s food stamps program at a time when a record number of Americans are relying on it. The House Appropriations Committee today will review the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture that includes $71 billion for the agency’s “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” That’s $2 billion less than what President Obama requested but a 9 percent increase from 2011, which, critics say, is too large given the sizeable budget deficit. A record number of Americans — about 14 percent — now rely on the federal government’s food stamps program and its rapid expansion in recent years has become a politically explosive topic. More than 44.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits in March, an 11 percent increase from one year ago and nearly 61 percent higher than the same time four years ago.

Most people focus on the huge burden that the food stamp program imposes on taxpayers, which surely is significant, but there is another economic cost that is equally worrisome, and it applies to all income redistribution programs. Whenever the government gives people money simply because their incomes are below a certain level, that creates a poverty trap. More specifically, because people lose benefits for earning more income, they are penalized with very onerous implicit marginal tax rates for climbing the economic ladder.

This isn’t intuitive, so here’s a back-of-the-envelope hypothetical example. Let’s assume you are a low-income person who wants a better life and you have a chance to earn an additional $1,000. How much better off will you be, and will it be worth the costs you might incur (non-pecuniary costs such as the loss of leisure and pecuniary costs such as commuting and child care)?

To answer that question, let’s assume your official tax burden on that additional income is 10 percent for federal income tax, 15 percent for payroll tax, and 5 percent for state income tax. You may not even be aware of the employer portion of the payroll tax, so let’s drop that to 7.5 percent (actually 7.65 percent, but let’s keep this simple). And while state taxes are deductible, the vast majority of people with modest incomes don’t utilize itemized deductions. So the marginal tax rate on this additional income, depending on what assumptions you want to make, is between 20 percent and 25 percent.

So if you earn an additional $1,000, your disposable income only increases by about $750-$800. Is that worth it? Maybe, but maybe not, depending on the costs you incur to earn that income. In any event, the marginal tax rate is rather steep for a low-income person, you may be thinking.

But it gets worse. Let’s say that you lose $15 of government handouts for every $100 of additional income your earn. So when you earn $1,000 of income, you only keep $750-$800, but you also have to give up $150 of goodies from the government – meaning your effective disposable income only rises by $600-$650.

This means that your implicit marginal tax rate on earning more money is actually somewhere between 35 percent and 40 percent. In other words, your marginal tax rate is at least as high as the tax rate on rock stars and professional athletes.

Here’s a chart showing the number of food stamp recipients. It certainly looks like America is becoming a food stamp nation. But if you want to see an even more disturbing image, look at the second chart in this article from the Mises Institute. You’ll see that my hypothetical example dramatically understates the marginal tax rate on people trying to join the middle class. As a taxpayer, I don’t like the cost of the food stamp program. As an economist, I hate the high marginal tax rates caused by income redistribution programs.

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I don’t particularly like soccer and I’m not normally a fan of the research of Professor Emannuel Saez, so it is rather surprising that I like Professor Saez’s new research on taxes and soccer.

While Saez may have a reputation for doing work that often is used by advocates of class warfare, his latest research is classic, supply-side economics. He and his co-authors studied soccer players and found that they are very sensitive to marginal tax rates.

They even confirmed that the Laffer Curve is sometimes so strong that governments can collect more revenue by reducing tax rates on the rich. Krugman won’t be happy about this.

Here are some segments from a story about the research in the Christian Science Monitor.

…on one subject, Europe’s soccer stars have an important message for Americans: Tax rates. It turns out that highly paid soccer players are sensitive to taxes. They tend to move to those nations that give them a break. Why is Spain’s top league a sudden soccer powerhouse? One reason is tax policy. Why are Denmark and Belgium’s leagues stronger than in other similar countries? Ditto. In perhaps the first study to provide compelling evidence of a link between tax rates and worker migration, three economists look at this highly paid, highly mobile workforce and make several surprising conclusions: 1) Top marginal tax rates matter to big earners. 2) If you’re going to cut taxes to lure such highly skilled workers, make it a big tax cut. Otherwise, it won’t have much effect. …Professor Saez and his colleagues found something striking: The leagues in low-tax nations attracted better players and had better teams. The effect was also pronounced in individual nations that reformed their taxes. For example, Spain in 2004 introduced a new flat rate of 24 percent for foreign soccer players, nearly half the top marginal rate it charged its residents. After that law – called the “Beckham law” because British star David Beckham took advantage of it – Spain saw its share of foreign players increase while the foreign talent in nearby Italy shrank. Tax cuts for foreign players in Denmark and Belgium had similar effects.

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The Wall Street Journal uses the clash between the Steelers and Packers as an opportunity to make a much-need point about taxes. Because of Pennsylvania’s flat tax, Ben Roethlisberger keeps a greater percentage of his salary than Aaron Rodgers, who gets raped by Wisconsin’s “progressive” tax system. Packers fans shouldn’t worry about this, though, since even I’m not willing to claim that the negative impact of high tax rates on incentives will have any effect on the outcome of the game.

We won’t predict the winner of this Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers. But we can report this much: The Steelers will get to keep a lot more of their season earnings, though both team’s players would be a lot richer if they played all of their home games in Dallas. Take the Packers’ fleet-footed quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He made $8.6 million in 2009, according to USA Today’s database of player salaries. Of that, we calculate he paid roughly $680,000 in state and $3.1 million in federal income and payroll taxes. Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t earn as much, but he got to keep a relatively larger chunk of his haul—$4.6 million of his $7.7 million salary. (This excludes taxes paid to states that tax players visiting on away games.) Unlike Wisconsin, which has a graduated income tax that charges top earners 7.75% on earnings over $220,000, Pennsylvania has a 3% flat rate. Even football players can behold the merit of a flat tax. Of course, both players would keep a lot more of their earnings if like quarterback Tony Romo (salary: $625,000) they played for the Cowboys since Texas levies no state income tax. On the other hand, Packer and Steeler fans will pay if they travel to Texas for the game since Texas’s beer tax is more than twice as high as their home state’s.

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I write about the Laffer Curve so often that I’m surprised people don’t run away screaming. But I’ll continue to be a pest because I want people to understand that you can’t just look at changes in tax rates when predicting changes in tax revenue. You also have to consider changes in taxable income.

Simply stated, my goal is for people to recognize that higher tax rates lower incentives to earn and report income and lower tax rates increase incentives to earn and report income. However, I also want people to understand that this doesn’t mean “all tax cuts pay for themselves.” That only happens in very rare cases. Moreover, it would be good if people recognized that there are lots of factors that influence the economy’s performance, and it’s therefore important to be cautious when making claims about the relationships between tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue.

So we many not be able to precisely measure the impact of the Laffer Curve, we know it’s there and we know it can be very significant. We also know that economic incentives are not constrained by national borders. The Laffer Curve exists even in nations where politicians generally are not sympathetic to good tax policy. France naturally comes to mind, and here are some excerpts from a new report from Pierre Garello. He examines recent changes in tax rates and the tax base, and finds that better tax policy is having a positive impact.

In 2006 a major change was implemented in France regarding the income tax. Not only the top marginal rate was lowered (from 48.09% to 40.00%), but the same treatment was applied to the other rates. Also, the number of brackets was reduced from 7 to 5. As a result, whatever the level of taxable income, the rate applied was lower after the changes took place than before. …the tax base was also enlarged. In particular, while 20% of gross income from salaries was until then automatically deduced to compute the level taxable income, this was no longer the case with income earned in 2006 and after. …Based on data from the French Public Finances General Directorate (DGFiP) we can see that the impact was a minor drop in tax revenues from the 2006 personal income followed by a slightly higher increase in PIT revenues from 2007 earnings. As illustrated by the graph below, the successive cuts in marginal tax rates between 1995 and 2007 have resulted in higher tax revenues.

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Much to my surprise, Senate Republicans held firm earlier today and blocked President Obama’s soak-the-rich proposal to raise tax rates next year on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

I fully expected that GOPers would fold on this issue several months ago because Democrats were using the class-warfare argument that Republicans were holding the middle class hostage in order to protect “millionaires and billionaires.” Republicans usually have a hard time fighting back against such demagoguery, and I was especially pessimistic since every Republican Senator had to stay united to block Senate Democrats from pushing through Obama’s plan for higher tax rates on the so-called rich.

But the GOP surprised me earlier this year with their united opposition to higher taxes, and they stayed strong again today in blocking a bill that would raise tax rates on upper-income taxpayers. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times.

Republicans voted unanimously against the House-passed bill, and they were joined by four Democrats — Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Jim Webb of Virginia — as well as by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut. “You don’t raise taxes if your ultimate goal, if the main thing is to create jobs,” said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, echoing an argument made repeatedly by his colleagues during the floor debate. The Senate on Saturday also rejected an alternative proposal, championed by Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, to raise the threshold at which the tax breaks would expire to $1 million. Some Democrats said that the Republicans’ opposition to that plan showed them to be siding with “millionaires and billionaires” over the middle class.

Not only did GOPers stand firm, but they were joined by five other Senators (including four that have to face the voters in 2012). This presumably means Democrats will now have to compromise and agree to a plan to extend all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

At the risk of being a Pollyanna, I wonder if the politics of hate and envy is falling out of fashion. Obama’s plan for higher tax rates hopefully is now dead, but that’s just one positive indicator. It’s also interesting that both of the big “deficit reduction” plans recently unveiled, the President’s Fiscal Commission and the Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force Report, endorsed lower marginal tax rates – including lower tax rates for those evil rich people. Both proposals also included lots of tax increases, so the overall tax burden would be significantly higher under both plans, but it is remarkable that the beltway insiders who dominated the two panels understood the destructive impact of class-warfare tax rates. Maybe they watched this video.

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Unfortunately, I’m not talking about President Obama, though the current occupant of the White House could learn a lot from a previous Democratic President.

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Caroline Baum of Bloomberg has an excellent column explaining why soak-the-rich taxes don’t work. Simply stated, wealthy people are not like you and me. They have tremendous control over the timing, composition, and level of their income. When the rich are hit with higher tax rates, they adjust their behavior and protect themselves by reducing the amount of taxable income they earn and/or report to the IRS. That usually causes collateral damage for the economy, but the class-warfare crowd is either oblivious or uncaring about real-world effects.

Why, after all this time and an extensive body of data, are we still questioning whether reductions in marginal and capital- gains tax rates increase economic activity enough to generate more revenue for the federal government? “Because they don’t like the answer,” Laffer says of the doubters. “It’s not tax cuts that pay for themselves. Tax cuts on the poor cost you lots of money. Tax cuts on the rich pay for themselves. Rich people can afford lawyers, accountants, and can defer income.” …The rich have the luxury to respond to incentives, to opt for more work and less leisure when the return on work is greater. They are motivated to take risks, maybe start a business, invent something, and get even richer while giving others the opportunity, through hiring, to do the same. The opposite is true for low-income workers. When the government raises taxes, someone struggling to put food on the table for his family may have to go out and get a second job to maintain his level of take-home pay. For this socio-economic group, higher taxes translate to more work. To ignore evidence that the rich behave differently is silly. The government can’t get more blood from a stone, yet it keeps trying. Instead of demagoguing tax cuts for the rich, Democrats should try embracing them for a change. …Academics are busy churning out articles claiming tax cuts for the rich deliver less bang for the buck because the rich save more of the money than the poor. That’s true. It also misses the point. The goal isn’t spending, or distributing other people’s money to create “aggregate demand.” That’s a wealth transfer, not a net stimulus. (Fiscal policy gets its punch from monetary policy, from the increase in the money supply to pay for the spending.) The goal should be to incentivize individuals to work hard, save and invest in the future. It’s about growing the pie. Sound familiar? We’re right back to square one. I, for one, would like to see the debate shift from class warfare over tax rates and targeted tax relief to tax reform. Either scrap the tax code and introduce a simple flat tax with no deductions, or scrap the IRS and move to a consumption tax. If you want to get money out of politics, there’s only one way to do it. Take the tax code out of Congress’s hands.

Baum’s column touches on most of the key issues, but she doesn’t address the political economy of class-warfare taxation. In this video on soak-the-rich tax policy, I provide five reasons why high tax rates are misguided – including the oft-overlooked point that politicians impose punitive taxes on the rich as a prelude to hitting the rest of us with higher taxes.

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The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of this year, which means a big tax increase in 2011. Tax rates for all brackets will increase, the double tax on dividends will skyrocket from 15 percent to 39.6 percent, the child credit will shrink, the death tax will be reinstated (at 55 percent!), the marriage penalty will get worse, and the capital gains tax rate will jump to 20 percent. All of these provisions will be unwelcome news for taxpayers, but it’s important to look at direct and indirect costs. A smaller paycheck is an example of direct costs, but in some cases the indirect costs – such as slower economic growth – are even more important. This is why higher tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors are so misguided. For every dollar the government collects from policies targeting these people (such as higher capital gains and dividend taxes, a renewed death tax, and increases in the top tax rates), it’s likely that there will be significant collateral economic damage.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s approach is to look at tax policy only through the prism of class warfare. This means that some tax cuts can be extended, but only if there is no direct benefit to anybody making more than $200,000 or $250,000 per year. The folks at the White House apparently don’t understand, however, that higher direct costs on the “rich” will translate into higher indirect costs on the rest of us. Higher tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship will slow economic growth. And, because of compounding, even small changes in the long-run growth rate can have a significant impact on living standards within one or two decades. This is one of the reasons why high-tax European welfare states have lost ground in recent decades compared to the United States.

When the economy slows down, that’s not good news for upper-income taxpayers. But it’s also bad news for the rest of us – and it can create genuine hardship for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The White House may be playing smart politics. As this blurb from the Washington Post indicates, the President seems to think that he can get away with blaming the recession on tax cuts that took place five years before the downturn began. But for those of us who care about prosperity more than politics, what really matters is that the economy is soon going to be hit with higher tax rates on productive behavior. It’s unclear whether that’s good for the President’s poll numbers, but it’s definitely bad for America.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner took the lead Sunday in continuing the Obama administration’s push for extending middle-class tax cuts while allowing similar cuts for the nation’s wealthiest individuals to expire in January. …The tax cuts, put in place between 2001 and 2003, have become an intensely political topic ahead of the congressional elections this fall. Republicans have argued that extending the full spectrum of tax cuts is essential to strengthening the sluggish economic recovery. Geithner rejected that notion, telling ABC’s “This Week” that letting tax cuts for the wealthiest expire would not hurt growth. …On Saturday, the president used part of his weekly address to chide House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other Republicans who oppose the administration’s approach, saying the GOP was pushing “the same policies that led us into this recession.”

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The Wall Street Journal ponders the mini-tax revolt among some Democrats, ranging from Kent Conrad in the Senate to Jerrold Nadler in the House, who are suddenly making arguments that it would be a bad idea to allow higher tax rates in 2011 (because the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts automatically expire).
 
I’m not holding my breath waiting for good results. Almost all of the Democrat “tax cutters” are making flawed Keynesian arguments, so they don’t even understand why it’s a good idea to focus on lowering marginal tax rates. But the WSJ’s editorial makes a good point about accepting good policy even if it’s based on bad analysis. But since extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts would require the support of almost 20 Democrat Senators and 40 Democrat Congressmen, I’m afraid it’s a moot issue – especially since the Obama White House is dominated by the hate-n-envy class-warfare crowd.

The revelation that tax increases could hurt the economy has recently been heard from Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and, most surprising, even from Kent Conrad of North Dakota. On a scale of unlikely events, this is like the Pope coming out against celibacy. As Senate Budget Chairman, Mr. Conrad has rarely seen a tax increase he didn’t like, but this week he averred that “As a general rule, you don’t want to be cutting spending or raising taxes in the midst of a downturn.” …Even Jerrold Nadler, a liberal from central casting, is worrying publicly that the tax hike will hit his New York constituents too hard. And he’s certainly right given that the combined top state and federal income tax rate will be close to 54% in 2011 in New York City. Mr. Nadler is proposing—seriously—to adjust the income tax brackets based on regional cost of living so fewer New Yorkers pay the rates …These are hardly supply-side conversions, but they’re a start. The economic recovery is far from robust, and socking it with one of the largest tax increases in history in January is not going to make anyone more eager to invest or create new jobs. Even Lord Keynes opposed raising taxes in a recession, and good Keynesian Democrats like the late economist Walter Heller persuaded JFK to cut tax rates in the 1960s. Those cuts kicked off that decade’s economic boom. Only in the age of Obama have Democrats convinced themselves that the best “stimulus” is higher spending and higher taxes. …even if all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent, the share of national output that goes toward federal income taxes will in every year stay well above the post-World War II average of 8.2%. Income tax receipts will rise gradually to 10% of GDP, even with the current tax rates intact, because as the economy grows the progressive tax code takes a larger share. If tax increases weaken the economy, revenues won’t increase as fast as Democrats hope and the deficit won’t fall by as much in any case. Which brings us back to the Speaker, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Mr. Obama, who remain prisoners of their spend-and-tax dogma. Even as the Democratic tax revolt broke into the open yesterday morning, the White House rolled out Mr. Geithner to declare that the tax increases will arrive as scheduled. So the same Mr. Geithner who says the economy is weak enough that we must have new spending “stimulus” says it is strong enough to endure a huge tax increase.

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I’m normally not a big fan of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since it is an international bureaucracy that persecutes low-tax jurisdictions. But the economists at the OECD sometimes do good work (the same can be said of the IMF and World Bank, not that this justifies taxpayers subsidies for any international bureaucracy). Here’s a good example. While researching tax rates in different nations, I came across this description of how welfare programs and other income-redistribution schemes result in punitively-high implicit tax rates on productive behavior for low-income people. The result, of course, is that many people are discouraged from working and lured into lives of dependency. The article is not recent, so the specific examples may no longer be accurate, but the economic analysis is spot on and still applies. The economic damage described in the article, by the way, is in addition to the harm caused by high explicit tax rates on taxpayers who finance the income redistribution and the harm caused by government spending diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy.

Another rather curious situation which does not show up when studying headline rates is that low earners can find themselves confronted with very high marginal tax rates, in some rare cases exceeding 100%. The reason for this is that lower earners not only pay more tax when their income goes up, but in many cases they lose part of their means-tested tax relief, subsidies and benefits as well. The loss of this income acts as an “implicit” tax at the margin. The rational response of workers who find themselves in this situation is to reduce the number of hours they work. Their gross wage would of course be lower if they did, but in return they would pay less tax and receive more means-tested subsidies and benefits. As a result, their net disposable income would increase despite putting in fewer hours. This type of situation occurs to varying degrees in different OECD countries, depending on the peculiarities of various social protection programmes. Take the example of an unemployed couple with two young children. Suppose that after five years’ unemployment, one of them takes up a lowly paid job. In Finland or Sweden net income in and out of work would be the same in that case, since each unit of income earned is cancelled out by a unit of benefits foregone once employment is taken up. In other words, there is an implicit tax rate of 100%. In the case of Denmark and the Czech Republic, the implicit rate in a similar case would be almost 100%, and in Germany and the United Kingdom it would be around 80%. In France and the United States the implicit rate would be about 50%, since half the increase in earnings is wiped out by a loss of benefits. In Japan, the implicit tax actually exceeds 140%, meaning our one-earner couple would be worse off with the new job than without it. What’s more, they may have to be wary when it comes to staying in the job itself, since small wage increases can expose low-wage earners to high implicit tax rates as their means-tested benefits get cut further.

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Art Laffer has a compelling column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where he makes the case that future tax rate increases will cause considerable economic damage because people have an incentive to maximize income this year to take advantage of current tax rates – resulting in an artificial drop in economic activity next year. In effect, this will be a reverse version of the experiment in the early 1980s, when entrepreneurs and investors had an incentive to postpone economic activity since Reagan’s tax rate reductions were phased in over several years. I am reluctant to endorse Art’s prediction that the “economy will collapse,” since even good economists are lousy forecasters. But we certainly will see a large degree of tax planning, which will lead to less revenue than expected next year. And the higher tax rates will inhibit growth, though it is impossible to predict whether this means 2.1 percent growth instead of 2.3 percent growth, for instance, or 0.5 percent growth instead of 0.6 percent growth.

On or about Jan. 1, 2011, federal, state and local tax rates are scheduled to rise quite sharply. …the highest federal personal income tax rate will go 39.6% from 35%, the highest federal dividend tax rate pops up to 39.6% from 15%, the capital gains tax rate to 20% from 15%, and the estate tax rate to 55% from zero. …Tax rates have been and will be raised on income earned from off-shore investments. Payroll taxes are already scheduled to rise in 2013 and the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will be digging deeper and deeper into middle-income taxpayers. And there’s always the celebrated tax increase on Cadillac health care plans. State and local tax rates are also going up in 2011 as they did in 2010. Tax rate increases next year are everywhere. …if people know tax rates will be higher next year than they are this year, what will those people do this year? They will shift production and income out of next year into this year to the extent possible. As a result, income this year has already been inflated above where it otherwise should be and next year, 2011, income will be lower than it otherwise should be. …In 1981, Ronald Reagan—with bipartisan support—began the first phase in a series of tax cuts passed under the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA), whereby the bulk of the tax cuts didn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 1983. Reagan’s delayed tax cuts were the mirror image of President Barack Obama’s delayed tax rate increases. For 1981 and 1982 people deferred so much economic activity that real GDP was basically flat (i.e., no growth), and the unemployment rate rose to well over 10%. But at the tax boundary of Jan. 1, 1983 the economy took off like a rocket, with average real growth reaching 7.5% in 1983 and 5.5% in 1984. It has always amazed me how tax cuts don’t work until they take effect. Mr. Obama’s experience with deferred tax rate increases will be the reverse. The economy will collapse in 2011. …The result will be a crash in tax receipts once the surge is past. If you thought deficits and unemployment have been bad lately, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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Hillary Clinton recently opined that Brazil was a great role model for the idea of soaking the rich with higher tax rates. She didn’t really offer evidence for that specific assertion, but Politico reports that she did say that “”Brazil has the highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere and guess what — they’re growing like crazy.”

I’m not sure if “growing like crazy” is an accurate description, particularly since poor nations normally have decent growth rates because they start from such a low baseline.

But let’s excuse that bit of rhetorical excess and focus on the really flawed portion of her remarks.

Contrary to her direct quote, Brazil does not have the “highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere.” It may have the highest tax burden in South America. And it may even have the highest tax burden in all of Latin America, but its overall tax burden of about 24 percent of GDP is slightly below the aggregate tax burden in America.

I suppose I should issue a caveat and say there’s a very slight chance that the recession has temporarily pushed American tax receipts as a share of GDP below the Brazilian level, but that isn’t apparent from the IMF data. Moreover, there’s no doubt that the tax burden in Canada is significantly higher than the Brazilian burden.

So Mrs. Clinton either was unaware that the United States and Canada are in the Western Hemisphere, or has no clue how to read fiscal statistics.

But let’s suspend reality and assume that Brazil has a higher tax-to-GDP ratio. Would that somehow be proof that Brazil is a role model for class-warfare taxation? There is no precise definition of that term, to be sure, but high tax rates on the rich presumably are a necessary component of any class-warfare system. Yet Brazil’s top tax rate is 27.5 percent. That’s not exactly a low-rate system such as Hong Kong, and it’s 27.5 percentage points higher than the zero-percent rate in the Cayman Islands, but it also happens to be significantly lower than the 35 percent (soon to be 39.6 percent) rate in the United States. If that’s class warfare, sign me up for the Brazilian approach.

I suppose it’s possible that Brazil’s top tax rate recently has been boosted, but that didn’t show up in a Google search. And even if the rate was just increased, that would hardly be proof of Mrs. Clinton’s strange hypothesis that high tax rates and/or high tax-to-GDP rates are a magical formula for growth. That would require looking at future economic performance with the higher top tax rate, not the recent growth rates with the 27.5 percent top tax rate.

But pointing out Mrs. Clinton’s mistakes seems a bit rude and I do like to be a gentleman, so let’s at least give her points for consistency. Earlier this year, she urged higher tax rates on the so-called rich in Pakistan, so at least she doesn’t discriminate in her desire to punish success.

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I spoke yesterday in Vienna on the third stop on the FMRS tour. My speech focused on solutions to the fiscal crisis. I pointed out the need to substantially reduce the burden of government spending and also warned against higher tax rates – in part because higher tax rates discourage much-needed economic growth.

This puts me in direct conflict with many European politicians, many of whom think extracting more money from taxpayers is the answer to the over-spending problem. Some of these politicians try to sound more rational by saying they don’t necessarily want to boost tax rates and instead would be happy to collect more money by more onerous enforcement of existing tax laws.

I don’t think it is reasonable to expect big reductions in the underground (or shadow) economy. In a previous post, I quoted an IMF paper authored by Friedrich Schneider, which noted (with particular reference to Austria):

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy. …In Austria, the burden of direct taxes (including social security payments) has been the biggest influence on the growth of the shadow economy… Other studies show similar results for the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the United States. In the United States, analysis shows that as the marginal federal personal income tax rate increases by one percentage point, other things being equal, the shadow economy grows by 1.4 percentage points. …A study of Quebec City in Canada shows that people are highly mobile between the official and the shadow economy, and that as net wages in the official economy go up, they work less in the shadow economy. This study also emphasizes that where people perceive the tax rate as too high, an increase in the (marginal) tax rate will lead to a decrease in tax revenue.

Interestingly, I just came across a new study from the Bank of Italy that looks at the issue from the perspective of “taxpayer morale.” The study finds that tax compliance also is sensitive to public perceptions about whether taxpayer money is being wasted. This excerpt touches on many of the key issues, and all I could think of when reading the study was bailouts, handouts, and other forms of corrupt and inefficient spending on both sides of the Atlantic:

…our measure of public spending inefficiency enters with the expected negative sign, and it is significant at the 1 percent level. Taxpayers interacting with a more efficient public sector are likely to show a higher level of tax morale. Our result can be interpreted by looking at the interaction between citizens and the government as a contractual relationship, implying duties and rights for each contract partner. If the taxpayer observes that the tax burden is not spent efficiently, he will feel cheated and his willingness to cooperate will fall. …Torgler and Werner (2005) state that greater fiscal autonomy allows regions to spend the tax revenues according to local preferences and this, in turn, might have a positive impact on tax morale. …As expected, the coefficient on the level of public spending per capita enters with a positive sign, and it is significantly different from zero. On the other side, we find a weak positive relationship between fiscal autonomy and tax morale, thus partially confirming the results by Torgler and Werner (2005). At the same time, the coefficient of public spending inefficiency remains negative and highly significant. …We find that tax morale is higher when the taxpayer perceives and observes that the government is efficient; that is, it provides a fair output with respect to the revenues. This evidence can be interpreted in terms of a psychological contract between taxpayer and fiscal authorities in which the former punishes the local government when he observes that resources are not spent well. Therefore, encouraging more efficient spending of public resources has wider consequences and contributes to increasing the citizens’ propensity to pay taxes.

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The New York Times has an article describing widespread tax evasion in Greece, along with an implication that the country’s fiscal crisis is largely the result of unpaid taxes and could be mostly solved if taxpayers were more obedient to the state. This is grossly inaccurate. A quick look at the budget numbers reveals that tax revenues have remained relatively constant in recent years, consuming nearly 40 percent of GDP. The burden of government spending, by contrast, has jumped significantly and now exceeds 50 percent of Greek economic output.

The article also is flawed in assuming that harsher enforcement is the key to compliance. As the video shows, even the economists at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development admit that tax evasion is driven by high tax rates (which is remarkable since the OECD is the international bureaucracy pushing for global tax rules to undermine tax competition and reduce fiscal sovereignty).

Ironically, the New York Times article quotes Friedrich Schneider of Johannes Kepler University in Austria, but only to provide an estimate of Greece’s shadow economy. The reporter should have looked at an article that Schneider wrote for the International Monetary Fund, which found that:

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy. …In Austria, the burden of direct taxes (including social security payments) has been the biggest influence on the growth of the shadow economy… Other studies show similar results for the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the United States. In the United States, analysis shows that as the marginal federal personal income tax rate increases by one percentage point, other things being equal, the shadow economy grows by 1.4 percentage points. …A study of Quebec City in Canada shows that people are highly mobile between the official and the shadow economy, and that as net wages in the official economy go up, they work less in the shadow economy. This study also emphasizes that where people perceive the tax rate as too high, an increase in the (marginal) tax rate will lead to a decrease in tax revenue.

It is worth noting the Schneider’s research also shows why Obama’s tax policy is very misguided. The President wants to boost the top tax rate by nearly five percentage points, and that’s on top of the big increase in the tax rate on saving and investment included in Obamacare. Based on Schneider’s research, we can expect America’s underground economy to expand.

Shifting back to Greece, Schneider does not claim that tax rates are the only factor determining compliance. But his research indicates that more onerous enforcement regimes are unlikely to put much of a dent in tax evasion unless accompanied by better tax policy (i.e., lower tax rates). Moreover, compliance also is undermined by the rampant corruption and incompetence of the Greek government, but that problem won’t be solved unless politicians reduce the size and scope of the public sector. Needless to say, that’s not very likely. So when I read some of the details in this excerpt from the New York Times, much of my sympathy is for taxpayers rather than the greedy politicians that turned Greece into a fiscal mess:

In the wealthy, northern suburbs of this city, where summer temperatures often hit the high 90s, just 324 residents checked the box on their tax returns admitting that they owned pools. So tax investigators studied satellite photos of the area — a sprawling collection of expensive villas tucked behind tall gates — and came back with a decidedly different number: 16,974 pools. That kind of wholesale lying about assets, and other eye-popping cases that are surfacing in the news media here, points to the staggering breadth of tax dodging that has long been a way of life here. …Such evasion has played a significant role in Greece’s debt crisis, and as the country struggles to get its financial house in order, it is going after tax cheats as never before. …To get more attentive care in the country’s national health system, Greeks routinely pay doctors cash on the side, a practice known as “fakelaki,” Greek for little envelope. And bribing government officials to grease the wheels of bureaucracy is so standard that people know the rates. They say, for instance, that 300 euros, about $400, will get you an emission inspection sticker. …Various studies have concluded that Greece’s shadow economy represented 20 to 30 percent of its gross domestic product. Friedrich Schneider, the chairman of the economics department at Johannes Kepler University of Linz, studies Europe’s shadow economies; he said that Greece’s was at 25 percent last year and estimated that it would rise to 25.2 percent in 2010.

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I’ve read several places that Ronald Reagan instinctively understood supply-side economics because Hollywood stars sooner or later learned that making more than a couple of movies per year was pointless when marginal tax rates were 90 percent. The same thing happens in sports. I’ve already posted about soccer stars turning down contracts in places where tax rates are high. Now we have a fascinating little story about taxes and the boxing profession:

For a very long time, boxing was the only really big-money sport for athletes. …At a time when Babe Ruth was being razzed for his $80,000 salary (more than the President of the United States, it was pointed out, to which Babe supposedly replied in 1930, “Well, I had a better year than he [President Hoover] did”), heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey made about nine times as much—over $700,000, for his unsuccessful title defense against Gene Tunney in 1926. …The 1950s was the era of the 90 percent top marginal tax rate, and by the end of that decade live gate receipts for top championship fights were supplemented by the proceeds from closed circuit telecasts to movie theaters. A second fight in one tax year would yield very little additional income, hardly worth the risk of losing the title. And so, the three fights between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson stretched over three years (1959-1961); the two between Patterson and Sonny Liston over two years (1962-1963), as was also true for the two bouts between Liston and Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) (1964-1965). Then, the Tax Reform Act of 1964 cut the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent effective in 1965. The result: two heavyweight title fights in 1965, and five in 1966.

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, my Cato Institute colleague Alan Reynolds offers a simple economics lesson about pitfalls of class-warfare tax policy:

…the evidence is clear that when marginal tax rates go up, the amount of reported incomes goes down. Economists call that “the elasticity of taxable income” (ETI), and measure it by examining income tax returns before and after marginal tax rates claimed a bigger slice of income reported to the IRS. The evidence is surveyed in a May 2009 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley, Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan, and Seth Giertz of the University of Nebraska. They review a number of studies and find that “for an elasticity estimate of 0.5 . . . the fraction of tax revenue lost from behavioral responses would be 43.1%.” That elasticity estimate of 0.5 would whittle the Obama team’s hoped-for $1.2 trillion down to $671 billion. As the authors note, however, “there is much evidence to suggest that the ETI is higher for high-income individuals.” The authors’ illustrative use of a 0.5 figure is a perfectly reasonable approximation for most purposes, but not for tax hikes aimed at the very rich. For incomes above $100,000, a 2008 study by MIT economist Jon Gruber and Mr. Saez found an ETI of 0.57. But for incomes above $350,000 (the top 1%), they estimated the ETI at 0.62. And for incomes above $500,000, Treasury Department economist Bradley Heim recently estimated the ETI at 1.2—which means higher tax rates on the super-rich yield less revenue than lower tax rates. If an accurate ETI estimate for the highest incomes is closer to 1.0 than 0.5, as such studies suggest, the administration’s intended tax hikes on high-income families will raise virtually no revenue at all. Yet the higher tax rates will harm economic growth through reduced labor effort, thwarted entrepreneurship, and diminished investments in physical and human capital. And that, in turn, means a smaller tax base and less revenue in the future.

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If nothing else, the Obama Administration at least is consistent. Not only do they want higher taxes in America, but they also want other nations to pursue ruinous class warfare policies. Here’s an excerpt from Tax-news.com:

US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, wants Pakistan to review the tax treatment of the country’s most affluent taxpayers to ensure that they are fairly contributing to government coffers. …In testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Clinton said that “well-off Pakistani’s do not pay their fair share for the services that are needed.”

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An insightful editorial from the Wall Street Journal examines how soak-the-rich taxes in Maryland backfired, leading to less revenue for the government. The politicians would like us to think this is just the effect of the recession, but the article points out that one out of every eight millionaires who filed a tax return in 2007 did not file one in 2008. A few may have died, but the big reason for this shocking reduction is migration. As one study discovered, Maryland’s tax base fell by $1 billion because successful taxpayers escaped to other states:

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is the latest Democrat to demand a tax increase, this week proposing to raise the state’s top marginal individual income tax rate to 4% from 3%. He’d better hope this works out better than it has for Maryland. …The politicians in Annapolis had said they’d collect $106 million by raising its income tax rate on millionaire households to 6.25% from 4.75%. In cities like Baltimore and Bethesda, which apply add-on income taxes, the top tax rate with the surcharge now reaches as high as 9.3%—fifth highest in the nation. Liberals said this was based on incomplete data and that rich Marylanders hadn’t fled the state. Well, the state comptroller’s office now has the final tax return data for 2008, the first year that the higher tax rates applied. The number of millionaire tax returns fell sharply to 5,529 from 7,898 in 2007, a 30% tumble. The taxes paid by rich filers fell by 22%, and instead of their payments increasing by $106 million, they fell by some $257 million. Yes, a big part of that decline results from the recession that eroded incomes, especially from capital gains. But there is also little doubt that some rich people moved out or filed their taxes in other states with lower burdens. One-in-eight millionaires who filed a Maryland tax return in 2007 filed no return in 2008. Some died, but the others presumably changed their state of residence. (Hint to the class warfare crowd: A lot of rich people have two homes.) A Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysis of federal tax return data on people who migrated from one state to another found that Maryland lost $1 billion of its net tax base in 2008 by residents moving to other states. …Thanks in part to its soak-the-rich theology, Maryland still has a $2 billion deficit… The state’s best hope is that politicians in other states are as self-destructive as those in Annapolis.

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President Obama is proposing a series of major tax increases. His budget envisions higher tax rates on personal income, increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains, and a big increase in the death tax. And his health care plan includes significant tax hikes, including perhaps the imposition of the Medicare payroll tax on capital income – thus exacerbating the tax code’s bias against saving and investment. It is unclear why the White House is pursuing these punitive policies. The President said during the 2008 campaign that he favored soak-the-rich taxes even if they did not raise revenue, but his budget predicts the proposals will raise lots of money.

Because of the Laffer Curve, it is highly unlikely that all of this additional revenue will materialize if the President’s budget is approved. The core insight of the Laffer Curve is not that all tax increases lose money and that all tax cuts raise revenues. That only happens in rare circumstances. Instead, the Laffer Curve simply reveals that higher tax rates will lead to less taxable income (or that lower tax rates will lead to more taxable income) and that it is an empirical matter to figure out the degree to which the change in tax revenue resulting from the shift in the tax rate is offset by the change in tax revenue caused by the shift in the other direction for taxable income. This should be an uncontroversial proposition, and these three videos explain Laffer Curve theory, evidence, and revenue-estimating issues. Richard Rahn also gives a good explanation in a recent Washington Times column.

Interestingly, the DC government (which certainly is not a bastion of free-market thinking) has just acknowledged the Laffer Curve. As the excerpt below illustrates, an increase in the cigarette tax did not raise the amount of revenue that local politicians expected. The evidence is so strong that the city’s budget experts warn that a further increase will reduce revenue:

One of the gap-closing measures for the FY 2010 budget was an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes from $2.00 to $2.50 per pack. The 50 cent increase in the cigarette tax rate was projected to increase revenue but also reduce volume. Collections year-to-date point to a more severe drop in volumes than projected. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Maryland smokers who were purchasing in DC in FY 2008, because the tax rate in the District was less than the tax rate in Maryland, have shifted purchases back to Maryland now that the tax rate in the District is higher. Virginia analyzed the impact of demand when the federal rate went up by $0.61 in April and has been surprised that demand is much stronger than they had projected–raising the possibility that purchasing in DC has moved across the river.  Whatever the actual cause, because of the lower than anticipated collections, the estimate for cigarette tax revenue is revised downwards by $15.4 million in FY 2010 and $15.2 million in FY 2011. Given that cigarette tax rates in neighboring jurisdictions are now lower than that of the District, future increases in the tax rate will likely generate less revenue rather than more.

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A former reporter for the New York Times, Fox Butterfield, became a bit of a laughingstock in the 1990s for publishing a series of articles addressing the supposed quandary of how crime rates could be falling during periods when prison populations were expanding. A number of critics sarcastically explained that crimes rates were falling because bad guys were behind bars and invented the term “Butterfield Effect” to describe the failure of leftists to put 2 + 2 together. We now have a version of the Butterfiled Effect in tax policy. Recent IRS data show that rich people earned a record amount of income in 2007 and also faced their lowest effective tax rate in almost two decades. Proponents of soak-the-rich tax policy complain about these developments, as seen in the Bloomberg excerpt below, but they seem oblivious to the Laffer Curve insight that rich people earned more income in part because tax rates were lower. So if they penalize the rich with higher tax rates, as President Obama is proposing, they will be disappointed to discover that they collect considerably less revenue than predicted for the simple reason that wealthy taxpayers will respond by earning less taxable income.

The 400 highest-earning U.S. households reported an average of $345 million in income in 2007, up 31 percent from a year earlier, IRS statistics show. The average tax rate for the households fell to the lowest in almost 20 years. …The statistics underscore “two long-term trends: that income at the very top has exploded and their taxes have been cut dramatically,” said Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group that supports increasing taxes on high-income individuals.

As an aside, it’s also worth noting that the IRS tax-rate numbers are very misleading. The tax burden on the rich has dropped largely because of lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains. But when the IRS says upper-income taxpayers had an average tax rate of 16.6 percent, this does not include the other layers of tax that are imposed. The corporate income tax is 35 percent (just counting the federal level), for instance, so the actual average tax rate on these forms of income is far higher. Double taxation is counterproductive to growth and competitiveness, though, which is why the correct tax rate on dividends and capital gains is zero. For more on the Laffer Curve, this three-part video series addresses theory, evidence, and the biased revenue-estimating process.

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Barack Obama wants higher tax rates on the so-called rich, including steeper levies on income, capital gains, dividends, and even death! Along with other greedy politicians in Washington, he acts as if successful taxpayers are like sheep meekly awaiting slaughter. In reality, class-warfare tax policies generally backfire because of the five reasons outlined in this video:

A new study from Boston College provides additional evidence about the consequences of hate-and-envy tax policy. The research reveals that high tax rates in New Jersey have helped cause wealthy people to leave the state, leading to a net wealth reduction of $70 billion between 2004 and 2008. Wealth and income are different, of course, so it is worth pointing out that another study from 2007 estimated that the state lost $8 billion of gross income in 2005. That’s a huge amount of income that is now beyond the reach of the state’s greedy politicians. Here’s a report from the New Jersey Business News:

More than $70 billion in wealth left New Jersey between 2004 and 2008 as affluent residents moved elsewhere, according to a report released Wednesday that marks a swift reversal of fortune for a state once considered the nation’s wealthiest. Conducted by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, the report found wealthy households in New Jersey were leaving for other states — mainly Florida, Pennsylvania and New York — at a faster rate than they were being replaced. …The study – the first on interstate wealth migration in the country — noted the state actually saw an influx of $98 billion in the five years preceding 2004. The exodus of wealth, then, local experts and economists concluded, was a reaction to a series of changes in the state’s tax structure — including increases in the income, sales, property and “millionaire” taxes. “This study makes it crystal clear that New Jersey’s tax policies are resulting in a significant decline in the state’s wealth,” said Dennis Bone, chairman of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and president of Verizon New Jersey. …In New Jersey, the top 1 percent of taxpayers pay more than 40 percent of the state’s income tax, he said. “That’s probably why we have these massive income shortfalls in the state budget, especially this year,” he said. Until the tax structure is improved, he said, “we’ll probably see a continuation of the trend, until there are no more high-wealth individuals left.” He added the report reinforces findings from a similar study he conducted in 2007 with fellow Rutgers professor Joseph Seneca, which found a sharp acceleration in residents leaving the state. That report, which focused on income rather than wealth, found the state lost nearly $8 billion in gross income in 2005. …Ken Hydock, a certified public accountant with Sobel and Company in Livingston, said in this 30-year-career he’s never seen so many of his wealthy clients leave for “purely tax reasons” for states like Florida, where property taxes are lower and there is no personal income or estate tax. In New Jersey, residents pay an estate tax if their assets amount to more than $675,000. That’s compared to a $3.5 million federal exemption for 2009. Several years ago, he recalled, one of his clients stood to make $60 million from stock options in a company that was being acquired by another. Before he cashed out, however, the client put his home up for sale, moved to Las Vegas, and “never stepped foot back in New Jersey again,” Hydock said. “He avoided paying about $6 million in taxes,” he said. “He passed away two years later and also saved a huge estate tax, so he probably saved $7 million.”

Still not convinced that high tax rates are causing wealth and income to escape from New Jersey? The Wall Street Journal wrote a very powerful editorial about the Boston College study, noting that New Jersey “…was once a fast-growing state but has now joined California and New York as high-tax, high-debt states with budget crises.” But the most powerful part of the editorial was this simple image. Prior to 1976, there was no state income tax in New Jersey. Now, by contrast, highly-productive people are getting fleeced by a 10.75 percent tax rate. No wonder so many of them are leaving.

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The bloodsuckers and leeches in the U.K. government are a bit more honest than their counterparts in the United States. Unlike the American revenue-estimating system, which assumes higher tax rates raise revenue, the British bureaucracy admits that the new 50 percent tax rate will raise very little revenue. The UK-based Times reports:

High earners will cost the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds through tax dodges as they avoid the new 50p rate of income tax, a minister indicated yesterday. Lord Myners, the City Minister, said that the Treasury had “significantly reduced” its estimate of the revenue to be earned from the historic change. …Lord Myners told peers that “behavioural consequences of the new higher rate of taxation” — shorthand for tax avoidance — had forced the Treasury to lower its expectations. …Mike Warburton, senior tax adviser at Grant Thornton, one of Britain’s biggest accounting firms, said…“People are taking obvious avoidance measures because they are not prepared to pay 50 per cent tax”…  “People were prepared to pay 40 per cent but the Treasury don’t seem to understand what drives people. The minister has at last admitted that the 50 per cent tax rate was a blatantly political measure and not designed to raise new revenues. This is all to do with the politics of envy.” Lord Myners said that there were “very small numbers of people” who appeared to have moved abroad as a result of the tax change.

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Academic research is fairly unanimous that high tax rates cause more tax avoidance and tax evasion. Not many people, after all, are going to take big risks or engage in inefficient tax planning to escape Hong Kong’s low-rate flat tax. But people begin to figure out ways of keeping more of their money as tax rates climb above 20 percent and they are very interested in protecting their income when tax rates reach confiscatory levels. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the top tax rate is being raised from 40 percent to 50 percent, which will almost certainly lead to more tax dodging. So now the U.K. government is setting up a panel to figure out how to reduce the “tax gap.” Sadly, it’s a near certainty that the only good answer – lower tax rates – will not be one of their suggestions. Tax-news.com reports:

The UK government has announced the formation of a new panel of experts to recommend changes that aim to reduce the size of the ‘hidden’ economy and the ‘tax gap’ between taxes legally owed and those actually paid. …Mike Eland, HMRC’s Director General of Enforcement and Compliance…commented: “We estimate that the hidden economy contributes to around 7.5% of the net tax gap, which means we could be losing in the region of GBP3bn a year from people who are living and working in the hidden economy. They also gain an unfair competitive advantage over businesses that pay their taxes. This new group of experts with a variety of experience will identify new practical steps to tackle this problem.”

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While perusing the Internet, I saw an article by Iwan Morgan, who is the author of The Age of Deficits: Presidents and unbalanced Budgets from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. The author asserted in this article that, “The deficit explosion on his watch was a nasty surprise for Ronald Reagan not a deliberate strategy to reduce government.  In his rosy interpretation of Laffer curve theory, the personal tax cuts he promoted in 1981 would deliver higher not lower revenues through their boost to economic growth.” The first sentence is an interesting interpretation, since many leftists believe that Reagan deliberately created deficits to make it more difficult for Democrats in Congress to increase spending. I’m agnostic on that issue, but Morgan definitely errs (or is grossly incomplete) in the second sentence. The Reagan Administration did not employ dynamic scoring when predicting the revenue impact of its tax rate reductions. It is true that the White House failed to predict the drop in revenues, particularly in 1982, but that happened because of both the second stage of the 1980-82 double-dip recession and the unexpected drop in inflation (the Congressional Budget Office also failed to predict both of these events, so Reagan’s forecasters were hardly alone in their mistake). Moreover, Morgain’s dismissal of the Laffer Curve is unwarranted. While several GOP politicians exaggerated the relationship between tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue, this does not mean it does not exist. The table below, which is based on data from the IRS’s Statistics of Income, shows what happened to tax collections from upper-income taxpayers between 1980 and 1988. Supply siders can be criticized for many things, especially their apparent disregard for the importance of limiting the size of government, but the IRS figures clearly show that lower tax rates were followed by more rich people, more taxable income, and more tax revenue. For those keeping score at home, that’s a perfect batting average for supply-side economics.

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I was part of a book forum at the Heritage Foundation, commenting on Brian Domitrovic’s new book about the history of supply-side economics. My insights (or lack thereof) begin at the 20-minute mark of this video.

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An earlier post revealed that higher tax rates in Maryland were backfiring, leading to less revenue from upper-income taxpayers. It seems New York politicians are running into a similar problem. According to an AP report, the state’s 100 richest taxpayers have paid $1 billion less than expected following a big tax hike. The story notes that several rich people have left the state, and all three examples are about people who have redomiciled in Florida, which has no state income tax. For more background information on why higher taxes on the rich do not necessarily raise revenue, see this three-part Laffer Curve video series (here, here, and here):

Early data from New York show the higher tax rates for the wealthy have yielded lower-than-expected state wealth. …Paterson said last week that revenues from the income tax increases and other taxes enacted in April are running about 20 percent less than anticipated. The concern about millionaire flight has prompted some states, including New York, New Jersey and California, to increase the highest tax rates only temporarily. …”People aren’t wedded to a geographic place as they once were. It’s a different world,” said New York Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch. He said last year’s surcharge on income taxes, set to last three years, won’t likely meet expectations. So far this year, half of about $1 billion in expected revenue from New York’s 100 richest taxpayers is missing. …State officials say they don’t know how much of the missing revenue is because any wealthy New Yorkers simply left. But at least two high-profile defectors have sounded off on the tax changes: Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano, the billionaire who ran for governor three times and who was paying $13,000 a day in New York income taxes, and radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Golisano changed his official address to Florida, and Limbaugh, who also has a Florida home, announced earlier this year that he was relinquishing his home in Manhattan. Donald Trump told Fox News earlier this year that several of his millionaire friends were talking about leaving the state over the latest taxes. …And it’s not just the well-known leaving. Nancy Bell is moving her Science First manufacturer of scientific products from the Buffalo site her father founded in 1960 to Florida… “It was the higher tax brackets, the so-called millionaire’s tax” that forced the move, she said. “We feel we have to look to the future … I’m leaving wonderful, wonderful friends. It’s not our first choice. It’s our 100th.” Maryland enacted higher tax rates for wealthier residents in 2008 to boost revenues but income from those taxes is down 6.7 percent so far this year.

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