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Posts Tagged ‘Taxation’

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

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

An economist from Cornell found lower tax rates boost GDP.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what they set out to measure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are some very dismal numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s lot of criticism of the IRS and the tax code on the Internet. Indeed, I like to think I contribute my fair share.

But I’m surprised at (what I consider to be be) the limited amount of humor on those topics.

As I look through my archives, I can find only a few cartoons about the overall tax code.

Regarding tax reform, all I have is this Barack Obama flat tax that I created.

Here are a few cartoons about tax policy negotiations.

I found a bit more to choose from on the IRS scandal (see here, here, here, here, and here).

And I do have a decent number of cartoons about Obama’s class-warfare tax policy (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

But that doesn’t seem like a lot, particularly since I’ve been blogging since 2009.

So let’s augment the collection with some humor about corporate inversions.

But just like you’re supposed to eat your vegetables before dessert, here’s one bit of serious info before we move to the cartoons.

For those who want to see the Cato Institute in action, here are my remarks about the issue of corporate inversions to Capitol Hill staffers.

If you want to see the full event, which would include the commentary of David Burton and Ike Brannon, click here.

Now that the serious stuff is out of the way, let’s enjoy some laughs.

This Nate Beeler cartoon is my favorite of today’s collection because it correctly implies that the entire U.S. corporate tax code is a festering sore.

Michael Ramirez notes that America is the “king” of the wrong kind of realm.

Here’s a contribution from Dana Summers, who cleverly mocks the grotesque hypocrisy of Warren Buffett.

Chip Bok addresses the same theme in this cartoon.

I can’t resist closing with one additional serious observation. If we don’t like our corrupt tax system, there is a very good solution.

Addendum: I forgot to include this example of death tax humor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about tax revenue?

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

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

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

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

So what happened to corporate tax revenue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal last week about the policy debate over whether it’s better to lower tax rates or to provide targeted tax cuts for parents.

Since this meant I was wading into a fight between so-called reform conservatives (or “reformicons”) and traditional conservatives (or “supply-siders”), I wasn’t surprised to learn that not everyone agreed with my analysis.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, for instance, doesn’t approve of what I wrote.

…why are some folks on the right against giving middle-class families a big tax cut and letting them keep more of what they earn? …Cato’s Dan Mitchell, in a Wall Street Journal commentary today, concedes Stein’s idea would indeed help middle-class families right now… Yet Mitchell still thinks cutting marginal tax rates is the better idea.

Pethokoukis accurately notes that I want lower marginal tax rates because, from my perspective, faster long-run growth would be even more beneficial to middle-class families.

He disagrees and offers five counter-arguments. Here they are (summarized fairly, I hope), along with my response.

1.) House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp has put forward tax reform with a top rate of 25% vs. 40% today. Yet his plan would likely increase the economy’s size by less than 1% over the next decade, according to the Joint Tax Committee. …This is not to say lower tax rates aren’t good for economic growth. But marginal rates at those levels are almost certainly already deep on the good side of the Laffer Curve.

I have a couple of reactions.

First, the top tax rate in the Camp plan is 35 percent rather than 25 percent, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the plan doesn’t generate much additional growth.

Second, the JCT’s model is flawed and it should not be given credibility by any supporter of good tax policy. The Tax Foundation has a much better model.

Though it doesn’t really matter in this case because the Tax Foundation analysis of the Camp plan also shows a very weak growth response, largely because the slightly lower tax rates in the Camp plan are “paid for” by increasing the tax burden on saving and investment. Which is why I also wrote that the plan was disappointing.

Regarding the point about the Laffer Curve, the Tax Foundation responded to the Pethokoukis criticism of my column by noting “the Laffer Curve refers to tax revenue, not economic growth. It says there is a tax rate at which tax revenue is maximized. The tax rate at which economic growth is maximized is almost certainly well below that.”

Needless to say, I fully agree. I want to maximize growth, not tax revenue.

Now let’s move to his second point.

2.) And consider this: just how would the GDP gains, such as they are, from cutting top marginal rates be distributed in an economy where middle-wage jobs are disappearing and income gains are tilted toward the highly skilled and educated? The US economy needs to grow faster, but faster growth alone in the Age of Automation may not substantially increase living standards for a larger swath of the American people. That reality is a big difference between the 2010s economy and the 1980s economy, one many on the right have yet to grasp. Cranking up GDP growth is necessary but not sufficient.

If I understand correctly, Pethokoukis is saying that faster growth doesn’t guarantee good jobs for everyone.

I don’t disagree with this point, but I’m not sure why this is a criticism of lower marginal tax rates. Isn’t it better to get some extra growth rather than no extra growth?

Now let’s address the third point from the Pethokoukis column.

3.) Mitchell asserts, “Tax-credit conservatives generally admit that child-oriented tax cuts have few, if any, pro-growth benefits.” That’s not true. …expanding the child tax credit would serve as a sort of human-capital gains tax cut for worker creators (also known as families). It might just be nudge enough for financially-stressed families to have another kid… Modern pro-growth policymakers should fret as much about the nation’s birthrate as productivity and labor-force participation rates. …A younger American society with a higher birth rate, helped by a tax code that offsets anti-family government policy, would be more dynamic, creative, and entrepreneurial.

I’m less than overwhelmed by this argument.

Yes, we have a demographic problem, but more population is merely a way of increasing total GDP, not per-capita GDP. And it’s the latter than matters if we want higher living standards.

In his fourth point, Pethokouis notes that both supply-siders and reformicons agree on policies to reduce the tax burden on saving and investment.

4.) To give Mitchell some credit here, he does acknowledge there is more to the conservative-reform tax agenda than the child tax credit.

Since we both agree, there’s no need to rebut this part of the column.

And I don’t think there’s anything for me to rebut in Pethokoukis’ final point.

5.) Let me add that there is more to the conservative reform agenda for the middle class than just tax reform, including regulatory, health care, K-12, and higher-education reform. And there should be more to the supply-side, pro-growth agenda than cutting marginal tax rates, including reducing crony capitalist barriers — such as Too Big To Fail megabank subsidies… American needs more growth, and worker creators (strong families) are just as important to achieving that as job creators (strong companies). Let’s have both.

Since I’m among the first to acknowledge that fiscal policy is only about 20 percent of what determines a nation’s prosperity, this is an area where I’m on the same page as Pethokoukis.

Reformicon Founding Fathers

Indeed, I wrote last year that there’s much to admire about the agenda of the reformicons.

I just think that they don’t have sufficient appreciation for the value of even small increases in long-run growth.

Let’s close by looking at one sentence from some supposed analysis by Matt O’Brien in the Wonkblog section of the Washington Post.

His column is dedicated to the proposition that Republicans are overly fixated on cutting taxes for the rich. That might be a defensible hypothesis, but I doubt O’Brien has much credibility since he misrepresents my position.

 Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute downplays the idea that giving middle-class families more money even helps them, and says Republicans should keep focusing on cutting tax rates.

Just for the record, here’s what I actually wrote about middle-class families in my WSJ piece.

Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income. … If good tax policy simply raised annual growth to 2.5%, it would mean about $4,500 of additional income for the average household within 25 years. This is why the right kind of tax policy is so important. …since more saving and investment will lead to increased productivity, workers will enjoy higher wages, including households with children.

Does any of that sound like I’m indifferent to middle-class families? And the first sentence of that excerpt specifically says that the reformicon approach would mean relief to families with kids.

And the entire focus of my column is that supply-side tax policy would be even more beneficial to those households in the long run.

But accurately reporting what I wrote would have ruined O’Brien’s narrative. Sigh.

P.S. I wrote a couple of days ago that France was is a downward spiral because of high-tax statism. A few people have pointed out that French President Francois Hollande has picked a new industry and economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, who famously said that the new 75 percent top tax rate meant that France was “Cuba without the sun.”

Does this change my opinion, these folks have asked. Doesn’t this signal that taxes will start going down?

The answer is no. At best, I think it simply means that Hollande won’t push policy further to the left. But that doesn’t mean we’ll see genuine liberalization and a reduction in the fiscal burden of government.

If you think I’m being pessimistic, just keep in mind this excerpt from a Bloomberg story.

Macron apologized yesterday for his “exaggerated reputation” for free-market thinking.

I hope I’m wrong, but that doesn’t sound like the words of someone committed to smaller government?

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Since I’ve been in Washington for nearly three decades, I’m used to foolish demagoguery.

But the left’s reaction to corporate inversions takes political rhetoric to a new level of dishonesty.

Every study that looks at business taxation reaches the same conclusion, which is that America’s tax system is punitive and anti-competitive.

Simply stated, the combination of a very high tax rate on corporate income along with a very punitive system of worldwide taxation makes it very difficult for an American-domiciled firm to compete overseas.

Yet some politicians say companies are being “unpatriotic” for trying to protect themselves and even suggest that the tax burden on firms should be further increased!

In this CNBC interview, I say that’s akin to “blaming the victim.”

While I think this was a good interview and I assume the viewers of CNBC are an important demographic, I’m even more concerned (at least in the short run) about influencing the opinions of the folks in Washington.

And that’s why the Cato Institute held a forum yesterday for a standing-room-only crowd on Capitol Hill.

Here is a sampling of the information I shared with the congressional staffers.

We’ll start with this chart showing how the United States has fallen behind the rest of the world on corporate tax rates.

Here’s a chart showing the number of nations that have worldwide tax systems. Once again, you can see a clear trend in the right direction, with the United States getting left behind.

Next, this chart shows that American companies already pay a lot of tax on the income they earn abroad.

Last but not least, here’s a chart showing that inversions have almost no effect on corporate tax revenue in America.

The moral of the story is that the internal revenue code is a mess, which is why (as I said in the interview) companies have both a moral and fiduciary obligation to take legal steps to protect the interests of shareholders, consumers, and employees.

The anti-inversion crowd, though, is more interested in maximizing the amount of money going to politicians.

Actually, let me revise that last sentence. If they looked at the Laffer Curve evidence (here and here), they would support a lower corporate tax rate.

So we’re left with the conclusion that they’re really most interested in making the tax code punitive, regardless of what happens to revenue.

P.S. Don’t forget that your tax dollars are subsidizing a bunch of international bureaucrats in Paris that are trying to impose similar policies on a global basis.

P.P.S. Let’s end with a note on another tax-related issue.

We’ve already looked at evidence suggesting that Lois Lerner engaged in criminal behavior.

Now we have even more reasons to suspect she’s a crook. Here are some excerpts from the New York Observer.

The IRS filing in federal Judge Emmet Sullivan’s court reveals shocking new information. The IRS destroyed Lerner’s Blackberry AFTER it knew her computer had crashed and after a Congressional inquiry was well underway. As an IRS official declared under the penalty of perjury, the destroyed Blackberry would have contained the same emails (both sent and received) as Lois Lerner’s hard drive. …With incredible disregard for the law and the Congressional inquiry, the IRS admits that this Blackberry “was removed or wiped clean of any sensitive or proprietary information and removed as scrap for disposal in June 2012.” This is a year after her hard drive “crash” and months after the Congressional inquiry began. …One thing is clear: the IRS has no interest in recovering the emails. It has deliberately destroyed evidence and another direct source of the emails it claims were “lost.” It has been blatantly negligent if not criminal in faiing to preserve evidence and destroying it instead.

Utterly disgusting.

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I’m in Australia for Consilium, an annual conference which is hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies.

I spoke on fiscal policy and pontificated on the need for nations to restrain government spending.

That’s an important message (at least in my humble option), but I thought it was more interesting to learn more about the tax and spending policies of Australia’s current government, which is led by the supposedly right-of-Center Liberal Party (Aussies still use “liberal” in the European sense of classical liberalism).

Unfortunately, I learned that the Australian Liberals (like British Tories) need some remedial work on fiscal policy.

Prime Minister Abbott and his team, for instance, have proposed to increase Australia’s top tax rate. Here’s some of what’s been reported by the Australian Financial Review.

The Abbott government’s deficit tax means top earners will face a 49 per cent marginal tax rate, the eighth ­highest among developed countries. …. Australia already holds one of the highest personal income and company tax rates in the OECD. The 30 per cent corporate tax rate and 45 per cent personal income tax rate are higher than the average of 25.32 per cent for companies and 41.51 per cent for individuals. A personal tax increase will worsen the impact of “bracket creep”. …a higher income tax rate could also make Australia less competitive globally.

And the AFR also reports that a visiting scholar has thrown cold water on the idea of mimicking European fiscal policy.

Professor Prescott, who won the Nobel Prize for ­economics in 2004, …said that at 49 per cent the top marginal tax rate would hurt growth and the government should redouble its efforts to bring down expenditure instead. “It’s too high,” said Professor Prescott, who has written on the negative impact of increased taxes on economic growth in Europe. “You’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg.” …Lamenting “as sad” the standard of public and academic debate over budget deficits – both here and abroad – Professor Prescott said the focus should be on productivity and ­government spending. “What matters is expenditure. To spend is to tax and to tax is to depress.”

So why is an ostensibly right-of-center government copying Obama’s class warfare tax policy?

Beats me, though I’m told it’s because the politicians in Canberra (the nation’s capital) thinks this will appease the left and show “fairness.”

I imagine that strategy will be a flop, just like the first President Bush didn’t win any friends when he capitulated to a tax hike in 1990.

In any event, the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance warns that the tax hike may lose revenue because of Laffer Curve effects.

“The idea of increasing the top marginal tax rate in Australia is unlikely to raise any revenue, and may actually decrease government revenue due to a shrinking in the tax base, as high-income people reduce their labour supply, investment, innovation and tax compliance,” said John Humphreys, the deputy director of the Australian Taxpayers Alliance and an economics lecturer at the University of Queensland. …“Based on mainstream estimates of the high-income elasticity of taxable income, it is fairly straight forward to calculate the tax rate that will raise the maximum amount of revenue, and in Australia that is about 45%. If tax is increased beyond that level, then it is unlikely to raise revenue, and may actually cause a drop in revenue.…” The modeling by Humphreys is due to be published in Policy Journal in the coming months.

I’m skeptical about the finding that the revenue-maximizing rate for the personal income tax is 45 percent, particularly when there is very rigorous analysis suggesting that 20 percent is much closer to the mark.

But I definitely agree that pushing the rate to 49 percent will backfire on the Australian government.

And the folks at the ATA do make the very sound point that politicians shouldn’t try to set the top rate at the revenue-maximizing level regardless.

“There is no logical argument for increasing marginal tax rates about the revenue-maximising level, and indeed there is no good argument for having tax rates anywhere near the revenue-maximising level since those taxes raise very little money but cause significant economic damage.”

Amen. Indeed, allow me to call your attention to some very impressive academic work on this issue.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of Australian fiscal policy.

The good news is that the Abbott government isn’t proposing big increases in the burden of government spending.

The bad news, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be any commitment to a short-term or long-term effort to shrink the public sector.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, looking at what’s happened to Australian government spending over the past 20-plus years. The purple-ish line is nominal government spending (left axis) and the blue line is government spending as a share of economic output (right axis).

Australia Spending

In the long run, the trend of the blue line is the most important variable.

Unfortunately, the burden of government spending has climbed since the late 1980s. It’s still much lower than the burden of spending in places such as France, but the line is moving in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, if you look at the data since 2000, you could accurately say that Australian policy makers have succeeded in keeping the burden of spending from climbing above 34 percent of GDP (there was some foolish stimulus spending beginning back in 2009, but it didn’t lead to a permanent expansion in the size of government).

But let me share some remarkable data showing Australia’s missed fiscal opportunity. If you look at the IMF’s annual government spending and do the calculations, you’ll find that government spending since 1988 has grown by an average of 6.8 percent each year.

Since nominal GDP also has increased at a good pace, the actual burden of government has “only” risen from about 30 percent to 34 percent of economic output.

But imagine if Australian policy makers had merely imposed some version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule and limited spending so that it grew by, say, 3 percent annually.

If they had engaged in that modest level of fiscal restraint, the burden of the public sector today would be only about half its current size. In other words, government spending in Australia would be less than 17 percent of economic output, which would be even better than Hong Kong and Singapore.

This explains why I’m so fixated on expenditure limitations. You can make big progress over just a couple of decades if politicians somehow can be convinced to restrain the rate of growth of government spending.

Or, as the people of Switzerland figured out, you can enjoy that progress if you impose a spending limit on the politicians.

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Some folks on the right in Washington, generally known as reformicons (short for reform conservatives), want the Republican Party to de-emphasize marginal tax rate reductions and instead focus on providing tax relief to parents.

There are many leaders in this movement and, if you want to learn more about the tax proposals being discussed, I specifically recommend the writings of Robert Stein, James Capretta, James Pethokoukis, Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Charles Blahous, Jason Fichtner, and Reihan Salam (and I’m sure I’m unintentionally leaving off many other worthy contributions).

I explained last year what I like (and don’t like) about reform conservatism, but I haven’t specifically analyzed the tax agenda of the reformicons.

Time to rectify that oversight. The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to give me some space so I could share my thoughts on this topic.

I start by outlining the debate, albeit in simplified form because of space constraints.

There’s a policy debate among conservatives in Washington about the best way to cut taxes and reform the tax code. The supply-siders want to replicate the success of Reaganomics with lower marginal tax rates. But there’s also a camp who call themselves “reform conservatives” who want income tax credits or payroll tax cuts explicitly for the purpose of reducing tax liabilities for middle-class parents. The supply-siders argue that if you want to encourage more work, saving, investment and entrepreneurship, then it is a good idea to reduce marginal tax rates on productive behavior. …Those in the other camp…don’t necessarily disagree with the supply-siders. They note that it was important to lower marginal tax rates in 1980 when the top personal tax rate was a confiscatory 70%. But now that the top rate is “only” about 40%, they argue, lower tax rates won’t deliver nearly as much bang for the buck.

The reformicons are right. Dropping the top tax rate from 40 percent will help the economy, but the pro-growth effect won’t be enormous. At least not compared to what happened during the Reagan years when the top tax rate was slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.

And, as this leftist cartoon suggests, many Republicans act as if across-the-board tax rate reductions are an elixir for every ill.

But can reformicons suggest a better way of cutting and/or reforming taxes?

I’m not convinced that their agenda of child-oriented tax relief is the right answer.

In my column, I note that many of their policies have already been implemented, yet there’s little if any evidence that these tax cuts have generated positive outcomes.

…reform conservatives say it’s time for new ideas. That’s a nice concept, but Republicans already have enacted many of their proposed policies. The child tax credit was adopted in the 1990s and expanded during the Bush years. The earned income credit also funnels a lot of money (in the form of tax relief or cash payments) to families with children, and that provision also has been significantly expanded over the years. These policies have worked, at least in the sense that households with children now face lower tax liabilities. There is little evidence, though, to suggest positive economic or social outcomes. Were families strengthened? Did the economy grow faster? Did middle-income households feel more secure?

The reformicons often argue that their tax proposals are politically more appealing.

That may be true, but that doesn’t mean they are political winners, particularly if reformicons are trying to appease the class-warfare left, which will simply argue that tax cuts targeted at families making less than, say, $100,000 will be even “fairer” if they are targeted at families making less than $50,000.

Or maybe targeted at households who pay no tax, which means more transfer spending through the tax code!

The tax-credit reformers also argue that their proposals are much less susceptible to class-warfare demagoguery that is the supply-side approach, since tax relief flows to lower- and middle-income voters. …But here’s the downside: Conservatives can bend over backward to appease the class-warfare crowd, but they can never outflank them. …Once conservatives have accepted the left’s premise that tax policy should be based on static distribution tables, they won’t have a ready answer for the left’s gambit.

But as far as I’m concerned, the real issue is how to raise take-home pay.

The reformicons want to make families more secure by reducing how much the IRS takes from their paychecks.

I certainly like the idea of boosting post-tax income, but I contend that it would be even better to focus on policies that increase pre-tax income.

The most commonly cited reason for family-based tax relief is to raise take-home pay. That’s a noble goal, but it overlooks the fact that there are two ways to raise after-tax incomes. Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income. … long-run growth will average only 2.3% over the next 75 years. If good tax policy simply raised annual growth to 2.5%, it would mean about $4,500 of additional income for the average household within 25 years. This is why the right kind of tax policy is so important.

In other words, our economy is under-performing and that is the greatest threat to the financial security of families.

Folks on the left say it is the fault of “secular stagnation” and that the burden of government should be further expanded, but both reformicons and supply-siders agree that we’ll get far better results by focusing on tax cuts.

But which tax cuts?

I end my column with some glass-half-full analysis. The reformicons may not be thrilled by lower income tax rates and the supply-siders may not be excited by child-oriented tax cuts, but both camps are quite sympathetic to tax reforms that address the punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

While the camps disagree on lower individual income tax rates vs. child-oriented tax relief, both agree that the tax code’s bias against capital formation is very misguided. The logical compromise might be to focus on reforms that boost saving and investment, such as lowering the corporate tax rate, reducing the double taxation of dividends and capital gains, and allowing immediate expensing of business investment. These reforms would have strong supply-side effects. And since more saving and investment will lead to increased productivity, workers will enjoy higher wages, including households with children.

To be sure, some critics will say this type of tax agenda is too “business friendly,” which is an indirect way of saying that average voters may not understand how they benefit from tax reforms that don’t have a big and fast impact on their paychecks.

So maybe the right answer is to rip up the entire tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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