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Archive for the ‘Flat Tax’ Category

I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, but our awful (and anti-growth) tax system is mostly the fault of politicians.

Ever since that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was enacted, presidents and members of Congress have been making the system more and more complicated.

The net result is that we now have a tax system that – according to the IRS website – requires more than 2,700 separate forms, instructions, or publications (a huge increase over the past two decades).

In my fantasy world, we would throw all those forms in the trash and replace today’s convoluted tax system with a simple and fair flat tax.

Instead of 2,700-plus forms, we would have one simple postcard-sized tax return for households and another simple postcard-sized tax form for businesses.

Yes, there would be a few other forms for instructions and things like that, but compliance costs would drop by more than 90 percent.

Seems like a win-win approach, but the Washington Post has a different perspective, editorializing instead in favor of simply giving the IRS more money and power.

For the past three years, the IRS has failed to do its most basic job: processing tax returns in a timely manner. There are many reasons. The pandemic upended almost everything for a while. …Ancient computer systems hampered operations. And Congress kept asking the IRS to do more: implement the sweeping 2017 GOP tax code overhaul, then send stimulus checks — three times — to the vast majority of Americans during the pandemic. …Yet House Republicans made it their first priority this year to pass legislation slashing IRS funding, which would worsen the agency’s problems — and the service it provides Americans. …Congress’s priority should be modernizing the IRS and getting it back to full functionality. That’s why Democrats passed $80 billion in extra funding for the agency… This isn’t the time to cut. It’s the time to resuscitate.

By the way, “slashing” is a very inaccurate word when describing the GOP plan to cancel a giant budget increase for the IRS. Indeed, the IRS budget (adjusted for inflation) has dramatically expanded in recent decades.

But we should expect misleading analysis from the Washington Post.

So let’s conclude by instead asking a fundamental question: Is it better to continue on the current path (an ever-more-complex tax system requiring ever-more-money for the IRS) or is it better to have a clean tax system?

The answer should be obvious.

P.S. I’m sure that not every additional form on the IRS website represents additional complexity. But I’m also sure that the tax code is far worse than it was in the past. Perhaps the most compelling evidence is the huge increase in the number of pages needed for the instruction manual for the 1040 tax form.

P.P.S. Also keep in mind that there is a lot of evidence that tax complexity is a major source of political corruption.

P.P.P.S. If you like gallows humor, click here.

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I applauded when Joe Biden used clever tax strategies to reduce his (apparently unpatriotic) tax bill to the IRS. I also applauded when Bill and Hillary Clinton engaged in clever tax avoidance, as well as John Kerry and Gov. Pritzker of Illinois.

In the spirit of bipartisanship, I also applaud when Donald Trump does the same thing, and that part of what we’re going to discuss today.

First, some background: The ongoing battle over Donald Trump’s personal tax information has finally ended. If you’re curious, the New York Times has a detailed report on what Trump earned (or lost) in recent years.

And the NYT also tells us how much tax he paid during those years.

When I look at these numbers, my first thought is that Trump is not a very good businessman since he has a negative income most years.

My second thought is that I’m glad he paid a low tax rate of about 3 percent in 2018 and approximately 4 percent in 2019, the two years when his income was positive.

Why am I glad? Because money in private hands is far more likely to be utilized wisely than money that gets diverted to the IRS and then spent by the politicians in Washington.

That’s the first part of today’s column.

The second part of today’s column is to use Trump’s tax return to show why the tax system would be much better if we junked the internal revenue code and replaced it with a simple and fair flat tax.

The flat is based on the principle of equality.

  • All income tax taxed at the same low rate.
  • No income is exempt from tax, other than a family-based allowance.
  • No income is subject to double taxation.

A tax system based on equality also means radical simplicity. The hundreds of different tax forms in today’s tax code would get dumped in the garbage.

All that would be left is a simple tax form for households.

And a simple tax form for businesses.

What would this mean for Trump’s tax returns? I’m sure the implications would be enormous, but I want to focus on just two issues.

First, under the flat tax, business losses can not be used to lower taxes on household income (wages, salaries, and pensions). So that would probably mean a higher tax burden for Trump.

Second, the tax treatment of business changes in ways that would both help Trump and hurt Trump. The most important thing to realize is that the convoluted corporate income tax (as well as parts of the personal income tax such as Schedule C) are replaced by a very simple cash-flow system.

Here’s how Professors Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka describe the business portion of the flat tax.

The business tax is a giant, comprehensive withholding tax on all types of income other than wages, salaries, and pensions. It is carefully designed to tax every bit of income outside of wages, but to tax it only once. The business tax does not have deductions for interest payments, dividends, or any other type of payment to the owners of the business. As a result, all income that people receive from business activity has already been taxed. …The resulting simplification and improvement in the tax system is enormous. …Eliminating the deduction for interest paid by businesses is a central part of our general plan to tax business income at the source.

One very important implication of this approach is there there no longer would be a bias for debt. This would not be good news for people like Trump who usually rely on debt to finance their businesses.

On the other hand, the net result would be a tax code more favorable to investment and entrepreneurship. So if Trump is a good businessman, he will benefit.

I’m agnostic on Trump’s entrepreneurial ability, but I’m an unabashed fan of having a better tax system for America. Replacing the internal revenue code with a sensible tax system would mean a more prosperous country and a less corrupt Washington.

P.S. Under a flat tax, a business would be allowed to “carry forward” losses from previous years, just as is usually the case for the current system.

P.P.S. A flat tax also would replace depreciation with expensing, which is another policy favorable to smart entrepreneurs.

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It is economically foolish to have high tax rates, double taxation, and corrupt loopholes.

The answer, as Steve Forbes explains in this video, is the flat tax.

He makes excellent points, similar to the analysis I shared in my 2010 video.

Though there’s one difference. He got to share the good news about the wave of tax reform taking place at the state level.

In my video, by contrast, I got to share the good news about the tax reform that was taking place in Eastern Europe.

And what happened in Eastern Europe is our topic for today.

A new study by Brian Wheaton, a professor at UCLA who examined what happened after those nations adopted flat tax systems after the breakup of the Soviet Empire.

Here’s a map from the study, showing the nations that adopted the flat tax.

What were the economic results?

Here are some excerpts from Prof. Wheaton’s study.

Would a flat income tax substantially improve…incentives? To answer these questions, I study the experience of twenty post-Communist countries, which introduced flat taxation on income. I find that the flat tax reforms increase annual per-capita GDP growth by 1.38 percentage points for a transitionary period of approximately one decade. …Further, I find that the growth effect primarily operates through increases in investment and, to a lesser extent, labor supply. It is driven by the reductions in progressivity resulting from the reforms rather than merely the reductions in the average marginal tax rate.

And here’s a chart showing the pro-growth impact.

I wrote a column about this study yesterday for Townhall.

Here’s some of my analysis.

Starting about 30 years ago, there was serious interest in replacing the internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax. What motivated the desire to adopt a system based on one low rate, no double taxation of saving and investment, and no special loopholes? In part, it may have been because lawmakers at the time had a decent understanding of fiscal policy, having spent much of the 1980s lowering tax rates and seeing how that led to better economic performance. …With Bill Clinton in the White House, however, it was not possible to turn enthusiasm into reality. And in the following few decades, tax reform has fallen off the radar. …That’s unfortunate. America’s tax system has punitive features that reduce incentives for productive behavior. ..it would be a very good idea to resuscitate tax reform.

I explain that Professor Wheaton’s growth estimates are very important.

By the way, 1.38 percentage points of additional annual growth may not sound like much to some people, but the net effect is that flat tax nations wound up with about 15 percent more economic output after a decade. And that’s in addition to whatever growth they would have experienced without tax reform. A similar boost in growth in the United States would means several thousand dollars of additional economic output for every man, woman, and child.

And I close with a political observation.

It will be interesting to see whether some of the potential 2024 presidential hopefuls decide to battle these people and make tax reform part of their campaigns. Combined with other good ideas such as spending caps and federalism, there might be a winning message for the right candidate.

By the way, I’m not the only person to write about resuscitating tax reform.

Here are some excerpts from a column earlier this year by Cal Thomas for Jewish World Review.

The next time Republicans control all three branches of government they may wish to visit an old idea – the flat tax. …The Tax Code is a foreign language to many. As of 2018, it comprised 60 thousand pages in 54 volumes. According to The Tax Foundation, …the U.S. ranks 21st out of 37 nations in tax simplicity. Estonia has been first for eight straight years. Maybe we could learn from them. Look at states with no state taxes to see their prosperity. It is a major reason so many Americans are moving from high tax states to those with lower, or no state taxes. Unfortunately, one cannot escape the long arm of the IRS. A flat tax and the elimination of the IRS might help reduce the anger many people have about Washington and big spending politicians.

Since I’m a policy wonk, I mostly care about tax reform in hopes of reducing what economists refer to as “deadweight loss” in the economy.

But let’s also remember what Steve Forbes said in the video about the current system being corrupt.

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Because politicians have built-in incentives to expand the size and scope of government, it is very rare to find elected officials who actually deliver more liberty.

Some of them will offer rhetoric, of course, but very few of them produce results.

That’s true nationally (with limited exceptions), and it’s true internationally (with limited exceptions).

And it’s almost certainly true at the state level.

Though I found an exception, and that is the topic of today’s column.

The outgoing governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, deserves praise from libertarians and small-government conservatives.

George Will is especially impressed with Ducey’s education reforms (and I agree).

Here are some excerpts from his Washington Post column.

With two trenchant sentences, the nation’s most successful governor of the 21st century defines the significance of his signature achievement: “Fifty years ago, politicians stood in the schoolhouse door and wouldn’t let minorities in. Today, union-backed politicians stand in the schoolhouse door and won’t let minorities out.” Hence Gov. Doug Ducey’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which was enacted this year to provide universal school choice in grades K-12. Every Arizona family is eligible to receive about $7,000 per student per year to pay for private school tuition, home schooling, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, programs for special-needs pupils and more. …ESA was ferociously opposed by the teachers’ unions, whose confidence in the quality of their schools can be gauged by their fear of competition. A union attempt to repeal ESA by referendum failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, partly because of a group (Decline to Sign) in which, Ducey said here last week, Black leaders were disproportionately active.

The Wall Street Journal is impressed with his tax reform (and I agree).

Arizonans who fled California for sunnier tax climes can breathe easier after a court ruling that has saved the day from a punitive 8% top state tax rate. A state judge…struck down Arizona’s Proposition 208, which placed a 3.5% surtax on incomes above $250,000, or $500,000 for joint filers. …Nixing the surtax means Arizona will soon have a flat tax of 2.5% on individual incomes, the lowest flat rate among states with an income tax. Gov. Doug Ducey slashed the previous 4.5% top rate in his 2022 budget… Tax competition has helped Arizona draw residents and businesses from neighbors like California, but the surtax would have sent the Grand Canyon State down a Golden State path. The tax’s $250,000 income threshold made it a particular burden on small businesses that pay taxes under the individual code. The episode is a reminder of the value of constitutional guardrails on state taxes and spending. Arizona voters in 1980 placed limits on school spending through a ballot initiative, preventing unrestrained budget bloat.

In a column for National Affairs, James Glassman mentions school choice and the flat tax, but also a few of his other accomplishments.

Since Arizona’s governor is limited to eight years in office, Ducey’s second term — which ends in January — will be his last. This makes it an opportune time to consider Ducey’s legacy… This past January, Ducey told the state legislature, “[l]et’s think big and find more ways to get kids into the school of their parents’ choice…” In July, he did just that. The Empowerment Scholarship Account program — the most expansive school-choice program in America — is a pure choice-based system that provides $6,500 per student to any family that prefers an alternative to public schools. …When he entered office, he announced that he wanted the state’s personal income tax rate, which stood at 4.5%, to be “as close to zero as possible.” He started by indexing brackets to inflation, then chipped away at the rate with dozens of specific reductions. Finally, last year, he signed into law the largest tax cut in the state’s history, which will achieve a flat tax of 2.5% within three years. On regulatory policy, …he axed or modified more than 3,000 regulations. …he signed the first universal occupational-licensing law in the nation: Arizona now automatically recognizes occupational licenses issued by any other state. He also eliminated initial licensing fees for applicants from families making less than 200% of the federal poverty level.

Ducey’s licensing reform is especially impressive. For all intents and purposes, he adopted an approach based on “mutual recognition,” and that makes it much easier for people in other states to shift economic activity to Arizona.

P.S. George Will’s column also notes that Ducey is not a fan of Republicans who want to surrender to bigger government.

During a September speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, Ducey deplored the fact that “a dangerous strain of big-government activism has taken hold” in the Republican Party, and “for liberty’s sake we need to fight it with every fiber in our beings”.

Amen. Whether it is called national conservatism, compassionate conservatismkinder-and-gentler conservatismcommon-good capitalismreform conservatism, or anything else, bigger government is bad news for ordinary citizens.

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Looking at reforms at the state level, the past two years have produced very good news on education policy and tax policy.

Regarding the latter, many states have lowered tax rates and several of them have junked so-called progressive tax systems and replaced them with simple and fair flat taxes.

But I’m greedy for even bigger improvements.

I want to see some states move not just to Column 2 in my ranking of state tax policy. I want them to be in Column 1.

And that means they need to get rid of income taxes.

The good news is that some states are having that discussion.

Here are some excerpts from an Associated Press report from Mississippi, written by Michael Goldberg.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves promised to push for a full elimination of the state’s income tax during the 2023 legislative session. The move would make Mississippi the 10th state with no income tax. …Mississippi’s Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation in 2022 that will eliminate the state’s 4% income tax bracket starting in 2023. In the following three years, the 5% bracket will be reduced to 4%. …Supporters of the 2022 Mississippi tax cut said it would spur economic growth and attract new residents to Mississippi. …Republican House speaker Philip Gunn has said full elimination of the state income tax is “achievable,” though he hasn’t committed to doing so in the 2023 session. …Tax-cut proposals are a direct effort to compete with states that don’t tax earnings, including Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

And here are portions of an article in National Review about Colorado, authored by Ben Murrey, which also notes that the TABOR spending limit will need to be strengthened if lawmakers are serious about getting rid of the state’s income tax.

When an interviewer recently asked Colorado’s Democratic governor Jared Polis what the state’s income-tax rate should be, he answered without hesitation: “It should be zero.” …The effort to chisel away at the income tax has already gained steam in the state. Last year, voters reduced the tax with Proposition 116 — a ballot initiative that brought the rate from 4.63 percent to 4.55 percent. …Eliminating the tax would provide an enormous direct windfall to Colorado households. …every reduction in income tax will allow Coloradans to keep more of every dollar they earn, and it invites more jobs and opportunities for residents. …To eliminate the income tax entirely, the state would probably need to begin lowering the revenue limit along with the rate reductions in the future. …these two reforms would put the state on a road to zero.

By the way, Colorado voters once again just cut the state’s flat tax in a referendum earlier this month.

Would Mississippi and Colorado be doing the right thing if they joined the zero-income-tax club?

Yes. I cited some evidence on this issue about 10 years ago.

Here’s some updated analysis from Chris Edwards.

The nine states without an individual income tax are Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. …What they have in common is providing needed state‐​local services to their residents without complex, anti‐​freedom, and anti‐​growth individual income taxes. Most of the nine run leaner and more efficient governments than most other states. They only partly make up for the income tax revenue gap with other revenues. In terms of overall tax burdens, eight of the nine states are toward the bottom of the 50 states and Washington is in the middle. …Total taxes in the seven states average 8.1 percent of income. The average in the 40 other states is 9.6 percent. Thus, the lack of individual income tax restrains the overall tax burden. …Repealing state individual income taxes is a good goal. …Residents get the state‐​local services they need, but at lower cost. 

Here’s the chart that accompanied Chris’ article. He separates Alaska and Wyoming because they get so much money from energy taxes and are not realistic role models for other states.

The bottom line is that states without an income tax tend to have smaller government.

This is especially true for Florida, Tennessee, South Dakota, and New Hampshire. And Texas may join those states now that it has strengthened its spending cap.

One should-be-obvious conclusion from this data is that states with no income taxes should not make the mistake of adopting that punitive levy. Unless, of course, they want to repeat Connecticut’s unhappy experience.

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While most people pay attention to which political party enjoys success when there’s an election, I think it’s also important to look at ballot initiatives.

But, as we’ve seen in California and Oregon, not every referendum produces a sensible result.

Today, we’re going to look at the most important ballot initiative of 2022. But before looking at the details, here’s a map showing the states gaining and losing population when Americans move across borders.

You’ll notice that Massachusetts is one of the top states for outbound migration, which means people are “voting with their feet” against the Bay State.

But bad news can become worse news. And that will definitely be the case if voters in Massachusetts approve a referendum next month to junk the state’s flat tax and replace it with a class-warfare system that has a top rate of 9 percent.

Jeff Jacoby wrote last year about the idea in a column for the Boston Globe.

A century-old provision of the Massachusetts Constitution commands that if the commonwealth taxes income, it must do so at a “uniform rate.” Five times in the modern era — in 1962, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1994 — tax-and-spend liberals have invited voters to discard that rule and make it legal to soak the rich at higher tax rates. Five times voters have said no. …There is considerable arrogance in the way advocates of the surtax blithely disregard the voters’ repeated refusal to overturn the constitutional ban. Their attitude seems to be that no matter how many times the people uphold the uniform-rate rule, there is no reason to take them seriously. …more than 150 Massachusetts businesses representing almost 16,000 workers sent lawmakers an open letter imploring them not to hobble the state’s economy with a stiff new tax, and expressing “alarm” at the proposed constitutional amendment. They…know that a surtax aimed at millionaires is bound to injure countless people who will never earn anywhere close to a million bucks.

The Wall Street Journal has editorialized against the proposal.

…progressives in Boston want to join New York and other nearby states in a high-tax arms race. …Bay State ballots in November will give voters the choice to place a 4% surtax on incomes above $1 million, bringing the top rate to 9% from 5%. The proposal would amend the state constitution to remove its flat-tax mandate. Passing the measure would rocket Massachusetts to seventh from 31st on the list of states with the highest marginal income-tax rates. …A $2.3 billion revenue surplus shows that the state is already taxing more than it needs. This year’s tax haul was so big it triggered a largely forgotten state law that caps revenue. Residents may soon receive checks that refund a portion of last year’s taxes. …Approving the tax would speed up a wealth exodus already under way. The Pioneer Institute last year noted that Massachusetts’ tax base has been eroding, and there’s no surprise about where the escapees are going. The top two destinations are Florida and New Hampshire, both of which lack an income tax. …The constitution’s flat rate mandate is a crucial limit on the demands of interest groups for ever-more spending. If tax rates rise and the revenue cap goes away, spending will soar to snatch the new revenue and soon the politicians will return to seek even higher rates, as they always do.

The economic consequences of class-warfare taxation are never positive.

And that will be true in Massachusetts. A study from the Beacon Hill Institute in Massachusetts estimates the economic damage that the surtax would cause.

…we find, using our in-house computer model (MA-STAMP) that the effects on the economy will be as follows: In its first year of implementation, the amendment will cause the state to lose 4,388 working families due to outmigration. This outmigration plus a reduction in labor hiring and labor-force participation will cause a loss of 9,329 jobs. …the state economy, real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product, will shrink by $431 million… Advocates of the measure claim that it will make possible a $2 billion annual in state spending. …Instead, we find that the revenue yield of the tax will be far less, the result of the expected shrinkage in economic activity. (See Table E-2.) In its first year of implementation, combined state and local revenues will rise by only about $1.2 billion.

Here’s a table showing some of the negative effects.

Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute also estimated that revenues would be lower than expected once the effects of the Laffer Curve are incorporated into the analysis.

Here are some excerpts from his article in the Hill.

Modifying the revenue forecast to incorporate evidence from the academic literature about likely behavioral changes yields a significantly lower estimated revenue pickup. I estimate that about 400 of the 22,000 taxpayers affected by the surtax would exit the state and many others would reduce work or shift and relabel their income to avoid the tax. By my estimate, the surtax would generate approximately $1.5 billion in 2023, since these behavioral responses would offset 32 percent of the revenue gain that would occur if taxpayers kept their behavior unchanged. Using a similar approach, Tufts University’s Center for State Policy Analysis recently estimated that the proposed surtax would generate only $1.3 billion in 2023.

Last but not least, the Tax Foundation crunched the numbers and also found the surtax would cause significant economic damage.

…while no one would mistake Massachusetts for a low-tax state, it has carved out a place as a competitive area to live and work within the Northeast corridor. …but consider the Commonwealth’s ranking on the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index…in 2022, the Bay State still ranked 34th overall on the Index—well below the median. …Massachusetts’ competitive tax advantage in New England is primarily due to its individual income and sales tax systems, which rank 11th and 12th on the Index, respectively. With regard to its neighbors, only New Hampshire has a better overall Index ranking than Massachusetts. …In 2007, Christina Romer and David Romer, professors of economics at the University of California Berkeley, conducted a study to determine the impact of legislated tax changes on the economy. …The study found that a tax increase equal to 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) resulted in an estimated 3 percent decline in GDP after three years. …If the Romer and Romer study were applied to the Massachusetts surtax it would result in a 0.942 percent decline in GDP after three years. In other words, the Commonwealth’s total economic output could contract by $5.98 billion by the end of 2025.

Here’s a table from the report, showing that zero-income tax New Hampshire and Florida already are big winners when people escape Massachusetts.

If the referendum is approved, we can easily predict that future versions of this chart will show much bigger numbers.

Simply stated, some of the geese with the golden eggs will fly away (while the ones that stay will decide to produce fewer eggs – as well as figure out ways to protect the eggs that remain).

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There isn’t much good news coming from Washington, DC, especially since Biden was able to push through a (fortunately watered-down) package of more spending and higher taxes.

But there have been some very positive developments at the state level over the past couple of years.

I’ve already written several times about how school choice has been spreading, led by big reforms in states such as Arizona and West Virginia.

The other big development is that states are lowering tax rates and replacing discriminatory “progressive” tax systems with simpler and fairer flat taxes that are more friendly to growth.

In a column for Forbes, Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reforms discusses the latest developments in state tax policy – most notably Idaho’s shift to a flat tax.

…he second half of the year is resulting in further income tax relief and strengthening the recent trend of states moving from graduated to flat income taxes. Most recently, Idaho legislators returned to the state capital in Boise on the first day of September for a special session called by Governor Brad Little (R) for the purpose of making Idaho the newest flat tax state. …Governor Little’s proposal, which state legislators passed on September 1, moves Idaho to a flat 5.8% personal income tax. Idaho currently has a progressive income tax code with a top rate of 6%, which kicks in at less than $8,000 in annual income. …HB 1, which Little will soon sign into law, will also cut Idaho’s corporate tax rate from 6% to 5.8%.

North Dakota also is contemplating tax reform.

…in North Dakota, Governor Doug Burgum (R) unveiled a new tax proposal that would also move North Dakota to a flat tax. North Dakota currently has a two-tier income tax with rates of 2.04% and 2.9%. Governor Burgum’s proposal would move to a flat 1.5% income tax.

From a big-picture perspective, the last couple of years have been great news for taxpayers in certain states.

here are currently nine states with a flat income tax, 18 when counting the nine no-income-tax states that charge a flat 0%. Four states (Arizona, Iowa, Georgia, and Mississippi) codified laws in 2021 and 2022 that will phase in flat taxes in the coming years. When Governors Little and Burgum enact their tax proposals as is expected, Idaho and North Dakota will become the the fifth and sixth states in past two years alone to adopt a flat tax, bringing the total number of flat or zero tax states to 24.

I’ll conclude by observing that I put together a 5-column method in 2018 for ranking state tax system.

At the beginning, 18 states were in the two good columns (no income tax or flat tax).

Today, we’re approaching 25 states and a few other states have moved in the right direction (reducing so-called progressive tax systems).

The bottom line is that it is costly to escape bad policy in Washington, but at least we have more options if we want to find good policy at the state level.

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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund, in part because the international bureaucracy is infamous for pressuring nations to impose higher taxes.

The bureaucrats at the IMF have even claimed that higher taxes somehow will produce more economic growth.

Even worse, the IMF has argued for class-warfare taxes that do the most economic damage, even using the twisted rationale that it is okay to hurt the poor so long as the rich suffer even greater losses.

To be fair, there are some good fiscal economists at the IMF (even with regards to tax policy), but the political types who run the bureaucracy almost always ignore their research.

Instead, the bureaucracy highlights second-rate analysis in pursuit of bad policy.

The latest example if that the IMF is pressuring Bulgaria to replace its flat tax with a system based on discriminatory rates.

Fiscal policy needs to be flexible given the large uncertainty, but some changes are already advisable in the mid-year budget revision. …Room to address long-term social and investment needs could be significantly increased by…Reviewing the tax system to increase revenue and redistribution . A reform of the low flat personal income tax rate could help create fiscal space and reduce inequalities.

By the way, just in case it’s not obvious, “social and investment needs” is bureaucrat-speak for more redistribution spending.

Some of you may be wondering whether a new system is needed because the flat tax caused a big drop in revenue.

But as you can see from this chart, income tax revenues continued to grow after the flat tax was approved in 2008.

I’ll close by noting that Bulgaria is ranked #36 in the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, which is a good but not great score.

But it gets its lowest score for “size of government,” which is the measure for fiscal policy. The flat income tax is a positive, of course, but that policy is offset by low scores for other features of fiscal policy (payroll tax, redistribution, etc).

So the bottom line is that the IMF wants to get rid of the good part of Bulgaria’s fiscal policy and drive its overall score even lower.

P.S. I also disapprove of the IMF because it subsidizes and encourages debt and instability with endless bailouts.

P.P.S. And I am disgusted that IMF bureaucrats get tax-free salaries while advocating for higher taxes for everyone else.

P.P.P.S. The IMF has a reprehensible track record of bullying nations in Eastern Europe. Though, to be fair, they also push for bad tax policy in big and powerful nations. And in weak and poor nations.

P.P.P.P.S. Here’s my solution to the IMF problem.

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About 14 years ago, I narrated this video about the flat tax and national sales tax (sometimes referred to as a “Fair Tax”).

I used the video as an opportunity to explain that both plans effectively rip up the current internal revenue code. And both would solve the major problems that plague today’s income tax.

As I stated in the video, the only big difference between a flat tax and national sales tax is the collection point.

A flat tax is collected as income is earned. A sales tax, or Fair Tax, is collected as income is spent.

But the economic benefits of both plans are identical because the core features of both plans are identical.

Sadly, big-picture tax reform no longer is a major issue. Proponents of good policy are mostly focused today on stopping plans that would make a bad tax code even worse.

But maybe it is time to think about going on offense.

In a column for the New York Sun, John Childs makes the case for replacing the current mess with the national sales tax.

There is a better way — replace the entire income tax monstrosity with a national consumption tax, i.e. a national sales tax. Let Walmart and Amazon be the tax collectors. Odds are they will be vastly more efficient than the IRS, which at this point can’t even return the phone calls of bewildered taxpayers. All retailers already perform sales tax collection services for state governments. So it is hardly a leap of faith to ask them to do it for the Feds. …This would be bad news for tax lawyers and accountants. As some of the brightest minds in the country now devote themselves to crafting fiendishly clever tax avoidance schemes, though, imagine what an unexpected dividend would flow from redirecting all of that creativity to productive activities.

I agree that a national sales tax would be much better than the current system.

That’s why I’ve promoted the idea on many occasions.

But always with the very big caveat that I mentioned in the video, which is that any sort of direct consumption tax (sales tax, Fair Tax, value-added tax) has to be a total replacement for the income tax.

However, that’s just one must-have requirement. Since politicians are untrustworthy, we also should not allow a direct consumption tax until and unless the 16th Amendment is repealed and replaced with a new amendment that unambiguously prohibits any future Congress from reinstating an income tax.

The bad news is that I don’t think either of these requirements will be met. And this is why I am more focused on supporting the flat tax.

After all, the worst thing that happens with a flat tax is that future politicians reinstate the current system.

But the worst thing that happens with a national sales tax is that future politicians have a new source of revenue to fuel bigger government (sort of what happened in Europe when value-added taxes financed a major expansion in the burden of government spending).

P.S. The same principles apply at the state level. Policymakers should use consumption taxes to help finance the repeal of income taxes.

P.P.S. A Fair Tax (or any form of national sales tax) will reduce the underground economy, but not by a greater amount than the flat tax.

P.P.P.S. Here are very succinct explanations of major tax reforms proposals.

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At the state level, we have another victory for good tax policy.

I wrote last month that Iowa might replace its discriminatory tax regime with a simple and fair flat tax.

And I pointed out that this reform would help the state jump several spots in my ranking of state tax systems.

Well, the proposed reform has been approved by the state legislature and Iowa will now have a much better (i.e., less destructive) tax system.

Here are some details of the new law, as reported by Stephen Gruber-Miller and Ian Richardson for the Des Moines Register.

Iowa will move to a 3.9% flat income tax rate under a compromise between legislative Republicans and Gov. Kim Reynolds… …It would also exempt retirement income such as 401(k)s, pensions and IRAs from state taxes… Along the way, the bill would eliminate Iowa’s progressive income tax system, where wealthier Iowans pay higher rates than lower-income Iowans. Iowa would join 10 other states with some form of flat income tax. …The new proposal would build upon a series of tax cuts that were previously set to start for Iowans in 2023, meaning multiple new tax laws would take effect during the same year. Iowa is already set to reduce the number of tax brackets from nine to four starting in 2023. …It will drop the corporate tax rate to a 5.5% flat rate over time.

I could end today’s column at this point.

After all, what happened in Iowa is a triumph for tax reform and another case study on the benefits of tax competition (just like we’ve seen in states such as Kentucky and North Carolina).

But I want to take this opportunity to address another big-picture issue.

Earlier this month, James Lynch wrote a column for the Des Moines Register on the potential impact of tax reform in the state.

He contrasted the views of both proponents and opponents.

Flattening state income tax rates and exempting retirement income would either lead to growth in businesses and jobs and increase Iowans wealth, or simply make wealthy Iowans wealthier, according to speakers at a public hearing…speakers at the Monday evening public hearing were divided between those who said a flatter tax rate would make Iowa a more attractive place for businesses to locate and expand — as well as a more attractive place for employees to live and work — and those who said the plan largely benefits the wealthy while doing little to help lower-income workers.

At the risk of sounding mushy, both supporters and critics are right.

Iowa’s tax reform will encourage more growth. And it’s also true that the rich will benefit.

But opponents are guilty of a sin of omission. That’s because tax reform will benefit lower-income and middle-class taxpayers as well.

And I think “sin of omission” is the right term. That’s because a big moral shortcoming among our friends on the left is that they are sometimes tempted to go along with policies that will hurt the less fortunate so long as they impose even greater damage on upper-income taxpayers.

P.S. Adopting a flat tax is progress, but the ultimate goal should be abolishing the state income tax.

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I wrote last year about an encouraging trend of lower tax rates at the state level.

As you can see from this map, one of the states moving in the right direction is Iowa.

But Governor Kim Reynolds isn’t satisfied with just lowering tax rates, which is a worthy goal, of course.

She is now proposing to get rid of the state’s so-called progressive tax and replace it with a flat tax.

This would be very good news for Iowa’s economy and Iowa’s taxpayers.

An article in the Quad-City Times explains Governor Reynolds’ proposal.

In four years, every Iowan’s income would be taxed at 4% by the state under a new proposal from Gov. Kim Reynolds. Reynolds introduced her flat income tax proposal during last week’s annual Condition of the State address to the Iowa Legislature, encouraging the lawmakers to pass her idea.“Flat and fair,” Reynolds proclaimed during the speech. …Ten states currently have a flat state income tax, including Iowa’s eastern neighbor, Illinois. The list includes more blue states like Michigan and Massachusetts, but also red states like Kentucky and Utah. …Under Reynolds’ new plan, top state income tax rate would be eliminated each year over the next four years, until in 2026 every Iowa worker, regardless of income level, pays 4 percent. …The plan would reduce state revenue by $226 million in the first year, and by $1.6 billion at full implementation… Reynolds said during her speech. “Yes, we’ll have less to spend once a year at the Capitol, but we’ll see it spent every single day on Main Streets, in grocery stores, and at restaurants across Iowa. We’ll see it spent in businesses instead of on bureaucracies.” …Republican legislative leaders praised Reynolds’ proposal and said they are eager to begin working on legislation.

The article also explains the previous tax reform, which focused on lowering marginal tax rates.

In 2021, Iowa had nine state income tax rates, tied for the second-most in the country. Most Iowa workers’ income was taxed at between 4.14%, with rates increasing as income increased, up to a top rate of 8.53% for those earning over $78,435 of taxable income. As a result of tax reform passed by the Iowa Legislature and signed into law by Reynolds in 2018, the number of tax brackets will be reduced to four, ranging between 4.4 and 6.5%.

I showed last year how that legislation moved Iowa up one level in a ranking of state income taxes.

Well, here’s an updated look at the state’s total improvement if the governor’s plan for a flat tax is enacted.

Iowa jumps from the worst column to the next-to-best column.

And if I ranked states by the rate of their flat tax, Iowa’s 4 percent rate would be lower than the rates in North Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, Utah, and Massachusetts.

Not as good as the states with no income taxes, but still impressive.

P.S. I’ll be curious to see how much Iowa will improve in the Tax Foundation’s rankings if the proposed flat tax gets approved.

 

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One of my traditions, which started in 2013, is to share the year’s best and worst policy outcomes of the past 365 days.

For instance, last year I celebrated Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in the United Kingdom and also was very happy that Colorado voters preserved TABOR. But I bemoaned Trump’s protectionism and fretted about the ever-rising burden of government spending.

So what can we say about 2020?

The big news of the year was the pandemic, of course, but my best-and-worst list focuses on public policy.

In other words, this column will highlight the positive or negative actions of politicians (or voters) rather than the vindictiveness of Mother Nature.

So let’s look at major developments in 2020, and we’ll start with the good news.

Illinois voters preserve the flat tax – The only good feature of Illinois fiscal policy is that the state’s constitution mandates a flat tax. The big spenders in Springfield despise that policy, but they can’t get rid of it without permission from voters. So, led by the state’s hypocritical governor, they put an initiative on the ballot to allow discriminatory tax rates. Fortunately, the people of Illinois rejected the class-warfare measure by a comfortable 53.3 percent-46.7 percent margin.

An acceptable Brexit deal – The people of the United Kingdom wisely voted to leave the European Union back in 2016, but a genuine escape from Brussels did not seem likely until Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in 2019. Even then, it wasn’t clear that the European Union’s spiteful officials would agree to unfettered trade in a post-Brexit environment. Fortunately, there is now an agreement that – while far from perfect – does allow the U.K. to escape the sinking ship of the E.U.

Voters reject the War on Drugs – I’ve never liked drugs and I recognize that there will be social harms with legalization. That being said, the social harm from prohibition is much greater, so I’m pleased that voters all over the nation approved ballot initiatives to give people more freedom to get high.

Now for the bad news of 2020.

Washington’s bungled response to the pandemic – As indicated above, the existence of the coronavirus doesn’t count as bad policy, but the federal government’s incompetent response certainly belongs on this list. We learned, over and over and over and over again, that bloated bureaucracies do not deliver good results. Heck, we’re still learning that lesson.

China clamps down on Hong Kong – As a long-time admirer of Hong Kong’s market-driven economic vitality, I’m saddened that China is increasing its control. So far, Beijing is focusing on ways of restricting Hong Kong’s political autonomy, but I fear it is just a matter of time before economic freedom is negatively impacted. For what it’s worth, I’m also distressed that economic policy seems to be moving in the wrong direction in Mainland China as well.

Chilean voters put the nation’s prosperity at risk – One of the world’s biggest success stories during my lifetime has been Chile’s shift from authoritarian statism to capitalist prosperity. Poverty has dramatically declined and Chile is now the richest nation in Latin America. Sadly, voters approved an initiative that could result in a new constitution based on the welfare state vision of “positive rights.”

I’ll close with a bonus section, so to speak.

2020 election – If you care about trade and spending, then Biden’s victory may turn out to be good news. If you care about taxes and red tape, then Biden’s victory may turn out to be bad news.

But I thought the biggest election takeaway is that the left did not do well in congressional races or state races.

And I suppose I should add that it’s good news that Democratic voters ultimately opted not to nominate some of the awful politicians who ran for president, most notably Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

And I’m tempted to add that they also wisely rejected Kamala Harris, but that backfired since she’s now going to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

P.S. I’ve already cited my 2013 and 2019 editions. If you’re curious, here are my best and worst for 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014.

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Since Americans are not as sensible as the Swiss, I’m generally not a fan of direct democracy in the United States.

Simply stated, I don’t like untrammeled majoritarianism, which occurs when 51 percent of voters can pillage 49 percent of voters.

But I’ll admit that the level of my angst fluctuates depending on whether voters make wise choices. With that in mind, here are the six ballot initiatives that I’ll be closely watching on election day.

1. Proposed Amendment to the 1970 Illinois Constitution

The most important ballot initiative is the proposal by the hypocritical governor of Illinois to undo the state’s flat tax. I’ve already dedicated an entire column to this issue, so I’ll simply add some additional analysis from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Illinois voters will decide next month whether to enact a progressive income tax, paving the way for a new top rate of 7.99%. …The Prairie State currently ranks 36th worst in overall tax burden because its flat individual rate of 4.95% offsets very high property and other taxes. …its proposed slate of new individual income tax rates, along with a corporate tax hike tied to the same ballot measure, would drop the state’s rank overall to 47th. That would move Illinois into Dante’s ninth ring of tax hell, ahead of only New Jersey, New York and California. …Iowa and Missouri have…slashed their top rates in recent years rather than jacking them up as Illinois Democrats intend. Kentucky lawmakers in 2018 replaced their progressive income tax with a flat rate of 5%. Heading in the opposite direction of neighboring states could push many of Illinois’s overburdened families and businesses across the border.

2. Arizona Proposition 208

There’s a class-warfare proposal to dramatically increase the top income tax rate in Arizona.

Once again, the editors at the Wall Street Journal have spot-on analysis.

Arizona has long been a refuge for Americans seeking relief from high-tax California and states in the Northeast. But a tax referendum on the ballot Nov. 3 would whack job creators and make people rethink retirement in Scottsdale or a business move to Tucson. …The current top rate of 4.5% would rise to 8%, which would move the state to the 10th highest income-tax rate in the country, from 11th lowest today… Arizona would move closer to California (13.3% top rate) than Nevada (no income tax). …about half of the targets would be small businesses that pay taxes at the individual rate… They employ a huge chunk of Arizona workers, and the added tax costs would trickle down in lower pay and fewer jobs. …One definition of fiscal insanity would be to raise state taxes when the Biden Democrats may soon raise federal tax rates to heights not seen since the 1970s.

3. California Proposition 16

In California, politicians want the state to have to power to engage in racial and sexual discrimination. In pursuit of that goal, they are asking voters to repeal Proposition 209, adopted by voters in 1996.

Gail Heriot, a law professor who also serves on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, explains why this is a bad idea in a column for Real Clear Politics.

California’s deep-blue legislature has been itching to repeal Proposition 209 for years. …Proposition 209 amended California’s constitution to prohibit the state from engaging in preferential treatment based on race or sex. It was a rebuke to the identity politics obsessions of state and local governments. …By approving Proposition 209 by a wide margin, they aimed to end the race and sex spoils system. …The best reason for retaining Proposition 209 is…that the initiative has been good for Californians — of all races…the number of under-represented minority students in academic jeopardy collapsed. …in the years immediately following Proposition 209, it had three effects on under-represented minorities in the UC system. It increased (1) graduation rates, (2) GPAs, and (3) the number of science or engineering majors.

4. California Proposition 15

Since we just discussed one bad California proposition, we may as well mention another.

There’s also a scheme to (again) raise taxes. The Wall Street Journal opines on this misguided initiative.

Sooner or later California’s public unions had to hit up the hoi polloi to pay for their pensions after soaking what’s left of the state’s millionaire class, and here they come. On Nov. 3, Californians will vote on a “split roll” ballot initiative (Prop. 15) that seeks to enact the biggest tax hike in state history. …Under current law, tax rates on residential and commercial property are capped at 1% of their assessed value—i.e., the purchase price—and can increase by no more than 2% annually. …This is the only balm in California’s oppressive tax climate and acts as a modest restraint on the government spending ratchet. Unions know that attempting to repeal this entirely would spur a homeowner revolt, so they are targeting businesses. …Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is Prop. 15’s second biggest donor. Perhaps he’s trying to atone for his wealth, but as the NAACP and minority business groups explained in a letter to him in August: “Unlike Facebook, restaurants, dry cleaners, nail salons and other small businesses can’t operate right now and many may never open again. The last thing they need is a billionaire pushing higher taxes on them under the false flag of social justice.” …Prop. 15 would raise property taxes by $8.5 billion to $12.5 billion a year by 2025.

5. Colorado Proposition 117

Proponents of fiscal responsibility in Colorado want to strengthen TABOR (or, to be more accurate, stop the erosion of TABOR) by requiring a public vote for non-trivial efforts to increase government revenue.

Here’s a summary from CPR.

Proposition 117..would add a new TABOR-like provision to state law, requiring the state government to get voter permission before it creates major new “enterprises,” which are partially funded by fees. Colorado voters already have authority over tax increases and rarely approve them. The state Supreme Court has held that a fee is different from a tax because it is reasonably connected to a specific purpose. And in the years that TABOR has been in effect, lawmakers have used them as a way to raise money without raising taxes. Critics see fees as an end-run around TABOR’s spending limits.

6. Colorado Proposition 116

Sticking with Colorado, there’s also a proposal to lower the state’s flat tax.

Once again, let’s use CPR as a source.

This initiative would cut the state’s income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.55 percent. …This change would reduce the state government’s revenue by an estimated $170 million in the next fiscal year. Supporters argue it would boost businesses and consumer spending, while opponents say it would weaken government services and social supports already severely cut by the downturn. The measure was originally intended to counter a progressive tax measure that failed to make the ballot.

Honorable Mention

There are many other ballot initiatives. Here are some that I care about, even if they were not important enough to be featured.

Proposition 21 for rent control in California. Bad idea.

Proposition 22 to penalize the gig economy in California. Also a bad idea. [Oops, got this backwards. Prop 22 would undo the legislation that penalizes the gig economy.]

Initiatives to legalize marijuana in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. The libertarian side of me is very supportive, but the fiscal side of me doesn’t like the fact that one of the motives is a desire to collect more tax revenue.

Ranked-choice voting in Alaska and Massachusetts. This is a system that requires voters rank all candidates and awards victory to whoever has the strongest support across all ballots. It is assumed that the impact will be more centrist candidates and more civil elections. I don’t have strong views, but it’s worth noting that Australia uses this approach and it’s one of my favorite nations.

13 initiatives in San Francisco. Lot of tax increases, as you might expect from that poorly governed city.

P.S. Voting for politicians who make bad decisions is unfortunate. Directly voting for bad propositions isn’t any better.

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On election day, most people focus on the big-ticket partisan battles, such as this year’s contest between Trump and Biden.

Let’s not forget, though, that there are sometimes very important referendum battles at the state (or even local) level.

This year, the most important referendum will be in Illinois, where hypocritical Governor J.B. Pritzker wants voters to approve an initiative to replace the state’s flat tax with a discriminatory progressive tax.

I’ve already explained that the flat tax is the only thing saving Illinois from going further and faster in the wrong direction. Let’s add some additional evidence, starting with excerpts from this editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

The last state to adopt a progressive income tax was Connecticut in 1996, and we know how that turned out. Now Democrats in Illinois want to follow Connecticut down the elevator shaft with a referendum replacing the state’s flat 4.95% income tax with progressive rates… Public unions have long wanted to enact a progressive tax to pay for increased spending and pensions, and they think the political moment has finally arrived. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker says a progressive tax will hit only the wealthy… Don’t believe it. There aren’t enough wealthy in the state to pay for his spending promises, so eventually Democrats will come after the middle class. …Illinois has no fiscal room to fail. Since 2015 Illinois’s GDP has grown a mere 1% annually, about half as fast as the U.S. and slower than Ohio (1.4%), Indiana (1.7%), Wisconsin (1.7%) and Michigan (2.1%). About 11% of Illinois residents have left since 2001, the second biggest state exodus after New York. Taxpayer flight has been accelerating as income and property taxes have risen. …A progressive tax would be a gift to Florida and Texas.

The head of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Todd Maisch, also worries that other states will benefit if voters make the wrong choice. Here are excerpts from his column in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The rest of the nation’s states are cheering on Illinois’ efforts to enact a progressive income tax. That’s because they know it will be one more self-inflicted blow to our state’s economy, certain to drive dollars, jobs and families into their waiting arms. …The reality is that this proposal is intended to do just one thing: Make it easier to raise taxes on all Illinoisans. …the spenders in Springfield are coming for you too, sooner or later. Proponents of the progressive tax know something they don’t want to tell you. Taxing millionaires will in no way meet their appetite for state spending. There simply isn’t enough money at the higher income levels to satisfy their demands. Tax rates will go up and tax brackets will reach lower and lower incomes. …Other states already are benefiting from the outmigration of Illinoisans and their money. Illinois passing the progressive tax is exactly what they are hoping for.

Amen. We already have lots of evidence showing that taxpayers move from high-tax states to low-tax states. And Illinois already has been bleeding taxable income to other states, so it’s very likely that a progressive tax would dramatically worsen the state’s position.

Illinois voters can and should learn from what’s happened elsewhere.

For instance, Orphe Divounguy of the Illinois Policy Institute shares evidence from California about the adverse impact of class-warfare taxation.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker finds himself in the same place as then-California Gov. Jerry Brown was in back in 2012 – trying to convince voters that a progressive state income tax hike will fix state finances in crisis. Brown claimed the burden of those tax hikes would only harm those earning $250,000 or more – the top 3% of earners. That’s exactly what Pritzker promises with his “fair tax” proposal. Brown was wrong. …Here are the main findings of the new study… The negative economic effects of the tax hike wiped out nearly half of the expected additional tax revenue. Among top-bracket California taxpayers, outward migration and behavioral responses by stayers together eroded 45% of the additional tax revenues from the tax hike… The “temporary” income tax hike, which has now been extended through 2030, made it about 40% more likely wealthy residents would move out of California, primarily to states without income taxes.

Illinois voters also should learn from the painful experiences of taxpayers in Connecticut and New Jersey.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized this morning about their negative experiences.

Illinois is the nation’s leading fiscal basket case, with runaway pension liabilities and public-union control of Springfield. But it has had one saving grace: a flat-rate income tax that makes it harder for the political class to raise taxes. Now that last barrier to decline is in jeopardy on the November ballot. …the pattern of other blue states is instructive. Democratic governors have often lowballed voters with modest rates when introducing a new tax, only to ratchet up the levels in each administration. …New Jersey first taxed individual income in 1976 amid a national revenue slump, with a top rate of 2.5%. …Democratic Gov. James Florio raised the tax to 7%… A decade later Democrats raised the top rate to 8.97%, and last year Gov. Murphy added the 10.75% rate… Or take Connecticut… For decades its lack of an income tax lured New York workers and businesses, but Gov. Lowell Weicker introduced the tax in 1991…and the original 1.5% rate has since been raised five times to today’s 6.99%.

And here’s the chart that every taxpayer should memorize before they vote next month.

And never forget that ever-increasing tax rates on high earners inevitably are accompanied by ever-increasing tax rates on everyone else – exactly as predicted by the Sixth Theorem of Government.

So if middle-class Illinois voters approve the so-called Fair Tax initiative, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves when their tax rates also climb.

P.S. If voters in very-blue Illinois reject Pritzker’s class-warfare tax referendum, I wonder if that will discourage Democrats in Washington from embracing Biden’s class warfare agenda next year (assuming he wins the election)?

P.P.S. There’s a debate whether ballot initiatives and other forms of “direct democracy” are a good idea. Professor Garett Jones of George Mason University persuasively argues we’ll get better governance with less democracy. On the other hand, Switzerland is a very successful, very well-governed nation where voters directly decide all sorts of major policy issues.

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Last year, I said the nation’s most important referendum was the proposal to emasculate Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (I was delighted when voters said no to the pro-spending lobbies and preserved TABOR).

This year’s most important referendum is taking place in November in Illinois, where pro-spending lobbies are very anxious to repeal the state’s flat tax.

If they succeed, the steady flow of taxpayers out of Illinois will become a torrent.

That’s because the flat tax is the only semi-decent feature of the state’s fiscal policy. If it goes, there won’t be any hope.

My buddy from the Illinois Policy Institute, Orphe Divounguy, has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal about the dismal fiscal and economic outlook in the Land of Lincoln.

Long the economic hub of the Midwest, Illinois has lost more than 850,000 residents to other states during the past decade. The state has been shrinking for six consecutive years and suffered the largest raw population decline of any state in the 2010s. …Growing government debt and a crushing tax burden are depressing economic growth. State spending is up, but personal-income growth is lagging. Since 2000, Illinois’s per capita personal income growth has been 21% lower than the national average. …ratings firms are paying attention. Illinois’s credit rating is one notch above junk. …Illinois’s public pension payments already consume nearly a third of the state budget, yet the unfunded liability—which the state currently pegs at $137 billion, though others put the figure much higher—continues to rise. …Since 2000, Illinois has increased pension spending by more than 500%.

Orphe then points out that politicians in the state have been raising taxes with depressing regularity.

Needless to say, that never seems to solve the problem (a point I recently made when looking at fiscal policy in Washington).

Illinois has a culture of trying—and failing—to tax its way out of its problems. In 2011 then-Gov. Pat Quinn approved a temporary tax hike aimed at making a dent in the state’s $8 billion in unpaid bills. By 2014, Illinois still had a $6.6 billion bill backlog, and lawmakers were calling for families and businesses to give up more money. Another permanent income-tax increase came in 2017, but again more taxes failed to solve Illinois’s problems. The problems, in fact, got worse. In his freshman year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law 20 new taxes and fees totaling nearly $4.6 billion, including a doubling of the gasoline tax. Now Mr. Pritzker wants a progressive income tax he claims will really solve the issue.

The bottom line is that politicians in Illinois want ever-increasing taxes to finance ever-increasing pensions for state and local bureaucrats.

This cartoon from Eric Allie nicely summarizes the attitude of the state’s corrupt political class.

To be sure, there are plenty of states that have big fiscal holes because politicians have showered bureaucrats with overly generous compensation packages.

What presumably makes Illinois unique, Orphe explains, is that retired government workers get annual adjustments that are much greater than inflation.

Which means that there’s a simple and fair solution.

Illinois taxpayers can save $50 billion over 25 years, and dollars can be freed to support their eroding public services. Policy makers can finally shrink Illinois’s pension liability by reducing the main driver of its growth: the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. Currently, the COLA doesn’t reflect any actual cost-of-living increase, since it isn’t pegged to inflation. By simply replacing the existing guaranteed 3% compounding postretirement raise with a true COLA pegged to inflation, among other modest changes, Illinois can save $2.4 billion in the first year alone. No current retiree would see a decrease in his pension check. Current workers would preserve their core benefit.

P.S. I don’t know how long this policy has existed. If it’s a long-standing policy, Illinois bureaucrats actually were net losers in the pre-Reagan era when the U.S. suffered from high inflation.

P.P.S. The ultimate solution is to shift bureaucrats to “defined contribution” retirement plans, akin to the IRAs and 401(K)s that exist in the private sector.

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The most important referendum in 2019 was the effort to get Colorado voters to eviscerate the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Fortunately, the people of the Centennial State comfortably rejected the effort to bust the state’s successful spending cap.

The most important referendum in 2020 will ask voters in Illinois whether they want to get rid of the state’s flat tax and give politicians the leeway to arbitrarily impose higher rates on targeted taxpayers.

I’ve written many times about how a flat tax is far less destructive than so-called progressive taxation.

And I’ve also written that Illinois’ flat tax, enshrined in the state constitution, is the only decent feature of an otherwise terrible fiscal system.

So if the politicians convince voters to get rid of the flat tax, it will hasten the state’s economic decline (if you want more information, I strongly recommend perusing the numerous reports prepared by the Illinois Policy Institute).

Today, though, I want to focus on politics rather than economics.

To be more specific, I want to expose how supporters of higher taxes are using disingenuous tactics.

For instance, the state’s governor, J.B. Pritzker, warns that he’ll have to impose big spending cuts if voters don’t approve the referendum.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the state’s next budget will be balanced, but said if voters don’t approve a progressive income tax in November, he would have to reduce state spending across the board in future years. …the governor said 15 percent cuts in state spending would be needed across the board. …Illinois’ most recent budget called for spending about $40 billion dollars in state money. The state spends another $40 billion of federal tax money. …Pritzker is set to deliver his budget address on Feb. 19. He said he will propose a balanced budget to begin in July without relying on revenue from the proposed progressive income tax.

For what it’s worth, I actually think it would be good news if the state was forced to reduce the burden of government spending.

But that’s actually not the case.

How do I know Pritzker is lying?

Because his own budget documents project that state revenues (highlighted in red) are going to increase by nearly 2 percent annually under current law.

In other words, he wants a tax increase so he can increase overall spending at an even faster pace.

Of course, his tax increase also will increase the pace of taxpayers fleeing the state, which is why the referendum is actually a form of slow-motion fiscal suicide.

But let’s set that aside and examine another lie. Or, to be more accurate, a delayed lie.

The politicians in Illinois already have approved legislation to impose tax increases on the state’s most successful taxpayers, though the higher rates won’t actually become law until and unless the referendum is approved.

In hopes of bribing voters to approve the referendum, supporters assert that the other 97 percent of state taxpayers will get a cut.

That’s true. Most taxpayers will get a tiny reduction compared to the current 4.95 percent tax rate.

But how long will that last? Especially considering that the state’s long-run fiscal outlook is catastrophically bad?

The bottom line is that approving the referendum is like unlocking all the cars in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The expensive models will be the immediate targets, but it’s just a matter of time before everyone’s vehicle gets hit.

Indeed, this warning has such universal application that I’m going to make it my sixth theorem.

By the way, this theorem also applies when an income tax gets imposed, as happened with the United States in 1913 (and also a lesson that New Jersey residents learned in the 1970s and Connecticut residents learned in the 1990s).

P.S. Here are my other theorems.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.

P.P.S. Pritzker is a hypocrite because he does everything he can to minimize his own tax burden while asking for the power to take more money from everyone else.

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Following their recent assessment of the best and worst countries, the Tax Foundation has published its annual State Business Tax Climate Index, which is an excellent gauge of which states welcome investment and job creation and which states are unfriendly to growth and prosperity.

Here’s the list of the best and worst states. Unsurprisingly, states with no income tax rank very high, as do states with flat taxes.

It’s also no surprise to see New Jersey in last place. The state has fallen dramatically, especially considering that it was like New Hampshire as recently as the 1960s, with no state income tax and no state sales tax.

And the bad scores for New York, California, and Connecticut also are to be expected. The Nutmeg State is an especially sad story. There was no state income tax 30 years ago. Once politicians got that additional source of revenue, however, Connecticut suffered a big economic decline.

Here’s a description of the methodology, along with the table showing how different factors are weighted.

…the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems and provides a road map for improvement.The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top 10 states. Property taxes and unemployment insurance taxes are levied in every state, but there are several states that do without one or more of the major taxes: the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, or the sales tax. …This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top 10 while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases.The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, nonneutral taxes with comparatively high rates. New Jersey, for example, is hampered by some of the highest property tax burdens in the country, has the second highest-rate corporate income tax in the country and a particularly aggressive treatment of international income, levies an inheritance tax, and maintains some of the nation’s worst-structured individual income taxes.

For those who want to delve into the details, here are all the states, along with their rankings for the five major variables.

If you want to know which states are making big moves, Georgia enjoyed the biggest one-year jump (from #36 to #32) and Kansas suffered the biggest one-year decline (from #27 to #34). Keep in mind that it’s easier to climb if you’re near the bottom and easier to fall if you’re near the top.

Looking over a longer period of time, the states with the biggest increases since 2014 are North Carolina (+19, from #34 to #15), Wisconsin (+12, from #38 to #26), Kentucky (+9, from #35 to #24), Nebraska (+8, from #36 to #28), Delaware (+7, from #18 to #11), and Rhode Island (+6, from #45 to #39).

The states with the biggest declines are Kansas (-9, from #25 to #34), Hawaii (-8, from #29 to #37), Massachusetts (-8, from #28 to #36), and Idaho (-6, from #15 to #21).

We’ll close with the report’s map, showing the rankings of all the states.

P.S. My one quibble with the Index is that there’s no variable to measure the burden of government spending, which would give a better picture of overall economic liberty. This means that states that finance large public sectors with energy severance taxes (which also aren’t included in the Index) wind up scoring higher than they deserve. As such, I would drop Wyoming and Alaska in the rankings and instead put South Dakota at #1 and Florida at #2.

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Regarding fundamental tax reform, there have been some interesting developments at the state level in recent years.

Utah, North Carolina, and Kentucky have all junked their so-called progressive systems and joined the flat tax club.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Illinois politicians are desperately trying to gut that state’s flat tax.

And the same thing is true in Massachusetts.

The Tax Foundation has a good explanation of what’s been happening in the Bay State and why it matters for the competitiveness, job creation, and entrepreneurship.

A joint constitutional convention of Massachusetts lawmakers has voted 147-48 to approve H.86, dubbed the Fair Share Amendment, to impose a 4 percent income tax surcharge on annual income beyond $1 million. The new tax would be levied in addition to the existing 5.05 percent flat rate, bringing Massachusetts’ total top rate to 9.05 percent. …Massachusetts requires legislatively-referred constitutional amendments be passed in consecutive sessions, meaning that the same measure would need to be approved in the 2021-2022 legislative session before it would be sent to voters in November of 2022. The millionaires’ tax, though targeted at a wealthy minority of tax filers in the Bay State, would cause broader harm to Massachusetts’ tax structure and economic climate. It would eliminate Massachusetts’ primary tax advantage over regional competitors… The Bay State’s low, flat income tax on individuals and pass-through businesses is the most competitive element of its tax code, giving the Commonwealth a clear strength compared to surrounding states and regional competitors. Income tax rate reductions in recent years have helped shed the moniker of “Taxachusetts” while setting up the Bay State to be a beneficiary of harmful tax rate increases in surrounding states. However, a 9.05 percent top rate would be uncompetitive even in a high-tax region. The amendment would hit Massachusetts pass-through businesses with the sixth-highest tax rate of any state.

Here’s a map showing top tax rates in the region (New Hampshire has an important asterisk since the 5-percent rate only applies to interest and dividends), including where Massachusetts would rank if the new plan ever becomes law.

The Boston Globe reports that lawmakers are very supportive of this scheme to extract more money, while the business community is understandably opposed.

A measure to revive a statewide tax on high earners received a glowing reception on Beacon Hill Thursday, suggesting an easy path ahead despite staunch opposition from business groups. “We are in desperate need for revenue for our districts,” said Senator Michael D. Brady of Brockton, one of the proposal’s more than 100 sponsors and a member of the Joint Committee on Revenue…. “We have tremendous unmet needs in our Commonwealth that are hurting families, hurting our communities, and putting our state’s economic future at risk,” said Senator Jason M. Lewis of Winchester, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the proposal. …business groups…came armed with arguments that hiking taxes on the state’s highest earners would drive entrepreneurs — and the jobs and tax revenue they create — out of the state, as well as unfairly harm small- and mid-sized business owners whose business income passes through their individual tax returns. “Look, we’re trying to prevent Massachusetts from becoming Connecticut,” said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

Meanwhile, the Boston Herald reports that the Republican governor is opposed to this class-warfare tax.

Gov. Charlie Baker cautioned the Legislature against asking for more money from taxpayers with the so-called millionaire tax… “I’ve said that we didn’t think we should be raising taxes on people and I certainly don’t think we should be pursuing a graduated income tax,” Baker told reporters yesterday. …Members of Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community organizations, religious groups and labor unions, are staunchly supporting the tax that is estimated to raise approximately $2 billion a year. …The Massachusetts Republican Party is sounding the alarm on what they’re calling, “the Democrats’ newest scheme,” to “dump” the state’s flat tax system.

The governor’s viewpoint is largely irrelevant, however, since he can’t block the legislature from moving forward with their class-warfare scheme.

But that doesn’t mean the big spenders in Massachusetts have a guaranteed victory.

Yes, the next session’s legislature is almost certain to give approval, but there’s a final step needed before the flat tax is gutted.

The voters need to say yes.

And in the five previous occasions when they’ve been asked, the answer has been no.

Overwhelmingly no.

Even in 1968 and 1972, proposals for a so-called progressive tax were defeated by a two-to-one margin.

Needless to say, that doesn’t mean voters will make the right choice in 2022.

The bottom line is that if the people of Massachusetts want investors, entrepreneurs, and other job creators to remain in the state, they should again vote no.

But if they want to destroy jobs and undermine the Bay State’s competitiveness, they should vote yes.

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Proponents of bigger government sometimes make jaw-dropping statements.

I even have collections of bizarre assertions by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

What’s especially shocking is when statists twist language, such as when they claim all income is the “rightful property” of government and that people who are allowed to keep any of their earnings are getting “government handouts.”

A form of “spending in the tax code,” as they sometimes claim.

Maybe we should have an “Orwell Award” for the most perverse misuse of language on tax issues.

And if we do, I have two potential winners.

The governor of Illinois actually asserted that higher income taxes are needed to stop people from leaving the state.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker…blamed the state’s flat income tax for Illinois’ declining population. …“The people who have been leaving the state are actually the people who have had the regressive flat income tax imposed upon them, working-class, middle-class families,” Pritzker said. Pritzker successfully got the Democrat-controlled state legislature to pass a ballot question asking voters on the November 2020 ballot if Illinois’ flat income tax should be changed to a structure with higher rates for higher earners. …Pritzker said he’s set to sign budget and infrastructure bills that include a variety of tax increases, including a doubling of the state’s gas tax, increased vehicle registration fees, higher tobacco taxes, gambling taxes and other tax increases

I’ve written many times about the fight to replace the flat tax with a discriminatory graduated tax in Illinois, so no need to revisit that issue.

Instead, I’ll simply note that Pritzker’s absurd statement about who is escaping the state not only doesn’t pass the laugh test, but it also is explicitly contradicted by IRS data.

In reality, the geese with the golden eggs already are voting with their feet against Illinois. And the exodus will accelerate if Pritzker succeeds in killing the state’s flat tax.

Another potential winner is Martin Kreienbaum from the German Finance Ministry. As reported by Law360.com, he asserted that jurisdictions have the sovereign right to have low taxes, but only if the rules are rigged so they can’t benefit.

A new global minimum tax from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is not meant to infringe on state sovereignty…, an official from the German Federal Ministry of Finance said Monday. The OECD’s work plan…includes a goal of establishing a single global rate for taxation… While not mandating that countries match or exceed it in their national tax rates, the new OECD rules would allow countries to tax the foreign income of their home companies if it is taxed below that rate. …”We respect the sovereignty for states to completely, freely set their tax rates,” said Martin Kreienbaum, director general for international taxation at the German Federal Ministry of Finance. “And we restore sovereignty of other countries to react to low-tax situations.” …”we also believe that the race to the bottom is a situation we would not like to accept in the future.”

Tax harmonization is another issue that I’ve addressed on many occasions.

Suffice to say that I find it outrageous and disgusting that bureaucrats at the OECD (who get tax-free salaries!) are tying to create a global tax cartel for the benefit of uncompetitive nations.

What I want to focus on today, however, is how the principle of sovereignty is being turned upside down.

From the perspective of a German tax collector, a low-tax jurisdiction is allowed to have fiscal sovereignty, but only on paper.

So if a place like the Cayman Islands has a zero-income tax, it then gets hit with tax protectionism and financial protectionism.

Sort of like having the right to own a house, but with neighbors who have the right to set it on fire.

P.S. Trump’s Treasury Secretary actually sides with the French and supports this perverse form of tax harmonization.

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Earlier today at the Friedman Conference in Australia, I spoke on the proper design of a tax system.

My goal was to explain the problem of double taxation.

I’ve repeatedly shared a flowchart to illustrate the pervasive double taxation in the current system (my example is for the United States, but many other nations make the same mistake).

And to help explain why this is economically misguided, I developed a (hopefully) compelling visual based on how to harvest apples.

But I’ve always wondered if I was presenting the information in an accessible and understandable manner. So for today’s presentation, I decided to experiment with some different visuals.

Here’s how I illustrated the current system.

As you can see, there are several additional layers of tax on people who save and invest their after-tax income.

And I explained to the crowd that this is very foolish since every economic theory agrees that saving and investment are key to long-run growth.

Even socialism. Even Marxism. (Socialists and Marxists are foolish to think government can be in charge of allocating capital, but at least they realize that future growth requires saving and investment.)

In other words, you don’t achieve good tax policy solely by having a low tax rate.

Yes, that’

s important, but genuine tax reform also means no bias against saving and investment.

Here’s another visual. This one shows the difference between the current system and the flat tax. As you can see, all the added layers of tax on saving and investment are jettisoned under true tax reform.

By the way, there are some people who prefer a national sales tax over a flat tax.

I question the political viability of that approach, but I’ve always defended the sales tax.

Why? Because it’s conceptually identical to the flat tax.

As you can see from this next visual, the difference between the two systems is that the flat tax grabs a bit of money when income is earned and the sales tax grabs a bit of money when income is spent (either today or in the future).

Remember, the goal is to eliminate the bias against saving and investing.

To economists who specialize in public finance, this is known as shifting to a “consumption base” system.

But I’ve never liked that language. What really happens under true tax reform is that we tax income, but using the right definition.

The current system, by contrast, is known as a “comprehensive income tax” with a “Haig-Simons” tax base. But that simply means a system that taxes some forms of income over and over again.

Time for one final point.

Some people like a value-added tax because it avoids the problem of double taxation.

That’s certainly true.

But this final visual shows that adding a VAT to the current system doesn’t solve the problem. All that happens is that politicians have a new source of revenue to expand the welfare state.

If a VAT was used to replace the current tax system, that might be a very worthwhile approach.

But that’s about as likely as me playing the outfield later this year for the New York Yankees.

P.S. The VAT visual is overly simplified and it sidesteps the logistical issue of whether politicians would go for a credit-invoice VAT or a subtraction-method VAT. But the visual is correct in terms of how a VAT would interact with the current system.

P.P.S. All you need to know about the VAT is that Reagan was against it and Nixon was for it.

 

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If the people who advocate higher taxes really think it’s a good idea to give politicians more cash, why don’t they voluntarily send extra money with their tax returns?

Massachusetts actually makes that an easy choice since state tax forms give people the option of paying extra, yet tax-loving politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry never avail themselves of that opportunity.

And the Treasury Department has a website for people who want to give extra money to the federal government, yet proponents of higher taxes (at least for you and me) never lead by example.

For lack of a better phrase, let’s call this type of behavior – not choosing to pay extra tax – conventional hypocrisy.

But what about politicians who support higher taxes while dramatically seeking to reduce their own tax payments? I guess we should call that nuclear-level hypocrisy.

And if there was a poster child for this category, it would be J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois governor who is trying to replace his state’s flat tax with a money-grabbing multi-rate tax.

The Chicago Sun Times reported late last year that Pritzker has gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure his money isn’t confiscated by government.

…more than $330,000 in property tax breaks and refunds that…J.B. Pritzker received on one of his Gold Coast mansions — in part by removing toilets… Pritzker bought the historic mansion next door to his home, let it fall into disrepair — and then argued it was “uninhabitable” to win nearly $230,000 in property tax breaks. …The toilets had been disconnected, and the home had “no functioning bathrooms or kitchen,” according to documents Pritzker’s lawyers filed with Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.

Wow, maybe I should remove the toilets from my house and see if the kleptocrats in Fairfax County will slash my property taxes.

And since I’m an advocate of lower taxes (for growth reasons and for STB reasons), I won’t be guilty of hypocrisy.

Though Pritzker may be guilty of more than that.

According to local media, the tax-loving governor may face legal trouble because he was so aggressive in dodging the taxes he wants other people to pay.

Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, his wife and his brother-in-law are under federal criminal investigation for a dubious residential property tax appeal that dogged him during his gubernatorial campaign last year, WBEZ has learned. …The developments demonstrate that the billionaire governor and his wife may face a serious legal threat arising from their controversial pursuit of a property tax break on a 126-year-old mansion they purchased next to their Gold Coast home. …The county watchdog said all of that amounted to a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers out of more than $331,000. …Pritzker had ordered workers to reinstall one working toilet after the house was reassessed at a lower rate, though it’s unclear whether that happened.

This goes beyond nuclear-level hypocrisy – regardless of whether he’s actually guilty of a criminal offense.

Though he’s not alone. Just look at the Clintons. And Warren Buffett. And John Kerry. And Obama’s first Treasury Secretary. And Obama’s second Treasury Secretary.

Or tax-loving international bureaucrats who get tax-free salaries.

Or any of the other rich leftists who want higher taxes for you and me while engaging in very aggressive tax avoidance.

To be fair, my leftist friends are consistent in their hypocrisy.

They want ordinary people to send their kids to government schools while they send their kids to private schools.

And they want ordinary people to change their lives (and pay more taxes) for global warming, yet they have giant carbon footprints.

P.S. There is a quiz that ostensibly identifies hypocritical libertarians.

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how New York is committing slow-motion fiscal suicide.

The politicians in Illinois must have noticed because they now want (another “hold my beer” moment?) to accelerate the already-happening collapse of their state.

The new governor, J.B. Pritzker, wants to undo the state’s 4.95 percent flat tax, which is the only decent feature of the Illinois tax system.

And he has a plan to impose a so-called progressive tax with a top rate of 7.95.

Here are some excerpts from the Chicago Tribune‘s report., starting with the actual plan.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker embarked on a new and potentially bruising political campaign Thursday by seeking to win public approval of a graduated-rate income tax that he contended would raise $3.4 billion by increasing taxes for the wealthy…for his long-discussed plan to replace the state’s constitutionally mandated flat-rate income tax. Currently, all Illinois residents are taxed at 4.95 percent… Pritzker’s proposal is largely reliant on raising taxes significantly on residents making more than $250,000 a year, with those earning $1 million and up taxed at 7.95 percent of their total income. …The corporate tax rate would increase from the current 7 percent to 7.95 percent, matching the top personal rate. …The governor’s proposal would give Illinois the second-highest top marginal tax rate among its neighboring states.

And here’s what would need to happen for the change to occur.

Before Pritzker’s plan can be implemented, three-fifths majorities in each chamber of the legislature must approve a constitutional amendment doing away with the flat tax requirement. The measure would then require voter approval, which couldn’t happen until at least November 2020. …Democrats hold enough seats in both chambers of the legislature to approve the constitutional amendment without any GOP votes. Whether they’ll be willing to do so remains in question. Democratic leaders welcomed Pritzker’s proposal… voters in 2014 endorsed the idea by a wide margin in an advisory referendum.

The sensible people on the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board are not very impressed, to put it mildly.

…how much will taxes increase under a rate structure Pritzker proposed? You might want to cover your eyes. About $3.4 billion annually… That extraction of dollars from taxpayers’ pockets would be in addition to roughly $5 billion raised annually in new revenue under the 2017 income tax hike. …How did Springfield’s collection of all that new money work out for state government and taxpayers? Here’s how: Illinois remains deeply in debt, continues to borrow to pay bills, faces an insurmountable unfunded pension liability and is losing taxpayers who are fed up with paying more. The flight of Illinoisans to other states is intensifying with 2018’s loss of 45,116 net residents, the worst of five years of consistent, dropping population. …Illinois needs to be adding more taxpayers and businesses, not subtracting them. When politicians raise taxes, they aren’t adding. A switch to a graduated tax would eliminate one of Illinois’ only fishing lures to attract taxpayers and jobs: its constitutionally protected flat income tax. …Pritzker’s proposal, like each tax hike before it, was introduced with no meaningful reform on the spending side of the ledger. This is all about collecting more money. …In fact, the tax hike would come amid promises of spending new billions.

And here’s a quirk that is sure to backfire.

For filers who report income of more than $1 million annually, the 7.95 percent rate would not be marginalized; meaning, it would be applied to every dollar, not just income of more than $1 million. Line up the Allied moving vans for business owners and other high-income families who’ve had a bellyful of one of America’s highest state and local tax burdens.

The Tax Foundation analyzed this part of Pritzker’s plan.

This creates a significant tax cliff, where a person making $1,000,000 pays $70,935 in taxes, while someone earning one dollar more pays $79,500, a difference of $8,565 on a single dollar of income.

That’s quite a marginal tax rate. I suspect even French politicians (as well as Cam Newton) might agree that’s too high.

Though I’m sure that tax lawyers and accountants will applaud since they’ll doubtlessly get a lot of new business from taxpayers who want to avoid that cliff (assuming, of course, that some entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners actually decide to remain in Illinois).

While the tax cliff is awful policy, it’s actually relatively minor compared to the importance of this table in the Tax Foundation report. It shows how the state’s already-low competitiveness ranking will dramatically decline if Pritzker’s class-warfare plan is adopted.

The Illinois Policy Institute has also analyzed the plan.

Unsurprisingly, there will be fewer jobs in the state, with the losses projected to reach catastrophic levels if the new tax scheme is adjusted to finance all of the Pritzker’s new spending.

And when tax rates go up – and they will if states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and California are any indication – that will mean very bad news for middle class taxpayers.

The governor is claiming they will be protected. But once the politicians get the power to tax one person at a higher rate, it’s just a matter of time before they tax everyone at higher rates.

Here’s IPI’s look at projected tax rates based on three different scenarios.

The bottom line is that the middle class will suffer most, thanks to fewer jobs and higher taxes.

Rich taxpayer will be hurt as well, but they have the most escape options, whether they move out of the state or rely on tax avoidance strategies.

Let’s close with a few observations about the state’s core problem of too much spending.

Steve Cortes, writing for Real Clear Politics, outlines the problems in his home state.

…one class of people has found a way to prosper: public employees. …over 94,000 total public employees and retirees in Illinois command $100,000+ salaries from taxpayers…former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who earned a $140,000 pension for his eight years of service in the Illinois legislature. …Such public-sector extravagance has fiscally transformed Illinois into America’s Greece – only without all the sunshine, ouzo, and amazing ruins.

So nobody should be surprised to learn that the burden of state spending has been growing at an unsustainable rate.

Indeed, over the past 20 years, state spending has ballooned from $34 billion to $86 billion according to the Census Bureau. At the risk of understatement, the politicians in Springfield have not been obeying my Golden Rule.

And today’s miserable fiscal situation will get even worse in the near future since Illinois is ranked near the bottom when it comes to setting aside money for lavish bureaucrat pensions and other retirement goodies.

Indeed, paying off the state’s energized bureaucrat lobby almost certainly is the main motive for Pritzker’s tax hike. As as happened in the past, this tax hike is designed to finance bigger government.

Yet that tax hike won’t work.

Massive out-migration already is wreaking havoc with the state’s finances. And if Pritzker gets his tax hike, the exodus will become even more dramatic.

P.S. Keep in mind, incidentally, that all this bad news for Illinois will almost certainly become worse news thanks to the recent tax reform. Restricting the state and local tax deduction means a much smaller implicit federal subsidy for high-tax states.

P.P.S. I created a poll last year and asked people which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse. Illinois already has a big lead, and I won’t be surprised if that lead expands if Pritzker is able to kill the flat tax.

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Normally when I write about Georgia, it’s to wax poetic about the Glorious Bulldogs. But I’m currently in Tbilisi, the capital of the nation of Georgia, which is wedged between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

So allow me to take this opportunity to highlight the benefits of sweeping pro-market reform. Georgia is ranked #8 according to Economic Freedom of the World and it doesn’t get nearly enough attention considering that lofty score.

This chart from EFW shows Georgia’s score since the reform wave started in 2004.

The fact that Georgia’s score jumped by one full point over 11 years is impressive, but it’s even more impressive to see how the country’s relative ranking has increased from #56 to #8.

Here are the numbers for 2004 and 2015. As you can see, there were particularly dramatic improvements in trade, regulation, and quality of governance (legal system and property rights).

My friend from Georgia, Gia Jandieri, said one of the worst legacies of Soviet rule was corruption. He and his colleagues at the local pro-market think tank explained to policymakers that reducing the size and scope of government was a good strategy to address this problem.

And they were right.

Georgia was ranked near the bottom by Transparency International in 2004, scoring just a 2 (on a 1-10 scale) and tied for #133 out of 146 nations. Now Georgia’s score has jumped to 56 (on a 1-100 scale), which puts it #46 out of 180 nations.

And a big reason why corruption has plummeted is that you no longer need all sorts of permits when setting up a business. Indeed, Georgia ranks #9 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business.

For what it’s worth, Georgia is only three spots behind the United States (the previous year, they were eight spots behind America).

And I definitely shouldn’t forget to mention that Georgia is part of the global flat tax revolution.

So what does all this mean? Well, according to both the IMF data and the Maddison database, per-capita GDP in Georgia has more than doubled since pro-market reforms were enacted.

In other words, ordinary people have been the winners, thanks to a shift to capitalism.

P.S. Since I just wrote about my visit to the anti-Nazi/anti-Marxist House of Terror Museum in Budapest, I should mention that the “lowlight” of my visit to Georgia was seeing Stalin’s boyhood home earlier today. I realize “thumbs down” is a grossly inadequate way of expressing disapproval for a tyrant who butchered millions of people, but I didn’t want to get arrested for urinating in public.

I wonder if Hitler’s boyhood home still exists? I could visit and then say I covered both ends of the socialist spectrum.

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The best policy for a state (assuming it wants growth and competitiveness) is to have no income tax. Along with a modest burden of government spending, of course.

The next-best approach is for a state to have a flat tax. If nothing else, a flat tax inevitably will have a reasonable rate since it’s politically difficult to pillage everyone (though Illinois is trying very hard to be an exception to that rule).

Moreover, a flat tax also sends a signal that politicians in the state don’t (or can’t) play the divide-and-conquer game of periodically raising taxes on different income groups.

Today, we have some good news. Kentucky has ditched its so-called progressive income tax and joined the flat tax club. The Tax Foundation has the details (including the changes in the state’s ranking).

…legislators in Kentucky overrode Governor Matt Bevin’s veto to pass HB 366, a tax reform package, in the last few days of the session. Ultimately, HB 366…increases Kentucky’s ranking on the State Business Tax Climate Index from 33rd to 18th. …Here’s how HB 366 changes Kentucky’s tax code: Replacing the current six-bracket individual income tax, which has a top rate of 6.0 percent, with a 5 percent single rate individual income tax; …Replacing the current three-bracket corporate income tax, with its top rate of 6.0 percent, with a 5 percent flat rate; …Expanding the sales tax base to include select services…; and Raising the cigarette tax from 60 cents to $1.10 per pack. …the changes in this tax reform package dramatically improve the state’s tax climate. By broadening bases while lowering rates, starting to correct the inequities in the sales tax base, and taking steps to make the state more friendly to investment, policymakers in the state took a responsible approach to comprehensive tax reform.

Kentucky will have a better tax system, but there is a dark lining to the silver cloud of reform.

The legislation is a net tax increase, meaning state politicians will have more money to spend (which is a variable that is not included in the Tax Foundation’s Business Tax Climate Index).

As a big fan of the no-tax-hike pledge, that makes me sympathetic to some of those who opposed the legislation.

But I confess that I’m nonetheless happy that there’s now another state with a flat tax.

Which motivated me to create a five-column ranking for states with regards to the issue of personal income tax.

The best states are in the first column, since they don’t impose any income tax. The second-best option is a flat tax, and then I have three options for so-called progressive tax regimes. A “low-rate” state means the top bracket is less than 5 percent and a “class-warfare” state means the top bracket is higher than 8 percent (with other states in a middle group).

Kentucky has moved from the fourth column to the second column, which is a nice step. Very similar to what North Carolina did a few years ago.

Kansas, by contrast, recently went from the fourth column to the third column and then back to the fourth column.

And I may have to create a special sixth column for states such as California.

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I strongly applauded the tax reform plan that was enacted in December, especially the lower corporate tax rate and the limit on the deduction for state and local taxes.

But I’m not satisfied. Our long-run goal should be fundamental tax reform. And that means replacing the current system with a simple and fair flat tax.

And the recent tax plan only took a small step in that direction. How small? Well, the Tax Foundation just calculated that it only improved the United States from #30 to #25 in their International Tax Competitiveness Ranking. In other words, we have a long way to go before we catch up to Estonia.

 

It’s possible, of course, to apply different weights and come up with a different list. I think the Tax Foundation’s numbers could be improved, for instance, by including a measure of the aggregate tax burden. And that presumably would boost the U.S. score.

But the fact would remain that the U.S. score would be depressingly low. In other words, the internal revenue code is still a self-imposed wound and huge improvements are still necessary.

That’s why we need another round of tax reform, based on the three core principles of good tax policy.

  1. Lower tax rates
  2. Less double taxation
  3. Fewer loopholes

But how is tax reform possible in a fiscal environment of big government and rising deficits?

This is a challenge. In an ideal world, there would be accompanying budget reforms to save money, thus creating leeway for tax reform to be a net tax cut.

But even in the current fiscal environment, tax reform is possible if policy makers finance pro-growth reforms by closing undesirable loopholes.

Indeed, that’s basically what happened in the recent tax plan. The lower corporate rate was financed by restricting the state and local tax deduction and a few other changes. The budget rules did allow for a modest short-run tax cut, but the overall package was revenue neutral in the long run (i.e., starting in 2027).

It’s now time to repeat this exercise.

The Congressional Budget Office periodically issues a report on Budget Options, which lists all sort of spending reforms and tax increases, along with numbers showing what those changes would mean to the budget over the next 10 years.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this report because it is too limited on the spending side. You won’t find fleshed-out options to shut down departments, for instance, which is unfortunate given the target-rich environment (including TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture).

And on the tax side, it has a lengthy list of tax hikes, generally presented as ways to finance an ever-expanding burden of government spending. The list must be akin to porn for statists like Bernie Sanders.

It includes new taxes.

And it includes increases in existing taxes.

But the CBO report also includes some tax preferences that could be used to finance good tax reforms.

Here are four provisions of the tax code that should be the “pay-fors” in a new tax reform plan.

We’ll start with two that are described in the CBO document.

Further reductions in itemized deductions – The limit on the state and local tax deduction should be the first step. The entire deduction could be repealed as part of a second wave of tax reform. And the same is true for the home mortgage interest deduction and the charitable contributions deduction.

Green-energy pork – The House version of tax reform gutted many of the corrupt tax preferences for green energy. Unfortunately, those changes were not included in the final bill. But the silver lining to that bad decision is that those provisions can be used to finance good reforms in a new bill.

Surprisingly, the CBO report overlooks or only gives cursory treatment to a couple of major tax preferences that each could finance $1 trillion or more of pro-growth changes over the next 10 years.

Municipal bond interest – Under current law, there is no federal tax on the interest paid to owners of bonds issued by state and local governments. This “muni-bond” loophole is very bad tax policy since it creates an incentive that diverts capital from private business investment to subsidizing the profligacy of cities like Chicago and states like California.

Healthcare exclusion – Current law also allows a giant tax break for fringe benefits. When companies purchase health insurance plans for employees, that compensation escapes both payroll taxes and income taxes. Repealing – or at least capping – this exclusion could raise a lot of money for pro-growth reforms (and it would be good healthcare policy as well).

What’s potentially interesting about the four loopholes listed above is that they all disproportionately benefit rich people. This means that if they are curtailed or repealed and the money as part of tax reform, the left won’t be able to argue that upper-income taxpayers are getting unfair benefits.

Actually, they’ll probably still make their usual class-warfare arguments, but they will be laughably wrong.

The bottom line is that we should have smaller government and less taxation. But even if that’s not immediately possible, we can at least figure out revenue-neutral reforms that will produce a tax system that does less damage to growth, jobs, and competitiveness.

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To put it mildly, Italy’s economy is moribund. There’s been almost no growth for the entire 21st century.

Bad government policy deserves much of the blame.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, Italy is ranked only 54th, the worst score in Western Europe other than Greece. The score for fiscal policy is abysmal and regulatory policy and rule of law are also problem areas.

Moreover, thanks to decades of excessive government spending, the nation also has very high levels of public debt. Over the last few years, it has received official and unofficial bailouts from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, and Italy is considered at high risk for a budgetary meltdown when another recession occurs.

And let’s not forget that the country faces a demographic death spiral.

You don’t have to believe me (though you should).

Others have reached similar conclusions. Here are excerpts from some VoxEU research.

Italy will increasingly need to rely on growth fundamentals to sustain its public debt. Unfortunately, the fundamentals do not look good. Not only was Italy severely battered by Europe’s double dip recession (its GDP is lower today than it was in 2005) but when we look at the growth of labour productivity…, we can see that Italy has been stagnating since the mid-90s. …At the end of 2016, Italy’s central government debt was the third-largest in the world…, at $2.3 trillion. …a debt crisis in Italy could trigger a global financial catastrophe, and could very possibly lead to the disintegration of the Eurozone. To avoid such a scenario, Italy must revive growth…a tentative policy prescription is for Italy, to remove those institutional barriers (such as corruption, judicial inefficiency and government interference in the financial sector) that stifle merit and contribute to cronyism.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute paints a grim picture.

Italy’s economic performance since the Euro’s 1999 launch has been appalling. …an over-indebted Italian economy needs a coherent and reform-minded government to get the country quickly onto a higher economic growth path. …since 2000, German per capita income has increased by around 20 percent, that in Italy has actually declined by 5 percent. Talk about two lost economic decades for the country. …if Italy is to get itself onto a higher economic growth path, it has to find ways improve the country’s labor market productivity… It has to do so through major economic reforms, especially to its very rigid labor market…being the Eurozone’s third largest economy, Italy is simply too big to fail for the Euro to survive in its present form. However, it is also said that being roughly ten times the size of the Greek economy, a troubled Italian economy would be too big for Germany to save.

Even the IMF thinks pro-market reforms are needed.

Average Italians still earn less than two decades ago. Their take-home pay took a dip during the crisis and has still not yet caught up with the growth in key euro area countries. …a key question for policymakers is how to enhance incomes and productivity… In the decade before the global financial crisis, Italy’s spending grew faster than its income, in important part because of increases in pensions. …The tax burden is heavy…a package of high-quality measures on the spending and revenue side the country could balance the need to support growth on the one hand with the imperative of reducing debt on the other. Such a package includes…lower pension spending that is the second highest in the euro area; and lower tax rates on labor, and bringing more enterprises and persons into the tax net. …together with reforms of wage bargaining and others outlined above, can raise Italian incomes by over 10 percent, create jobs, improve competitiveness, and substantially lower public debt.

There’s a chance, however, that all this bad news may pave the way for good news. There are elections in early March and Silvio Berlusconi, considered a potential frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, has proposed a flat tax.

Bloomberg has some of the details.

A flat tax for all and 2 million new jobs are among the top priorities in the draft program of former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party… The program aims to relaunch the euro region’s third-biggest economy…and recoup the ground lost in the double-dip, record-long recession of the 2008-2013 period. …Forza Italia’s plan doesn’t cite a level for the planned flat income tax for individuals, Berlusconi has said in recent television interviews it should be 23 percent or even below that. The written draft plan says a flat tax would also apply to companies. The program pursues the balanced budget of the Italian state and calls public debt below 100 percent of GDP a “feasible” goal. It is currently above 130 percent.

Wow. As a matter of principle, I think a 23-percent rate is too high.

But compared to Italy’s current tax regime, 23 percent will be like a Mediterranean version of Hong Kong.

So can this happen? I’m not holding my breath.

The budget numbers will be the biggest obstacle to tax reform. The official number crunchers, both inside the Italian government and at pro-tax bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, will fret about the potential for revenue losses.

In part, those concerns are overblown. The high tax rates of the current system have hindered economic vitality and helped to produce very high levels of evasion. If a simple, low-rate flat tax is adopted, two things will happen.

  • There will be more revenue than expected because of better economic performance.
  • There will be more revenue than expected because of a smaller underground economy.

These things are especially likely in Italy, where dodging tax authorities is a national tradition.

That being said, “more revenue than expected” is not the same as “more revenue.” The Laffer Curve simply says that good policy produced revenue feedback, not that tax cuts always pay for themselves (that only happens in rare circumstances).

So if Italy wants tax reform, it will also need spending reform. As I noted when commenting on tax reform in Belgium, you can’t have a bloated public sector and a decent tax system.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too difficult. I pointed out way back in 2011 that some modest fiscal restraint could quickly pay big dividends for the nation.

But can a populist-minded Berlusconi (assuming he even wins) deliver? Based on his past record, I’m not optimistic.

Though I’ll close on a hopeful note. Berlusconi and Trump are often linked because of their wealth, their celebrity, and their controversial lives. Well, I wasn’t overly optimistic that Trump was going to deliver on his proposal for a big reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Yet it happened. Not quite the 15 percent rate he wanted, but 21 percent was a huge improvement.

Could Berlusconi – notwithstanding previous failures to reform bad policies – also usher in a pro-growth tax code?

To be honest, I have no idea. We don’t know if he is serious. And, even if his intentions are good, Italy’s parliamentary system is different for America’s separation-of-powers systems and his hands might be tied by partners in a coalition government. Though I’m encouraged by the fact that occasional bits of good policy are possible in that nation.

And let’s keep in mind that there’s another populist party that could win the election And its agenda, as reported by Bloomberg, includes reckless ideas like a “basic income.”

…economic malaise is increasingly common across Italy, where unemployment tops 11 percent and the number of people living at or below the poverty line has nearly tripled since 2006, to 4.7 million last year, or almost 8 percent of the population… “Poverty will be center stage in the campaign,” says Giorgio Freddi, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna. …Five Star is a fast-growing group fueled by anger at the old political class. …a €500 ($590) monthly subsidy to the disadvantaged…is a key plank in Five Star’s national platform, and the group’s leaders have promised to quickly implement such a program if they take power. Beppe Grillo, the former television comedian who co-founded the party, says fighting poverty should be a top priority. A basic income can “give people back their dignity,”… The Five Star program echoes universal basic income schemes being considered around the world. …Five Star says the plan would cost €17 billion a year, funded in part by…tax hikes on banks, insurance companies, and gambling.

Ugh. Basic income is a very troubling idea.

I’ve already speculated about whether Italy has “passed the point of no return.” If the Five Star Movement wins the election and makes government even bigger, I think I’ll have an answer to that question.

Which helps to explain why I wrote that Sardinians should secede and become part of Switzerland (where a basic income scheme was overwhelmingly rejected).

In conclusion, I suppose I should point out that a flat tax would be very beneficial for Italy’s economy, but other market-friendly reforms are just as important.

P.S. Some people, such as Eduardo Porter in the New York Times, actually argue that the United States should be more like Italy. I’m not kidding.

P.P.S. When asked about my favorite anecdote about Italian government, I’m torn. Was it when a supposedly technocratic government appointed the wrong man to a position that shouldn’t even exist? Or was it when a small town almost shut down because so many bureaucrats were arrested for fraud?

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Earlier this year, I pointed out that Trump and Republicans could learn a valuable lesson from Maine Governor Paul LePage on how to win a government shutdown.

Today, let’s look at a lesson from North Carolina on how to design and implement pro-growth tax policy.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Senator Thom Tillis from the Tarheel State explains what happened when he helped enact a flat tax as Speaker of the State House.

In 2013, when I was speaker of the state House, North Carolina passed a serious tax-reform package. It was based on three simple principles: simplify the tax code, lower rates, and broaden the base. We replaced the progressive rate schedule for the personal income tax with a flat rate of 5.499%. That was a tax-rate cut for everyone, since the lowest bracket previously was 6%. We also increased the standard deduction for all tax filers and repealed the death tax. We lowered the 6.9% corporate income tax to 6% in 2014 and 5% in 2015. …North Carolina’s corporate tax fell to 3% in 2017 and is on track for 2.5% in 2019. We paid for this tax relief by expanding the tax base, closing loopholes, paring down spending, reducing the cost of entitlement programs, and eliminating “refundable” earned-income tax credits for people who pay no taxes.

Wow, good tax policy enabled by spending restraint. Exactly what I’ve been recommending for Washington.

Have these reforms generated good results?  The Senator says yes.

More than 350,000 jobs have been created, and the unemployment rate has been cut nearly in half. The state’s economy has jumped from one of the slowest growing in the country to one of the fastest growing.

What about tax revenue? Has the state government been starved of revenue?

Nope.

…a well-mobilized opposition on the left stoked fears that tax reform would cause shrinking state revenues and require massive budget cuts. This argument has been proved wrong. State revenue has increased each year since tax reform was enacted, and budget surpluses of more than $400 million are the new norm. North Carolina lawmakers have wisely used these surpluses to cut tax rates even further for families and businesses.

Senator Tillis didn’t have specific details on tax collections in his column. I got suspicious that he might be hiding some unflattering numbers, so I went to the Census Bureau’s database on state government finances. But it turns out the Senator is guilty of underselling his state’s reform. Tax revenue has actually grown faster in the Tarheel State, compared the average of all other states (many of which have imposed big tax hikes).

Another example of the Laffer Curve in action.

And here’s a chart from North Carolina’s Office of State Budget and Management. As you can see, revenues are rising rather than falling.

By the way, I’m guessing that the small drop in 2014 and the big increase in 2015 were caused by taxpayers delaying income to take advantage of the new, friendlier tax system. We saw the same thing in the early 1980s when some taxpayer deferred income because of the multi-year phase-in of the Reagan tax cuts.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to North Carolina.

Here’s what the Tax Foundation wrote earlier this year.

After the most dramatic improvement in the Index’s history—from 41st to 11th in one year—North Carolina has continued to improve its tax structure, and now imposes the lowest-rate corporate income tax in the country at 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. This rate cut improves the state from 6th to 4th on the corporate income tax component, the second-best ranking (after Utah) for any state that imposes a major corporate tax. (Six states forego corporate income taxes, but four of them impose economically distortive gross receipts taxes in their stead.) An individual income tax reduction, from 5.75 to 5.499 percent, is scheduled for 2017. At 11th overall, North Carolina trails only Indiana and Utah among states which do not forego any of the major tax types.

And in a column for Forbes, Patrick Gleason was even more effusive.

…the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature enacted a new budget today that cuts the state’s personal and corporate income tax rates. Under this new budget, the state’s flat personal income tax rate will drop from 5.499 to 5.25% in January of 2019, and the corporate tax rate will fall from 3% to 2.5%, which represents a 16% reduction in one of the most harmful forms of taxation. …This new budget, which received bipartisan support from a three-fifths super-majority of state lawmakers, builds upon the Tar Heel State’s impressive record of pro-growth, rate-reducing tax reform. …It’s remarkable how much progress North Carolina has made in improving its business tax climate in recent years, going from having one of the worst businesses tax climates in the country (ranked 44th), to one of the best today (now 11th best according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation).

Most importantly, state lawmakers put the brakes on spending, thus making the tax reforms more political and economically durable and successful.

Since they began cutting taxes in 2013, North Carolina legislators have kept annual increases in state spending below the rate of population growth and inflation. As a result, at the same time North Carolina taxpayers have been allowed to keep billions more of their hard-earned income, the state has experienced repeated budget surpluses. As they did in 2015, North Carolina legislators are once again returning surplus dollars back to taxpayers with the personal and corporate income tax rate cuts included in the state’s new budget.

Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this 2016 editorial from the Charlotte Observer. If nothing else, the headline is an amusing reminder that journalists have a hard time understanding that higher tax rates don’t necessarily mean more revenue and that lower tax rates don’t automatically lead to less revenue.

A curious trend you might have noticed of late: North Carolina’s leaders keep cutting taxes, yet the state keeps taking in more money. We saw it happen last year, when the state found itself with a $400 million surplus, despite big cuts in personal and corporate tax rates. …Now comes word that in the first six months of the 2016 budget year (July to December), the state has taken in $588 million more than it did in the same period the previous year. …the overall surge in tax receipts certainly shouldn’t go unnoticed, especially since most of the increased collections for the 2016 cycle so far come from higher individual income tax receipts. They’re up $489 million, 10 percent above the same period of the prior year.

Though the opinion writers in Charlotte shouldn’t feel too bad. Their counterparts at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have made the same mistake. As did a Connecticut TV station.

P.S. My leftist friends doubtlessly will cite Kansas as a counter-example to North Carolina. According the narrative, tax cuts failed and were repealed by a Republican legislature. I did a thorough analysis of what happened in the Sunflower State earlier this year. I pointed out that tax cuts are hard to sustain without some degree of spending restraint, but also noted that the net effect of Brownback’s tenure is a permanent reduction in the tax burden. If that’s a win for the left, I hope for similar losses in Washington. It’s also worth comparing income growth in Kansas, California, and Texas if you want to figure out what tax policies are good for ordinary people.

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While I realize there’s zero hope of ripping up America’s awful tax code and getting a simple and fair flat tax, I’m nonetheless hopeful that there will be some meaningful incremental changes as part of the current effort to achieve some sort of tax reform.

A package that lowers the corporate rate, replaces depreciation with expensing, and ends the death tax would be very good for growth, and those good reforms could be at least partially financed by eliminating the state and local tax deduction and curtailing business interest deductions so that debt and equity are on a level playing field.

All that sounds good, and a package like this should be feasible since Republicans control both Congress and the White House (especially now that the BAT is off the table), but I warn in this interview that there are lots of big obstacles that could cause tax reform to become a disaster akin to the Obamacare repeal effort.

Here’s my list of conflicts that need to be solved in order to get some sort of plan through Congress and on to the President’s desk.

  • Carried interest – Trump wants to impose a higher capital gains tax on a specific type of investment, but this irks many congressional GOPers who have long understood that any capital gains tax is a form of double taxation and should be abolished. The issue apparently has some symbolic importance to the President and it could become a major stumbling block if he digs in his heels.
  • Tax cut or revenue neutrality – Budget rules basically require that tax cuts expire after 10 years. To avoid this outcome (which would undermine the pro-growth impact of any reforms), many lawmakers want a revenue-neutral package that could be permanent. But that means coming up with tax increases to offset tax cuts. That’s okay if undesirable tax preferences are being eliminated to produce more revenue, but defenders of those loopholes will then lobby against the plan.
  • Big business vs small business – Everyone agrees that America’s high corporate tax rate is bad news for competitiveness and should be reduced. The vast majority of small businesses, however, pay taxes through “Schedule C” of the individual income tax, so they want lower personal rates to match lower corporate rates. That’s a good idea, of course, but would have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.
  • Budget balance – Republicans have long claimed that a major goal is balancing the budget within 10 years. That’s certainly achievable with a modest amount of spending restraint. And it’s even relatively simple to have a big tax cut and still achieve balance in 10 years with a bit of extra spending discipline. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s very little appetite for spending restraint in the White House or Capitol Hill, and this may hinder passage of a tax plan.
  • Middle class tax relief – The main focus of the tax plan is boosting growth and competitiveness by reducing the burden on businesses and investment. That’s laudable, but critics will say “the rich” will get most of the tax relief. And even though the rich already pay most of the taxes and even though the rest of us will benefit from faster growth, Republicans are sensitive to that line of attack. So they will want to include some sort of provision designed for the middle class, but that will have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.

There’s another complicating factor. At the risk of understatement, President Trump generates controversy. And this means he doesn’t have much power to use the bully pulpit.

Though I point out in this interview that this doesn’t necessarily cripple tax reform since the President’s most important role is to simply sign the legislation.

Before the 2016 election, I was somewhat optimistic about tax reform.

A few months ago, I was very pessimistic.

I now think something will happen, if for no other reason than Republicans desperately want to achieve something after botching Obamacare repeal.

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Every so often, I mock the New York Times for biased or sloppy analysis.

Now there’s a new column by David Leonhardt that cries out for correction.

He’s very upset that upper-income people are enjoying higher incomes over time.

A…team of inequality researchers…has been getting some attention recently for a chart… It shows the change in income between 1980 and 2014 for every point on the distribution, and it neatly summarizes the recent soaring of inequality. …the very affluent, and only the very affluent, have received significant raises in recent decades. This line captures the rise in inequality better than any other chart or simple summary that I’ve seen. …only very affluent families — those in roughly the top 1/40th of the income distribution — have received…large raises. …The basic problem is that most families used to receive something approaching their fair share of economic growth, and they don’t anymore.

And here’s the chart that ostensibly shows that the economy is broken.

And what is the solution for this alleged problem? Class-warfare taxation and bigger government, of course.

…there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s growth — the fact that our economic bounty flows overwhelmingly to a small share of the population. Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation.

Whenever I see this type of data, I’m automatically suspicious for two reasons.

  1. The people at various income levels in 1980 aren’t the same as the people at those income levels in 2014. In other words, there is considerable income mobility, with some high-income people falling to the middle of the pack, or even below, and some low-income people climbing the middle of the income distribution, or even higher. At the very least, this type of chart exaggerates the degree to which “the rich are getting richer.”
  2. Moreover, rich people getting rich doesn’t imply that poor people are losing income. This chart shows that all income percentiles generally enjoy more income with each passing year, so it isn’t grossly misleading like the charts that incorrectly imply income gains for the rich are at the expense of the poor. Nonetheless, a reader won’t have any way of knowing that more inequality and poverty reduction can go hand in hand.

But I think this chart from the New York Times inadvertently shows something very interesting.

As shown in the excerpt above, Mr. Leonhardt wants us to look at this data and support bigger government and class warfare.

Yet look at the annual data. The chart above has the numbers for 1980 and 2014. To the right, I’ve put together the numbers for 1987, 1996, and 2004.

One obvious conclusion is that prosperity (as shown by rising income levels) was much more broadly and equally shared in the 1980s and 1990s, back when the economy was moving in the direction of free markets and smaller government under both Reagan and Clinton.

But look at what happened last decade, and what’s been happening this decade. Government has been expanding (as measured by falling scores from Economic Freedom of the World).

And that’s the period, thanks to Bush-Obama statism, when lower-income people began to lag and income gains were mostly concentrated at the top of the income redistribution.

As the very least, this certainly suggests that Leonhardt’s policy agenda is misguided. Assuming, of course, the goal is to enable more prosperity for the less fortunate.

I’ll add another point. I suspect that big income gains for the rich in recent years are the result of easy-money policies from the Federal Reserve, which have – at least in part – pushed up the value of financial assets.

The bottom line is that Leonhardt seems motivated by ideology, so he bends the data in hopes of justifying his leftist agenda.

What makes this sad is that the New York Times used to be far more sensible.

Back in 1982, shortly after the Professors Hall and Rabushka unveiled their plan for a flat tax, here’s what the New York Times opined.

Who can defend a tax code so complicated that even the most educated family needs a professional to decide how much it owes? …President Reagan’s tax package will eventually roll back rates to the level of the late 1970’s, but it will not simplify the code or rid it of provisions that penalize hard work and reward unproductive investment. …the income base that is taxed has been so eroded by exceptions and preferences that the rates on what is left to tax must be kept high. Thus, the tax on an extra dollar of income for a typical family earning $20,000 is 28 percent and progressively higher for the more affluent. …The most dramatic fresh start, without changing the total amount collected, would be a flat-rate tax levied on a greatly broadened income base. Senator Helms of North Carolina would rid the law of virtually every tax preference and tax all income at about 12 percent. Representative Panetta of Cali-fornia would retain a few preferences and tax at a flat 19 percent. Either approach would greatly improve the efficiency of the system, simplifying calculations and increasing the incentive to earn.

And here’s what the editors wrote about Governor Jerry Brown’s modified flat tax in 199s. They started by praising the core principles of the flat tax.

Taking Jerry Brown seriously means taking his flat tax proposal seriously. Needlessly, he’s made that hard to do. By being careless, the former California Governor has bent a good idea out of shape. …Mr. Brown’s basic idea — creating a simplified code that encourages saving — is exactly right. …The present tax code is riddled with wasteful contradictions and complexity. For example, profit from corporate investment is taxed twice — when earned by the corporation and again when distributed to shareholders. That powerfully discourages savings and investment — the exact opposite of what the economy needs to grow. The remedy is, in a word, integration, meshing personal and corporate codes so that the brunt of taxes falls on consumption, not saving. …there is a reform that achieves all these objectives. Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, economists at the Hoover Institution, have proposed an integrated code that applies a single rate to both personal and corporate income. Their plan wipes away most deductions and exemptions, permitting a low tax rate of 19 percent. …Under the Hall-Rabushka plan, individuals would pay taxes on earnings and corporations would pay tax on interest, dividends and profits. That way, every dollar of income would be taxed once and only once.

And they rightly criticized Governor Brown for violating those principles.

Jerry Brown borrowed some of the elements of Hall-Rabushka. He too would eliminate wasteful exemptions, adopt a single rate and favor saving by exempting corporate investment. But at that point, he turns glib. He would impose on corporations a value-added tax, similar to a national sales tax. That eliminates the elegant symmetry of Hall-Rabushka. Indirectly, Mr. Brown’s variation would tax some income twice — which is why his supposed 13 percent rate would collect revenue equal to about 20 percent of total income.

Wow, this isn’t what I would write, but it’s within shouting distance.

The editors back then understood the importance of low marginal tax rates and they recognized that double taxation is a bad thing.

Now check out what the New York Times believes today about tax reform.

First and foremost, the editors want more money taken from the productive economy to expand the D.C. swamp.

Real reform would honestly confront the fact that in the next decade we will need roughly $4.5 trillion more revenue than currently projected to meet our existing commitment…. Even more would be needed if the government were to make greater investments.

And even though class-warfare taxation is unlikely to generate much revenue, the editors want both higher tax rates and more double taxation.

…it would make sense to increase the top rates on them and eliminate a break on income from investments. …the richest 1 percent pay 33 percent of their total income in taxes; if rates were changed so they paid 40 percent, it would generate $170 billion of revenue in the first year.

The editors want to take one of the most anti-competitive features of the current system and make it even worse.

It would also be a good idea to scale back accelerated depreciation allowances that let businesses write off investments faster than assets actually wear out. Speedy write-offs for luxuries like corporate jets could be eliminated altogether.

They also want to further undermine the ability of U.S. companies to compete on a level playing field in foreign markets.

…they should agree to close…the ability of corporations to defer tax on profits earned abroad.

In a display of knee-jerk statism, the editors also want new tax burdens to finance an ever-larger burden of government. Such as an energy tax.

New forms of taxation are also needed. Even prominent Republicans like James Baker III, George Shultz and Henry Paulson Jr. support a carbon tax imposed on emissions to reduce greenhouse gases. …revenue generated by carbon taxes could be used for other purposes as well, including investments in renewable energy and public transportation.

And a tax on financial transactions.

Revenue can also be raised by imposing a tax on the trading of stocks, bonds and derivatives. …Estimates show that a financial transaction tax of even 0.01 percent per trade ($10 on a $100,000 trade) could raise $185 billion over 10 years, enough to finance prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year olds, with money left over.

But the granddaddy of new taxes would be the value-added tax, a money machine for bigger government.

A value-added tax would be akin to a national sales tax, but harder to evade than traditional sales taxes and thus an efficient revenue raiser.

I’m genuinely curious whether there is any type of tax increase the NYT wouldn’t support.

But that’s not really the point of this column. The real lesson is that it’s sad that the editors have gone from being rationally left to being ideologically left.

P.S. I confess that I especially enjoy when the New York Times inadvertently publishes pieces that show the benefits of free markets and personal liberty.

Which is sort of what happened with Leonhardt’s data, which shows more broadly shared prosperity when economic liberty was increasing.

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Fundamental tax reform such as a flat tax should accomplish three big goals.

The good news is that almost all Republicans believe in the first two goals and at least pay lip services to the third goal.

The bad news is that they nonetheless can’t be trusted with tax reform.

Here’s why. Major tax reform is based on the assumption that achieving the first two goals will lower tax revenue and achieving the third goal will generate tax revenue. A reform plan doesn’t have to be “revenue neutral,” of course, but politicians would be very reluctant to vote for a package that substantially reduced tax revenue. So serious proposals have revenue-raising provisions that are roughly similar in magnitude to the revenue-losing provisions.

Here’s the problem.   Notwithstanding lip service, Republicans are not willing to go after major tax loopholes like the healthcare exclusion. And that means that they are looking for other sources of revenue. In some cases, such as the proposal in the House plan to put debt and equity on a level playing field, they come up with decent ideas. In other cases, such as the border-adjustment tax, they come up with misguided ideas.

And some of them are even talking about very bad ideas, such as a value-added tax or carbon tax.

This is why it would be best to set aside tax reform and focus on a more limited agenda, such as a plan to lower the corporate tax rate. I discussed that idea a few weeks ago on Neil Cavuto’s show, and I echoed myself last week in another appearance on Fox Business.

Lest you think I’m being overly paranoid about Republicans doing the wrong thing, here’s what’s being reported in the establishment press.

The Hill is reporting that the Trump Administration is still undecided on the BAT.

The most controversial aspect of the House’s plan is its reliance on border adjustability to tax imports and exempt exports. …the White House has yet to fully embrace it. …If the administration opts against the border-adjustment proposal, it would have to find another way to raise revenue to pay for lowering tax rates.

While I hope the White House ultimately rejects the BAT, that won’t necessarily be good news if the Administration signs on to another new source of revenue.

And that’s apparently under discussion.

The Washington Post last week reported that the White House was looking at other ideas, including a value-added tax and a carbon tax… Even if administration officials are simply batting around ideas, it seems clear that Trump’s team is open to a different approach.

The Associated Press also tries to read the tea leaves and speculates whether the Trump Administration may try to cut or eliminate the Social Security payroll tax.

The administration’s first attempt to write legislation is in its early stages and the White House has kept much of it under wraps. But it has already sprouted the consideration of a series of unorthodox proposals including a drastic cut to the payroll tax, aimed at appealing to Democrats.

I’m not a big fan of fiddling with the payroll tax, and I definitely worry about making major changes.

Why? Because it’s quite likely politicians will replace it with a tax that is even worse.

This would require a new dedicated funding source for Social Security. The change, proposed by a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the Trump administration, would transform Brady’s plan on imports into something closer to a value-added tax by also eliminating the deduction of labor expenses. This would bring it in line with WTO rules and generate an additional $12 trillion over 10 years, according to budget estimates.

Last but not least, the New York Times has a story today on the latest machinations, and it appears that Republicans are no closer to a consensus today than they were the day Trump got inaugurated.

…it is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a simpler system, or even lower tax rates, this time next year. The Trump administration’s tax plan, promised in February, has yet to materialize; a House Republican plan has bogged down, taking as much fire from conservatives as liberals… Speaker Paul D. Ryan built a tax blueprint around a “border adjustment” tax… With no palpable support in the Senate, its prospects appear to be nearly dead. …The president’s own vision for a new tax system is muddled at best. In the past few months, he has called for taxing companies that move operations abroad, waffled on the border tax and, last week, called for a “reciprocal” tax that would match the import taxes other countries impose on the United States.

The report notes that Trump may have a personal reason to oppose one of the provisions of the House plan.

Perhaps the most consequential concern relates to a House Republican proposal to get rid of a rule that lets companies write off the interest they pay on loans — a move real estate developers and Mr. Trump vehemently oppose. Doing so would raise $1 trillion in revenue and reduce the appeal of one of Mr. Trump’s favorite business tools: debt.

From my perspective, the most encouraging part of the story is that the lack of consensus may lead Republicans to my position, which is simply to cut the corporate tax rate.

With little appetite for bipartisanship, many veterans of tax fights and lobbyists in Washington expect that Mr. Trump will ultimately embrace straight tax cuts, with some cleaning up of deductions, and call it a victory.

And I think that would be a victory as well, even though I ultimately want to junk the entire tax code and replace it with a flat tax.

P.S. In an ideal world, tax reform would be financed in large part with spending restraint. Sadly, Washington, DC, isn’t in the same galaxy as that ideal world.

P.P.S. To further explain why Republicans cannot be trusted, even if they mean well, recall that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both included VATs in the tax plans they unveiled during the 2016 presidential campaign.

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