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Archive for the ‘Higher Taxes’ Category

I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Since I work mostly on fiscal issues, I don’t like the fact that the bureaucracy is an avid cheerleader for ever-higher taxes (which is disgustingly hypocritical since IMF employees get lavish, tax-free salaries).

But the biggest problem with the IMF is that it promotes “moral hazard.” More specifically, it provides bailouts for irresponsible governments and for those who foolishly lend to those governments.

The net result is that bad behavior is rewarded, which is a recipe for more bad behavior.

All of which explains why some nations (and their foolish lenders) have received dozens of bailouts.

Oh, and let’s not forget that these endless bailouts also lead to a misallocation of capital, thus reducing global growth.

In an article for the New York Times, Patricia Cohen reports on discussions to expand the IMF’s powers.

Once narrowly viewed as a financial watchdog and a first responder to countries in financial crises, the I.M.F. has more recently helped manage two of the biggest risks to the worldwide economy: the extreme inequality and climate change. …long-held beliefs like the single-minded focus on how much an economy grows, without regard to problems like inequality and environmental damage, are widely considered outdated. And the preferred cocktail for helping debt-ridden nations that was popular in the 1990s and early 2000s — austerity, privatization of government services and deregulation — has lost favor in many circles as punitive and often counterproductive.

There’s a lot to dislike about the above excerpts.

Starting with the article’s title, since it would be more accurate to say that the IMF’s bailout policies encourage fires.

Multiple fires.

Looking at the text, the part about “extreme inequality” is nonsensical, both because the IMF hasn’t done anything to “manage” the issue, other than to advocate for class-warfare taxes.

Moreover, there’s no support for the empty assertion that inequality is a “risk” to the world economy (sensible people point out that the real problem is poverty, not inequality).

Ms. Cohen also asserts that the “preferred cocktail” of  pro-market policies (known as the Washington Consensus) has “lost favor,” which certainly is accurate.

But she offers another empty – and inaccurate – assertion by writing that it was “counterproductive.”

Here are some additional excerpts.

The debate about the role of the I.M.F. was bubbling before the appointment of Ms. Georgieva… But she has embraced an expanded role for the agency. …she stepped up her predecessors’ attention to the widening inequality and made climate change a priority, calling for an end to all fossil fuel subsidies, for a tax on carbon and for significant investment in green technology. …Sustainable debt replaced austerity as the catchword. …The I.M.F. opposed the hard line taken by some Wall Street creditors in 2020 toward Argentina, emphasizing instead the need to protect “society’s most vulnerable” and to forgive debt that exceeds a country’s ability to repay.

The last thing the world needs is “an expanded role” for the IMF.

It’s especially troubling to read that the bureaucrats want dodgy governments to have more leeway to spend money (that’s the real meaning of “sustainable debt”).

And if the folks at the IMF are actually concerned about “society’s most vulnerable” in poorly run nations such as Argentina, they would be demanding that the country copy the very successful poverty-reducing policies in neighboring Chile.

Needless to say, that’s not what’s happening.

The article does acknowledge that not everyone is happy with the IMF’s statist agenda.

Some stakeholders…object to what’s perceived as a progressive tilt. …Ms. Georgieva’s activist climate agenda has…run afoul of Republicans in Congress… So has her advocacy for a minimum global corporate tax.

It would be nice, though, if Ms. Cohen had made the article more balanced by quoting some of the critics.

The bottom line, as I wrote last year, is that the world would be better off if the IMF was eliminated.

Simply stated, we don’t need an international bureaucracy that actually argues it’s okay to hurt the poor so long as the rich are hurt by a greater amount.

P.S. The political leadership of the IMF is hopelessly bad, as is the bureaucracy’s policy agenda. That being said, there are many good economists who work at the IMF and they often produce high-quality research (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Sadly, their sensible analyses doesn’t seem to have any impact on the decisions of the organization’s top bureaucrats.

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President Biden’s fiscal agenda of higher taxes and bigger government is not a recipe for prosperity.

How much will it hurt the economy?

Last month, I shared the results of a new study I wrote with Robert O’Quinn for the Club for Growth Foundation.

We based our results on a wide range of economic research, especially a scholarly study from the Congressional Budget Office, and found a big drop in economic output, employment and labor income.

Most troubling was the estimate of a long-run drop in living standards, which would be especially bad news for young people.

Today, I want to share some different estimates of the potential impact of Biden’s agenda.

A study for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, authored by  E. J. Antoni, Vance Ginn, and Stephen Moore, found even higher levels of economic damage. Here are some main excerpts.

President Biden and congressional Democrats seek to spend another $6.2 trillion over the next decade, spread across at least two bills that comprise their “Build Back Better” plan. This plan includes heavy taxing, spending, and debt, which contributes to reducing growth rates for GDP, employment, income, and capital stock.  Compared to baseline growth over the next decade, this plan will result in estimated dynamic economic effects of 5.3 million fewer jobs, $3.7 trillion less in GDP, $1.2 trillion less in income, and $4.5 trillion in new debt. …There are many regulatory changes and transfer payments in current legislation whose effects have not been included in this paper but are worth mentioning in closing since they will have many of the same effects as the tax increases discussed in this paper. Extending or expanding the enhanced Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and more, disincentivizes working, reducing incomes, investment, and GDP. Just the changes to these three tax credits alone are expected to cause a loss of 15,000 jobs… Permanently expanding the health insurance premium tax credits would similarly have a negative effect… Regulatory changes subsidizing so-called green energy while increasing tax and regulatory burdens on fossil fuels also result in a less efficient allocation of resources.

If we focus on gross domestic product (GDP), the TPPF estimates a drop in output of $3.7 trillion, which is higher than my study, which showed a drop of about $3 trillion.

Part of the difference is that TPPF looked at the impact of both the so-callled infrastructure spending package and Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan, while the study for the Club for Growth Foundation only looked at the impact of the latter.

So it makes sense that TPPF would find more aggregate damage.

And part of the difference is that economists rarely agree on anything because there are so many variables and different experts will assign different weights to those variables.

So the purpose of sharing these numbers is not to pretend that any particular study perfectly estimates the effect of Biden’s agenda, but rather to simply get a sense of the likely magnitude of the economic damage.

Speaking of economic damage, here’s a table from the TPPF showing state-by-state job losses.

I’ll close by noting that you can also use common sense to get an idea of what will happen if Biden’s agenda is approved.

He wants to make the United States more like Western Europe’s welfare states, so all we have to do is compare U.S. living standards and economic performance to what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

And when you do that, the clear takeaway is that it’s crazy to “catch up” to nations that are actually way behind.

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There are lots of reasons (here are five of them) to dislike the version of the Biden tax hike that was approved by the tax-writing committee in the House of Representatives.

From an economic perspective, it is bad for prosperity to penalize work, saving, investment, and productivity.

So why, then, do politicians pursue such policies?

Part of the answer is spite, but I think the biggest reason is they simply want more money to spend.

And if the economy suffers, they don’t worry about that collateral damage so long as their primary objective – getting more money to buy more votes – is achieved.

But the rest of us should care, and a new report from the Tax Foundation offers a helpful way of showing why pro-tax politicians are misguided.

Here’s a table showing that the economy will lose almost $3 of output for every $1 that politicians can use for vote buying.

I added my commentary (in red) to the table.

My takeaway is that it is reprehensible for politicians to cause nearly $3 of foregone prosperity so that they can spend another $1.

Garrett Watson, author of the report, uses more sedate language to describes the findings.

Using Tax Foundation’s General Equilibrium Model, we estimate that the Ways and Means tax plan would reduce long-run GDP by 0.98 percent, which in today’s dollars amounts to about $332 billion of lost output annually. We estimate the plan would in the long run raise about $152 billion annually in new tax revenue, conventionally estimated in today’s dollars, meaning for every $1 in revenue raised, economic output would fall by $2.18. When the model accounts for the smaller economy, it estimates that the plan’s dynamic effects would reduce expected new tax collections to about $112 billion annually over the long run (also in today’s dollars), meaning for every $1 in revenue raised, economic output would fall by $2.96.

This is excellent analysis.

But I think it’s important to specify that political cost-benefit analysis (from the perspective of politicians) is not the same as economic cost-benefit analysis.

From an economic perspective, the foregone economic growth is a cost and the additional tax revenue for politicians also is a cost.

And I’ve augmented the table (again, in red) to show that the additional spending is yet another cost.

In other words, politicians are the main winners from Biden’s tax hike, and some of the interest groups getting additional handouts also might be winners (though I’ve previously pointed out that many of them wind up being losers as well in the long run).

P.S. The Tax Foundation model only measures the economic damage of higher taxes. If you also measure the harmful impact of more spending, the estimates of foregone economic output are much bigger.

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Biden wants lots of class-warfare tax increases to fund a big increase in the welfare state.

That would be bad news for the economy, but his acolytes claim that voters favor the president’s approach.

Maybe that’s true in the United States, but it’s definitely not the case in Switzerland. By a landslide margin, Swiss voters have rejected a plan to impose higher tax rates on capital.

It’s nice to see that every single canton rejected the class-warfare initiative.

In an article for Swissinfo.ch, Urs Geiser summarizes the results.

Voters in Switzerland have rejected a proposal to introduce a tax on gains from dividends, shares and rents. The left-wing people’s initiative targeted the wealthiest group in the country. Final results show 64.9% of voters and all of the country’s 26 cantons dismissing the proposed constitutional reform, in some cases with up to 77% of the vote. …The Young Socialists who had launched the proposal admitted defeat, accusing the political right and the business community of “scare mongering”… The Young Socialists, supported by the Social Democrats, the Greens and the trade unions had hoped to increase tax on capital revenue by a factor of 1.5 compared with regular income tax. …Opponents argued approval of the initiative would jeopardise Switzerland’s prosperity and damage the sector of small and medium-sized companies, often described as the backbone of the country’s economy.

For what it’s worth, I’m not surprised that the Swiss rejected the proposal. Though I was pleasantly surprised by the margin.

Though perhaps I should have been more confident. After all, the Swiss have a good track record when asked to vote on fiscal and economic topics.

Though not every referendum produces the correct result. In 2018, Swiss voters rejected an opportunity to get rid of most of the taxes imposed by the central government.

P.S. Professor Garett Jones wrote a book, 10% Less Democracy, that makes a persuasive case about limiting the powers of ordinary voters (given my anti-majoritarian biases, I was bound to be sympathetic).

This implies that direct democracy is a bad idea. And when you look at some of the initiatives approved in places such as California and Oregon, Garett’s thesis makes a lot of sense. But the Swiss seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

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More than 12 years ago, I shared this video containing lots of data and research on the negative relationship between government spending and economic performance.

Since then, I’ve share numerous additional studies showing that bigger government dampens growth, mostly from scholars in academia.

Now it’s time for me to directly contribute to this debate.

In a study just published by the Club for Growth Foundation, co-authored with Robert O’Quinn (former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor), we estimated the likely economic impact of President Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan to expand the welfare state.

Here are our main findings.

What’s especially noteworthy about our study is that we based our analysis on research published earlier this year by the Congressional Budget Office. In other words, a very establishment source.

And here are some excerpts from what we wrote.

President Biden has proposed to increase the burden of federal spending substantially over the next 10 years, diverting nearly $5.5 trillion from the private sector to the government… Most, but not all, of this new spending would be financed with higher tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. …Based on scholarly academic research, including new findings from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Biden’s tax-and-spend agenda contained in his reconciliation bill will accelerate America’s fiscal decline and undermine economic performance. …the Biden’s reconciliation bill, which increases the spending burden by 1.9 percent of GDP, will reduce the economy’s growth rate by about 0.2 percent each year. That…translates into more than $3 trillion less national income over the next decade. And the nation’s economic output will be $613 billion lower in 2031 compared to what it would be in the absence of President Biden’s fiscal agenda. …The cumulative loss of employee income over the next 10 years will exceed $1.6 trillion. Some of that will be in the form of lower wages and some of that will be a consequence of lost jobs. On average, each worker in a nonfarm job will lose $10,391 in total compensation.

These results shouldn’t be a surprise.

Biden’s fiscal agenda would made the United States more like Europe and the economic data unambiguously demonstrate that Europeans suffer from significantly lower living standards.

P.S. I especially like the CBO study because it shows the amount of damage caused by more spending varies based on how the outlays are financed.

As this chart illustrates, class-warfare taxation is the worst way of financing a bigger burden of government.

P.P.S. The good news is that Biden probably won’t be able to convince Congress to approve all of his proposals for new spending and higher tax rates. The bad news is even approving half of the Biden’s plan would cause considerable damage to American prosperity and competitiveness.

P.P.P.S. For policy wonks, there are two main types of research involving the economic impact of government spending. For those focusing on short-run economic results, there’s a debate about Keynesian economics – whether more government spending can artificially generate some growth, particularly if the outlays are financed with debt.

I’m skeptical of the Keynesian argument, but it’s not relevant for today’s column, which focuses on how government spending impacts long-run economic results. And when looking at long-run data, most of the research suggests that government is too big. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there’s even research supporting my view from generally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the European Central Bank.

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The Biden Administration’s approach to tax policy is awful, as documented here, here, here, and here.

We’ve now reached the stage where bad ideas are being turned into legislation. Today’s analysis looks at what the House Ways & Means Committee (the one in charge of tax policy) has unveiled. Let’s call this the Biden-Pelosi plan.

And we’re going to use some great research from the Tax Foundation to provide a visual summary of what’s happening.

We’ll start with a very depressing look at the decline in American competitiveness if the proposal becomes law (the good news is that we’ll still be ahead of Greece!).

Next, let’s look at the Tax Foundation’s map of capital gains tax rates if the plan is approved.

Unsurprisingly, this form of double taxation will be especially severe in California.

Our third visual is good news (at least relatively speaking).

Biden wanted the U.S. to have the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate. But the plan from the House of Representatives would “only” put America in third place.

Here’s another map, in this case looking at tax rates on non-corporate businesses (small businesses and other entities that get taxed by the 1040 form).

This is not good news for America’s entrepreneurs. Especially the ones unfortunate enough to do business in New York.

Last but not least, here’s the Tax Foundation’s estimate of what will happen to the economy if the Biden-Pelosi tax plan is imposed on the nation.

There are two things to understand about these depressing growth numbers.

  • First, small differences in growth rates produce very large consequences when you look 20 years or 30 years into the future. Indeed, this explains why Americans enjoy much higher living standards than Europeans (and also why Democrats are making a big economic mistake to copy European fiscal policy).
  • Second, the Tax Foundation estimated the economic impact of the Biden-Pelosi tax plan. But don’t forget that the economy also will be negatively impacted by a bigger burden of government spending. So the aggregate economic damage will be significantly larger when looking at overall fiscal policy.

One final point. In part because of the weaker economy (i.e., a Laffer Curve effect), the Tax Foundation also estimated that the Biden-Pelosi tax plan will generate only $804 billion over the next 10 years.

P.S. Here’s some background for those who are not political wonks. Biden proposed a budget with his preferred set of tax increases and spending increases. But, in America’s political system (based on separation of powers), both the House and Senate get to decide what they like and don’t like. And even though the Democrats control both chambers of Congress, they are not obligated to rubber stamp what Biden proposed. The House will have a plan, the Senate will have a plan, and they’ll ultimately have to agree on a joint proposal (with White House involvement, of course). The same process took place when Republicans did their tax bill in 2017.

P.P.S. It’s unclear whether the Senate will make things better or worse. The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, has some very bad ideas about capital gains taxation and politicians such as Elizabeth Warren are big proponents of a wealth tax.

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When I discuss class-warfare tax policy, I want people to understand deadweight loss, which is the term for the economic output that is lost when high tax rates discourage work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

And I especially want them to understand that the economic damage grows exponentially as tax rates increase (in other words, going from a 30 percent tax rate to a 40 percent tax rate is a lot more damaging than going from a 10 percent tax rate to a 20 percent tax rate).

But all of this analysis requires a firm grasp of supply-and-demand curves. And most people never learned basic microeconomics, or they forgot the day after they took their exam for Economics 101.

So when I give speeches about the economics of tax policy, I generally forgo technical analysis and instead appeal to common sense.

Part of that often includes showing an image of a “philoso-raptor” pondering whether the principle that applies to tobacco taxation also applies to taxes on work.

Almost everyone gets the point, especially when I point out that politicians explicitly say they want higher taxes on cigarettes because they want less smoking.

And if you (correctly) believe that higher taxes on tobacco lead to less smoking, then you also should understand that higher taxes on work will discourage productive behavior.

Unfortunately, these common-sense observations don’t have much impact on politicians in Washington. Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are pushing a huge package of punitive tax increases.

Should they succeed, all taxpayers will suffer. But some will suffer more than others. In an article for CNBC, Robert Frank documents what Biden’s tax increase will mean for residents of high-tax states.

Top earners in New York City could face a combined city, state and federal income tax rate of 61.2%, according to plans being proposed by Democrats in the House of Representatives. The plans being proposed include a 3% surtax on taxpayers earning more than $5 million a year. The plans also call for raising the top marginal income tax rate to 39.6% from the current 37%. The plans preserve the 3.8% net investment income tax, and extend it to certain pass-through companies. The result is a top marginal federal income tax rate of 46.4%. …In New York City, the combined top marginal state and city tax rate is 14.8%. So New York City taxpayers…would face a combined city, state and federal marginal rate of 61.2% under the House plan. …the highest in nearly 40 years. Top earning Californians would face a combined marginal rate of 59.7%, while those in New Jersey would face a combined rate of 57.2%.

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed “supply-sider” to recognize that Biden’s tax plan will hurt prosperity.

After all, investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and other successful taxpayers will have much less incentive to earn and report income when they only get to keep about 40 cents out of every $1 they earn.

Folks on the left claim that punitive tax rates are necessary for “fairness,” yet the United States already has the developed world’s most “progressive” tax system.

I’ll close with the observation that the punitive tax rates being considered will generate less revenue than projected.

Why? Because households and businesses will have big incentives to use clever lawyers and accountants to protect their income.

Looking for loopholes is a waste of time when rates are low, but it’s a very profitable use of time and energy when rates are high.

P.S. Tax rates were dramatically lowered in the United States during the Reagan years, a policy that boosted the economy and led to more revenues from the rich. Biden now wants to run that experiment in reverse, so don’t expect positive results.

P.P.S. Though if folks on the left are primarily motivated by envy, then presumably they don’t care about real-world outcomes.

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The great Margaret Thatcher famously observed that the problem with socialism is that governments eventually “run out of other people’s money.”

But they can do a lot of damage before they reach that point.

We know from U.S. experience that Republicans can be very profligate. Well, the same problem exists with the Conservative Party on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

I wrote earlier this year that Boris Johnson was letting the burden of government spending increase much faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

And when politicians spend too much money, it’s almost inevitable that they will then try to grab more money from taxpayers.

And that’s exactly what the Prime Minister is proposing, as reported by Stephen Castle for the New York Times.

Mr. Johnson is widely expected to break his vow not to increase taxes when he announces a plan to bolster the nation’s social care services… Even before the announcement, the blistering dissent from members of his own Conservative Party has underscored the problems that lie ahead for a government that has ramped up borrowing during the pandemic yet faces huge pressure to spend… Britain’s creaking National Health Service, which was already strained before the pandemic, now has a massive backlog of routine treatment and operations that had to be postponed. On Monday the government announced a cash injection of £5.4 billion, or $7.4 billion, to help deal with that issue. …His proposals are likely to cap the amount any British citizen pays for social care over their lifetime. That would prevent many from having to sell their homes to pay for care, but would also mean investing more public money, mainly through raising taxes.

So what do the actual conservatives in the Conservative Party think about Johnson’s proposal for more taxes and more spending?

They are not happy.

Perhaps the biggest danger for Mr. Johnson is the hostility of fiscal conservatives on the right of his party, who object to any tax being increased, including one senior cabinet minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg. …Mr. Sunak is also anxious to reign in spending, a view that is popular with the right wing of the Conservative Party. “He believes there is a moral and political premium on not raising taxes, not raising spending and getting borrowing under control,” said Professor Bale, who added this was “partly because he knows that this where the beating heart of the Conservative parliamentary party lies.”

Here are some more details about teh fight inside the Conservative Party, as reported by Edward Malnick of the U.K.-based Telegraph.

Senior Conservatives were threatening open warfare over Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s planned tax increase… Ministers, government aides and backbenchers lined up to denounce a planned National Insurance rise which was privately described by senior figures as “idiotic”, with one Cabinet member declaring the proposal “morally, economically and politically wrong”. …Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister, said: “Of all the ways to break manifesto tax pledges to fund the NHS and social care, raising NIC must be the worst. In this time of crisis, we need a zero-based review of what the state does and how it is funded.” …Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, feared that if Mr Johnson pushed ahead with the move the Conservatives would end up presiding over “the biggest tax rises since Clement Attlee”. …Another Tory MP suggested the Chancellor was concerned about Britain becoming a continental-style economy with unsustainable public spending and state intervention.

So how do Johnson’s allies respond?

With the same language one might have expected from Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-core statist who used to lead the Labor Party.

A government source said: “The NHS needs more money. By the time of the next election there could be 13 million people on waiting lists if we don’t act.”

In other words, the more government fails, the more money it should get (which also could be a description of Joe Biden’s fiscal policy).

P.S. What I wrote earlier this year is worth repeating.

Because of my strong support for Brexit, I was very happy that Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in late 2019. And he then delivered an acceptable version of Brexit, so that worked out well. However, it definitely doesn’t look like he will fulfill my hopes of being a post-Brexit, 21st century version of Margaret Thatcher.

The bottom line is that I wanted an independent United Kingdom to become Singapore on the Thames. Instead, Johnson seems to want his country to be Paris on the Thames.

P.P.S. I never thought I would miss the fiscal policy of two moderate former Prime Ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May.

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Yesterday’s column cited new scholarly research about the negative economic impact of Biden’s plans to increase capital gains taxation.

In today’s column, let’s start with a refresher on why this tax shouldn’t exist.

But if you don’t want to spend a few minutes watching the video, here are the six reasons why the tax shouldn’t exist.

I highlighted the final reason – fairness – because this is not simply an economic argument.

Yes, it’s foolish to penalize jobs and investment, but I also think it’s morally wrong to impose discriminatory tax rates on people who are willing to defer consumption so that all of us can be richer in the long run.

By the way, I should have included “Less Common Sense” as a seventh reason. That’s because the capital gains tax will backfire on Biden and his class-warfare friends.

To be more specific, investors can choose not to sell assets if they think the tax rate is excessive, and this “lock-in effect” is a big reason why higher rates almost surely won’t produce higher revenues.

In a column earlier this year for the Wall Street Journal, former Federal Reserve Governor Lawrence Lindsey explained this “Laffer Curve” effect.

…43.4% is well above the rate that would generate the most revenue for the government. Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, which does the official scoring and is no den of supply siders, puts the revenue-maximizing rate at 28%. My work several decades ago puts it about 10 points lower than that. That means President Biden is willing to accept lower revenue as the price of higher tax rates. The implications for his administration’s economic thinking are mind-boggling. Even the revenue-maximizing rate is higher than would be optimal. As tax rates rise, the activity being taxed declines. The loss to the private side of society increases at a geometric rate (proportional to the square of the tax rate) as rates rise. … The Biden administration is blowing up one of the key concepts that has united the economics profession: maximizing social welfare. It now believes in taxation purely as a form of punishment and is even willing to sacrifice revenue to carry it out.

By the way, Biden’s not the first president with this spiteful mindset. Obama also said he wanted to raise the tax rate on capital gains even if the government didn’t get any more revenue.

Democrats used to be far more sensible on this issue. For instance, Bill Clinton signed into a law a cut in the tax rate on capital gains.

And, as noted in this Wall Street Journal editorial on the topic, another Democratic president also had very sensible views.

Even in the economically irrational 1970s the top capital-gains rate never broke 40%… A neutral revenue code would tax all income only once. But the U.S. also taxes business profits when they are earned, and President Biden wants to raise that tax rate by a third (to 28% from 21%). When a business distributes after-tax income in dividends, or an investor sells the shares that have risen in value due to higher earnings, the income is taxed a second time. …The most important reason to tax capital investment at low rates is to encourage saving and investment. …Tax something more and you get less of it. Tax capital income more, and you get less investment, which means less investment to improve worker productivity and thus smaller income gains over time. As a former U.S. President once put it: “The tax on capital gains directly affects investment decisions, the mobility and flow of risk capital from static to more dynamic situations, the ease or difficulty experienced by new ventures in obtaining capital, and thereby the strength and potential for growth of the economy.” That wasn’t Ronald Reagan. It was John F. Kennedy.

For what it’s worth, JFK wasn’t just sensible on capital gains taxation. He had a much better overall grasp of tax policy that many of his successors.

Especially the current occupant of the White House. The bottom line is that Biden’s agenda is bad news for American prosperity and American competitiveness.

P.S. If you’re skeptical about my competitiveness assertion, check out this data.

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Public finance theory teaches us that the capital gains tax should not exist. Such a levy exacerbates the bias against saving and investment, which reduces innovation, hinders economic growth, and lowers worker compensation.

All of which helps to explain why President Biden’s proposals to increase the tax burden on capital gains are so misguided.

Thanks to some new research from Professor John Diamond of Rice University, we can now quantify the likely damage if Biden’s proposals get enacted.

Here’s some of what he wrote in his new study.

We use a computable general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy to simulate the economic effects of these policy changes… The model is a dynamic, overlapping generations, computable general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy that focuses on the macroeconomic and transitional effects of tax reforms. …The simulation results in Table 1 show that GDP falls by roughly 0.1 percent 10 years after reform and 0.3 percent 50 years after reform, which implies per household income declines by roughly $310 after 10 years and $1,200 after 50 years. The long run decline in GDP is due to a decline in the capital stock of 1.0 percent and a decline in total hours worked of 0.1 percent. …this would be roughly equivalent to a loss of approximately 209,000 jobs in that year. Real wages decrease initially by 0.2 percent and by 0.6 percent in the long run.

Here is a summary of the probable economic consequences of Biden’s class-warfare scheme.

But the above analysis should probably be considered a best-case scenario.

Why? Because the capital gains tax is not indexed for inflation, which means investors can wind up paying much higher effective tax rates if prices are increasing.

And in a world of Keynesian monetary policy, that’s a very real threat.

So Prof. Diamond also analyzes the impact of inflation.

…capital gains are not adjusted for inflation and thus much of the taxable gains are not reflective of a real increase in wealth. Taxing nominal gains will reduce the after-tax rate of return and lead to less investment, especially in periods of higher inflation. …taxing the nominal value will reduce the real rate of return on investment, and may do so by enough to result in negative rates of return in periods of moderate to high inflation. Lower real rates of return reduce investment, the size of the capital stock, productivity, growth in wage rates, and labor supply. …Accounting for inflation in the model would exacerbate other existing distortions… An increase in the capital gains tax rate or repealing step up of basis will make investments in owner-occupied housing more attractive relative to other corporate and non-corporate investments.

Here’s what happens to the estimates of economic damage in a world with higher inflation?

Assuming the inflation rate is one percentage point higher on average (3.2 percent instead of 2.2 percent) implies that a rough estimate of the capital gains tax rate on nominal plus real returns would be 1.5 times higher than the real increase in the capital gains tax rate used in the standard model with no inflation. Table 2 shows the results of adjusting the capital gains tax rates by a factor of 1.5 to account for the effects of inflation. In this case, GDP falls by roughly 0.1 percent 10 years after reform and 0.4 percent 50 years after reform, which implies per household income declines by roughly $453 after 10 years and $1,700 after 50 years.

Here’s the table showing the additional economic damage. As you can see, the harm is much greater.

I’ll conclude with two comments.

P.S. If (already-taxed) corporate profits are distributed to shareholders, there’s a second layer of tax on those dividends. If the money is instead used to expand the business, it presumably will increase the value of shares (a capital gain) because of an expectation of higher future income (which will be double taxed when it occurs).

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I wrote last month about an encouraging wave of tax cuts at the state level.

I’m particularly impressed by the tax-cutting plan in Arizona, which cleverly reversed a class-warfare scheme designed to enrich teacher unions.

Indeed, I’m a big fan of federalism in large part because good fiscal policy is more likely when state and local governments are forced to compete for jobs and investment.

People can “vote with their feet” by moving from high-tax jurisdictions to low-tax jurisdictions, and politicians are less likely to misbehave when they realize taxpayers can escape.

But “less likely to misbehave” is not the same as “won’t misbehave.”

Notwithstanding the negative consequences, some jurisdictions are contemplating tax increases.

There’s also a plan for a class-warfare tax increase in Washington, DC.

I’m not referring to President Biden’s destructive tax plan (which you can read about here, here, here, and here). Instead, today’s column will focus on the tax increase being considered by the city’s local government.

Here are some excerpt from a report in the Washington Post.

An increasingly left-leaning D.C. Council voted…to raise income taxes on wealthy residents — a victory for advocates seeking tens of millions of dollars to spend…, but a puzzlement to others who saw no need for a tax increase in a year the city is flush with federal grant money. …the 2022 budget…includes generous spending on a long list of programs, mostly funded by the federal grants as well as other sources of local revenue. …The authors of the tax increase proposal…say that wealthy residents who were not financially hurt by the pandemic can afford to pay more.

To see which taxpayers are being penalized, here’s an excerpt from the Tax Foundation’s report on the proposed tax hike.

Interestingly, despite its left-leaning orientation, the Washington Post editorialized against the tax hike.

The council is now intent on ramming through a tax increase on wealthy residents that is driven more by ideology than any need for revenue or sound fiscal strategy. …as opponents of the tax increase pointed out, the District is flush with cash — about $3.2 billion in federal payments and grants, with next year’s local revenue projected to be $162 million more than pre-pandemic times. The proposed $17.5 billion budget already reflects a growth in spending of 3.9 percent over the historically high spending in the current year. …the council’s slapdash approach could have troubling consequences. The District’s tax rates on income and commercial property are already the highest in the region. …states such as Illinois should serve as a cautionary tale: Its high taxes have driven residents and businesses to other states. It’s not hard to imagine that someone making over $1 million — 0.7 percent of D.C. taxpayers, who pay 23.1 percent of the city’s income taxes — might find it more worthwhile to live in Arlington and pay one-third as much in taxes. What then happens…?

This is a remarkable editorial.

Indeed, it sounds like I could have been the author.

  • It highlights excessive growth of government.
  • It highlights how the rich pay the lion’s share of tax.
  • It highlights tax migration across borders.
  • It highlights jurisdictional tax competition.

The difference between me and the Washington Post, though, is that I’m intellectually consistent.

Unlike the editors of that newspaper, I apply the same arguments when analyzing national tax policy as well.

P.S. While the D.C. Council’s plan is very bad tax policy, part of me will be amused if it gets enacted. That’s because Washington is filled with lobbyists, bureaucrats, contractors, and other insiders who get undeserved riches because they have their snouts buried in the federal trough.

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What motivates the tax-and-spend crowd? Why do they want high tax rates and a big welfare state?

The most charitable answer is that they don’t want anyone to suffer from poverty and they mistakenly think big government can solve problems.

But there’s another answer that may be more accurate.

As Margaret Thatcher observed about three decades ago, it seems that many folks on the left are primarily motivated by jealousy and resentment against their successful neighbors.

I realize I’m making an ugly accusation. But in my defense, I’m simply reporting what they write. Or what they admit to pollsters.

And now we have another example. Christine Emba of the Washington Post opined earlier this year that politicians should somehow put a ceiling on how much wealth any American can create.

The most shocking thing about ProPublica’s extensive report on the leaked tax returns of the super-rich wasn’t what the report contained — it was the fact that we’re barely shocked anymore. …we, as a society, let them do it. …every billionaire is a policy failure. But more than that, every billionaire is a failure of our own moral imagination. …Should we tax capital gains at a higher rate? Raise the corporate tax rate? Create a wealth tax? (I’d vote yes to all three.) But these debates are small bore. …Instead of debating tweaks at the edges of our tax system, what we should be…focused less on what is “allowed”… Such a philosophy already exists. It’s called limitarianism. …Just as there is a poverty line under which we agree that no one should fall, limitarianism holds that one can construct a “wealth line” over which no one should rise, and that the world would be better off for it.

Ms. Emba doesn’t explain how her “limitarian” policy might be implemented.

But since she’s embraced a wealth tax, the simple way to achieve her goal would be adding a 100 percent rate to that levy for any taxpayers who create so much wealth for society that they wind up with assets of $1 billion.

In case you think I’m joking, here’s part of her conclusion.

…the prospect of having “only” $999 million dollars would not stop innovators in their tracks. And even if it did stop some, would the trade-off be so bad?

I’ll close this column by answering her rhetorical question.

The trade-off wouldn’t just be bad, it would be terrible. A wealth tax (or any other possible policy to achiever her “limitarian” utopia) necessarily would reduce saving and investment.

And that would mean less innovation, slower (or negative) productivity growth, and wage stagnation (or decline).

Which is a good excuse to recycle my Eighth Theorem of Government.

Simply stated, here’s little reason to think that the folks who hate their successful neighbors actually care about their poor neighbors.

P.S. The New York Times also has published a column embracing the resentment-fueled limitarian notion.

P.P.S. Plenty of folks on the left explicitly argue that government has first claim on income. And that you’re the beneficiary of a favor if you get to keep some of what you earn. Once again, I’m not joking.

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I’ve been asked why I periodically mock politicians. The simple answer is that they often deserve our scorn.

It’s not that they’re evil or bad people, but their incentive structure generally leads them to make shallow, short-run, and self-serving decisions.

Such as setting tax rates so high that they even backfire on politicians (i.e., by discouraging economic activity and thus producing less revenue).

It looks like we may have a new example of this phenomenon.

In an article for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Richard Velotta reports on Chicago’s bungled attempt to attract a big-name casino.

If everything had gone according to plan, we would all be buzzing this week about which company would have the best opportunity to build a casino resort in Chicago. But it hasn’t gone according to plan. …companies have stated that they won’t be bidding. Four of the largest Strip operators — MGM Resorts International, Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Caesars Entertainment Inc. — have indicated they have no plans to bid on Chicago. …The biggest issue for Las Vegas operators looking at Chicago is the tax rate Illinois would impose on gross gaming revenue from the Chicago resort — 40 percent. By comparison, the maximum rate in Nevada is 6.75 percent.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Illinois politicians would over-tax something.

But I’m amazed they thought they could impose a tax six times higher than the one in Nevada without any negative consequences.

No wonder the big-name casinos aren’t submitting bids. After all, their job is to generate revenue for shareholders, not loot for politicians.

Though there is a silver lining to this dark cloud.

As mentioned in the story, Illinois politicians apparently did realize it wouldn’t work to have a tax rate more than ten times higher than the one in Nevada.

At one time, Illinois floated a tax rate of around 70 percent, but gaming companies persuaded the Illinois Legislature to modify that.

How generous of Illinois politicians to forgo a 70 percent tax rate!

Reminds me of the former French president who “mercifully” chose to limit personal taxes to 80 percent of household income.

P.S. There is a compelling case that Chicago is America’s most poorly governed city. But that’s hard to decide because there’s strong competition from places such as New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, Detroit, and San Francisco.

P.P.S. In this case, though, it’s a state law that is causing the problem. So we should ask whether Illinois is America’s most poorly governed state. There’s certainly evidence for that claim, but New York, California, and New Jersey also would be in the running.

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Long-time readers know that I periodically pour cold water on the notion that China is an economic superstar.

Yes, China did engage in some economic liberalization late last century, and those reforms should be applauded because they were very successful in reducing severe poverty.

But from a big-picture perspective, all that really happened is that China went from terrible policy (Maoist communism) to bad policy (best described as mass cronyism).

Economic Freedom of the World has the best data. According to the latest edition, China’s score for economic liberty rose from a horrible 3.69 in 1990 to 6.21 in 2018.

That’s a big improvement, but that still leaves China in the bottom quartile (ranking #124 in the world). Better than Venezuela (#162), to be sure, but way behind even uncompetitive welfare states such as Greece (#92), France (#58), and Italy (#51).

And I fear China’s score will get even worse in the near future.

Why? Because it seems President Xi is going to impose class-warfare tax increases.

In an article for the Guardian, Phillip Inman shares some of the details.

China’s president has vowed to “adjust excessive incomes” in a warning to the country’s super-rich that the state plans to redistribute wealth… The policy goal comes amid a sweeping push by Beijing to rein in the country’s largest private firms in industries, ranging from technology to education. …Xi…is expected to expand wealth taxes and raise income tax rates… Some reforms could be far reaching, including higher taxes on capital gains, inheritance and property. Higher public sector wages are also expected to be part of the package.

And here are some excerpts from a report by Jane Li for Quartz.

Chinese president Xi Jinping yesterday sent a stark message to the country’s wealthy: It is time to redistribute their excessive fortunes. …Another reason for the Party’s focus on outsize wealth is to reduce rival centers of power and influence in China, which has also been an impetus for its crackdown on the tech sector… China already has fairly high income tax rates for its wealthiest. That includes a top income tax rate of 45% for those who earn more than 960,000 yuan ($150,000) a year… Upcoming moves could include…a nationwide property tax.

These stories may warm the hearts of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, but they help to explain why I’m not optimistic about China’s economy.

If you review the Economic Freedom of the World data, you find that China is especially bad on fiscal policy (“size of government”), ranking #153.

That’s worse than China does even on regulation.

Yet the Chinese government is now going to impose higher taxes to fund even bigger government?!?

Is the goal to be even worse than Venezuela and Zimbabwe?

P.S. Many wealthy people in China (maybe even most of them) achieved their high incomes thanks to government favoritism, so there’s a very strong argument that their riches are undeserved. But the best policy response is getting rid of industrial policy rather than imposing tax increases that will hit both good rich people and bad rich people.

P.P.S. I’ve criticized both the OECD and IMF for advocating higher taxes in China. A few readers have sent emails asking whether those international bureaucracies might be deliberately trying to sabotage China’s economy and thus preserve the dominance of Europe and the United States. Given the wretched track records of the OECD and IMF, I think it’s far more likely that the bureaucrats from those organizations sincerely support those bad policies (especially since they get tax-free salaries and are sheltered from the negative consequences).

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There are divisions of the right between small-government conservatives, reform conservatives, common-good capitalists, nationalist conservatives, and compassionate conservatives.

There are also divisions on the left, as illustrated by this flowchart, which shows the Nordic Model (a pro-free market welfare state) on one end, and then different versions of hard-core leftism on the other end.

I’m showing these different strains on the left because it will help decipher the editorial position of the Washington Post.

I cited one of their editorials a couple of weeks ago that had some very sensible criticisms of a wealth tax. But it also embraced other class-warfare taxes (higher capital gains taxes and more onerous death taxes).

In other words, the Washington Post is on the left, but not as crazy as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Now we have another editorial from the Post that illustrates this distinction.

The bad news is that the editorial (once again) endorses class-warfare tax policy.

…inequality of wealth is a serious problem in the United States. …to an unhealthy degree, wealth in the United States is being gained through unproductive activity — “rent-seeking”… Well-designed government interventions can reduce inequality from the top down, through more aggressive taxation of capital gains and estates… …everyone, poor and rich, has a lot to gain from curbing wealth inequality. The policies that can achieve that goal are neither radical nor complicated.

The good news is that the Post understands that there are serious consequences of going too far.

What remains to be considered are the counterarguments. …could a more aggressive attack on wealth inequality undermine incentives and result in an economic pie that is smaller and, inevitably, more difficult to distribute? If too aggressive, of course, at the bottom of that slippery slope lies Venezuela’s bankrupt socialism.

I suppose I should be happy that the editorial acknowledges the danger of hard-core leftism.

But my concern is that going in the wrong direction at 60 miles per hour still gets a nation to the wrong destination.

Yes, going in the wrong direction at 90 miles per hour gets to Venezuela even sooner, so I’d rather delay a very bad outcome.

That being said, it would be nice if the Washington Post (or any other rational leftists) drew some lines in the sand about limiting the size and scope of government.

Both numbers are far too high, of course, but setting some sort of limit would at least show that there is some long-run difference between the rational left and the AOC crowd.

Let’s conclude with some extracts that show why I’m worried that the Post will always be on the wrong side. After acknowledging that there are risks of going too far to the left, the editorial tell us we shouldn’t worry about going that direction.

In fact, too much inequality can undermine growth, too. …the perpetuation of steep inequalities, over generations, can turn into a drag on output…by wasting the potential of those who might have acquired skills or started businesses if not consigned by poverty to society’s margins. …extreme inequality fosters demands for populist policies, which, in turn, damage growth.

To be fair, the Washington Post is at least semi-good on the issue of school choice, so I take somewhat seriously their concerns about not wasting potential.

And it’s also worth noting that the editorial understands that populist policies (which presumably includes lots of anti-market nonsense such as protectionism) would be misguided. Though I’d feel much better about that part if the editorial recognized the difference between moral and immoral inequality.

P.S. The core problem is that our friends on the left don’t appreciate that low-income people will be better off if the focus is on growth rather than inequality.

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Back in 2019, I listed “Six Principles to Guide Policy on Government Spending.”

If I was required to put it all in one sentence (sort of), here’s the most important thing to understand about fiscal policy.

This does not mean, by the way, that we should be anarcho-capitalists and oppose all government spending.

But it does mean that all government spending imposes a burden on the economy and that politicians should only spend money to finance “public goods” that generate offsetting benefits.

Assuming, of course, that the goal is greater prosperity.

I’m motivated to address this topic because Philip Klein wrote a column for National Review about Biden’s new spending. He points out that this new spending is bad, regardless of whether it is debt-financed or tax-financed.

As Democrats race toward squandering another $4.1 trillion — perhaps with some Republican help — we are being told over and over how the biggest stumbling block is figuring out how the new spending will be “paid for.” …Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), who is trying to maintain his image as a moderate, insisted that he doesn’t believe the spending should be passed if it isn’t fully financed. “Everything should be paid for,” Manchin has told reporters. …Republican members of the bipartisan group have also made similar comments. …But it is folly to consider massive amounts of new spending to be “responsible” as long as members of Congress come up with enough taxes to raise… At some point in the next few weeks, Democrats (and possibly Republicans) will announce that they have reached a deal on some sort of major spending compromise. They will claim that it is fully paid for, and assert that it is fiscally responsible. But there is nothing responsible about adding trillions in new obligations at a time when the nation is already heading for fiscal catastrophe.

Klein is correct.

Biden’s spending binge will be just as damaging to prosperity if it is financed with taxes rather than financed by debt.

The key thing to realize is that we’ll have less growth if more of the economy’s output is consumed by government spending.

Giving politicians and bureaucrats more control over the allocation of resources is a very bad idea (as even the World Bank, OECD, and IMF have admitted).

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It’s presumably not controversial to point out that the Washington Post (like much of the media) leans to the left. Indeed, the paper’s bias has given me plenty of material over the years.

As you can see, what really irks me is when the bias translates into sloppy, inaccurate, or misleading statements.

  • In 2011,the Post asserted that a plan to trim the budget by less than 2/10ths of 1 percent would “slash” spending.
  • Later that year, the Post claimed that the German government was “fiscally conservative.”
  • In 2013, the Post launched an inaccurate attack on the Heritage Foundation.
  • In 2017, the Post described a $71 budget increase as a $770 billion cut.
  • Later that year, the Post claimed a spending cut was a tax increase.
  • In 2018, the Post made the same type of mistake, asserting that a $500 billion increase was a $537 billion cut.
  • This year, the Post claimed Bush and Obama copied Reagan’s fiscal conservatism.
  • Also this year, the Post blamed smugglers for an energy crisis caused by Lebanese price controls.

But, to be fair, the Washington Post occasionally winds up on the right side of an issue.

It’s editorialized in favor of school choice, for instance, and also has opined in favor of privatizing the Postal Service.

And sometimes it has editorials that are both right and wrong. Which is a good description of the Post‘s new editorial on tax policy.

We’ll start with the good news. The Washington Post appears to understand that a wealth tax would be a bad idea, both because it can lead to very high effective tax rates and because it would be a nightmare to administer.

Ms. Warren’s version of the wealth tax, which calls for 2 percent annual levies on net wealth above $50 million, and 3 percent above $1 billion, very rich people would face large tax bills even when they had little or negative net income, forcing them to sell assets to pay their taxes. …huge chunks of private wealth tied up in real estate, rare art and closely held businesses are more difficult — sometimes impossible — to assess consistently. …Such problems help explain why national wealth taxes yielded only modest revenue in the 11 European countries that levied them as of 1995, and why most of those countries subsequently repealed them.

I’m disappointed that the Post overlooked the biggest argument, which is that wealth taxation would reduce saving and investment and thus lead to lower wages.

But I suppose I should be happy with modest steps on the road to economic literacy.

The Post‘s editorial also echoed my argument by pointing out that ProPublica was very dishonest in the way it presented data illegally obtained from the IRS.

ProPublica muddied a basic distinction, which, properly understood, actually fortifies the case against a wealth tax. The story likened on-paper asset price appreciation with actual cash income, then lamented that the two aren’t taxed at the same rate. …ProPublica’s logic implies that, when the stock market goes down, Elon Musk, whose billions are tied up in shares of Tesla, should get a tax cut.

Amen (this argument also applies to the left’s argument for taxing unrealized capital gains).

Now that I’ve presented the sensible portions of the Post‘s editorial, let’s shift to the bad parts.

First and foremost, the entire purpose of the editorial was to support more class-warfare taxation.

But instead of wealth taxes, the Post wants much-higher capital gains taxes – including Biden’s hybrid capital gains tax/death tax.

Fortunately, legitimate goals of a wealth tax can be achieved through other means… This would require undoing not only some of the 2017 GOP tax cuts, but much previous tax policy as well… The higher capital gains rate should be applied to a broader base of investment income… President Biden’s American Families Plan calls for reform of this so-called “stepped-up basis” loophole that would yield an estimated $322.5 billion over 10 years.

The editorial also calls for an expanded death tax, one that would raise six times as much money as the current approach.

…simply reverting to estate tax rules in place as recently as 2004 could yield $98 billion per year, far more than the $16 billion the government raised in 2020.

Last but not least, it argues for these tax increases because it wants us to believe that politicians will wisely use any additional revenue in ways that will increase economic opportunity.

The public sector could use new revenue from stiffer capital gains and estate taxes to expand opportunity.

This is the “fairy dust” or “magic beans” theory of economic development.

Proponents argue that if we give politicians more money, we’ll somehow get more prosperity.

At the risk of understatement, this theory isn’t based on empirical evidence.

Which is the message of a 2017 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. And it’s also the reason I repeatedly ask the never-answered question.

P.S. To make the argument that capital gains taxes and death taxes are better than wealth taxation, the Post editorial cites research from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Too bad the Post didn’t read the OECD study showing that class-warfare taxes reduce overall prosperity. Or the OECD study showing that more government spending reduces prosperity.

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More than 10 years ago, I narrated this video explaining why there should be no capital gains tax.

The economic argument against capital gains taxation is very simple. It is wrong to impose discriminatory taxes on income that is saved and invested.

It’s bad enough that government gets to tax our income one time, but it’s even worse when they get to impose multiple layers of tax on the same dollar.

Unfortunately, nobody told Biden. As part of his class-warfare agenda, he wants to increase the capital gains tax rate from 23.8 percent to 43.4 percent.

Even worse, he wants to expand the capital gains tax so that it functions as an additional form of death tax.

And that tax would be imposed even if assets aren’t sold. In other words, it would a tax on capital gains that only exist on paper (a nutty idea associated with Sens. Ron Wyden and Elizabeth Warren).

I’m not joking. In an article for National Review, Ryan Ellis explains why Biden’s proposal is so misguided.

The Biden administration proposes that on top of the old death tax, which is assessed on estates, the federal government should add a new tax on the deceased’s last 1040 personal-income-tax return. This new, second tax would apply to tens of millions of Americans. …the year someone died, all of their unrealized capital gains (gains on unsold real estate, family farms and businesses, stocks and other investments, artwork, collectibles, etc.) would be subject to taxation as if the assets in question had been sold that year. …In short, what the Biden administration is proposing is to tax the capital gains on a person’s property when they die, even if the assets that account for those gains haven’t actually been sold. …to make matters worse, the administration also supports raising the top tax rate on long-term capital gains from 23.8 percent to 43.4 percent. When state capital-gains-tax rates are factored in, this would make the combined rate at or above 50 percent in many places — the highest capital-gains-tax rate in the world, and the highest in American history.

This sounds bad (and it is bad).

But there’s more bad news.

…that’s not all. After these unrealized, unsold, phantom gains are subject to the new 50 percent double death tax, there is still the matter of the old death tax to deal with. Imagine a 50 percent death tax followed by a 40 percent death tax on what is left, and you get the idea. Karl Marx called for the confiscation of wealth at death, but even he probably never dreamed this big. …Just like the old death tax, the double death tax would be a dream for the estate-planning industry, armies of actuaries and attorneys, and other tax professionals. But for the average American, it would be a nightmare. The death tax we have is bad enough. A second death tax would be a catastrophic mistake.

Hank Adler and Madison Spach also wrote about this topic last month for the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s some of what they wrote.

Mr. Biden’s American Families Plan would subject many estates worth far less than $11.7 million to a punishing new death tax. The plan would raise the total top rate on capital gains, currently 23.8% for most assets, to 40.8%—higher than the 40% maximum estate tax. It would apply the same tax to unrealized capital gains at death… The American Families Plan would result in negative value at death for many long-held leveraged real-estate assets. …Scenarios in which the new death tax would significantly reduce, nearly eliminate or even totally eliminate the net worth of decedents who invested and held real estate for decades wouldn’t be uncommon. …The American Families Plan would discourage long-term investment. That would be particularly true for those with existing wealth who would begin focusing on cash flow rather than long-term investment. The combination of the new death tax plus existing estate tax rates would change risk-reward ratios.

The bottom line is that it is very misguided to impose harsh and discriminatory taxes on capital gains. Especially if the tax occurs simply because a taxpayer dies.

P.S. Keep in mind that there’s no “indexing,” which means investors often are being taxed on gains that merely reflect inflation.

P.P.S. Rather than increasing the tax burden on capital gains, we should copy Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Singapore, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Turkey. What do they have in common? A capital gains tax rate of zero.

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I’ve been warning, over and over and over again, that a European-style welfare state means huge tax increases on ordinary people.

Simply stated, there are not enough rich people to finance big government (even Paul Krugman agrees).

This means Joe Biden and Democrats need to make a choice: What matters most, their desire to make government bigger, or their promise not to impose higher taxes on families making less than $400K per year?

We now have the answer to that question, and I hope nobody is surprised to learn that they picked government over taxpayers.

But what is surprising is that they picked the Trump approach of protectionist taxes on global trade.

Here are some excerpts from a report by the New York Times.

Democrats have agreed to include a tax on imports from nations that lack aggressive climate change policies as part of a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget plan… The move to tax imports was made public Wednesday, the same day that the European Union outlined its own proposal for a similar carbon border tax, a novel tool that is designed to protect domestic manufacturing. …skeptics caution that a carbon border tax, which has yet to be implemented by any country, would be difficult to carry out, and could anger trading partners and face a challenge at the World Trade Organization. Unlike the Europeans, who outlined their plan in a 291-page document, Democrats released no details about their tax proposal on Wednesday. Calling it simply a “polluter import fee,” the framework does not explain what would be taxed, at what rate or how much revenue it would expect to generate. …verifying the amount of carbon…produced by foreign manufacturing is tricky, experts say.

It’s always a bad idea to give politicians a new source of revenue.

But it’s a worse idea to give them a new source of revenue that will require bureaucrats to measure the amount of carbon produced by every imported good. As I pointed out a few days ago when discussing the European Union’s version of this protectionist scheme, that’s a huge recipe for cronyism and favoritism.

P.S. I’ll be very curious to see how different international bureaucracies react to these anti-trade proposals. The OECD and IMF, while usually bad on fiscal issues, historically have favored unfettered trade. And the World Trade Organization exists specifically to protect global commerce. But will these organizations now change their position to curry favor with the nations that control their purse strings?

The theory of “public choice” suggests we shouldn’t be optimistic.

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Over the past four years, Donald Trump presumably was the biggest threat to global trade.

His ignorant protectionism hurt American consumers and businesses – and undermined the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.

Over the next four years (and beyond), it’s quite likely that the biggest threat to global trade will be the European Union.

More specifically, politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels want to toss a hand grenade into cross-border commerce by imposing trade taxes on nations that don’t impose carbon taxes.

The Wall Street Journal has a must-read editorial about this threat to world commerce.

Western politicians have failed to persuade their own voters to commit economic suicide by banning fossil fuels, and forget about China, Russia or India. The climate lobby’s fallback, which is starting to emerge, is to punish the foreigners and their own consumers with climate tariffs. Bureaucrats at the European Commission are due to unveil the proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) later this month… Brussels wants to impose tariffs to bring the cost of carbon-dioxide emissions tied to an imported good into line with what a European producer would pay to produce the same good. …a carbon tariff would impose an enormous burden on companies seeking to sell to the EU—even the low-emitting firms—and as a result probably will trigger a trade war. …Under the leaked plan, foreign firms would have to undertake detailed carbon audits to report emissions to EU regulators, and then would have to work out what proportion of the emissions attributable to goods shipped to the EU already were covered by carbon taxes elsewhere. …The choice between costly compliance or a punitive default tariff risks deterring smaller foreign companies from trying to navigate this system.

Needless to say, the so-called carbon audits will create big openings for cronyism and favoritism.

Lobbyists will be fat and happy while businesses and consumers will get hit with higher costs.

The editorial’s conclusion wisely warns that it would be a big mistake for Europeans to trigger a trade war.

Western elites haven’t convinced their voters to pay the price of their climate obsessions. Like Donald Trump, they now want to blame foreigners. In the process they’ll force their consumers to pay more for imports and domestic goods, and they’ll harm their own exporters if countries retaliate. The last thing the world economy needs as it recovers from a pandemic is a climate-change trade war.

Writing for Forbes, Tilak Doshi speculates whether the United States will copy the Europeans.

…the European Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the creation of a “carbon border adjustment mechanism” (CBAM) that would shield EU companies against cheaper imports from countries with “weaker” climate policies. …Now that the Biden administration has elevated climate change to its highest priority across the whole of government, it would seem that the EU and the US working together with like-minded governments in Canada and the UK would be in a position to set up a “trans-Atlantic climate club”  and thereby impose a global cost on carbon emissions. …Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan labelled carbon tariffs “a new form of protectionism.” …For most developing countries, “worries of an increasing carbon footprint generated by economic growth are second to worries that growth many not happen at all.” …What sets off this new protectionism from its predecessors is the sheer scope of its application.

I’m actually hopeful on this issue.

Biden and his team doubtlessly are sympathetic to the E.U.’s initiative, but I don’t think Congress will approve a carbon tax on the American people.

And if the U.S. doesn’t have a carbon tax, there wouldn’t be any reason to impose discriminatory taxes on other nations that also don’t have that levy.

That being said, the Biden Administration would have some leeway to cause problems. For instance, would they push for the World Trade Organization to accept the E.U.’s attack on free trade?

When dealing with politicians, I always hope for the best, but assume the worst.

P.S. Here are my seven reasons to support free trade, as well as my eight questions for protectionists.

P.P.S. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the French were early advocates of carbon protectionism.

P.P.P.S. Some American politicians have pushed for regulatory protectionism.

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Almost everybody (even, apparently, Paul Krugman) agrees that you don’t want to be on the downward-sloping part of the Laffer Curve.

That’s where higher tax rates do so much economic damage that government collects even less revenue.

But I would argue that tax increases that produce more revenue also are a bad idea.

Sometimes they are even a terrible idea. For instance, there are tax increases that would destroy $5 of private income for every $1 of revenue they collect.

That would not be a good deal, at least for those of us who aren’t D.C. insiders.

Heck, according to research from economists at the University of Chicago and Federal Reserve, there are some tax increases that would destroy even greater levels of private income for every additional dollar that politicians got to spend.

The simple way of thinking about this is that you don’t want to be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve.

Because the closer you get to that point, the greater the damage to the private sector compared to any revenue collected.

To help understand this key point, let’s review a new study from Spain’s central bank. Authored by Nezih Guner, Javier López-Segovia and Roberto Ramos, it investigates the impact of higher tax rates.

They first look at what happens when progressivity (τ) is increased.

In the first experiment, we…change…the entire tax schedule, so that all households below the mean labor income face lower average taxes, while those above the mean income face higher average taxes. Since…richer individuals face higher taxes, all else equal, the government collects more taxes. All else, however, is not equal since more progressive taxes lower incentives to work and save. As a result, a higher τ might result in lower, not higher, revenue. The question is where the top of the Laffer curve is. We find that the tax revenue from labor income is maximized with τ = 0 .19. The increase in tax collection is, however, very small: the tax revenue from labor income increases only by 0.82% (or about 0.28% of the GDP). The tax revenue from labor income is, however, only one part of the total tax collection. There are also taxes on capital and consumption. With τ = 0 .19, while the tax collection from labor income is maximized, the total tax collection declines by 1.55%. This happens since with a higher τ, the aggregate labor, capital and output decline significantly. Indeed, the total tax collection falls for any increase in τ, and the level of τ that maximizes total tax revenue is much lower, τ = 0 .025, than its benchmark value.

The key takeaway is that more progressivity puts Spain on the wrong (downward-sloping) side of the Laffer Curve.

Here’s Table 6, which shows big declines in output, labor supply, and investment as progressivity increases.

Here’s some of the accompanying explanation.

The upper panel of Table 6 shows that capital, effective labor and output decline monotonically with τ. Hence, as the economy moves from τ = 0 .1581 to τ = 0 .19, the government is collecting higher taxes from labor, but the aggregate labor supply and output decline. For τ higher than 0.19, the decline in labor supply dominates and tax collection from labor income is lower. …The level of τ that maximizes the total tax collection is 0.025, which implies significantly less progressive taxes than in the benchmark economy. …In the economy with τ = 0 .025, the aggregate capital, labor and output increase significantly. The steady state output, for example, is almost 11 percentage points higher than the benchmark economy. As a result, the government is able to collect higher taxes despite lowering taxes on the top earners.

The authors also put together an estimate of Spain’s Laffer Curve, with the red-dashed line showing total tax revenue.

The authors also looked at what happens if politicians simply increase top tax rates.

They found that there are scenarios that would enable the Spanish government to collect more revenue.

We find that it is possible to generate higher total tax revenue by increasing taxes on the top earners.The main message of our quantitative exercises is that…the extra revenue is not substantial. Higher progressivity has significant adverse effects on output and labor supply, which limits the room for collecting higher taxes. As a result, the only way to generate substantial revenue is with significant increases in marginal tax rates for a large group

But notice that those higher taxes would have “significant adverse effects on output and labor supply.”

Which brings us back to the earlier discussion about the desirability of causing a lot of damage to the private economy in order to give politicians a bit more money to spend.

The authors have a neutral tone, but the rest of should be able to draw the logical conclusion that higher taxes would be a big mistake for Spain.

And since the underlying economic principles apply in all nations, we also should conclude that higher taxes would be a big mistake for the United States.

P.S. We conducted a very successful experiment in the 1980s involving lower tax rates. Biden now wants to see what happens if we try the opposite approach.

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Yesterday’s column explained why Biden’s proposed global cartel for corporate taxation was a bad idea.

In this clip from a recent panel hosted by the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna, I speculated on whether the plan would become reality.

I encourage you to watch the 4-minute video, but all you really need to know is that there are lots of obstacles to a cartel. Most notably, countries with pro-growth business tax regimes (such as Ireland, Estonia, and Switzerland in Europe) have big incentives to say no.

And if legislation is required in the United States, I assume that won’t be an easy sell, at least for GOP members.

But, as I warn in the video, the other side has hundreds of bureaucrats at the OECD and various finance ministries and treasury departments. And these taxpayer-financed mandarins have both the time and patience to chip away until they achieve their goals.

So it is critical that economists such as myself do a good job of educating policy makers about the adverse consequences of a tax cartel.

Which is why people should read this column by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. Here are some key excerpts.

For several decades now, politicians around the world have tried to curtail tax competition to make it easier for them to increase the tax burdens on their citizens without them fleeing to other lower-tax jurisdictions. The best way to achieve their goal is to create a global high-tax cartel. …It’s no mystery why politicians don’t like tax competition. …The ability to shift residences and operations from country to country puts pressure on governments to keep taxes on income, investment, and wealth lower than politicians would like. Politicians in each country fear that raising taxes will prompt high-income earners and capital to move away. …Academic research shows that the imposition of higher corporate taxes is a highly destructive way to collect revenue because it lowers investment and, in turn, workers’ wages. It also increases consumer prices. Also, let’s face it, no nation has ever become wealthier and better through higher taxes and wealth redistribution.

This column for Prof. Bruce Yandle also is very informative. Here’s some of what he wrote.

It was with a feeling of deep disappointment…that I read Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is…pushing to form an international cartel of governments that would implement a minimum corporate income tax rate across borders. …Efforts to cartelize taxation among nations will…, all else equal, lead to a higher-cost world economy. …Instead of searching high and low for ways to raise costs in the hope that more federal revenue and spending will follow, we should hope that our national leaders work harder to find better, more efficient ways to govern and serve the people. Doing so will give more people a much better chance at prosperity.

Amen. Tax harmonization was most accurately described by a former member of the European Parliament, who said it was a “thieves’ cartel.”

P.S. One of the worst aspects of the proposed tax cartel is that it will make it more difficult for poor countries to use good policy to improve living standards for their people.

P.P.S. Click here for my primer on tax competition.

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While Paul Krugman sometimes misuses and misinterprets numbers for ideological reasons (see his errors regarding the United States, France, Canada, the United States, Estonia, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom), he isn’t oblivious to reality.

At least not totally.

He’s acknowledged, for instance, that there is a Laffer Curve and that tax rates can become so onerous that tax revenues actually decline.

Now he’s had another encounter with the real world.

In a column that was mostly a knee-jerk defense of Biden’s class-warfare tax policy, Krugman confessed yesterday that big government ultimately means big tax increases for lower-income and middle-class people.

…is trying to “build back better” by taxing only the very affluent feasible? Is it wise? …There’s a good case that the kind of society progressives want us to become, with a very strong social safety net, can’t be paid for just by taxing the rich. A country like Denmark, for example, does have a high top tax rate… But Denmark also has very high middle-class taxation, in particular a 25 percent value-added tax, effectively a national sales tax. …the fact that even the Nordic countries feel compelled to raise a lot of money from the middle class suggests that there are limits…to how much you can raise just by taxing the rich. So if you want Medicare for all, Nordic levels of support for child care and families in general, and so on, just raising taxes on the 400K-plus elite won’t get you there.

It may not happen often, but Krugman is completely correct.

European-sized government requires European-style taxes on everyone. And that means a big value-added tax, as Krugman notes. And it almost certainly also means big energy taxes, higher payroll taxes, and much higher income tax rates on middle-class taxpayers.

This chart from Brian Riedl shows that government spending already was on track to become a bigger burden for the American economy, and Biden is proposing to go even faster in the wrong direction.

The growing gap between the blue lines and red lines implies giant tax increases. At the risk of understatement, there’s no way to finance that ever-expanding government by just pillaging upper-income taxpayers.

By the way, Krugman is right about big government leading to higher taxes on ordinary people, but he’s wrong about the desirability of that outcome.

He wants us to think that big government means a “better America,” but all the economic data tells a different story. A bigger fiscal burden means much lower living standards.

P.S. If you want another example of Krugman being right on a fiscal issue, click here.

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Back in 2013, the Tax Foundation published a report that reviewed 26 academic studies on taxes and growth.

That scholarly research produced a very clear message: The overwhelming consensus was that higher tax rates were bad news for prosperity.

Especially soak-the-rich tax increases that reduced incentives for productive activities such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

That compilation of studies was very useful because then-President Obama was a relentless advocate of class-warfare tax policy.

And he partially succeeded with an agreement on how to deal with the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Well, as Yogi Berra might say, it’s “deju vu all over again.” Joe Biden is in the White House and he’s proposing a wide range of tax increases.

It’s unclear whether Biden will gain approval for his proposals, but I’ve already produced a four-part series on why they are very misguided.

  • In Part I, I showed that the tax code already is biased against upper-income taxpayers.
  • In Part II, I explained how the tax hike would have Laffer-Curve implications, meaning politicians would not get a windfall of tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I pointed out that the plan would saddle America with the developed world’s highest corporate tax burden.
  • In Part IV, I shared data on the negative economic impact of higher taxes on productive behavior.

The bottom line is that the United States should not copy France by penalizing entrepreneurs, innovators, investors, and business owners.

Particularly since the rest of us are usually collateral damage when politicians try to punish successful taxpayers.

So it’s serendipity that the Tax Foundation has just updated it’s list of research with a new report looking at seven new high-level academic studies.

Here’s some of what the report says about class-warfare tax policy.

With the Biden administration proposing a variety of new taxes, it is worth revisiting the literature on how taxes impact economic growth. …we review this new evidence, again confirming our original findings: Taxes, particularly on corporate and individual income, harm economic growth. …We investigate papers in top economics journals and National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working papers over the past few years, considering both U.S. and international evidence. This research covers a wide variety of taxes, including income, consumption, and corporate taxation.

And here’s the table summarizing the impact of lower tax rates on economic performance, so it’s easy to infer what will happen if tax rates are increased instead.

Some of these findings may not seem very significant, such as changes in key economic indicators of 0.2%, 0.78%, or 0.3%.

But remember that even small changes in economic growth can lead to big changes in national prosperity.

P.S. In an ideal world, Washington would be working to boost living standards by adopting a flat tax. In the real world, the best-case scenario is simply avoiding policies that will make America less competitive.

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As explained here, here, here, and here, I don’t like Biden’s class-warfare tax policy.

I’m especially concerned about his approach to business taxation.

  1. He wants to penalize American-based companies with the highest corporate tax rate among all developed nations.
  2. He wants to export that bad policy to the rest of the world with a “global minimum tax” – sort of an OPEC for politicians.
  3. He wants to handicap American multinational companies with taxes that don’t apply to foreign-based firms.

Regarding the third point, I wrote a column on that topic for the Orange County Register.

Here’s how I described Biden’s proposal.

Biden has proposed several tax increases that specifically target American firms that compete in world markets. Most notably, the Administration has proposed to double the tax rate on “global intangible low-tax income” (GILTI) from 10.5 percent to 21 percent. Translated from tax jargon to English, this is largely a tax on the income American firms earn overseas from intellectual property, most notably patents and royalties. Keep in mind, by the way, that this income already is subject to tax in the nations where it is earned. Most other nations do not handicap their companies with similar policies, so this means that American firms will face a big competitive disadvantage – especially when fighting for business in low-tax jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, Ireland, Singapore, Switzerland, and most of Eastern Europe.

And here are some additional reasons why it is very bad news.

…let’s simply look at the bottom-line impact of what Biden is proposing. The Tax Foundation estimates that, “The proposal would impose a 9.4 percent average surtax on the foreign activities of U.S. multinationals above and beyond the taxes levied by foreign governments” and “put U.S. multinationals at a competitive disadvantage relative to foreign corporations.” …a stagging $1.2 trillion tax increase on these companies. …This is not just bad for the competitiveness of American-based companies, it is also bad policy. Good fiscal systems, such as the flat tax, are based on “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense notion that countries only tax economic activity inside their borders. …Many other nations follow this approach, which is why they will reap big benefits if Biden’s plan to hamstring American companies is approved. The key thing to understand is that the folks in Washington have the power to raise taxes on American companies competing abroad, but they don’t have the ability to raise taxes on the foreign companies in those overseas markets.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page has been sounding the alarm on this issue as well.

Here are some excerpts from an editorial back in April.

…the tax on global intangible low-tax income, known as Gilti, which was created by the 2017 tax reform. …Gilti was flawed from the start…but Mr. Biden would make it worse in every respect. …The 2017 tax law set the statutory Gilti rate at…10.5%. Mr. Biden would increase that to 21%… the effective rate companies actually pay is higher. This is because Gilti embedded double taxation in the tax code. …Gilti allows a credit of only 80% of foreign taxes, with no carry-forwards or carry-backs. …Raising the statutory rate to 21% increases that effective rate to 26.25%. This new Biden effective minimum tax would be higher than the statutory tax rates in most countries even in Western Europe… The Biden plan would further increase the effective Gilti rate by expanding the tax base on which it’s paid. …A third Biden whammy would require companies to calculate tax bills on a country-by-country basis. …Requiring companies to calculate taxable profits and tax credits individually for every country in which a company operates will create a mountain of compliance costs for business and work for the Internal Revenue Service. …The Biden Administration and its progressive political masters have decided they don’t care about the global competitiveness of American companies.

Let’s close with some international comparisons.

According to the most-recent International Tax Competitiveness Index, the United States ranks #21 out of 35 nations, which is a mediocre score.

But the United States had been scoring near the bottom, year after year, before the Trump tax reform bumped America up to #21. So there was some progress.

If the Biden plan is approved, however, it is a near-certainly that the U.S. will be once again mired at the bottom. And this bad policy will lead to unfortunate results for American workers and American competitiveness.

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I’ve shared all sorts of online quizzes that supposedly can detect things such as whether you’re a pure libertarian.

Or even whether you’re a communist.

Today, courtesy of the folks at the Committee for a Responsible Budget, you can agree or disagree with 24 statements to determine your “budget personality.”

I have some quibbles about some of the wording (for instance, I couldn’t answer “neither” when asked to react to: “The government should spend more money on children than on seniors”).

But I can’t quibble with the results. Given the potential outcomes, I’m glad to be a “Minimalist” who is “in favor of smaller government.”

Though I’m disappointed that I apparently didn’t get a perfect score on “Size of Government.”

And I need to explain why I got a mediocre score on the topic of “Fiscal Responsibility.”

The budget geeks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) have a well-deserved reputation for rigorous analysis. I regularly cite their numbers and appreciate the work that they do.

That being said, they mistakenly focus on deficits and debt when the real problem is too much government.

I agree with Milton Friedman, who wisely observed that ““I would rather have government spend one trillion dollars with a deficit of a half a trillion dollars than have government spend two trillion dollars with no deficit.”

The folks at CRFB would disagree.

Indeed, they are so fixated on red ink that they would welcome tax increases.

At the risk of understatement, that would be a very bad approach.

The evidence from Europe shows that higher taxes simply lead to higher spending. And more debt.

Indeed, Milton Friedman also commented on this issue, warning that, “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

The bottom line is that CRFB not only has the wrong definition of “Fiscal Responsibility,” but they also support policies that would make matters worse – even from their perspective!

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Tax increases are bad fiscal policy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are politically unpopular.

Indeed, many voices in the establishment press are citing favorable polling data in hopes of creating an aura on inevitably for President Biden’s proposed tax hikes.

That’s a very worrisome prospect. If Biden succeeds, the United States could wind up toppling Canada for the dubious honor of having the world’s highest tax burden on saving and investment.

That would be bad news for American workers.

But are Biden’s media cheerleaders correct? Are tax increases popular?

According to a new scholarly working paper from the Federal Reserve (authored by Andrew C. Chang, Linda R. Cohen, Amihai Glazer, and Urbashee Paul), the answer is no.

At least if we judge politicians by what they do in election years. Here’s part of the study’s abstract.

We use new annual data on gasoline taxes and corporate income taxes from U.S.states to analyze whether politicians avoid tax increases in election years. These data contain 3 useful attributes: (1) when state politicians enact tax laws, (2) when state politicians implement tax laws on consumers and firms, and (3) the size of tax changes. Using a pre-analysis research plan that includes regressions of tax rate changes and tax enactment years on time-to-gubernatorial election year indicators, we find that elections decrease the probability of politicians enacting increases in taxes and reduce the size of implemented tax changes relative to non-election years. We find some evidence that politicians are most likely to enact tax increases right after an election. These election effects are stronger for gasoline taxes than for corporate income taxes and depend on no other political, demographic, or macroeconomic conditions.

For wonkier readers, Figure 7 has some of the major results of their statistical analysis. I’ve highlighted (in red) the most important conclusion of the research.

For regular readers, the main takeaway is that politicians almost always want more tax revenue. That’s what gives them the ability to distribute goodies and buy votes.

But notwithstanding their never-ending hunger to grab more money, they are very likely to reject tax increases in election years. They even reject higher corporate taxes, which are supposed to be popular (at least according to some in the establishment media).

Yet if tax increases were politically popular, we should see the opposite result.

I’ll close with the somewhat depressing observation that these results do not imply that voters want libertarian policy. It’s probably more accurate to say that people want goodies from the government, but they don’t want to pay for them. Politicians simply respond to those preferences (which brings to mind Garett Jones’ hypothesis that we have too much democracy).

Which is how Greece became a basket case. Which is why Italy is in the process of becoming a basket case. And it’s why the United States may not be that far behind (with states such as Illinois serving as early-warning signs).

P.S. The above-cited research should be a reminder of why a no-tax-hike pledge is important. Voters seem to be on the right side on the big-picture question of “Should taxes be higher?”, but if they think tax increases are going to happen, it’s quite likely that they will support the most economically damaging types of class-warfare levies.

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Back in 2015, I joked that my life would be simpler if I had an “automatic fill-in-the-blanks system” for columns dealing with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Here’s what I proposed.

We can use this shortcut today because the OECD has just churned out a report embracing the death tax. So all we need to do is fill in the blanks and we have an appropriate intro:

The bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD, working in cooperation with greedy politicians, have released a new study urging more power for governments in order to increase death taxes.

But the purpose of this column is not to mock the OECD, even though its reflexive statism makes it an easy target. Let’s actually dig into this new report and explain why it is so misguided.

This paragraph is a summary of the bureaucracy’s main argument, which is basically an envy-driven cry for more tax revenue.

The report explores the role that inheritance taxation could play in raising revenues, addressing inequalities and improving efficiency in the future. …taxes on wealth transfers – including inheritance, estate, and gift taxes – are levied in 24 of the 36 OECD countries… In 2018, only 0.5% of total tax revenues were sourced from those taxes on average across the countries that levied them. …Overall, the report finds that there is a good case for making greater use of well-designed inheritance and gift taxation… There are strong equity arguments in favour of inheritance taxation..

Here’s some more of the OECD’s dirigiste analaysis.

The report finds that well-designed inheritance taxes can raise revenue and enhance equity… There are strong equity arguments in favour of inheritance taxation… From an equality of opportunity perspective, inheritances and gifts can create a divide between the opportunities that people face. Wealth transfers might give recipients a head start… By breaking down the concentration of wealth…, inheritance and gift taxation can contribute to levelling the playing field… ‘The recent progress made on international tax transparency…is greatly increasing countries’ ability to tax capital… Progressive tax rates have several advantages compared to flat tax rates. …Taxing unrealised gains at death may be the most efficient and equitable approach.

As you can see, the OECD’s argument revolves around class warfare. They think it’s unfair that some parents want to help their children.

By contrast, the argument against the OECD revolves around economics. More specifically, the death tax is a terrible idea because it directly and unambiguously reduces private savings and investment, thus undermining productivity and putting a damper on wages.

Interestingly, the OECD admits this happens. Here’s Figure 2.4 from the OECD report, showing how death taxes (combined with annual income taxes) reduce saving and investment over five generations.

And the above charts don’t even show the true impact because there’s no line showing how much saving and investment would exist with no death tax and no double taxation.

For what it’s worth, the OECD report does acknowledge some practical and economic problems with death taxes.

An inheritance tax directly reduces wealth accumulation over generations. …inheritance taxes may also affect wealth accumulation prior to being levied by encouraging changes in donors’ behaviours. …Susceptibility to tax planning is one of the most common criticisms levelled against inheritance taxes. …There is evidence of widespread inheritance tax planning… Inheritance taxes might lower entrepreneurship by heirs… Inheritance taxes may also jeopardise existing businesses when they are transferred if business owners do not have enough liquid assets to pay the tax. …Double taxation is a popular objection to inheritance taxes…wage earnings, savings, or personal business income…will have in many cases already been taxed. …There might be challenges associated with estimating fair market value for some assets.

If you wade through the report, you’ll notice that the OECD doesn’t have good answers for these problems.

Instead, the basic message is, “yeah, there are a bunch of downsides, but we want to finance bigger government and we resent successful people.”

The only good news is that the report gives us a list of nations that have eliminated (or never adopted) death taxes.

Among the OECD countries that do not levy inheritance or estate taxes, nine have abolished them since the early 1970s. …Austria, Czech Republic, Norway, Slovak Republic, ans Sweden have abolished their inheritance or estate taxes since 2000. Israel and New Zealand abolished these taxes between 1980 and 2000. Australia, Canada, and Mexico abolished these taxes before 1980, and Estonia and Latvia have never levied inheritance or estate taxes. …This is consistent with evidence that inheritance and estate taxes tend to be unpopular.

Here’s the part of Table 3.1 that shows when these taxes were implemented and when they were repealed.

Needless to say, I’d like to see the United States on this list at some point (we were there for one year!).

The OECD closed with some cheerleading and strategizing on how to overcome popular opposition.

…this section considers ways in which governments may enhance the public acceptability of inheritance tax reform… Reframing reforms aiming to raise more revenue.around notions of equality of opportunity and inequality reduction may help increase their public acceptability. …packaging may also be helpful. …If the introduction of an inheritance tax or an increase in existing inheritance or estate taxes…goes hand-in-hand with a decrease in other taxes, especially in labour taxes, which a majority of people are subject to, it may be more acceptable politically.

I can’t resist pointing out that it’s utter nonsense to think that governments would use revenue from a death tax to lower other taxes.

The goal of politicians is always to finance bigger government. That’s true with the death tax. It’s true with the carbon tax. It’s true with the value-added tax. It’s true with the financial transactions tax.

Which is why I wrote four years ago that, “Some people say the most important rule to remember is to never feed gremlins after midnight, but I think it’s even more important not to give politicians a new source of revenue.”

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The United States conducted an experiment in the 1980s. Reagan dramatically lowered the top tax rate on households, dropping it from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Folks on the left bitterly resisted Reagan’s “supply-side” agenda, arguing that “the rich won’t pay enough” and “the government will be starved of revenue.”

Fortunately, we can look at IRS data to see what happened to tax payments from those making more than $200,000 per year.

Lo and behold, it turns out that Reaganomics was a big success. Uncle Sam collected five times as much money when the rate was slashed.

As I’ve previously written, this was the Laffer Curve on steroids. Even when you consider other factors (population growth, inflation, other reforms, etc), there’s little doubt that we got a big “supply-side effect” from Reagan’s tax reforms.

Now Biden wants to run this experiment in reverse.

Based on basic economics, his approach won’t succeed. But let’s augment theory by examining what actually happened when Hoover and Roosevelt raised tax rates in the 1930s.

Alan Reynolds reviewed tax policy in the 1920s and 1930s, but let’s focus on what he wrote about the latter decade. He starts with some general observations.

Large increases in marginal tax rates on incomes above $50,000 in the 1930s were almost always matched by large reductions in the amount of high income reported and taxed… An earlier generation of economists found that raising tax rates on incomes, profits, and sales in the 1930s was inexcusably destructive. In 1956, MIT economist E. Cary Brown pointed to the “highly deflationary impact” of the Revenue Act of 1932, which pushed up rates virtually across the board, but notably on the lower‐​and middle‐​income groups.

He then gets to the all-important issue of higher tax rates leading to big reductions in taxable income.

In Figure 1, the average marginal tax rate is an unweighted average of statutory tax brackets applying to all income groups reporting more than $50,000 of income. After President Hoover’s June 1932 tax increase (retroactive to January) the number of tax brackets above $50,000 quadrupled from 8 to 32, ranging from 31 percent to 63 percent. The average of many marginal tax rates facing incomes higher than $50,000 increased from 21.5 percent in 1931 to 47 percent in 1932, and 61.9 percent in 1936. One of the most striking facts in Figure 1 is that the amount of reported income above $50,000 was almost cut in half in a single year—from $1.31 billion in 1931 to $776.7 million in 1932.

Here’s the aforementioned Figure 1. You can see that taxable income soared when tax rates were slashed in the 1920s.

But when tax rates were increased in the 1930s, taxable income collapsed and never recovered.

What’s the lesson from this chart? As Alan explained, the lesson is that high tax rates lead to rich people earning and declaring less taxable income (they still have that ability today).

In the eight years from 1932 to 1939, the economy was in cyclical contraction for only 28 months. Even in 1940, after two huge increases in income tax rates, individual income tax receipts remained lower ($1,014 million) than they had been in the 1930 slump ($1,045 million) when the top tax rate was 25 percent rather than 79 percent. Eight years of prolonged weakness in high incomes and personal tax revenue after tax rates were hugely increased in 1932 cannot be easily brushed away as merely cyclical, rather than a behavioral response to much higher tax rates on additional (marginal) income. Just as income (and tax revenue) from high‐​income taxpayers rose spectacularly after top tax rates fell from 1921 to 1928, high incomes and revenue fell just as spectacularly in 1932 when top tax rates rose.

One big takeaway is that Hoover and FDR were two peas in a pod.

Both imposed bad tax policy.

From 1930 to 1937, unlike 1923–25, virtually all federal and state tax rates on incomes and sales were repeatedly increased, and many new taxes were added, such as the Smoot‐​Hawley tariffs in 1930, taxes on alcoholic beverages in December 1933, and a Social Security payroll tax in 1937. Annual growth of per capita GDP from 1929 to 1939 was essentially zero. …To summarize: all the repeated increases in tax rates and reductions of exemptions enacted by presidents Hoover and Roosevelt in 1932–36 did not even manage to keep individual income tax collections as high in 1939–40 (in dollars or as a percent of GDP) as they had been in 1929–30. The experience of 1930 to 1940 decisively repudiated any pretense that doubling or tripling marginal tax rates on a much broader base proved to be a revenue‐​maximizing plan.

Alan closes with an observation that should raise alarm bells.

It turns out that the higher tax rates on the rich were simply the camel’s nose under the tent. The real agenda was extending the income tax to those with more modest incomes.

The most effective and sustained changes in personal taxes after 1931 were not the symbolic attempts to “soak the rich,” but rather the changes deliberately designed to convert the income tax from a class tax to a mass tax. The exemption for married couples was reduced from $3,500 to $2,500 in 1932, $2,000 in 1940, and $1,500 in 1941. Making more low incomes taxable quadrupled the number of tax returns from 3.7 million in 1930 to 14.7 million in 1940… The lowest tax rate was also raised from 1.1 percent to 4 percent in 1932, 4.4 percent in 1940, and 10 percent in 1941.

The same thing will happen today if Biden succeeds in raising taxes on the rich. Those tax hikes won’t collect much revenue, but politicians will increase spending anyhow. They’ll then use high deficits as an excuse for higher taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers (some of the options include financial taxes, carbon taxes, and value-added taxes).

Lather, rinse, repeat. Until the United States is Europe. And that will definitely be bad news for ordinary people.

P.S. Here’s what we can learn about tax policy in the 1920s. And the 1950s.

P.P.S. The 1920s and 1930s also can teach us an important lesson about growth and inequality.

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When I ask my left-leaning friends what they think about the flight of investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners from high-tax states, I tend to get three responses.

  1. It isn’t actually happening (these are my friends who apparently don’t know how to read).
  2. It’s happening, but it doesn’t matter (data from the IRS suggests it actually is significant).
  3. It’s happening, but high-tax states will be better off without these selfish and greedy people.

The folks making the third point actually have a decent argument, at least in terms of short-run political outcomes. Democrats rarely have to worry about retaining control of states like California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey now that many Republican-leaning voters have moved away.

But sometimes short-run benefits are exceeded by long-run costs, and the recent data on congressional redistricting from the Census Bureau is a good example.

As you can see, there’s a continuing shift of political power – as measured by seats in Congress – from blue states to red states.

Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform explains what this means in a column for Forbes.

Over the past decade Americans have been voting with their feet in favor of states with lower overall tax burdens… As a result, high tax states…are set to lose congressional clout for the next decade, to the benefit of low tax states… the seven states that will lose congressional seats due to stagnant population growth have higher top income tax rates and greater overall tax burdens, on average, than do the six states gaining seats. In fact, the average top personal income tax rate for states losing seats in congress is 6.5%, which is 46% greater than the 4.45% average top income tax rate for states gaining seats.

Some people may want to dismiss Mr. Gleason’s column since he works for a group that supports smaller government.

But you can find the same analysis in this column in the Washington Post by Aaron Blake.

…what does the new breakdown mean from a partisan perspective? All told, five seats will migrate from blue states to red ones — owing to population shifts from the Rust Belt, the Northeast and California to the South and other portions of the West. Five of the seven seats being added also go to states under complete GOP control of redistricting, with three of seven being taken away coming from states in which Democrats have some measure of control over the maps. …That should help Republicans… The Cook Political Report estimates the shifts are worth about 3.5 seats… As for the electoral college in future presidential elections, …Michigan and Pennsylvania…are states Democrats probably need to win in the near future, meaning it’s probably a bigger loss for them. …If we reran the 2020 electoral college with the new electoral votes by state, Biden’s margin would shrink from 306-232 to 303-235. That seems negligible. But if you overlay the 2000 presidential results — three reapportionments ago — on the current electoral vote totals, George W. Bush’s narrow win with 271 electoral votes becomes a much more decisive win with 290. That gives you a sense where things have trended.

Let’s now return to the hypothesis that tax-motivated migration is playing a role.

Here’s an instructive tweet from Andrew Wilford of the National Taxpayers Union.

I’ll wrap up today’s column by augmenting the data in Mr. Wilford’s tweet.

Because not only are there, on average, lower tax burdens in the states gaining congressional seats, but every one of them has some very desirable feature of its tax code.

To be sure, not all of the state-to-state migration is due to tax policy. There are all sorts of other policies that determine whether a state is an attractive place for people looking to relocate.

And there are other factors (family, climate, etc) that have nothing to do with public policy.

All things considered, however, being a low-tax state means more jobs, growth, and people, at least when compared with being a high-tax state.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing how states rank in various indices, click here, here, and here.

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