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Archive for the ‘Income tax’ Category

Whenever I see an otherwise sensible person express support for a value-added tax, it triggers a Pavlovian response. And it’s not a favorable reaction.

But I just read a pro-VAT column and I liked it.

So what happened? Have I surrendered to big government? Did I ingest some magic mushrooms?

Actually, I think you’ll agree that I’m still the same lovable guy. Yes, Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (also a Cato adjunct scholar) has a column in the Wall Street Journal that embraces a VAT. But unlike all of the others I just cited, he includes a condition that is mandatory, necessary, vital, and non-negotiable. It’s so important that it deserves the opposite of fine-print treatment.

…eliminate entirely the personal and corporate income tax, estate tax and all other federal taxes. …it is essential that the VAT replace rather than add to the current tax system, as it does in Europe.

Amen. John hits the nail on the head.

The VAT isn’t theoretically bad. Like the flat tax, it would have one rate. There also would be no double taxation of saving and investment. And it also can be designed to have no loopholes.

In other words, the good news is that the VAT – when compared to the internal revenue code – is a less-destructive way of generating revenue.

The bad news, though, is that the VAT is capable of generating a lot of revenue. And as we’ve seen in Europe, that’s a recipe for enabling a larger burden of government spending.

Which is why the idea of a VAT should only be on the table if the plan would first abolish all other federal taxes. Which is what John is proposing.

Except I’d take it one step farther. Just like I’ve argued when contemplating a national sales tax, I’d only allow the VAT if we first repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsberg couldn’t rule in favor of an income tax at some point in the future.

By the way, John is right that the economy would grow faster if the income tax was totally abolished. The current system is filled with warts.

Much of the current tax mess results from taxing income. Once the government taxes income, it must tax corporate income or people would incorporate to avoid paying taxes. Yet the right corporate tax rate is zero. Every cent of corporate tax comes from people via higher prices, lower wages, or lower payments to shareholders. And a corporate tax produces an army of lawyers and lobbyists demanding exemptions. An income tax also leads to taxes on capital income. Capital income taxes discourage saving and investment. But the government is forced to tax capital income because otherwise people can hide wages… The estate tax can take close to half a marginal dollar of wealth. This creates a strong incentive to blow the family money on a round-the-world cruise, to spend lavishly on lawyers, or to invest inefficiently to avoid the tax. …A reformed tax code should involve no deductions—including the holy trinity of mortgage interest, employer-provided health insurance, and charitable deductions. The interest groups for each of these deductions are strong. But if the government doesn’t tax income in the first place, these deductions vanish without a fight.

By the way, I will quibble with a couple of things he wrote.

First, I don’t necessarily think the correct corporate tax rate is zero. What’s important is eliminating either the corporate tax or the tax on dividends. That way the income is only taxed once. And since it’s probably administratively easier to tax the income once at the business level rather than once at the shareholder level, I’m not fixated on abolishing the corporate tax.

Second, it’s very important to get rid of double taxation (what he calls “capital income”), but you don’t need a VAT to make that happen. There’s no double taxation with a flat tax.

Third, he should have explicitly included the state and local tax deduction in his list of loopholes to abolish (I’m guessing he assumed it would be the first deduction on the chopping block and therefore didn’t need to be mentioned).

There’s another part of John’s column that deserves attention. He points out that you need to have small government if you want a low tax burden.

…if the federal government is going to spend 20% of gross domestic product, the VAT will sooner or later have to be about 20%. Tax reform is stymied because politicians mix arguments over the rates with arguments over the structure of taxes. This is a mistake. They should first agree to fix the structure of the tax code, and later argue about rates—and the spending those rates must support.

At the risk of being pedantic, I think the VAT rate would have to be significantly above 20 percent, both because the tax base will be smaller than GDP and also because there will be loopholes or rebates. But the point he’s making is spot on. You can’t have a low tax rate and a big government. I’ve made the same point when writing about Belgium and Germany, nations where middle-class taxpayers are pillaged because the welfare state is too big.

My bottom line on this issue is that Professor Cochrane has produced a column showing that a VAT is theoretically worth considering, but only if all other federal taxes are permanently abolished.

But since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I don’t think there’s any reason to ease up on my dogmatic (and pragmatic) opposition to that levy.

P.S. My clinching argument is that Reagan opposed a VAT and Nixon supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

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The internal revenue code is a reprehensible mess that torments taxpayers and undermines American competitiveness.

The good news is that Americans don’t like the tax system.

The bad news is that they don’t dislike it nearly as much as they should. At least in my humble opinion.

There are two reasons for the inadequate level of disdain.

  • First, nearly half of all households are no longer are subject to the income tax. Indeed, the system is actually a revenue generator for some households since the EITC wage subsidy is a redistribution program laundered through the tax code.
  • Second, many people get a warm and fuzzy feeling when they file their taxes because of the expectation that they will get a sizable refund, even though that payment from the IRS is simply a reflection of having paid too much tax during the prior year.

For those of us who want to scrap the tax system, this is a challenge.

And I’m not shy about admitting the problem.

About three-quarters typically get money back, with refunds so far this year averaging almost $3,000. For many, it will be the single biggest payment they receive all year. …the fact that so many people are getting paid by the IRS, and not the other way around, takes some of the edge off a day when they’re trying to stoke public anger at the tax system. “The fact that people are looking forward to tax time rubs me the wrong way,” said Dan Mitchell, a tax expert at the libertarian Cato Institute. “I would like them to be upset.”

I also have a good idea of why the problem exists.

It’s withholding. And it started back during World War II. Here’s some background.

During the war, tax rates went up, and a broader number of people were expected to pay them. Professor Anuj Desai from the University of Wisconsin Law School said there was a saying that income tax went from “a class tax to a mass tax.” …“The thought was that if we withhold a little bit every bit every paycheck, people won’t have to worry about the problem of coming up with a huge chunk of money,” Desai said. But withholding is also a remarkably efficient way for the government to raise money, and policymakers knew that. …“You could never have the taxes that were levied during World War II without withholding. It was absolutely essential for that purpose,” economist Milton Friedman said in an interview… Friedman worked with the Treasury Department at the time withholding was introduced. Withholding stuck around after the war, much to Friedman’s chagrin. “Unfortunately, once you got it installed, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it,”  Friedman said. “It’s too useful to the people in power.”

Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education elaborates.

The problem is…the withholding tax. Instead of being collected directly from the payer, the government  collects them “at the source,” which is to say that they are collected from the institution that pays wages and salaries — on behalf of the taxpayer. …one of the most amazingly brilliant innovations of the modern state. This tinkering with the system — the creation of the institution called withholding — has created an illusion that paying taxes is really about getting free money! When the check arrives from the government a month or so later, the taxpayer is actually tempted to think: wow, this is really great! A pillaging has been spun to look like a gift. …Withholding dramatically changed the psychology of paying taxes. It almost feels like you aren’t paying any at all. The worker gets used to how much after-tax income she makes and adapts to it quickly. Then when tax time arrives, there is no more to pay. Instead you file and find yourself on the receiving end of what seems like an unexpected gift of a check from government. Yet in reality your refund is nothing more than the belated return of a zero-interest loan you were forced to provide the government.

Exactly.

Every time I talk to somehow who is happy about a refund, I ask them whether they will give me an interest free loan instead. After all, I’d be happy to collect money from them all year long and then return it the following April.

But I’m digressing.

Jeffrey points out how the political dynamics of tax day would change in the absence of withholding.

If we really wanted to make a wonderful change in favor of transparency and decency, one that would mark a shift in people’s perceptions of the costs of government, the withholding tax could just be repealed completely. …every taxpayer would pay the full amount owed to the government every April 15 and otherwise receive full compensation the rest of the year. Such a seemingly small change would have a dramatic effect on public perceptions of taxation and government. Even from the age of 16, every citizen would have a more pungent reminder of the costs of government. We would no longer live the illusion that we can all get something for nothing and that government isn’t really expensive after all.

Ben Domenech of the Federalist agrees.

The overwhelming majority of Americans pay their taxes by having them extracted from their paychecks before they ever see the money. Operating under the fiction that the government is giving you money as opposed to returning what it has already taken is damaging to the psyche of the nation’s taxpayers. …Withholding was originally mandated as a wartime step, but its continuation since then disguises the property rights involved, essentially offers the government an interest free loan, and shields taxpayers from the ramifications of federal spending. The country would be better off if everyone experienced what entrepreneurs and business owners do: writing the most sizable checks every year to the government, and watching that hard-earned money walk out the door.

By the way, this isn’t merely impractical libertarian fantasy.

There’s a real-world example of a tax system where people actually write checks to the government and are much more aware of the cost of the public sector. It’s called Hong Kong, which is – not coincidentally – an economic success story in large part because of a good fiscal system.

And I would argue that good fiscal system exists because taxpayers are directly sensitive to the cost of government (it also helps that there’s a spending cap in Hong Kong).

Let’s close with some government propaganda. This Disney cartoon was produced before withholding. As you can see the government basically had to make the case that people should set aside money out of their paychecks so they would have enough money to make periodic tax payments.

This was a plausible case when seeking to finance a war against National Socialism and Japanese imperialism. It wouldn’t be nearly as persuasive today when the government seems to specialize in financing waste, fraud, and abuse.

P.S. At the bottom of this column, you can watch a much better cartoon from the 1940s.

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I don’t like the income tax that’s been imposed by our overlords in Washington. Indeed, I’ve speculated whether October 3 is the worst day of the year because that’s the date when the Revenue Act of 1913 was signed into law.

I don’t like state income taxes, either.

And, as discussed in this interview about Seattle from last week, I’m also not a fan of local income taxes.

From an economic perspective, I think a local income tax would be suicidally foolish for Seattle. Simply stated, this levy will drive some well-heeled people to live and work outside the city’s borders. And when revenues fall short of projections, Seattle politicians likely will compensate by increasing the tax rate and also extending the tax so it is imposed on those with more modest incomes. And that will drive more people out of the city, which will lead to an even higher rate that hits even more people.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Though I pointed out that this grim outcome may be averted if the courts rule that Seattle doesn’t have the legal authority to impose an income tax.

But I also explained in the discussion that a genuine belief in federalism means that you should support the right of state and local governments to impose bad policy. I criticize states such as California and Illinois when they expand the burden of government. And I criticize local entities such as Hartford, Connecticut, and Fairfax County, Virginia, when they expand the burden of government.

But I don’t think that Washington should seek to prohibit bad policy. If some sub-national governments want to torment their citizens with excessive government, so be it.

There are limits, however, to this bad version of federalism. State and local governments should not be allowed to impose laws outside their borders. That’s why I’m opposed to the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act. And they shouldn’t seek federal handouts to subsidize bad policy, such as John Kasich’s whining for more Medicaid funding.

Moreover, a state or local government can’t trample basic constitutional freedoms, for instance. If Seattle goes overboard with its anti-gun policies, federal courts presumably (hopefully!) would strike down those infringements against the 2nd Amendment. Likewise, the same thing also would (should) happen if the local government tried to hinder free speech. Or discriminate on the basis on race.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that these are all examples of the Constitution’s anti-majoritarianism (which helps to explain why the attempted smear of James Buchanan was so misguided).

The bottom line is that I generally support the rights of state and local governments to impose bad policy, so long as they respect constitutional freedoms, don’t impose extra-territorial laws, and don’t ask for handouts.

And I closed the above interview by saying it sometimes helps to have bad examples so the rest of the nation knows what to avoid. Greece and France play that role for the industrialized world. Venezuela stands alone as a symbol of failed statism in developing world. Places like Connecticut and New Jersey are poster children for failed state policy. And now Seattle can join Detroit as a case study of what not to do at the local level.

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There was some genuinely good news in 2016, which is more than I can say for 2015 (my “best” development for that year was some polling data, followed by some small-ball tinkering).

Though the good news for 2016 was mostly overseas. Here are the four things from around the world that made me happy this year.

And while we didn’t have any major positive developments in the United States, there was a bit of good news. Yes, it’s “small-ball tinkering,” but I’m always glad for any progress.

So those are the noteworthy good things that happened this year. Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger. What was the bad news of 2016?

Well, the good news (so to speak) is that there was not a lot of bad news. At least if we’re focusing on actual policy changes.

But there are three developments that cause me to worry about the future.

Tomorrow I will write about my hopes and fears for 2017.

Let’s close today’s column with a few special categories.

If there was an award for the most disgusting news of 2016, the NAACP would be the clear winner for their decision to sacrifice black children in order to collect blood money from teacher unions.

And if we also had a prize for most moronic leftist in 2016, there would be another easy winner. Trevor Noah inadvertently showed why gun control doesn’t work even though he wanted to make the opposite point.

Last but not least, if there was a category for surprising news in 2016, there’s no question that Paul Krugman would win that prize for writing something sensible about tax policy.

P.S. My most popular post in 2016 (which also set the all-time record) was the very clever image showing that the enemies of liberty are looters, regardless of their economic status.

P.P.S. My most surreal moment in 2016 was getting attacked on the front page of the Washington Post. I must be doing something right.

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Can you identify the nation with the world’s 7th-friendliest tax system according to the Index of Economic Freedom?

Don’t know the answer? Well, here’s a hint. If you don’t count Middle Eastern nations that finance their governments with oil money, this is the nation that is in second place, behind only the Bahamas.

Still don’t know?

Well, don’t be embarrassed because most people have never heard of the place. This tax paradise is an obscure nation in the South Pacific called Vanuatu. Comprised of dozens of islands, Vanuatu is one of the few places in the world that doesn’t have an income tax. No personal income tax (I’m jealous). No corporate income tax (I’m jealous). No capital gains tax (I’m jealous). No death tax (I’m jealous).

Nada. Zero. Zilch.

But the absence of an income tax bothers some outsiders. Nations such as Australia and international bureaucracies such as the World Bank are pressuring politicians in Vanuatu to adopt an income tax. And they’re playing dirty, trying to bribe and extort lawmakers with promises to provide more aid or threats to withdraw existing aid.

Faced with this threat, members of the Vanuatu business community asked me if I would make a big sacrifice and come to their nation so I could explain to politicians and the public why an income tax would be a terrible mistake. Being a noble person and nice guy, I said yes, even though it means I’m having to miss some of the wonderful December weather in Washington, DC.

This is only my second day in Vanuatu, but I’ve already given one speech, done some local media, and met with a bunch of people. Combined with the research I did before arriving, there are two lessons that we can learn from what’s happening.

First, the absence of an income tax does not necessarily mean a country a role model for free markets. If you look at the latest edition of the Index of Economic Freedom, Vanuatu is ranked #89 out of 178 nations, barely qualifying for the “Moderately Free” club of countries. To give you an idea what this means, Vanuatu ranks below Italy and France.

The moral of the story is that it’s good to have a low tax burden and no income tax, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Vanuatu gets very low scores in other areas, particularly regulatory efficiency and rule of law.

This is one of the reasons why Vanuatu is still a poor country.

The Bahamas has no income tax, but it also gets decent scores in other areas, so it ranks #31 out of 178 nations. Unsurprisingly, the people of the Bahamas are much more prosperous than their counterparts in Vanuatu.

And if you look at jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands, they don’t get ranked by the Index of Economic Freedom, but they presumably would be in the top 10 because of their systemic commitment to free markets. And all of those jurisdictions are among the wealthiest places on the planet.

So the bottom line is that Vanuatu has only one good policy, and that’s the absence of an income tax. I’m telling them they need to engage in further economic liberalization. Other outside forces, however, are telling policy makers to get rid of their only attractive economic policy. Go figure.

Second, the reason why the income tax is a threat is that Vanuatu politicians have increased the burden of government spending. There are several source of data, including the IMF’s massive database, and they all show that government spending since 2000 has grown by an average of about 6 percent annually.

In other words, they’ve been violating my Golden Rule. And when that happens, it just a matter of time before there’s pressure for big tax increases.

So in my big public speech last night, I obviously explained why an income tax would be a horrid mistake for Vanuatu, but I also explained that bad tax policy will be inevitable unless there is an effective policy to control the growth of government. And that’s why the last half of my speech was about the merits of a spending cap.

I cited the positive results in nations that have enjoyed multi-year periods of spending restraint, and I specifically highlighted the very effective spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland. I even pointed out that international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF have admitted that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

The challenge, of course, is that politicians very rarely are willing to tie their own hands. From their perspective, a spending cap is a threat to their ability to play Santa Claus. They’d much prefer, based on “public choice” incentives, to impose a new form of taxation.

But this doesn’t mean the fight against the income tax is hopeless. As I’ve explained when writing about American politicians, lawmakers are often tempted to do the wrong thing. They may frequently surrender to temptation and choose to do the wrong thing. But they’re also capable of doing the right thing.

My job is to be the angel on one shoulder, offering good advice to counter the malignant pressure being imposed by the devil (especially the Australian Tax Office) on the other shoulder.

The United States made a very big mistake back in 1913. Vanuatu should learn from our error.

P.S. This isn’t the first time I’ve waded into a battle over whether a zero-income-tax jurisdiction should impose an income tax. A few years ago, I helped thwart a scheme to impose an income tax in the Cayman Islands. I hope to be similarly successful in helping the people of Vanuatu.

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I wonder whether October 3, 1913, was the worst day in American history. That’s when one of America’s worst presidents signed into law the income tax.

The top rate was only 7 percent when Woodrow Wilson approved the income tax, and the tax only applied to the very richest Americans. But as is so often the case, taxes on the wealthy are a precursor to taxes on the rest of us.

And that’s exactly what happened and today we’re burden with a grossly unjust and punitive tax code.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve been at a conference in Monaco for the past few days and I’ve seen firsthand how a nation with zero income tax can be a prosperous Mecca (and I’ve also noticed that the Princess of the Levant is far more likely to accompany me on a trip when she has an opportunity to show off a new dress).

No income tax, by the way, means no income tax. Nothing. No capital gains tax, either. The main source of revenue is a value-added tax, generally about 20 percent, along with a tax on business income, but only if a substantial share is earned outside Monaco.

So is this benign tax regime actually conducive to prosperity?

Yes. Here is the data from the United Nations on per-capita economic output. You’ll see several of my favorite places, including the Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein, Singapore, Switzerland, and Bermuda. But leading the list is Monaco.

By the way, Monaco’s good policy doesn’t just generate domestic prosperity.

It also means some spin-off employment for France.

Every day some 41,000 people come from outside to go to work and all these non-Monegasque nationals, most of whom are French, depend on our economic success. …commerce and the manufacturing also employ significant numbers; over 3,000 workers are, for instance, taken up by the latter.

While Monaco’s per-capita GDP numbers are very impressive, the numbers on per-capita wealth are even more astounding. The average person has more than $1.5 million of assets.

By the way, the unluckiest people in the world are the residents of Roquebrune and Menton in France. That’s because those towns were part of Monaco until the mid-1800s. Now they’re part of a tax hell rather than a tax haven.

So what’s the bottom line? What can we say about Monaco?

Students for Liberty has a good summary.

P.S. In addition to zero income tax, Monaco also apparently has widespread gun ownership. What a great place.

P.P.S. Monaco is in 5th-place for per-capita readership of International Liberty, so the people are both prosperous and discerning!

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Just like with nations, there are many factors that determine whether a state is hindering or enabling economic growth.

But I’m very drawn to one variable, which is whether there’s a state income tax. If the answer is no, then it’s quite likely that it will enjoy better-than-average economic performance (and if a state makes the mistake of having an income tax, then a flat tax will be considerably less destructive than a so-called progressive tax).

Which explains my two main lessons for state tax policy.

Anyhow, I’ve always included Tennessee in the list of no-income-tax states, but that’s not completely accurate because (like New Hampshire) there is a tax on capital income.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Associated Press reports that Tennessee is getting rid of this last vestige of  income taxation.

The Tennessee Legislature has passed a measure that would reduce and eventually eliminate the Hall tax on investment income. The Hall tax imposes a general levy of 6 percent on investment income, with some exceptions. Lawmakers agreed to reduce it down to 5 percent before eliminating it completely by 2022.

It’s not completely clear if the GOP Governor of the state will allow the measure to become law, so this isn’t a done deal.

That being said, it’s a very positive sign that the state legislature wants to get rid of this invidious tax, which is a punitive form of double taxation.

Advocates are right that this will make the Volunteer State more attractive to investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners.

Keep in mind that this positive step follows the recent repeal of the state’s death tax, as noted in a column for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Following a four-year phase out, Tennessee’s inheritance tax finally expires on Jan. 1 and one advocacy group is hailing the demise of what it calls the “death tax.” “Tennessee taxpayers can finally breath a sigh of relief,” said Justin Owen, head of the free-market group, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which successfully advocated for the taxes abolishment in 2012.

On the other hand, New York seems determined to make itself even less attractive. Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute writes for Market Watch about legislation that would make the state prohibitively unappealing for many investors.

New York, home to many investment partnerships, now wants to increase state taxes on capital gains… New York already taxes capital gains and ordinary income equally, but apparently that’s not good enough. …The New York legislators want to raise the taxes on carried interest to federal ordinary income tax rates, not just for New York residents, but for everyone all over the world who get returns from partnerships with a business connection to the Empire State. Bills in the New York State Assembly and Senate would increase taxes on profits earned by venture capital, private equity and other investment partnerships by imposing a 19% additional tax.

Diana correctly explains this would be a monumentally foolish step.

If the bill became law, New York would likely see part of its financial sector leave for other states, because many investors nationwide would become subject to taxes that were 19 percentage points higher….No one is going to pick an investment that is taxed at 43% when they could choose one that is taxed at 24%.

Interestingly, even the state’s grasping politicians recognize this reality. The legislation wouldn’t take effect until certain other states made the same mistake.

The sponsors of the legislation appear to acknowledge that by delaying the implementation of the provisions until Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts enact “legislation having an identical effect.”

Given this condition, hopefully this bad idea will never get beyond the stage of being a feel-good gesture for the hate-n-envy crowd.

But it’s always important to reinforce why it would be economically misguided since those other states are not exactly strongholds for economic liberty. This video has everything you need to know about the taxation of carried interest in particular and this video has the key facts about capital gains taxation in general

Not let’s take a look at the big picture. Moody’s just released a “stress test” to see which states were well positioned to deal with an economic downturn.

Is anybody surprised, as reported by the Sacramento Bee, that low-tax Texas ranked at the top and high-tax California and Illinois were at the bottom of the heap?

California, whose state budget is highly dependent on volatile income taxes, is the least able big state to withstand a recession, according to a “stress test” conducted by Moody’s Investor Service. Arch-rival Texas, meanwhile, scores the highest on the test because of “lower revenue volatility, healthier reserves relative to a potential revenue decline scenario and greater revenue and spending flexibility,” Moody’s, a major credit rating organization, says. …California not only suffers in comparison to the other large states, but in a broader survey of the 20 most populous states. Missouri, Texas and Washington score highest, while California and Illinois are at the bottom in their ability to withstand a recession.

Of course, an ability to survive a fiscal stress test is actually a proxy for having decent policies.

And having decent policies leads to something even more important, which is faster growth, increased competitiveness, and more job creation.

Though perhaps this coyote joke does an even better job of capturing the difference between the two states.

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