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Archive for the ‘Income tax’ Category

I certainly don’t intend to do this for everyone who has made it to the White House, but I have produced big-picture economic assessments of several presidents.

Today, let’s go back farther in history and take a look at Woodrow Wilson.

At the risk of understatement, he did a very bad job. Indeed, it’s quite likely that he ranks as America’s worst president, at least when judging economic policy. His mistakes were either huge or disgusting.

Creating the income tax – The internal revenue code began when Wilson signed into law an income tax on October 3, 1913. The initial tax wasn’t overly onerous – with a top rate of just 7 percent – but it predictably evolved into the punitive levy that currently plagues America.

Creating the Federal Reserve – You don’t have to be a libertarian-minded advocate of competitive currencies to conclude that the central bank – also signed into law by Wilson in 1913 – has caused immense damage with its erratic, boom-bust approach to monetary policy.

Segregating the federal government – Wilson was a reprehensible racist. To make matters worse, he turned that personal moral failing into a big policy mistake by overseeing rampant (and costly) discrimination and segregation in the federal government.

Those are just the highlights – though lowlights would be a more accurate word to describe Wilson’s policies.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has a description of some additional forms of intervention imposed during his tenure.

…he took up and pushed through Congress the Progressive-sponsored Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914. It established an agency—the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—with sweeping authority. …because his own political thinking had been moving toward a more advanced Progressive position—Wilson struck out upon a new political course in 1916. He began by appointing Louis D. Brandeis, the leading critic of big business and finance, to the Supreme Court. Then in quick succession he obtained passage of a rural-credits measure to supply cheap long-term credit to farmers; anti-child-labour and federal workmen’s-compensation legislation; the Adamson Act, establishing the eight-hour day for interstate railroad workers; and measures for federal aid to education and highway construction.

Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education put together a damning indictment of Wilson.

1913…was a disastrous year that we’re still paying a hefty, annual price for… Wilson, arguably the worst president…ordered the segregation of all departments within the executive branch and appointed ardent segregationists to high positions. …He locked up political dissidents right and left as he trampled on the Constitution’s guarantees of speech, assembly, and press freedoms. His wartime economic controls were hideously stupid and counterproductive. …the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was…Strongly supported by Wilson… Subsequent legislation set the top rate at a mere 7 percent. …When Wilson left office eight years later, the top rate was more than ten times higher. …Wilson’s signature enshrined into law the Federal Reserve Act, creating a central bank and more economic mischief than any other federal initiative or institution in the last 100 years. …In American history, 1913 should go down as a year that will live in infamy.

It’s also worth noting that Wilson was a believer in global governance, which adds to his awful legacy.

In a review of a biography about Wilson for the Claremont Review of Books, David Goldman mentions that unpalatable feature of his presidency.

So utterly utopian was Wilson’s vision that it is unfair to characterize the internationalism of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush as “Wilsonian.” Clinton and Bush threw America’s weight around after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they did not propose—as Wilson did—to replace America’s sovereign decision-making with a global council. …He wanted to compromise American sovereignty and most of the Senate did not. …Wilson would have liked to impose a legal obligation from a foreign body upon the United States, but could not say so openly. …His obsession was the creation of a supranational agency able to dictate policy to national governments, an obsession that grew out of his lifelong hostility to the American political system… To make sense of his grand overreach in 1919, historians will need to give more attention to his rancor at the U.S. Constitution… The constitution in Wilson’s reading had become a relic of a bygone era. He proposed to jettison this putatively archaic document in favor of a government less burdened by checks and balances. …The same utilitarian criteria that Wilson applied to the Constitution guided his judgment about capitalism and socialism. …As economists Clifford Thies and Gary Pecquet have observed, “Wilson believed that the difference between socialism and democracy was a matter of means rather than ends.” …He eschewed mass expropriation of industry only because he thought it inefficient. …Although Wilson’s dudgeon came from the Deep South, his Progressivism came from Princeton and the Social Gospel.

Wilson’s hostility to the Constitution was part of the so-called progressive era. Unlike America’s Founders, proponents of this approach viewed the federal government as a positive force rather than something to be constrained.

The idea that government or “the community,” has “an absolute right to determine its own destiny and that of its members” is a progressive one. The difference between the Founders’ and progressive’s visions can be summarized this way: The Founders believed citizens could best pursue happiness if government was limited to protecting the life, liberty, and property of individuals. …Unlike the framers of the Constitution, progressives believed that…“communities” have rights, those rights are more important than the personal liberty of any one individual in that community. …they believed…government-sponsored programs and policies as well as economic redistribution of goods from the rich to the poor. …Wilson, who served as president from 1913-1919, advocated what we today call the living Constitution, or the idea that its interpretation should adapt to the times. …Wilson oversaw the implementation of progressive policies such as the introduction of the income tax and the creation of the Federal Reserve System to attempt to manage the economy.

Bre Payton, in an article for the Federalist, opined about Wilson and the changes during the progressive era.

…to understand The New Deal and how American life and government  changed in the twentieth century and beyond, it is vital to understand the Progressive Era… FDR cited progressive-minded presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as his intellectual inspirations. …Progressives believed restricting government to only protecting citizens’ life, liberty, and ability to pursue happiness was simplistic. …Thus people should not fear the ever-expanding role of government… Wilson went on to say that modern European thinkers had declared that men were defined not by their individuality, but by their society. And one’s rights come from government.

Hostility to the Constitution and limited government was just one problem with the progressives.

Their views of minorities also were very troubling.

In a column for National Review, Paul Rahe documented not only Wilson’s racism, but also his use of government power to harm the economic prospects for black Americans.

Wilson, our first professorial president, was…the very model of a modern Progressive…he shared the conviction, dominant among his brethren, that African-Americans were racially inferior to whites. …Prior to the segregation of the civil service in 1913, appointments had been made solely on merit as indicated by the candidate’s performance on the civil-service examination. Thereafter, racial discrimination became the norm. …The existing work force was segregated. Many African-Americans were dismissed. …Jim Crow had not been the norm before 1890, even in the deep South. …it became the norm there only when it received sanction from the racist Progressives in the North. …For similar reasons, Wilson was hostile to the constitutional provisions intended as a guarantee of limited government. The separation of powers, the balances and checks, and the distribution of authority between nation and state distinguishing the American constitution he regarded as an obstacle.

This article from the New Republic covers the same ground, starting with his time as head of Princeton University, but from a left-wing perspective.

Wilson not only refused to admit any black students, he erased the earlier admissions of black students from the university’s history.Elected president in 1912, …Wilson appeared to be the quintessential Progressive Era leader. …the progressive ideology of the era was in many ways quite racist. …it quickly became known that the Wilson administration was instituting a major modification in the treatment of black workers throughout the federal government from what had been the case under postwar presidents. …the Civil Service began demanding photographs to accompany employment applications for the first time. It was widely understood that the only purpose of this requirement was to weed out black applicants. …He insisted that the segregation policy was for the comfort and best interests of both blacks and whites.

There’s more bad news about Wilson.

In a column for the Washington Post, Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, writes about his authoritarianism as well as his racism.

His most disgraceful flaw was his racism. …Wilson especially stood out in his white supremacy. He was not a man of his time but a throwback. …Wilson, who preened as a civil libertarian, persuaded Congress to pass the Espionage Act, giving him extraordinary power to retaliate against Americans who opposed him and his wartime behavior. That same law today enables presidents to harass their political adversaries. Wilson’s Justice Department also convicted almost a thousand people for using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” against the government, the military or the flag. Wilson is an excellent example of how presidents can exploit wars to increase authoritarian power and restrict freedom.

All things considered, definitely one of America’s worst chief executives.

This tweet is an apt summary of Wilson’s presidency.

For readers who are interested in the quirks of history, Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education bemoans the fact that an untimely death in 1899 probably led to the unfortunate election of Wilson.

Garret Augustus Hobart—known to his friends as “Gus”—was America’s 24th vice president. He served under William McKinley for two years and eight months until his death in office in November 1899 at the age of 55. With Hobart’s untimely passing, President William McKinley had to find a new running mate for the election of 1900. That man turned out to be Theodore Roosevelt, who became president upon McKinley’s assassination only six months into his second term. …Teddy…enter the presidential race in 1912 as a third-party nominee. That split the Republican vote and handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Wilson won with just 42% of the popular tally and went on to become arguably the very worst of our 45 chief executives. …I greatly lament the sad fact that Gus Hobart wasn’t around to run again with McKinley in 1900. If he had lived, he instead of Teddy would have become our 26th President when McKinley died. And if there had been no Teddy Roosevelt presidency, there might never have been a philandering, racist, “progressive” Wilson in the White House to royally screw up the country with an income tax, a Federal Reserve, entry into World War I, and other mischievous adventures in statism.

In keeping with my traditional practice, here’s a visual depiction of the good and bad policies of the Wilson Administration.

And although it’s hard to measure, Wilson belongs in the presidential Hall of Shame because his administration was a turning point in America’s tragic evolution from Madisonian constitutionalism to modern statism.

For instance, Wilson almost surely paved the way for FDR’s ill-fated New Deal.

P.S. Now readers will hopefully understand why I wrote that Obama (who largely had a forgettable legacy) wasn’t nearly as bad at Wilson.

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I’ve explained the economics of taxation, which is based on the common-sense notion that you get less productive economic activity when taxes drive a bigger wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of it, and this applies to taxes on labor and taxes on capital.

Today, let’s examine some empirical evidence. I’ve done that before (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but it’s always good to expand the collection.

Three Italian professors, in a new working paper for the Centre for Economic and International Studies, investigated the relationship between taxes and growth.

We’ll start with a description of the methodology.

In this paper, we revisit a traditional issue in the empirics of growth and economic policy: whether taxation has long-lasting effects on real GDP dynamics. …we focus on the impact that taxes may have on the rates of physical and human capital accumulation. …our main departure from the existing literature is the use of a semi-parametric technique, which allows for countries’ unobserved heterogeneity in the input effects on per capita GDP. …we test our model, using a sample of 21 OECD countries over the period 1965-2010.

Here are the key findings.

Our main finding is that taxation negatively affect per capita GDP growth rates, both directly and indirectly, via physical and human capital saving rates. …Our cross-country analysis makes a clear point on this, at least for our sample of OECD countries: on average, tax cuts produce a beneficial impact on GDP dynamics but of modest size. In our baseline specification, a cut by 10% in personal income tax rate generates an change in the real per capita GDP growth rate of +1% while a cut by 10% in corporate income tax rate increases the rate of growth of real per capita GDP by 0.9%. …The main message of our empirical exercise is that, across various samples and specifications, taxes are harmful for growth.

These are very strong results.

Though I find it very interesting that the authors say they are “of modest size.”

I guess that depends on expectations and perspective. I’ll simply repeat the point I made two years ago about the importance of even small increases in the long-run growth rate.

The bottom line is that future Americans would enjoy significantly greater prosperity with better tax policy.

That’s a desirable outcome at any point in time, and it’s even more important today as we consider how to recover from the economic wreckage caused by the coronavirus.

Interestingly, the study ends with some interesting estimates on the impact of lower tax rates on labor and capital.

Table 10 reports the results of a “what if”exercise, in which we compute the change in GDP growth rate generated by a ceteris paribus cut by 10 % in τw and τk.

And here is the aforementioned Table 10 (“τw” is the tax rate on labor and “τk” is the tax rate on capital).

There are two big takeaways from this research.

First, it’s further evidence that Trump’s tax reform, which lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, was a very good step for the American economy.

Second, it’s further evidence that it’s a big mistake for Biden and other folks on the left to push for higher tax rates, including big increases in tax rates on personal income.

P.S. Just in case those last two sentences sound overly favorable to Trump, I’ll remind people that reckless spending increases – sooner or later – will lead to punitive tax increases. In other words, if Biden wins and there are big tax hikes, Trump will deserve some of the blame (just as Bush’s irresponsible policies set the stage for some of Obama’s irresponsible policies).

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What’s the most poorly governed city in the United States?

Those are all good options, but Seattle may deserve this award. Following municipal elections last November, the City Council is controlled by hard-left members who want to impose the local version of “democratic socialism.”

In a National Review article from February, Christopher Rufo describes their agenda.

Seattle has effectively become the nation’s laboratory for socialist policies. Since the beginning of the year, the socialist faction on the Seattle City Council has proposed a range of policies on taxes, housing, homelessness, and criminal justice that put into practice the national democratic-socialist agenda. In the most recent session, socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant and her allies have proposed massive new taxes on corporations, unprecedented regulations on landlords (including rent control and a ban on “winter evictions”), the mandated construction of homeless encampments, and the gradual dismantling of the criminal justice system, beginning with the end of cash bail. …In order to consolidate their newfound power, the progressive-socialists have begun to manipulate the democratic process in their own favor: first, by providing all Seattle voters with $100 in taxpayer-funded “democracy vouchers,” which are easily collected by unions, activists, and socialist groups; and second, by implementing a ban on corporate spending in local elections… the progressive-socialists are no longer interested in gaining reasonable concessions; they intend to overthrow capitalism itself.

The Wall Street Journal opined this week on the latest development in Seattle’s suicidal approach.

The economy is on life support, but that isn’t stopping the Seattle City Council from trying to soak employers with a new tax on hiring. …The proposal is a reprise of the council’s 2018 tax on each new hire that was repealed amid public opposition. The new proposal “is 10 times larger than the 2018 version, and it’s also in an economy that’s about 1,000 times worse,” says James Sido of the Downtown Seattle Association…a 1.3% payroll tax on most Seattle businesses with $7 million or more in payroll. …Businesses would be assessed based on the prior year’s payroll, but revenue has cratered this year amid the pandemic. …businesses on the margin that have been forced to lay off or furlough employees may not bring them back if it means crossing that $7 million payroll threshold. The tax would discourage smaller companies from growing in Seattle. …Seattle is the hardest hit city in the U.S., with unemployment rising 105.92% between January and March. Only a socialist would think now is the time to further punish job creation.

Good points.

Though I would add that it’s never a good time to raise taxes and punish job creation.

Here’s what the greedy members of the City Council don’t understand (or pretend not to understand):

It’s complicated and difficult to move out of a country.

It’s a potentially expensive hassle to move out of a state.

It’s relatively easy to move out of a city.

And that’s why Seattle’s experiment with socialism is bound to fail.

If the socialists on the City Council impose this tax, there inevitably will be an out-migration of entrepreneurs and businesses to surrounding suburbs. That will be bad for ordinary people in the city (a point that workers in the economy’s productive sector already understand).

And when that happens, I wonder if they’ll learn that it is possible to run out of other people’s money?

P.S. Seattle’s politicians already have destroyed jobs and ruined businesses with a big increase in the minimum wage.

P.P.S. The constitution of the state of Washington prohibits an income tax, so there’s an ongoing debate whether Seattle’s tax grab – if enacted – would survive a court challenge.

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I’ve written dozens of columns explaining why it would be a terrible idea for the United States to enact a value-added tax.

But that’s not because I think consumption taxes are worse than income taxes. Indeed, sales taxes and VATs are less destructive because tax rates tend to be reasonable and there’s no double taxation of saving and investment.

My opposition is solely based on the fact that we shouldn’t give politicians an extra source of revenue to finance bigger government. That would effectively guarantee that the United States would morph into a stagnant European-style welfare state.

In other words, I’d be willing to accept a trade. Politicians get a VAT, but only if they permanently abolish the income tax.

There’s no chance of that happening in Washington, but it may happen in Nebraska, as reported by the North Platte Telegraph.

If Nebraskans can’t agree on reform…, state Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard has a sweeping answer: …Income and property taxes in Nebraska would be abolished — and the state sales tax replaced by a “consumption tax” to fund state and local governments — if a constitutional amendment spearheaded by Erdman were approved by lawmakers and voters. …It would need “yes” votes from 30 of the 49 senators on final reading to appear on November’s general election ballot. …Nebraska’s state and local governments now collect a combined $9.5 billion annually in taxes, which would require a 10% consumption tax rate to replace, Erdman said. …If income and property taxes go away, Erdman said, all the state and local departments or agencies that enforce, set and collect them wouldn’t be needed, either.

Here’s some additional coverage from KETV.

Imagine not having to pay any property or income taxes in Nebraska, but there’s a catch you’d pay a new consumption tax on just about everything you buy, such as food and medical services, things that are not taxed right now. That is the idea behind a new constitutional resolution introduced by state Sen. Steve Erdman. …He and nine other lawmakers introduced LR300CA on Thursday. The resolution would allow voters to decide whether to replace all those taxes with a consumption tax. It is like a sales tax and would be about 10.6% on everything, including services and food. …He said under this proposal, everyone would get a payment called a prebate of about $1,000, which would offset the cost for low-income families. Erdman said it would also eliminate the need for property tax relief and the state having to offer costly tax incentives to attract businesses. “This is fixing the whole issue, everything. This is eliminating all those taxes and replacing it with a fair tax,” Erdman said. “Nothing is exempt,” Erdman said.

I have no idea if this proposal has any chance of getting approval by the legislature, but Senator Erdman’s proposal for a broad-based neutral tax (i.e., no exemptions) would make Nebraska more competitive.

Which would be a good idea considering that the state is only ranked #28 according to the Tax Foundation and is way down at #44 according to Freedom in the 50 States.

In one fell swoop, Nebraska would join the list of states that have no income tax, which is even better than the states that have flat taxes.

P.S. The switch to a consumption tax would address the revenue side of the fiscal equation. Nebraska should also fix the spending side by copying its neighbors in Colorado and adopting a TABOR-style spending cap.

P.P.S. Unlike advocates of the value-added tax, proponents of a national sales tax support full repeal of the income tax. I don’t think that’s realistic since it’s so difficult to amend the Constitution, but their hearts are in the right place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time for another edition of our long-running battle between the Lone Star State and the Golden State.

Except it’s not really a battle since one side seems determined to lose.

For instance, Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute often uses extensive tables filled with multiple variables when comparing high-performing states and low-performing states.

But when comparing California and Texas, sometimes all you need is one data source because it makes a very powerful point. Which is what he recently did with that data on one-way U-Haul rental rates between California cities and Texas cities.

There’s a very obvious takeaway from this data, as Mark explains.

…there is a huge premium for trucks leaving California for Texas and a huge discount for trucks leaving Texas for California. …U-Haul’s one-way truck rental rates are market-based to reflect relative demand and relative supply. In California there’s a relatively low supply of trucks available and a relatively high demand for trucks destined for Texas; in Texas there’s a relatively high supply of trucks and a relatively low demand for trucks going to California. Therefore, U-Haul charges 3-4 times more for one-way truck rentals going from San Francisco or LA to Houston or Dallas than vice-versa based on what must be a huge net outflow of trucks leaving California (leading to low inventory) and a net inflow of trucks arriving in Texas (leading to high inventory). …in 2016…the ratios for the same matched cities were much smaller, 2.2 to 2.4 to 1, suggesting that the outbound migration from California to Texas as reflected in one-way U-Haul truck rental rates must have accelerated over the last three years.

So why is California so unattractive compared to Texas?

To answer that question, this map from the Tax Foundation is a good place to start. It shows that California has the most punitive income tax of any state, while Texas is one of the sensible states with no income tax.

By the way, I sometimes get pushback from my leftist friends who point out that California’s 13.3 percent tax rate only applies to millionaires.

I don’t think that’s an effective argument since it makes zero sense to penalize a state’s most productive citizens. Especially when they’re the ones who can easily afford to move (and many of them are doing exactly that).

That being said, California pillages middle-class taxpayers as well. If some trendy young millennial wants to live in San Francisco, I wish that person all the luck in the world – especially since the 8 percent tax rate kicks in at just $44,377.

Now let’s ask the question of whether California residents (rich, poor, or middle class) are getting something for all the taxes they have to pay.

  • Is there any evidence that they are getting better schools? No.
  • How about data showing that they get better health care? No.
  • What about research indicating better infrastructure in the state? No.

Instead, they’re paying for a giant welfare state and for a lavishly compensated collection of bureaucrats.

P.S. There’s also plenty of international data showing big government isn’t the way to get good roads, schools, and healthcare.

P.P.S. If you want more data comparing Texas and California, click herehere, and here.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my favorite California vs Texas joke.

P.P.P.P.S. Comparisons of New York and Florida tell the same story.

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There are some fortunate people (in the Cayman Islands, BermudaMonacoVanuatuAntigua and Barbuda, and a few other places) who don’t have to pay income taxes.

The United States used to be in that lucky club. The income tax did not become a permanent blight upon the nation until 1913 (there was a temporary income tax during the Civil War and an attempted income tax in 1894 – ruled unconstitutional in 1895).

Indeed, this odious tax is a relatively new invention for the entire world. If my memory is correct, the first income tax was a temporary measure imposed by the United Kingdom to finance the fight against Napoleon. And the U.K. also was the first country to impose a permanent income tax (ironically, to help offset lower taxes on international trade).

In every case, politicians followed the same script. Income taxes originally were supposed to have low rates and only apply to the rich.

But it was simply a matter of time before small taxes on the wealthy became punitive taxes on everybody.

Since today is tax filing today for Americans, let’s take the opportunity to highlight two specific unfortunate consequences of the income tax.

First, it enabled the modern welfare state. You can see from the chart that the explosion of redistribution spending only occurred after politicians obtained a new source of revenue (a problem that was exacerbated in Europe when politicians adopted value-added taxes and were able to further increase the burden of government spending).

Needless to say, this is a reason to oppose an energy tax, a wealth tax, or a financial transactions tax. Giving politicians a new source of revenue is like giving alcoholics the keys to a liquor store.

Second, the income tax enabled costly economic discrimination. Prior to income taxes, governments largely relied on trade taxes and excise taxes, and those levies did not create many opportunities for mischief.

An income tax, by contrast, allows the government to impose all sorts of special penalties – either with discriminatory tax rates or with extra layers of tax on saving and investment – on people who generate a lot of economic output.

And it’s worth mentioning that the income tax also allows politicians to create all sorts of special credits, exemptions, deduction, exclusion, and other preferences (about 75,000 pages of them) for politically well-connected interest groups.

These penalties and preferences are both morally troubling (rampant cronyism) and economically damaging (back-door methods of central planning).

Let’s wrap up today’s column with this helpful reminder that the income tax is basically a penalty on productive behavior.

P.S. Politicians can play games with other revenue sources (i.e., special VAT rates or differential tariff burdens), but the income tax stands apart because it is capable of generating large amounts of revenue while simultaneously giving politicians considerable ability to pick winners and losers.

P.P.S. If you need some gallows humor to make it through tax day, go to the bottom of this column.

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I’m currently in the Cayman Islands, which is one of my favorite places since – like Bermuda, Monaco, Vanuatu, Antigua and Barbuda, and a few other lucky places in the world – it has no income tax.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the absence of an income tax has helped make the Cayman Islands very prosperous, 14th-richest in the world according to the latest data from the World Bank on per-capita economic output (top 10 in the world if you exclude oil-rich jurisdictions).

This does not mean, incidentally, that economic policy is perfect in the Cayman Islands.

There is a overly large and excessively compensated government bureaucracy. Indeed, financing the civil service is becoming such a burden that the Cayman Islands almost made a suicidal decision to impose an income tax earlier this decade.

And the absence of an income tax doesn’t mean an absence of taxes. Here’s a chart from a 2010 report on the jurisdiction’s fiscal challenges. Yes, the tax burden is low compared to many nations, but the government nonetheless collects plenty of revenue from import duties, fees on financial services, and tourism.

But the key thing to understand is that not all taxes are created equal. Some levies impose much more damage than others.

Richard Rahn, a fellow member of the Cayman Financial Review editorial board, explained this insight a few years ago in a column for the Washington Times.

Cayman is prosperous… Critics of Cayman and other offshore financial centers call them “tax havens,” ignoring the fact that they all have many taxes, particularly on consumption — which is good tax policy — rather than on productive labor and capital — which is bad tax policy. The statist political actors in the high-tax jurisdictions will not admit that people do not work, save and invest if they are going to be overly taxed and otherwise abused by their own governments.

And it’s also worth noting that the Cayman Islands are a role model for racial tranquility.

There are people from 135 nations and “mixed” is the largest racial category.

Here are some excerpts from a column published by Forbes about the progressive social structure of the Cayman Islands.

Somebody recently said to me “The Cayman Islands is just a mailbox.”  I started wondering if that was fair. The Cayman Islands are a real places where people live.  And they are not all attorneys and accountants, although they do have more than their fair share.  …a big upside to the Caymans. …Mr. Leung, who is of Asian descent, noticed a whiff of it in Scotland, but finds the Caymans utterly devoid of racism.  Pirates, refugees, shipwrecked sailors and enslaved people might not seem to be the best material to start a country to some, but clearly there is an upside.

I’ll close by noting that there is some trouble in paradise.

The Cayman Islands faces unrelenting pressure from international bureaucracies and high-tax nations. There is a lot of resentment because the jurisdiction is so successful.

The Cayman Islands will not be bullied by countries that cannot compete with this jurisdiction on a level playing field, Premier Alden McLaughlin told an audience… He said that despite the Cayman government’s cooperation on international standards, the Netherlands and others are more concerned about the zero tax rate here. …“But we will not be bullied by those who are jealous of our success, resentful of our tax policies and unable to compete with us on a level playing field,” McLaughlin said.

What makes these attacks so ironic and unfair is that the Cayman Islands actually has much tougher standards than “onshore” nations such as the United States and United Kingdom.

Since I began this column by looking at World Bank data on the most prosperous, let’s wrap up by perusing the U.N.’s numbers.

Hmmm…, lots of so-called tax havens are on this list. I wonder if we can draw any conclusions?

Folks on the left have accused me of “trading with the enemy” for supporting these jurisdictions, but the real story is that we should emulate rather than prosecute these low-tax jurisdictions.

P.S. My affection for the Cayman Islands is mutual.

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There’s an ongoing debate about Trump’s endgame on trade. Is he simply a crude protectionist, or is he disrupting the status quo in order to force other nations to reduce their protectionist barriers?

I hope it’s the latter, though I fear it’s the former.

But one thing I can state with certainty is that the President misreads early American history. Here’s a tweet that he recently sent about how America became a strong and rich country during an era when the federal government relied on tariffs to generate revenue.

Trump is partially right. The United States became a rich country in the 1800s when tariffs were a primary source of revenue.

But I have argued that America became rich because of other policies.

  • The federal government was very small, with the budget consuming on average less than 3 percent of the economy’s output.
  • Prior to that awful day in 1913, there was no income tax, no payroll tax, no capital gains tax, no death tax, and no corporate tax.
  • There was no sprawling and intrusive administrative state imposing costly regulations that hinder the private sector.

No, the United States was not a laissez-faire paradise in the 1800s. I’m simply making the case that the economy had more than enough “breathing room” to generate ever-higher levels of national prosperity.

Meaning the economy grew, not because of tariffs, but because other bad policies didn’t exist.

And I’m not the only with this perspective. Eric Boehm’s article in Reason concludes with an offer to trade the income tax for a modest tariff.

After the ratification of the Constitution, the very first law passed by the new Congress was the Tariff Act of 1789. It imposed an 8 percent tax on pretty much all imports into the United States, with the revenue from the tariffs used to fund the new national government and to pay down debts accumulated during the Revolutionary War. …those early tariffs did solve a very practical revenue problem for the early United States government. In those days before H&R Block (indeed, before income taxes) collecting taxes was a difficult prospect. It was much easier to post-up customs officials at every port and collect taxes on the physical stuff that came ashore than to send tax collectors to every town and borough across 13 states to collect taxes from the populace—especially since many of those would-be taxpayers weren’t entirely sold on the idea of a powerful central government, and had a recent history of armed rebellion against excessive taxation. …If Trump wants to make the argument that America should use tariffs to raise revenue, like we did in the 1790s, he better have a plan to abolish all federal taxes on income, investments, and labor. If he wants to have that discussion, well, I’ll listen.

Brian Domitrovic, writing for Forbes, hits the nail on the head. He starts by agreeing with Trump’s assertion about strong growth in the era of tariffs.

…there is a general sense, among the American public, that previously in history, when the American economy really grew at great rates in the extensive stretch of time before the era of free-trade ideology after 1945, we had tariffs. Tariffs and American prosperity went together. Why not try to get that mix again? …This country’s economy regularly grew at rates double ours today, when the tariff was in force from 1789 until early in the 20th century.

But he points out that other factors deserve the credit. Especially the absence of any type of taxation on income.

…there was a condition that obtained in these years that is absent today. That condition is that the tariff was in the main the only form of federal taxation. There was no income or profits tax, no wage tax, no tax on investment gains… When the American economy really boomed under the tariff, over the first half of our history, financiers and entrepreneurs plowed money, energy, and ideas into businesses knowing that all receipts were available to recover costs and make a profit. …A company’s pay rates did not have to exceed the wage needs of the employees so as to cover their income and payroll tax obligations, as today. The money left to a company from sales after costs faced no corporate tax. And there was no inheritance tax.

And I’ll add one additional point. One of the good things about tariffs is that they are inherently self-limiting because of the Laffer Curve. As Alexander Hamilton pointed out, the government gets less revenue if trade taxes get too high.

Anyhow, the moral of today’s story is that tariffs are bad, but they are less bad than the modern welfare/administrative state.

But here’s the challenge.

If we want to solve the problems caused by the western world’s second-most-depressing chart, we’ll need to figure out how to reverse all the bad policies that produced the western world’s most-depressing chart.

Unfortunately, Trump has been making government even bigger, so the likelihood of returning to a tariff-only tax system has dropped from 0.00005 percent to 0.00001 percent.

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Last week, I shared very grim data, going all the way back to 1880, on the growth of the welfare state.

I even claimed that the accompanying graph was the “western world’s most depressing chart” because it showed the dramatic increase in the burden of government spending for redistribution programs.

And I didn’t even mention that the numbers likely will get even worse because of changing demographics.

Now it’s time for the western world’s second-most depressing chart. Like the first chart, the data for this second chart comes from “Our world in data,” only this time it shows the relentless and astounding (in a depressing way) expansion in tax burdens starting in 1868. It only shows four countries, but other western nations would show the same pattern.

What isn’t shown in this chart is that the tax burden used to be reasonable because governments generally did not have income taxes.

The United Kingdom was an early adopter, but France, Sweden, and the United States didn’t impose that onerous levy until the 1900s. And it’s no coincidence that the tax burden exploded once politicians learned to exploit that source of revenue.

An obvious lesson is that it is never a good idea to give politicians a new source of revenue. We see in the above chart what happened once nations imposed income taxes. We’ve also seen increases in fiscal burdens in nations that imposed value-added taxes (which is why Americans should fight to their dying breaths before allowing that levy in the United States).

From the perspective of politicians, they like new sources of revenue because that increases “tax capacity,” which is an Orwellian term that describes their ability to grab more money from the economy’s productive sector.

And here’s another chart from “Our world in data” showing how income taxes and VATs (along with income-tax withholding) have become ubiquitous.

Very depressing trends. Reminds me of the biased grading of tax regimes from the World Bank.

Let’s close with the tiny bit of good news from the website. Here’s a chart showing how top rates for the personal income tax dropped substantially between 1979 and 2002.

This happened, needless to say, because of tax competition. As globalization expanded, it became easier and easier for taxpayers to move themselves and/or their money from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions.

Politicians thus were forced to lower tax rates so the geese with the golden eggs didn’t fly away.

Sadly, updated versions of this chart now show top tax rates heading in the wrong direction, in large part because tax havens have been weakened and politicians no longer feel as much competitive pressure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Every time I write a column criticizing Trump’s protectionism, I get pushback. Some of the resistance is from people who genuinely think trade barriers are a good thing, and I routinely respond by asking them to ponder these eight questions or these five charts.

But I also get negative feedback from people who point out that the United States imposed significant import taxes in the 1800s, a period when the United States transitioned from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity.

Doesn’t this prove tariffs are pro-growth?

That’s sort of what Brian Domitrovic asserts in a recent column for Forbes.

There is an indisputable chronological correlation between the tariff and phenomenal economic growth. From the late 18th to the early 20th twentieth centuries, the United States steadily developed into the most successful economy in the world.

Brian’s column explores how trade taxes worked in the early history of the United States, but let’s skip to the part that is relevant to today’s discussion.

From 1789 to 1913, the size of the federal government in the economy as a whole averaged about 3%, with variation in time of war. Today, that number is over 20%—a 7-fold increase. State and local government was another 3% back then, and is another 12% today. Where total government was 6% of economic output in the era of the tariff, it is five times larger at over 30% today.

In other words, the real lesson to be learned is not that trade taxes are good for growth, but rather that an economy can prosper if the public sector is very small. And Brian is right that the federal government used to be only a tiny burden in the United States.

Brian even makes the case that government may have stayed small during the 1800s precisely because import taxes were seen as naked cronyism.

The quid pro quo the populace made with the tariff is that Congress and its conspirators in business got their favors, but in turn Congress’s realm, the government, had to stay small. Therefore, the private economy was free… Boundless growth at the hands of entrepreneurs and a talented and ambitious workforce built up year after year as Congress got to curry its petty favors on the condition that government stayed limited in size.

He also explains that politicians back then were very cognizant of the Laffer Curve.

A tariff “for revenue” was one where a rate was set low enough for the good in question to flow into the country in sufficient quantity to bring in increasing receipts to the government. A “prohibitive” tariff was one that was so high, receipts would go up if a rate were lowered. The “Laffer curve” concept was the most discussed theorem in political-economic debates in the United States in the 19th century.

The same principle applies to the income tax today. A modest rate generates lots of revenue, whereas a punitive rate can actually cause a drop in tax receipts.

And, speaking of the income tax, the introduction of that awful levy actually gave Hoover and other politicians the fiscal leeway to impose “prohibitive” tariffs…with very bad results.

After the income tax was put in place in 1913, the tariff shed its revenue purpose and became exclusively a vehicle for cronyism. Therefore it got very high—so high, in 1930, that…the…system was ruined and the result was the Great Depression.

For what it’s worth, I think there were lots of other bad policies from Hoover and Roosevelt that caused – and then exacerbated – the economic damage of the 1930s, so high tariffs don’t deserve all the blame.

But let’s not digress from our main topic of whether trade taxes can be justified.

Brian’s column doesn’t say that tariffs are good, but he does point out that such a system was only capable of financing a very small government. And that meant the private sector had lots of breathing room to operate.

But a “sin of omission” is that he also could have elaborated on the economic benefits of having no income tax. During the 1800s (with the exception of Lincoln’s income tax during the Civil War and an income tax in 1894 that was declared unconstitutional in 1895), there was no personal income tax. And no corporate income tax. And no payroll taxes. Or death tax. Or capital gains tax.

Dean Clancy highlighted these benefits when considering the conditions that would be necessary for him to support trade taxes.

I sort of agree. But I hope Dean would agree to a friendly tweak to his tweet, so that it read “McKinley-size tariffs were a less-worse option because of…”, and then list the polices that actually were good, such as no taxes on income and very small government.

Sadly, I don’t see any practical way of unwinding all the bad policy of the past 100 years.

So the case for trade taxes is very similar to the market-friendly case for a value-added tax. Yes, there is a theoretical argument to replace all income taxes with a VAT, but it’s not realistic.

Likewise, I’m open to the argument that higher tariffs might be acceptable, but only if someone first shows me a practical plan to 1) shrink the federal government back down to what the Founding Fathers envisioned, and 2) get rid of the IRS and all taxes on income.

P.S. Alexander Hamilton, writing about tariffs and excises in Federalist 21, clearly appreciated the insights of the Laffer Curve: “It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption, that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit; which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed, that is, an extension of the revenue.”

P.P.S. The Cayman Islands is the closest example of a successful modern economy that finances a big chunk of government with import taxes. But that example is somewhat limited since almost all goods are imported. For such an economy, tariffs are basically the same as a sales tax. For what it’s worth, I would argue Cayman’s fiscal system has more in common with Monaco today than with the United States in the 1800s.

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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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It’s that time of year. Those of us who wait until the last minute are rushing to get tax returns filed (or extensions submitted).

So it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that there is a better way.

Economists look at the tax system and focus on the warts that undermine growth.

Other people focus on the immorality of the tax code.

Most of these problems have existed for decades and are familiar to people who have the misfortune of working for tax reform.

But every so often, policy wonks like me get surprised because we find out that things are even worse than we thought.

For instance, here are some excerpts from a very disturbing article in The Hill about the IRS’s we-don’t-care attitude about fraudulent use of Social Security numbers.

…illegal immigrants…use other people’s social security numbers (SSNs) to get jobs and then file their taxes with their IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs). Although the tax returns contain false W-2 information, the IRS continues to process them, and the agency does not notify the people whose SSNs were used. …Koskinen said that in such cases “it’s in everybody’s interest to have them pay the taxes they owe.” …Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.)…told The Hill on Friday that he was “shocked” and “horrified” by Koskinen’s response. …House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)…said Friday that Koskinen’s comments about illegal immigrants’ tax returns are “just one more example of why Koskinen is doing such a poor job and should be impeached.”

As a quick aside, I’d be very curious to get some confirmation about Commissioner Koskinen’s assertion that illegals are net taxpayers. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn instead that they are a net drain because of “earned income tax credit,” which is a form of redistribution that gets laundered through the tax code.

But setting that aside, it’s completely outrageous that the IRS doesn’t let taxpayers know that their Social Security numbers have been stolen.

Congressman Jordan (and George Will) are right. There should be consequences for a government official who treats taxpayers with contempt.

Though Koskinen does deserve some credit for honesty about tax reform, as reported by the Washington Free Beacon.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told lawmakers on Wednesday that implementing a flat tax would be simpler than the current tax system and would save the agency a lot of money. …Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R., Mo.) asked Koskinen whether a flat tax policy would save the agency money. …”clearly if you had a two-page form or a one-page form where you got rid of all the deductions and everything else and people just paid…a flat tax…it would be simpler for taxpayers and it would be much simpler for us,” Koskinen said. …Luetkemeyer asked Koskinen for more specifics about how much of the IRS’ current budget of $11.2 billion could be saved if a flat tax were implemented. “…it would be a lot,” Koskinen said. “It’d clearly be a sea change, a difference in the way the place operates.”

To call the flat tax “a sea change” is an understatement. As explained in this video, research from the Tax Foundation shows that the compliance burden of the tax code would fall by more than 90 percent.

And the economy would grow much faster since a key principle of the flat tax is that revenue should be collected in the least-damaging manner.

Though if you’re worried that a flat tax is too timid and you would prefer no broad-based tax for Washington, Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute shared this wonderful image.

Which is why October 3, 1913 may be the worst day in American history.

Some people claim that it would be impossible to have a modern society without an income tax.

Well, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and Monaco are very modern, and all those jurisdictions enjoy great prosperity in large part because there is no income tax.

And we could enjoy the same freedom and prosperity in the United States. But only if we reduced the size of the public sector.

In other words, we could free ourselves of the income tax if we could somehow get rid of all the programs that were created once the income tax gave politicians a big new source of tax revenue.

The challenge is convincing politicians to give up their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.

Incidentally, this is why we should be stalwart in our opposition to the value-added tax. The experience with the income tax shows that politicians will expand the burden of government spending if they obtain any significant new source of revenue.

Let’s close with a somewhat amusing look at how tax compliance works in India. Here are some blurbs from a story in the Wall Street Journal.

For five years, real-estate developer Prahul Sawant ignored government orders to pay his taxes. Then the drummers showed up, beating their instruments and demanding he cough up the cash. Neighbors leaned out windows and gawked. Within hours, a red-faced Mr. Sawant had written a $945 check to settle his long-standing arrears. Shame is the name of the game as India’s local governments try new tools to collect taxes from reluctant citizens. …Thane’s municipal commissioner, Sanjeev Jaiswal, is resorting to public embarrassment of tax scofflaws. …Since the drummers started work early this year in this suburb of Indian commercial capital Mumbai, property-tax revenue has jumped 20%, said Mr. Jaiswal.

It’s also safer for the tax bureaucrats to rely on drummers.

Tax collectors in Vitawa-Kalwa are glad the drummers, and some security officers, are touring the neighborhood with them. “When the staff show up to collect tax alone, people get angry and beat them up,” said S.R. Patole, the assistant commissioner, who is responsible for revenue in the area.

And if drummers don’t work, the municipal commissioner has a back-up plan.

Mr. Jaiswal…plans to deploy groups of transgender women, known in India as hijras, to perform mocking dances to shame tax delinquents. Hijras are widely believed to be able to impose hexes.

I’ll have to add this story to my collection of “great moments in tax enforcement.”

For what it’s worth, I’m on the side of the taxpayers because of the Indian government’s legendary ability to waste money.

P.S. If you’re a late filer and need some humor to get through the day, here’s my collection of IRS-related jokes: A new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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There’s no agreement on the most important variable for state tax competitiveness.

I’m sympathetic to the final option, in part because of my disdain for the income tax. And if an income tax is imposed, I prefer a simple and fair flat tax.

With that in mind, here’s a fascinating infographic I received via email. I don’t know if Reboot Illinois is left wing, right wing, or apolitical, but they did a very good job. I particularly like the map showing zero-income tax states (gray), flat tax states (red), and states with so-called progressive tax schemes (blue).

For what it’s worth, Illinois taxpayers should fight as hard as possible to preserve the state’s flat tax. If the politicians get the power to discriminate among income classes, it will just be a matter of time before all taxpayers are hit by higher rates.

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

Like any good libertarian, I generally focus on the size of government. I compare France with Hong Kong and that tells me that big is bad and small is good.

But regardless of whether a government is large or small, it’s desirable if it spends money efficiently and generates some benefit. I shared, for instance, a fascinating study on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank and was not surprised to see that nations with smaller public sectors got much more bang for the buck (with Singapore easily winning the prize for the most efficient government).

So I was very interested to see that WalletHub put together a report showing each state’s “return on investment” based on how effectively it uses tax monies to achieve desirable outcomes for education, health, safety, economy, and infrastructure, and pollution.

I’m not completely comfortable with the methodology (is it a state government’s fault if the population is more obese and therefore less healthy, for instance, and what about adjusting for demographic factors such as age and race?), but I nonetheless think the study is both useful and interesting.

Here are the best and worst states.

One thing that should stand out is that the best states are dominated by zero-income tax states and flat tax states.

The worst states, by contrast, tend to have punitive tax systems (Alaska is a bit of an outlier because it collects – and squanders – a lot of revenue from oil).

By the way, if you’re a Republican, you can probably give yourself a small pat on the back. The so-called red states do a bit better than the so-called blue states.

P.S. WalletHub put together some fascinating data on which cities get a good return on investment (i.e., bang for the back) for spending on police and education.

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Federalism is a great idea, and not just because America’s Founders wanted a small and limited central government.

It’s also a good idea because states are laboratories that teach us about the benefits of good policy and the costs of bad policy.

And when we specifically look at New Jersey, we can learn a lot about the negative consequences of excessive taxation.

Lesson Number 1: Don’t adopt new taxes.

Just fifty years ago, New Jersey was like New Hampshire with no income tax and no sales tax. It was a fast-growing and prosperous refuge for people escaping high tax burdens in New York and elsewhere.

But then a state sales tax was adopted in 1966, followed by the enactment of a state income tax in 1976. Not surprisingly, politicians used those revenue sources to finance an orgy of new spending, to such an extent that New Jersey is now in last place in a ranking of state fiscal conditions.

And ever since new taxes were adopted, politicians have routinely and repeatedly increased the rates, diverting ever-greater amounts of money from the state’s private sector.

The net result, as demonstrated by the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index, is that New Jersey now has the worst tax system in the entire nation.

A very high income tax burden is a major reason why New Jersey is so uncompetitive.

After thriving for centuries with no state income tax, it only took state politicians a few decades to create a very punitive system with the fifth-highest rate in the nation. Once again, the Tax Foundation has the data.

No wonder so many investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners are escaping New Jersey.

And this is exactly what’s been happening, with very negative effects on New Jersey’s economy. Here’s some of what I shared back in 2010.

More than $70 billion in wealth left New Jersey between 2004 and 2008 as affluent residents moved elsewhere, according to a report…Conducted by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College… The exodus of wealth, then, local experts and economists concluded, was a reaction to a series of changes in the state’s tax structure — including increases in the income, sales, property and “millionaire” taxes. “This study makes it crystal clear that New Jersey’s tax policies are resulting in a significant decline in the state’s wealth,” said Dennis Bone, chairman of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and president of Verizon New Jersey. …the report reinforces findings from a similar study he conducted in 2007 with fellow Rutgers professor Joseph Seneca, which found a sharp acceleration in residents leaving the state. That report, which focused on income rather than wealth, found the state lost nearly $8 billion in gross income in 2005.

Wow, that’s the Atlantic version of California.

By the way, politicians often impose taxes or increase tax rates using the excuse that they will lower other taxes.

And it hasn’t been uncommon for New Jersey politicians to tell voters that tax hikes will enable lower property taxes.

Yet if you look at this data from the Tax Foundation, the Garden State has the highest property tax burden in the nation.

The only “good news” is that New Jersey’s 6.97 percent state sales tax is only the 24th-highest in the United States.

Yet when you consider that there was no state sales tax until 1966, that’s hardly a sign of fiscal restraint.

Lesson Number 2: Get rid of taxes that are especially destructive.

New Jersey is one of only two states that impose both an inheritance tax and a death tax. The death tax is particularly pernicious since very successful taxpayers obviously have considerable ability to migrate to states with better policy.

But here’s where we might have a bit of good news. New Jersey may be about to eliminate its death tax.

A state Senate committee on Monday passed…bipartisan proposals to eliminate the estate tax… Proponents of the tax changes say people are leaving New Jersey to avoid its low thresholds on taxing inherited wealth and retirement income. More than 2 million people left New Jersey between 2005 and 2014, costing the state $18 billion in net adjusted income and $11.4 billion in economic activity, according to the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, which blames high taxes for the exodus. …State Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) said he expects the money New Jersey reaps from people who stay here will pay for the lost tax revenue. The bill (S1728) was approved 9-0 with four abstentions.

This is amazing evidence of the liberalizing impact of tax competition. New Jersey’s state legislature is dominated by leftists, yet even they realize that they won’t get any loot if their intended victims can move across states lines (a lesson that French politicians have a very hard time understanding).

Lesson Number 3: Politicians waste much of the revenue they collect.

Politicians generally like higher taxes because they can buy support and votes by redistributing other people’s money (though some leftists like higher taxes solely for reasons of spite).

So it’s also important to look at what’s happening on the spending side of the budget. And it turns out that New Jersey wastes a lot of money.

I’ve already written about state bureaucrats being grossly overpaid (see here and here for some jaw-dropping examples).

But now let’s look at New Jersey’s “rate of return” or “efficiency” on transportation spending. This great video from Reason tells you everything you need to know.

And one of the reasons I shared this video is because New Jersey politicians want to boost the gas tax so they can spend even more money. Indeed, they may even hold the death tax hostage to get what they want.

Democrats have said they hope to leverage these tax cuts into a deal with Gov. Chris Christie to raise the gas tax.

I rhetorically asked back in 2010 whether Chris Christie could save New Jersey. We now know the answer is no, but maybe he can partially redeem himself by winning the death tax fight without surrendering on the gas tax.

P.S. Another formerly low-tax state, Connecticut, decided to copy New Jersey and the results are similarly dismal. Let’s hope other states, especially Alaska and Washington, are paying attention.

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There is some very good news to share. The income tax will disappear in April.

But there’s also some bad news. The income tax is only being abolished in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, and there’s little reason to think that America’s awful internal revenue code will disappear anytime soon.

Nonetheless, we should celebrate this development because it shows that fiscal mistakes can be reversed.

A report from Caribbean News Now has some of the highlights.

The people of Antigua and Barbuda will from April receive tax relief when the government plans to abolish personal income tax (PIT).  PIT, introduced by the now opposition United Progressive Party upon coming into office in 2004, imposes a tax of 8% on residents earning an income above $3,500 and 15% on those earning an income above $25,000. …Prime Minister Gaston Browne…noted that previous Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party administrations governed Antigua and Barbuda successfully for 27 years without personal income tax. He said that the cost of collecting PIT, the difficulty of enforcement, and its unfairness, make it sensible to remove the PIT from the books.

Wow, the Antigua and Barbuda version of the Labour Party obviously is much better than the crazed British version.

But let’s not get sidetracked. Here are some additional details from a story in the Jamaica Observer.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne yesterday announced that, effective April, personal income tax will be abolished in its entirety. …”Abolishing personal income tax is an important reform. Not only will it put more money in the pockets of the people, so that they can save or spend more for the benefit of the economy as whole, it will help to re-establish our country as one of the most competitive in the Caribbean and beyond.” …He noted that with this move, Antigua and Barbuda will be a location that is competitive and also the choice of retirees.  “Antigua and Barbuda will become a competitive location to attract the headquarters of companies and for professionals to relocate, thereby creating more jobs. Retirees will choose Antigua and Barbuda as their retirement home; Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP) investors will invest and choose Antigua and Barbuda over our competitors,” said the prime minister. …”taxing income is destructive to investment, savings and consumption. Also, it penalises entrepreneurship.”

For a politician, Mr. Browne has a good understanding of economics. I don’t like the “money in the pockets” rhetoric because it implies a bit of Keynesianism, but everything else he said is based on solid, microeconomic observations about incentives. Very reminiscent of JFK.

And I also like his point about wanting to be a “competitive location.” Yet another example of why tax competition is such a wonderful force for good policy. It encourages governments to do the right thing even when they don’t want to.

I bet, for instance, that the good reform in Antigua and Barbuda will put an end to the suicidal talk of an income tax in the Cayman Islands.

But what about the United States? Is there any chance that good policy in the Caribbean will encourage tax reform in the United States?

Unfortunately, most politicians couldn’t find Antigua and Barbuda on a map, much less care about that nation’s fiscal policy. So I’m not holding my breath that we’ll reverse the horrid mistake that was made in 1913.

But maybe, just maybe, we can at least figure out a less corrupt and less destructive way for the politicians to grab our money.

P.S. Antigua and Barbuda is a beautiful place, but I’ve noted before that government always has the ability to turn Heaven into Hell.

P.P.S. By the way, because of our awful worldwide tax system, American citizens can’t move to Antigua and Barbuda and benefit from that nation’s good tax policy. But there is a Caribbean island where you can legally slash your tax burden.

P.P.P.S. For those who follow Caribbean tax policy, we also enjoyed a fiscal victory a few years ago when a value-added tax was rejected in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

P.P.P.P.S. On an unrelated topic, I want to augment my observations on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, by citing some very important analysis by Reason‘s Shikha Dalmia. While a wasteful and incompetent local government caused the mess, she explains that state officials deserve some blame because they wanted to “create jobs” with an infrastructure project instead of accepting a good water deal from Detroit.

…the debacle is the result of Snyder’s efforts to stimulate the local economy—the exact opposite of the liberal line. …the then DWSD Director Susan McCormick presented two alternatives to Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz that slashed rates for Flint by nearly 50 percent, something that made Detroit far more competitive compared to the KWA deal. …Genesee County and Flint authorities saw the new water treatment as a public infrastructure project to create jobs… And neither Snyder nor his Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz nor the state treasurer Andy Dillon had the heart to say “no,” especially since to hand Flint to DWSD would have made the whole project less viable. …the Flint water crisis is the result of a Keynesian stimulus project gone wrong.

Hmmm…, statists make silly claims about terrorism being caused by climate change or inequality. Maybe I can be equally silly and now argue that stimulus schemes cause poisonous water!

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When I compared the tax reform proposals of various 2016 presidential candidates last month, Ben Carson got the best grade by a slight margin.

But I’ve now decided to boost his overall grade from a B+ to A-, or perhaps even A, because he’s finally released details and that means his grade for “specificity” jumps from a C to A-.

Here’s some of what’s been reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Monday called for imposing a 14.9% flat tax rate on income, ending taxes on capital gains and dividends and abolishing the charitable deduction and all tax credits.

By the way, the reporter goofed. Carson is proposing to end double taxation of dividends and capital gains, but all income would be taxed. What the reporter should have explained is that capital and business income would be taxed only one time.

But I’m digressing. Let’s review some additional details.

Mr. Carson’s flat tax would apply only to income above 150% of the poverty level… In some respects, Mr. Carson’s plan is similar to those of the other candidates, all of whom want to lower tax rates… But he goes farther, particularly with his willingness to rip up parts of the tax system that have been in place for a century. …In addition to eliminating the charitable deduction and investment taxation, Mr. Carson would also repeal the estate tax, the mortgage-interest deduction, the state and local tax deduction,  depreciation rules and the alternative minimum tax.

Wow, no distorting preferences for charity or housing. And no double taxation of any form, along with expensing instead of depreciation. Very impressive.

Carson has basically put forth a pure version of the plan first proposed by economists at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Perhaps most important of all, Carson’s plan is a flat tax and just a flat tax. He doesn’t create any new taxes that could backfire in the future.

Here’s what the Carson campaign wrote about his flat tax compared to the plans put forth by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Unlike proposals advanced by other candidates, my tax plan does not compromise with special interests on deductions or waffle on tax shelters and loopholes. Nor does it falsely claim to be a flat tax while still deriving the bulk of its revenues through higher business flat taxes that amount to a European-style value-added tax (VAT). Adding a VAT on top of the income tax would not only impose an immense tax increase on the American people, but also become a burdensome drag on the U.S. economy.

I would have used different language, warning about the danger of a much-higher future fiscal burden because Washington would have both an income tax and a VAT, but the bottom line is that I like Carson’s plan because the worst outcome is that future politicians might eventually recreate the current income tax.

What I don’t like about the Paul and Cruz plans, by contrast, is that future politicians could much more easily turn America into France or Greece.

Here’s my video that explains why the flat tax is the best system (at least until we shrink the federal government to such a degree that we no longer need any form of broad-based taxation).

P.S. If you want to get hyper-technical, Carson’s plan may not be a pure flat tax because he would require a very small payment from everybody (akin to what Governor Bobby Jindal proposed). Though if the “de minimis” payment is a fixed amount (say $50 per adult) rather than a second rate (say 1% on the poor), then I certainly would argue it qualifies as being pure.

P.P.S. Carson still has a chance to move his overall grade to A or A+ if he makes the plan viable by proposing an equally detailed plan (presumably consisting of genuine entitlement reform and meaningful spending caps) to deal with the problem of excessive government spending.

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The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a Paris-based international bureaucracy. It used to engage in relatively benign activities such as data collection, but now focuses on promoting policies to expand the size and scope of government.

That’s troubling, particularly since the biggest share of the OECD’s budget comes from American taxpayers. So we’re subsidizing a bureaucracy that uses our money to advocate policies that will result in even more of our money being redistributed by governments.

Adding insult to injury, the OECD’s shift to left-wing advocacy has been accompanied by a lowering of intellectual standards. Here are some recent examples of the bureaucracy’s sloppy and/or dishonest output.

Deceptively manipulating data to make preposterous claims that differing income levels somehow dampen economic growth.

Falsely asserting that there is more poverty in the United States than in poor nations such as Greece, Portugal, Turkey, and Hungary.

Cooperating with leftist ideologues from the AFL-CIO and Occupy movement to advance Obama’s ideologically driven fiscal policies.

Peddling dishonest gender wage data, numbers so misleading that they’ve been disavowed by a member of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Given this list of embarrassing errors, you probably won’t be surprised by the OECD’s latest foray into ideology-over-accuracy analysis.

As part of its project to impose higher taxes on companies, here’s what the OECD is claiming in a recent release.

Corporate tax revenues have been falling across OECD countries since the global economic crisis, putting greater pressure on individual taxpayers… “Corporate taxpayers continue finding ways to pay less, while individuals end up footing the bill,” said Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration. “The great majority of all tax rises seen since the crisis have fallen on individuals through higher social security contributions, value added taxes and income taxes. This underlines the urgency of  efforts to ensure that corporations pay their fair share.” These efforts are focused on the OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) Project.

And what evidence does the OECD have to justify this assertion?

Here’s what the bureaucracy wrote.

Average revenues from corporate incomes and gains fell from 3.6% to 2.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) over the 2007-14 period. Revenues from individual income tax grew from 8.8% to 8.9% and VAT revenues grew from 6.5% to 6.8% over the same period.

Those are relatively small shifts in tax receipts as a share of GDP, so one certainly could say that the OECD bureaucrats are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.

But that would mean that they’re merely guilty of exaggeration.

The much bigger problem is that the OECD is disingenuously cherry-picking data, the kind of methodological mendacity you might expect from an intern in the basement of the White House, but not from supposed professionals.

If you go to the OECD’s website and click on the page where the corporate tax data is found, you’ll actually discover that corporate tax receipts have been slowly climbing as a share of GDP.

Yes, receipts are slightly lower than they were at the peak of the financial bubble.

However, honest analysts would never claim that those numbers were either sustainable or appropriate to use as a bennchmark.

Sadly, “honest” and “OECD” are words that don’t really belong together any more.

The bureaucrats in Paris also are being mendacious in their portrayal of what’s happening with individual income tax revenues.

Monsieur Saint-Amans wants us to think that falling corporate tax receipts are being offset by a rising burden on individuals, but check out this table from the OECD’s Revenue Statistics. As you can see, he wants us to look at one tree (what’s happened in the past few years) and ignore the forest (the fact that the burden of the personal income tax today is lower than it was in 1980, 1990, or 2000).

By the way, the real story is that the OECD wants higher tax burdens, period. Anytime, anywhere, and on everybody.

It’s attack on low-tax jurisdictions is designed to enable higher income tax burdens on individuals.

Its “base erosion and profit shifting” project is designed to facilitate higher income tax burdens on companies.

And the bureaucrats reflexively advocate higher value-added tax burdens.

All of what you might expect from an organization filled with overpaid officials who realize their cosseted lifestyle is dependent on producing output that will generate continuing subsidies from statist politicians such as Obama and Hollande.

P.S. If you want an amazing example of the OECD’s ideology-over-analysis approach, here’s what the bureaucrats recently wrote about achieving more growth in Asia.

Increasing tax revenues and ensuring sustainable domestic resource mobilisation will be critical as emerging Asian economies seek to boost the provision of public goods and services and improve economic growth and living standards. …Comparable and consistent tax statistics facilitate transparent policy dialogue and provide policy makers with an important tool to assess alternative tax reforms. …Continued reforms will be necessary to help these tax administrations raise additional tax revenues in the future.

Yup, you read correctly (at least if you understand that “domestic resource mobilisation” is OECD-speak for higher taxes). The bureaucrats think generating more tax revenue to finance bigger government actually is a recipe for more prosperity.

For all intents and purposes, they’re advising nations in the region to copy France and Italy instead of seeking to be more like Hong Kong and Singapore.

Though, to be fair, the OECD isn’t just trying to impose bad policy on Asia. The bureaucrats in Paris have an equal-opportunity mindset when advocating statism since that’s the exact same prescription the OECD gave for Latin America.

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During last night’s Democratic debate, Senator Bernie Sanders said he would not raise tax rates as high as they were in the 1950s. And if Twitter data is accurate, his comment about being “not that much of a socialist compared to [President] Eisenhower” was one of the evening’s most memorable moments.

But a clever line is not the same as smart policy. Promising not to raise top tax rates to 90 percent or above is hardly a sign of moderation from the Vermont politician.

Fortunately, not all Democrats are infatuated with punitive tax rates.

Or at least they didn’t used to be. When President John F. Kennedy took office, he understood that the Eisenhower tax rates (in fairness to Ike, he’s merely guilty of not trying to reduce confiscatory tax rates imposed by FDR) were harming the economy and JFK argued for across-the-board tax rate reductions.

…an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits. Surely the lesson of the last decade is that budget deficits are not caused by wild-eyed spenders but by slow economic growth and periodic recessions and any new recession would break all deficit records. In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.

Here’s a video featuring some of President Kennedy’s wisdom on lower tax rates.

If that wasn’t enough, here’s another video featuring JFK’s wisdom on taxation.

By the way, if Senator Sanders really wants the rich to pay more, one of the lessons reasonable people learned from the Kennedy tax cuts is that upper-income taxpayers respond to lower tax rates by earning and reporting more income. Here’s a chart from a study I wrote almost 20 years ago.

Last but not least, let’s preemptively address a likely argument from Senator Sanders. He might be tempted to say that he doesn’t want the 90-percent tax rate of the Eisenhower years, but that he’s perfectly content with the 70-percent top tax rate that existed after the Kennedy tax cuts.

But if that’s the case, instead of teaching Sanders a lesson from JFK, then he needs to learn a lesson from Ronald Reagan.

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I’m happy that many of the presidential candidates are proposing big tax cuts.

Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump have large tax cuts, and Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio are proposing smaller – but still significant – reductions in the federal tax burden.

All of these plans, to be credible, should be accompanied by proposals for a sustained reduction in the burden of government spending (with real enforcement mechanisms).

But there’s something else that needs to be part of the discussion. Yes, we need tax cuts and smaller government, but we also need radical tax simplification.

Consider this depressing chart showing the number of pages in the instruction manual for the IRS’s 1040 tax form.

Or the number of sections in the tax law, which has skyrocketed in the past four decades.

I think it’s fair to say that complexity is a proxy for corruption (and even the World Bank agrees with me). Our tax code is a Byzantine mess because interest groups and lobbyists conspire with politicians to swap loopholes for campaign cash.

Some say that this problem could be solved by restricting the First Amendment and limiting people’s ability to participate in the political process. But that’s naive. So long as we have a convoluted tax code, insiders will figure out how to curry favor with the political elite and manipulate the system to their advantage.

Rather than trashing the Constitution, we should be trashing the internal revenue code.

I have lots of economic arguments for fundamental tax reform and I can wax poetic about the harm of high tax rates and double taxation of saving and investment.

But this new chart from the Tax Foundation, showing the ever-growing number of words in the tax code, is probably the single most compelling argument for a simple and fair flat tax.

Wow. It doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power. It doesn’t seem to matter who controls the White House or who controls Congress. Just as the number of pages in the tax code keeps expanding, so does the number of words.

And I think all of us know that this relentless growth in complexity is not good for ordinary taxpayers.

The only winners are the cronyists, politicians, and other insiders who get rich by using the coercive power of government.

And don’t forget that a complicated tax code means a very powerful IRS, and we’ve seen how that leads to venal corruption.

Now let’s circle back to where we started. I mentioned that many presidential candidates have proposed big tax plans that reduce the amount of money flowing to Washington. Many of those plans also include partial reforms of the tax code.

All of these components are desirable in that they both reduce the tax burden and simplify the tax system. And I could list other attractive partial reforms that are in the various tax plans.

But I can’t help but wonder why no candidate has explicitly embraced the gold standard of tax reform.

By the way, I’m ecumenical on a replacement system. There are other plans that satisfy the goals of real reform.

My only caveat, for those who advocate a national sales tax or value-added tax, is that we first need to repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that politicians could never do a bait and switch and saddle the American people with both an income tax and a consumption tax.

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Every so often, I get asked why I’m so rigidly opposed to tax hikes in general and so vociferously against the imposition of new taxes in particular.

In part, my hostility is an ideological reflex When pressed, though, I’ll confess that there are situations – in theory – where more taxes might be acceptable.

But there’s a giant gap between theory and reality. In the real world, I can’t think of a single instance in which higher taxes led to a fiscally responsible outcome.

That’s true on the national level. And it’s also true at the state level.

Speaking of which, the Wall Street Journal is – to put it mildly – not very happy at the tax-aholic behavior of Connecticut politicians. Here’s some of what was in a recent editorial.

The Census Bureau says Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of Nutmeg Staters would migrate if they could. Now the Democrats who run the state want to drive the other half out too. That’s the best way to explain the frenzy by Governor Dannel Malloy and the legislature to raise taxes again… Mr. Malloy promised last year during his re-election campaign that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s what he also said in 2010. In 2011 he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike promising that it would eliminate a budget deficit. Having won re-election he’s now back seeking another $650 million in tax hikes. But that’s not enough for the legislature, which has floated $1.5 billion in tax increases. Add a state-wide municipal sales tax that some lawmakers want, and the total could hit $2.1 billion over two years.

In other words, higher taxes in recent years have been used to fund more spending.

And now the politicians are hoping to play the same trick another time.

Apparently they don’t care that they’ve turned the Nutmeg State into a New England version of Illinois.

…the state grew a scant 0.9% in 2013, the last year state data are available. That was tied for tenth worst in the U.S. The state’s average compounded annual growth for the last four years is 0.42%. Slow growth means less tax revenue but spending never slows down. Some “40% of the state budget goes to government employee compensation and benefits, including payroll, state pensions, teacher pensions and current and retiree health care,” says Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute. …The Tax Foundation ranks Connecticut as one of the 10 worst states to do business. The state finished last in Gallup’s Job Creation Index in 2014 and now ties with Rhode Island for the worst job creation in the index since 2008.

What’s particularly discouraging is that Connecticut didn’t even have an income tax twenty-five years ago. But once the politicians got a new source of revenue, it’s been one tax hike after another.

Not too many years ago Connecticut was a tax refuge for New York City workers, but since it imposed an income tax in 1991 the rate has kept climbing, as it always does.

There are a couple of lessons from the disaster in Connecticut.

First and foremost, never give politicians a new source of revenue, which has very important implications for the debate in Washington, DC, about a value-added tax.

Unless, of course, you want to enable a bigger burden of government.

And for the states that don’t already have an income tax, the lesson is very clear. Under no circumstances should you allow your politicians to follow Connecticut on the path to fiscal perfidy.

Yet that’s exactly what may be happening in America’s northwest corner. As reported by the Seattle Times, there’s a plan percolating to create an income tax in the state of Washington. It’s being sold as a revenue swap.

State Treasurer Jim McIntire has a “grand bargain” in mind on tax reform and he wants to bend your ear. …the McIntire plan would institute a 5 percent personal-income tax with some exemptions, eliminate the state property tax and reduce business taxes. The plan would raise billions of dollars… The proposal also would lower the state sales tax to 5.5 percent from 6.5 percent.

But taxpayers should be very suspicious, particularly since politicians are talking about the need for more “investment,” which is a common rhetorical trick used by politicians who want to squander more money.

“It is mathematically impossible for us to sustain an adequate investment in education on a shrinking tax base,” he said.

And when you read the fine print, it turns out that the politicians (and the interest groups in the government bureaucracy) want a lot more additional money from taxpayers.

…the plan would raise $7 billion in state revenue but would lower local levies by $3 billion, for an overall increase of about $4 billion.

Advocates of the new tax would prefer to avoid any discussion of big-picture principles.

“We need to have less of an ideological conversation about this,” he said in a news conference.

And their desire to avoid a philosophical discussion is understandable. After all, the big spenders didn’t fare so well the last time voters had a chance to vote on whether the state should impose an income tax.

Voters may not welcome McIntire’s argument, either. In 2010, a proposed income tax on high earners failed by a nearly 30-point margin.

The voters in Washington were very wise back in 2010, so let’s hope they haven’t lost their skepticism about the revenue plans of politicians over the past few years.

There’s every reason to suspect, after all, that the adoption of an income tax would be just as disastrous for the Evergreen State as it was for the Nutmeg State.

To close, I want to share some great advice that was presented by the always sound Professor Richard Vedder. I was at a conference a few years ago where he was also one of the speakers. Asked to comment on whether the Lone Star State should have an income tax, he threw his hands in the air and cried out with passion that, “Texas should give the Alamo to Osama bin Laden before allowing an income tax.”

So if I’m ever asked to speak in Seattle on fiscal policy, I’m going to steal Richard’s approach and and warn that “The state of Washington should give the Space Needle to North Korea before allowing an income tax.”

I doubt I’ll capture Professor Vedder’s rhetorical flair, but there won’t be any doubt that I’ll be 100-percent serious about the dangers of a state income tax.

And what about my home state of Connecticut?

Well, I don’t know of any big landmarks that they could have traded to avoid an income tax. About the only “good” thing to say is that New York’s tax system is probably even worse.

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In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I explained that the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior.

2. Pervasive double taxation that discourages saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that bribe people to make less productive choices.

These problems all need to be addressed, but I also acknowledged additional concerns with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms an civil liberties.

In a perfect world, we would shrink government to such a small size that there was no need for any sort of broad-based tax (remember, the United States prospered greatly for most of our history when there was no income tax).

In a good world, we could at least replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

In today’s Washington, the best we can hope for is incremental reform.

But some incremental reforms can be very positive, and that’s the best way of describing the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan” unveiled today by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

The two GOP senators have a column in today’s Wall Street Journal, and you can read a more detailed description of their plan by clicking here.

But here are the relevant details.

What’s wrong with Rubio-Lee

In the interest of fairness, I’ll start with the most disappointing feature of the plan. The top tax rate will be 35 percent, only a few percentage points lower than the 39.6 percent top rate that Obama imposed as a result of the fiscal cliff.

Even more troubling, that 35 percent top tax rate will be imposed on any taxable income above $75,000 for single taxpayers and $150,000 for married taxpayers.

Since the 35 percent and 39.6 percent tax rates currently apply only when income climbs above $400,000, that means a significant number of taxpayers will face higher marginal tax rates.

That’s a very disappointing feature in any tax plan, but it’s especially unfortunate in a proposal put forth my lawmakers who wrote in their WSJ column that they want to “lower rates for families and individuals.”

What’s right with Rubio-Lee

This will be a much longer section because there are several very attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan.

Some households, for instance, will enjoy lower marginal tax rates under the new bracket structure, particularly if those households have lots of children (there’s a very big child tax credit).

But the really attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan are those that deal with business taxation, double taxation, and international competitiveness.

Here’s a list of the most pro-growth elements of the plan.

A 25 percent tax rate on all business income – This means that the corporate tax rate is being reduced from 35 percent (the highest in the world), but also that there will be a 25 percent maximum rate on all small businesses that file using Schedule C as part of a 1040 tax return.

Sweeping reductions in double taxation – The Rubio-Lee plans eliminates the capital gains tax, the double tax on dividends, and the second layer of tax on interest.

Full expensing of business investment – The proposal gets rid of punitive “depreciation” rules that force businesses to overstate their income in ways that discourage new business investment.

Territorial taxation – Businesses no longer will have to pay a second layer of tax on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other nations.

No death tax – Income should not be subject to yet another layer of tax simply because someone dies. The Rubio-Lee plan eliminates this morally offensive form of double taxation.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the Rubio-Lee plan eliminate the state and local tax deduction, which is a perverse part of the tax code that enables higher taxes in states like New York and California.

Many years ago, while working at the Heritage Foundation, I created a matrix to grade competing tax reform plans. I updated that matrix last year to assess the proposal put forth by Congressman Dave Camp, the former Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

Here’s another version of that matrix, this time including the Rubio-Lee plan.

As you can see, the Rubio-Lee plan gets top scores for “saving and investment” and “international competitiveness.”

And since these components have big implications for growth, the proposal would – if enacted – generate big benefits. The economy would grow faster, more jobs would be created, workers would enjoy higher wages, and American companies would be far more competitive.

By the way, if there was (and there probably should be) a “tax burden” grade in my matrix, the Rubio-Lee plan almost surely would get an “A+” score because the overall proposal is a substantial tax cut based on static scoring.

And even with dynamic scoring, this plan will reduce the amount of money going to Washington in the near future.

Of course, faster future growth will lead to more taxable income, so there will be revenue feedback. So the size of the tax cut will shrink over time, but even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t get that upset if politicians get more revenue because more Americans are working and earning higher wages.

That simply means another opportunity to push for more tax relief!

What’s missing in Rubio-Lee

There are a few features of the tax code that aren’t addressed in the plan.

The health care exclusion is left untouched, largely because the two lawmakers understand that phasing out that preference is best handled as part of a combined tax reform/health reform proposal.

Some itemized deductions are left untouched, or simply tweaked.

And I’m not aware of any changes that would strengthen the legal rights of taxpayers when dealing with the IRS.

Let’s close with a reminder of what very good tax policy looks like.

To their credit, Rubio and Lee would move the tax code in the direction of a flat tax, though sometimes in a haphazard fashion.

P.S. There is a big debate on the degree to which the tax code should provide large child credits. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, I much prefer lower tax rates since faster growth is the most effective long-run way to bolster the economic status of families.

But even the flat tax has a generous family-based allowance, so it’s largely a political judgement on how much tax relief should be dedicated to kids and how much should be used to lower tax rates.

That being said, I think the so-called reform conservatives undermine their case when they argue child-oriented tax relief is good because it might subsidize the creation of future taxpayers to prop up entitlement programs. We need to reform those programs, not give them more money.

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On the issue of so-called progressive taxation, our left-wing friends have conflicting goals. Some of them want to maximize tax revenue in order to finance ever-bigger government.

But others are much more motivated by a desire to punish success. They want high tax rates on the “rich” even if the government collects less revenue.

Some of them simply pretend there isn’t a conflict, as you might imagine. They childishly assert that the Laffer Curve doesn’t exist and that upper-income taxpayers are fiscal pinatas, capable of generating never-ending amounts of tax revenue.

But more rational leftists admit that the Laffer Curve is real. They may argue that the revenue-maximizing rate is up around 70 percent, which is grossly inconsistent with the evidence from the 1980s, but at least they understand that successful taxpayers can and do respond when tax rates increase.

So the question for grown-up leftists is simple: What’s the answer if they have to choose between collecting more revenue and punishing the rich with class-warfare taxation?

And here’s some new research looking at this tradeoff. Authored by economists from the University of Oslo in Norway, École polytechnique de Lausanne in France, and the University of Pennsylvania, they look at “Tax progressivity and the government’s ability to collect additional tax revenue.”

The recent massive expansion of public debt around the world during the Great Recession raises the question how much debt a government can maximally service by raising the level of taxes. Or, to phrase this classic public finance question differently, how much additional tax revenue can the government generate by increasing income taxes?

And since they’re part of the real world (unlike, say, the Joint Committee on Taxation or the Obama Administration), they recognize that higher tax rates impose costs on the economy that lead to feedback effects on tax revenue.

Our research (Holter et al. 2014) investigates how tax progressivity and household heterogeneity impacts the Laffer curve. We argue that a more progressive labour income tax schedule significantly reduces the maximal amount of tax revenues a government can raise…under progressive taxes heterogeneous workers will face different average and marginal tax rates. …the answer to our question is closely connected to the individual (and then properly aggregated) response of labour supply to taxes. The microeconometric literature, as surveyed e.g. by Keane (2011), has found that both the intensive and extensive margins of labour supply (the latter especially for women), life-cycle considerations, and human capital accumulation are important determinants of these individual responses. …households make a consumption–savings choice and decide on whether or not to participate in the labour market (the extensive margin), how many hours to work conditional on participation (the intensive margin), and thus how much labour market experience to accumulate (which in turn partially determines future earnings capacities).

The above passage has a bit of economic jargon, but it’s simply saying that taxpayers respond to incentives.

They also provide estimates of tax progressivity for various developed nations. They’re only looking at the personal income tax, so these numbers don’t include, for instance, the heavy burden of the value-added tax on low-income people in Europe.

The good news (at least relatively speaking) is that the American income tax is not as punitive as it is in many other nations.

But the key thing to consider, at least in the context of this new research, is the degree to which so-called progressivity comes with a high price.

Here is some additional analysis from their research.

Why does the degree of tax progressivity matter for the government’s ability to generate labour income tax revenues…? changes in tax progressivity typically affects hours worked…increasing tax progressivity induces differential income and substitution effects on the workers in different parts of the earnings distribution. …a more progressive tax system may disproportionately reduce labour supply for high earners and lead to a reduction in tax revenue. …more progressive taxes will reduce the incentives for young agents to accumulate labour market experience and become high (and thus more highly taxed) earners.

Now let’s look at some of the results.

Remarkably, they find that the best way of maximizing revenue is to minimize the economic damage of the tax system. And that means…drum roll, please…a flat tax.

For its current choice of progressivity (the green line), the US can sustain a debt burden of about 330% of its benchmark GDP, by increasing the average tax rate to about 42%. Thus, according to our findings the US is currently still nowhere close to its maximally sustainable debt levels…we also observe that larger public debt can be sustained with a less progressive tax system. Converting to a flat tax system (the black line) increases the maximum sustainable debt to more than 350% of benchmark GDP, whereas adopting Danish tax progressivity lowers it to less than 250% of benchmark GDP.

Here are a couple of charts from their study, both of which underscore that punitive tax rates are very counterproductive, assuming the goal is to either maximize revenue or to sustain a larger public sector.

Notice that if you want to punish “the rich” and impose Danish-type levels of progressivity (the dashed line), you’ll get less revenue and won’t be able to sustain as much debt.

Now let’s shift from discussing intellectual quandaries for the left and talk about challenges for believers in limited government.

We like a flat tax because it treats people equally and it raises revenue in a relatively non-destructive manner.

But because it is an “efficient” form of taxation, it’s also an “efficient” way to generate revenues to finance bigger government.

Indeed, this was one of the findings in a 1998 study by Professors Gary Becker and Casey Mulligan.

So does this mean that instead of supporting a flat tax, we should a loophole-riddled system based on high tax rates solely because that system will be so inefficient that it won’t generate revenue?

Of course not. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is why my work on fundamental tax reform is intertwined with my work on constitutional and legal mechanisms to limit the size and scope of government.

And it’s also why Obama’s class-warfare approach is so perversely destructive. If you think I’m exaggerating, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

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