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Archive for the ‘Laffer Curve’ Category

I have a very mixed view of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is an organization representing self-styled deficit hawks in Washington.

They do careful work and I always feel confident about citing their numbers.

Yet I frequently get frustrated because they seem to think that tax increases have to be part of any budget deal, regardless of the evidence that such an approach will backfire.

So when CRFB published a “Fiscal FactChecker” to debunk 16 supposed budget myths that they expect during this campaign season, I knew I’d find lots of stuff I would like…and lots of stuff I wouldn’t like.

Let’s look at what they said were myths, along with my two cents on CRFB’s analysis.

Myth #1: We Can Continue Borrowing without Consequences

Reality check: CRFB’s view is largely correct. If we leave policy on autopilot, demographic changes and poorly structured entitlement programs  will lead to an ever-rising burden of government spending, which almost surely will mean ever-rising levels of government debt (as well as ever-rising tax burdens). At some point, this will lead to serious consequences, presumably bad monetary policy (i.e., printing money to finance the budget) and/or Greek-style crisis (investors no longer buying bonds because they don’t trust the government will pay them back).

The only reason I don’t fully agree with CRFB is that we could permanently borrow without consequence if the debt grew 1 percent per year while the economy grew 3 percent per year. Unfortunately, given the “new normal” of weak growth, that’s not a realistic scenario.

Myth #2: With Deficits Falling, Our Debt Problems are Behind Us

Reality check: The folks at CRFB are right. Annual deficits have dropped to about $500 billion after peaking above $1 trillion during Obama’s first term, but that’s just the calm before the storm. As already noted, demographics and entitlements are a baked-into-the-cake recipe for a bigger burden of government and more red ink.

That being said, I think that CRFB’s focus is misplaced. They fixate on debt, which is the symptom, when they should be more concerned with reducing excessive government, which is the underlying disease.

Myth #3: There is No Harm in Waiting to Solve Our Debt Problems

Reality check: We have a spending problem. Deficits and debt are merely symptoms of that problem. But other than this chronic mistake, CRFB is right that it is far better to address our fiscal challenges sooner rather than later.

CRFB offers some good analysis of why it’s easier to solve the problem by acting quickly, but this isn’t just about math. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsIt’s also important to impose some sort of spending restraint before a majority of the voting-age population has been lured into some form of government dependency. Once you get to the point when more people are riding in the wagon than pulling the wagon (think Greece), reform becomes almost impossible.

Myth #4: Deficit Reduction is Code for Austerity, Which Will Harm the Economy

Reality check: The folks at CRFB list this as a myth, but they actually agree with the assertion, stating that deficit reduction policies “have damaged economic performance and increased unemployment.” They even seem sympathetic to “modest increases to near-term deficits by replacing short-term ‘sequester’ cuts”, which would gut this century’s biggest victory for good fiscal policy!

There are two reasons for CRFB’s confusion. First, they seem to accept the Keynesian argument about bigger government and red ink boosting growth, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. Second, they fail to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity. If austerity means higher taxes, as has been the case so often in Europe, then it is unambiguously bad for growth. But if it means spending restraint (or even actual spending cuts), then it is clearly good for growth. There may be some short-term disruption since resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated, but the long-term benefits are enormous because labor and capital are used more productively in the private economy.

Myth #5: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves

Reality check: I agree with the folks at CRFB. As a general rule, tax cuts will reduce government revenue, even after measuring possible pro-growth effects that lead to higher levels of taxable income.

But it’s also important to recognize that not all tax cuts are created equal. Some tax cuts have very large “supply-side” effects, particularly once the economy has a chance to adjust in response to better policy. So a lower capital gains tax or a repeal of the death tax, to cite a couple of examples, might increase revenue in the long run. And we definitely saw a huge response when Reagan lowered top tax rates in the 1980s. But other tax cuts, such as expanded child credits, presumably generate almost no pro-growth effects because there’s no change in the relative price of productive behavior.

Myth #6: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Taxing the Top 1%

Reality check: The CRFB report correctly points out that confiscatory tax rates on upper-income taxpayers would backfire for the simple reason that rich people would simply choose to earn and report less income. And they didn’t even include the indirect economic damage (and reductions in taxable income) caused by less saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the CRFB folks seem to recognize that tax rates beyond a certain level would result in less revenue for government. Which implies, of course, that it is possible (notwithstanding what they said in Myth #5) for some tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Myth #7: We Can Lower Tax Rates by Closing a Few Egregious Loopholes

Reality check: It depends on the definition of “egregious.” In the CRFB report, they equate “egregious” with “unpopular” in order to justify their argument.

But if we define “egregious” to mean “economically foolish and misguided,” then there are lots of preferences in the tax code that could – and should – be abolished in order to finance much lower tax rates. Including the healthcare exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable giving deduction, and (especially) the deduction for state and local taxes.

Myth #8: Any Tax Increases Will Cripple Economic Growth

Reality check: The CRFB folks are right. A small tax increase obviously won’t “cripple” economic growth. Indeed, it’s even possible that a tax increase might lead to more growth if it was combined with pro-growth policies in other areas. Heck, that’s exactly what happened during the Clinton years. But now let’s inject some reality into the conversation. Any non-trivial tax increase on productive behavior will have some negative impact on economic performance and competitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that higher tax rates hurt growth and the evidence is also overwhelming that more double taxation will harm the economy.

The CRFB report suggests that the harm of tax hikes could be offset by the supposed pro-growth impact of a lower budget deficit, but the evidence for that proposition if very shaky. Moreover, there’s a substantial amount of real-world data showing that tax increases worsen fiscal balance. Simply stated, tax hikes don’t augment spending restraint, they undermine spending restraint. Which may be why the only “bipartisan” budget deal that actually led to a balanced budget was the one that lowered taxes instead of raising them.

Myth #9: Medicare and Social Security Are Earned Benefits and Should Not Be Touched

Reality check: CRFB is completely correct on this one. The theory of age-related “social insurance” programs such as Medicare and Social Security is that people pay into the programs while young and then get benefits when they are old. This is why they are called “earned benefits.”

The problem is that politicians don’t like asking people to pay and they do like giving people benefits, so the programs are poorly designed. The average Medicare recipient, for instance, costs taxpayers $3 for every $1 that recipient paid into the program. Social Security isn’t that lopsided, but the program desperately needs reform because of demographic change. But the reforms shouldn’t be driven solely by budget considerations, which could lead to trapping people in poorly designed entitlement schemes. We need genuine structural reform.

Myth #10: Repealing “Obamacare” Will Fix the Debt

Reality check: Obamacare is a very costly piece of legislation that increased the burden of government spending and made the tax system more onerous. Repealing the law would dramatically improve fiscal policy.

But CRFB, because of the aforementioned misplaced fixation on red ink, doesn’t have a big problem with Obamacare because the increase in taxes and the increase in spending are roughly equivalent. So the organization is technically correct that repealing the law won’t “fix the debt.” But it would help address America’s real fiscal problem, which is a bloated and costly public sector.

Myth #11: The Health Care Cost Problem is Solved

Reality check: CRFB’s analysis is correct, though it would have been nice to see some discussion of how third-party payer is the problem.

Myth #12: Social Security’s Shortfall Can be Closed Simply by Raising Taxes on or Means-Testing Benefits for the Wealthy

Reality check: To their credit, CRFB is basically arguing against President Obama’s scheme to impose Social Security payroll taxes on all labor income, which would turn the program from a social-insurance system into a pure income-redistribution scheme.

On paper, such a system actually could eliminate the vast majority of Social Security’s giant unfunded liability. In reality, this would mean a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, which would have a serious adverse economic impact.

Myth #13: We Can Solve Our Debt Situation by Cutting Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Earmarks, and/or Foreign Aid

Reality check: Earmarks (which have been substantially curtailed already) and foreign aid are a relatively small share of the budget, so CRFB is right that getting rid of that spending won’t have a big impact. But what about the larger question. Could our fiscal mess (which is a spending problem, not a “debt situation”) be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse?

It depends on how one defines “waste, fraud, and abuse.” If one uses a very narrow definition, such as technical malfeasance, then waste, fraud, and abuse might “only” amount to a couple of hundred billions dollars per year. But from an economic perspective (i.e., grossly inefficient misallocation of resources), then entire federal departments such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc, should be classified as waste, fraud, and abuse.

Myth #14: We Can Grow Our Way Out of Debt

Reality check: CRFB is correct that faster growth won’t solve all of our fiscal problems. Unless one makes an untenable assumption that economic growth will be faster than the projected growth of entitlement spending. And even that kind of heroic assumption would be untenable since faster growth generally obligates the government to pay higher benefits in the future.

Myth #15: A Balanced Budget Amendment is All We Need to Fix the Debt

Reality check: CRFB accurately explains that a BBA is simply an obstacle to additional debt. Politicians still would be obliged to change laws to fulfill that requirement. But that analysis misses the point. A BBA focuses on red ink, whereas the real problem is that government is too big and growing too fast. State balanced-budget requirement haven’t stopped states like California and Illinois from serious fiscal imbalances and eroding competitiveness. The so-called Maastricht anti-deficit and anti-debt rules in the European Union haven’t stopped nations such as France and Greece from fiscal chaos.

This is why the real solution is to have some sort of enforceable cap on government spending. That approach has worked well in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. And even research from the IMF (a bureaucracy that shares CRFB’s misplaced fixation on debt) has concluded that expenditure limits are the only effective fiscal rules.

Myth #16: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Cutting Welfare Spending

Reality check: The federal government is spending about $1 trillion this year on means-tested (i.e., anti-poverty) programs, which is about one-fourth of total outlays, so getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution would substantially lower the burden of federal spending (somewhat offset, to be sure, by increases in state and local spending). And for those who fixate on red ink, that would turn today’s $500 billion deficit into a $500 billion surplus.

That being said, there would still be a big long-run problem caused by other federal programs, most notably Social Security and Medicare. So CRFB is correct in that dealing with welfare-related spending doesn’t fully solve the long-run problem, regardless of whether you focus on the problem of spending or the symptom of borrowing.

This has been a lengthy post, so let’s have a very simple summary.

We know that modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget.

We also know lots of nations that have made rapid progress with modest amounts of spending restraint.

And we know that the tax-hike option simply leads to more spending.

So the only question to answer is why the CRFB crowd can’t put two and two together and get four?

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Every so often, I’ll assert that some statists are so consumed by envy and spite that they favor high tax rates on the “rich” even if the net effect (because of diminished economic output) is less revenue for government.

In other words, they deliberately and openly want to be on the right side (which is definitely the wrong side) of the Laffer Curve.

Critics sometimes accuse me of misrepresenting the left’s ideology, to which I respond by pointing to a poll of left-wing voters who strongly favored soak-the-rich tax hikes even if there was no extra tax collected.

But now I have an even better example.

Writing for Vox, Matthew Yglesias openly argues that we should be on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, “the case for confiscatory taxation” is part of the title for his article.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

Maybe at least some taxes should be really high. Maybe even really really high. So high as to useless for revenue-raising purposes — but powerful for achieving other ends. We already accept this principle for tobacco taxes. If all we wanted to do was raise revenue, we might want to slightly cut cigarette taxes. …But we don’t do that because we care about public health. We tax tobacco not to make money but to discourage smoking.

The tobacco tax analogy is very appropriate.

Indeed, one of my favorite arguments is to point out that we have high taxes on cigarettes precisely because politicians want to discourage smoking.

As a good libertarian, I then point out that government shouldn’t be trying to control our private lives, but my bigger point is that the economic arguments about taxes and smoking are the same as those involving taxes on work, saving, investment.

Needless to say, I want people to understand that high tax rates are a penalty, and it’s particularly foolish to impose penalties on productive behavior.

But not according to Matt. He specifically argues for ultra-high tax rates as a “deterrence” to high levels of income.

If we take seriously the idea that endlessly growing inequality can have a cancerous effect on our democracy, we should consider it for top incomes as well. …apply the same principle of taxation-as-deterrence to very high levels of income. …Imagine a world in which we…imposed a 90 percent marginal tax rate on salaries above $10 million. This seems unlikely to raise substantial amounts of revenue.

I suppose we should give him credit for admitting that high tax rates won’t generate revenue. Which means he’s more honest than some of his fellow statists who want us to believe confiscatory tax rates will produce more money.

But honesty isn’t the same as wisdom.

Let’s look at the economic consequences. Yglesias does admit that there might be some behavioral effects because upper-income taxpayers will be discouraged from earning and reporting income.

Maybe…we really would see a reduction of effort, or at least a relaxation of the intensity with which the performers pursue money. But would that be so bad? Imagine the very best hedge fund managers and law firm partners became inclined to quit the field a bit sooner and devote their time to hobbies. What would we lose, as a society? …some would presumably just move to Switzerland or the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes. That would be a real hit to local economies, but hardly a disaster. …Very high taxation of labor income would mean fewer huge compensation packages, not more revenue. Precisely as Laffer pointed out decades ago, imposing a 90 percent tax rate on something is not really a way to tax it at all — it’s a way to make sure it doesn’t happen.

While I suppose it’s good that Yglesias admits that high tax rates have behavioral effects, he clearly underestimates the damaging impact of such a policy.

He presumably doesn’t understand that rich people earn very large shares of their income from business and investment sources. As such, they have considerable ability to alter the timing, level, and composition of their earnings.

But my biggest problem with Yglesias’ proposals is that he seems to believe in the fixed-pie fallacy that public policy doesn’t have any meaningful impact of economic performance. This leads him to conclude that it’s okay to rape and pillage the “rich” since that will simply mean more income and wealth is available for the rest of us.

That’s utter nonsense. The economy is not a fixed pie and there is overwhelming evidence that nations with better policy grow faster and create more prosperity.

In other words, confiscatory taxation will have a negative effect on everyone, not just upper-income taxpayers.

There will be less saving and investment, which translates into lower wages and salaries for ordinary workers.

And as we saw in France, high tax rates drive out highly productive people, and we have good evidence that “super-entrepreneurs” and inventors are quite sensitive to tax policy.

To be fair, I imagine that Yglesias would try to argue that these negative effects are somehow offset by benefits that somehow materialize when there’s more equality of income.

But the only study I’ve seen that tries to make a connection between growth and equality was from the OECD and that report was justly ridiculed for horrible methodology (not to mention that it’s hard to take serious a study that lists France, Spain, and Ireland as success stories).

P.S. This is my favorite bit of real-world evidence showing why there should be low tax rates on the rich (in addition, of course, to low tax rates on the rest of us).

P.P.S. And don’t forget that leftists generally view higher taxes on the rich as a precursor to higher taxes on the rest of the population.

P.P.P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, Yglesias says I’m insane and irrational.

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What’s the Laffer Curve?

It’s the simple, common-sense observation that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

Folks in the private sector understand this principle. No restaurant owner, for instance, would double meal prices and assume that revenues would climb by 100 percent.

Yet that’s basically the methodology used by the Joint Committee on Taxation when estimating the revenue impact of changes in tax rates.

Which helps to explain why Washington is so often wrong about revenue implications of personal tax rates and corporate tax rates.

The Laffer Curve also applies to tobacco taxation.

Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform points out in the Wall Street Journal that greedy politicians in New York have pushed cigarette taxes so high that the main beneficiaries are smugglers.

Rampant cigarette smuggling isn’t the problem in New York. It’s a symptom of the problem: sky high tobacco taxes. …New York state levies the highest cigarette tax in the nation, $4.35 per pack, and New York City tacks on an additional $1.50 local tax. All told, the cost of one pack there can run to $12 or more. …The result? Most of the cigarettes smoked in New York, 58%, are smuggled in from out of state… The higher that revenue-hungry politicians raise tobacco taxes, the more profit smugglers can make.

Which means, of course, that the higher tax rates don’t lead to more tax revenue.

…revenue from increases in cigarette taxes often falls short of expectations. Washington, D.C., experienced this firsthand after cigarette taxes were raised by 25%, to $2.50 per pack from $2, in October 2009. City leaders claimed the hike would generate a windfall of additional revenue. By February of 2010, D.C.’s chief financial officer reported that projections were off by $15 million. Revenue from the cigarette tax actually fell by $7 million after the hike. New Jersey should have learned the same lesson. In 2007 the Garden State raised cigarette taxes to $2.575, from $2.40. The new tax generated $52 million less than expected, and revenue from cigarette taxes fell by $22 million. But in 2009 New Jersey raised the tax by another 17.5 cents.

By the way, don’t believe the fall-back excuse that politicians don’t care about revenue because they’re motivated by public health concerns.

Lawmakers can claim they’re raising taxes on cigarettes to reduce smoking and improve public health. That talking point is belied by the recent imposition of taxes on electronic cigarettes, which are saving lives by delivering nicotine in puffs of water vapor instead of chemical-filled smoke. There are more than 15 tax bills pending across the country for currently untaxed e-cigarettes. Hawaii is proposing a tax of 80%, New York of 75%, Oregon of 65% and Ohio of 60%. For politicians, cigarette taxes are—and have always been—about one thing: money.

One last thing. Gleason reports that New York is suing UPS because the company ships cigarettes to New York customers.

New York state and New York City in February announced a $180 million lawsuit against the shipping company UPS over what officials allege was unlawful delivery of nearly 700,000 cartons of cigarettes from 2010-14. …New York state officials claim that the cigarette smuggling via UPS cost the treasury $29.7 million in lost tax revenue. That’s less than 0.03% of the state budget. The $4.7 million allegedly lost by New York City represents less than 0.006% of its budget. For a mere rounding error, state and city officials want to grab $180 million from UPS. That’s $180 million UPS could use to hire new workers, give employees raises, or invest back into its business. The leaders of New York and New York City should drop this silly lawsuit and find a more productive use of their time.

They shouldn’t merely drop the lawsuit. They should be condemned for engaging in a thuggish shakedown.

Returning to the main topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that reviews real-world examples of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. If local officials are greedy, state officials are ever greedier, and federal officials are greediest, then you can imagine how awful it would be to let international officials impose tobacco taxes.

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With tax day looming, let’s wallow in misery by contemplating the burden on America’s taxpayers.

But we’ll ignore the angst caused be dealing with an indecipherable tax code and an oppressive IRS and simply focus on the amount of money that gets extracted from our income each year.

The bad news is that the federal government is collecting a record amount of money, even after adjusting for inflation. Here’s a chart, based on the latest numbers from the Office of Management and Budget.

But there is some good news. This isn’t a record tax burden when measured as a share of economic output.

Federal taxes are projected to consume 17.7 percent of GDP this year. That’s higher than the post-WWII average of 17.2 percent of GDP, but there have been several years in which the federal tax burden has been higher than 17.7 percent, most recently in 2007, when it reached 17.9 percent of economic output.

So while it’s bad news that the IRS is collecting a record amount of revenue in inflation-adjusted dollars, I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that it’s not a record share of GDP.

I discuss the growing federal tax burden in this CNBC debate with Jared Bernstein.

A few points are worth emphasizing from the interview, two of which deal with corporate taxation.

First, it’s silly to talk to compare “taxes by individuals” to “taxes paid by corporations.” That’s because all taxes on business ultimately are paid by individuals, whether as workers, consumers, or shareholders. To be blunt, corporations may collect taxes, but the burden inevitably falls on people.

Second, the fact that corporate tax receipts are lagging is a sign that tax rates are too high rather than too low. In other words, there’s a Laffer Curve effect, and there’s lots of evidence that a lower corporate rate will generate more revenue. Which is precisely what happened when personal tax rates were reduced on the “rich” in the 1980s.

Third, if we want a balanced budget, the only responsible approach is spending restraint. As I’ve noted before, our long-run fiscal challenge is because of a rising burden of spending. Indeed, spending is more than 100 percent of the long-run problem.

By the way, let’s not forget about the role of state and local governments. WalletHub just released a report on state and local tax burdens.

Here are the 10 best states.

I’m mystified to see California in the top 10.

Though maybe this is a Laffer Curve-based result. In other words, perhaps taxes are so high that people are paying less?

Moreover, the Golden State drops to 30 if you adjust for the cost of living (see column on far right).

Now here are the 10 worst states.

I’m not surprised to see Illinois in last place, but who knew that Nebraska was a hotbed of taxaholism?

And if you look at the right-most column, you’ll see that New York and Connecticut could be considered the worst states. Both jurisdictions are richly deserving of that designation.

P.S. Don’t forget that Puerto Rico is a secret tax haven for American citizens, particularly when considering federal taxes, so it deserves honorary first place recognition.

P.P.S. The best (i.e., least worst or least destructive) approach to taxation is the flat tax.

P.P.P.S. Though the ideal scenario is to have a very small federal government so that there’s no need for any broad-based tax whatsoever. Our nation enjoyed strong growth before that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was imposed.

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A few days ago, I cited some research by an economics professor at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!), who calculated that we would have a big budget surplus today if Washington lawmakers had simply maintained Bill Clinton’s final budget, adjusting it only for inflation plus population growth.

My purpose was to show that some sort of long-run spending cap (such as limiting outlays so they can’t grow faster than population plus inflation) is the best way of achieving good fiscal outcomes.

And I cited similar hypothetical examples when writing about fiscal policy in Canada and also when sharing some good analysis from Investor’s Business Daily.

I think these examples are persuasive, but some people aren’t overly impressed by arguments that aren’t based on real-world evidence. So I also make sure to show how good things happen in those rare instances that politicians can be convinced to restrain spending.

A review of data for 16 nations reveals that multi-year periods of spending restraint lead to lower fiscal burdens and less red ink.

Between 2009 and 2014, a de facto spending freeze at the federal level dramatically reduced burden of spending in the United States.

Thanks to a constitutional spending cap, Switzerland has shrunk the public sector, balanced its budget and reduced government debt.

Now we have another real-world example to add to our list.

Check out these excerpts from a New York Times story.

A year after Colorado became the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales, millions of tax dollars are rolling in… But a legal snarl may force the state to hand that money back to marijuana consumers, growers and the public — and lawmakers do not want to.

Hmmm…I can understand lawmakers wanting to hold on to other people’s money, but what is meant by “legal snarl”?

Well, it turns out that this is just a way of describing Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which imposes caps on how fast the state’s fiscal burden can increase. The reporter from the New York Times writes that this is a “problem,” but taxpayers obviously have a different perspective.

The problem is a strict anti-spending provision in the state Constitution… Technical tripwires in that voter-approved provision, known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, may require Colorado to refund nearly $60 million…because it collected more than it had anticipated in taxes last year across the board — including construction, oil and gas and other sections of the state’s booming economy. …The complex measure, first approved by voters in 1992, essentially requires that when Colorado collects more money than it had anticipated, it has to give some back to taxpayers.

In other words, the state is collecting plenty of money in taxes, but the politicians are irked they can’t raise spending beyond what’s allowed by TABOR.

And that irks the pro-spending crowd.

Blame lies with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, said Tim Hoover, a spokesman for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which tracks budget issues in the state. …“It has its own malevolent programming that is really hard to override,” he said.

I obviously don’t agree with Mr. Hoover’s philosophy, but his quote is very powerful evidence that a well-designed spending cap can be effective.

Which is why I cited Colorado’s TABOR back in 2013 as being the best role model in the United States for those who want to genuinely constrain government.

Heck, even the International Monetary Fund now acknowledges that spending caps are the only effective fiscal policy.

By the way, there’s also a Laffer Curve lesson in this story. Echoing what I wrote earlier this year, marijuana tax revenues have been below estimates because the tax rate is too high.

“It’s not that the pot tax came in too high,” said State Senator Pat Steadman, a Democrat who has been trying to write a law that would provide a solution. “It’s that every other revenue came in high.” …Miguel Lopez, who organizes Denver’s annual 4/20 rally — intended to be a giant feel-good festival — said he was sick of what he called high taxes on recreational marijuana. He said they were hurting small stores and helping to keep the black market alive.

Not that we should be surprised. Politicians routinely over-tax tobacco.

And other so-called sin taxes also get set too high, which is a point I made when commenting about a proposed tax on strip clubs in Florida.

“You get a bigger underground economy with high tax rates, which means less revenue than anticipated, and also openings for organized crime and other bad guys,” he said. “Regarding the proposal, I have to imagine that a $25 cover charge, combined with record-keeping, will kill off most strip clubs, so I don’t think they’ll get much money,” Mitchell said. “Customers, presumably, will gravitate to substitute forms of entertainment.”

In the case of Colorado’s pot tax, the “substitute form of entertainment” is simply buying pot in the underground economy.

So the moral of the story, whether looking at spending caps or tax rates, is that politicians are too greedy for their own good.

P.S. What’s the opposite of a spending cap? There are probably a couple of possible answers, but I would pick Obama’s proposed tax-increase “trigger.” Here’s some of what I wrote about that scheme.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. …Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

Fortunately, this was such an awful idea that even gullible GOPers said no. Now if we can keep Republicans from getting seduced into counterproductive tax-hike budget deals, we may actually make some progress!

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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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Regular readers know that I don’t approve of drug use, but that I also favor legalization because the Drug War has been a costly and ineffective failure.

(And it’s led to horrible policies such as intrusive money-laundering laws and Orwellian asset-forfeiture laws).

So I was happy when folks in Colorado voted to decriminalize marijuana use, even if part of me didn’t like the idea that politicians would gain a new source of tax revenue.

If nothing else, what’s happening in Colorado (and Washington state) will be an interesting social experiment.

And even though we only have a modest bit of data, I’m going to be bold and assert that we can already learn two lessons from what’s happened.

1. Politicians are so greedy that they set taxes too high.

In the real world, there’s this thing called the Laffer Curve. And what it shows is that excessive tax rates don’t generate big piles of tax revenue because people change their behavior.

I’ve made this point before when dealing with personal income tax rates, corporate tax rates, capital gains taxes, and tobacco taxes.

Simply stated, the political class is so anxious to get more of our money that they impose punitive tax rates that fail to generate the desired amount of revenue.

And it’s also true with taxes on marijuana.

But don’t believe me. Let’s look at some news sources about what’s happened in Colorado.

Here are some excerpts from a Daily Beast report.

According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, the state collected $44 million in taxes from recreational marijuana in 2014, $25 million less than predicted.  …why did recreational marijuana sales in Colorado fall short? …Coloradoans bought less recreational marijuana than they could have… Looking at the taxes on cannabis in the state, it’s not hard to see why. Pot taxes in Colorado are steep. In Denver, for example, an eighth of cannabis can come with four taxes: an excise tax, regular sales tax, special sales tax (for pot retailers), and a special city tax. That equals a markup of roughly 30 percent. …many pot aficionados looked at the numbers and decided to stick with their medical marijuana programs or their other dealers.

Here’s some similar analysis from a New York Times article.

Colorado’s tax results underscore a big conflict facing public officials considering marijuana legalization. Taxes should be kept low if the goal is to eliminate pot’s black market. …Colorado has also shown that pot-smokers don’t necessarily line up to leave the tax-free black market and pay hefty taxes. If medical pot is untaxed, or if pot can be grown at home and given away as in Colorado, the black market persists.

And here are some passages from the Mic’s analysis.

David Huff…from Aurora, told the AP that the state’s taxes on marijuana, which increase the price of pot by 30 percent or more, are too, um, high. “I don’t care if they write me a check, or refund it in my taxes, or just give me a free joint next time I come in. The taxes are too high, and they should give it back,” Huff said. …only 60 percent of Coloradans obtained their marijuana through a legal exchange in 2014. Some buyers are using the state’s legal medical marijuana, which is untaxed, as a source for green, while others take advantage of Amendment 64’s provision allowing the personal use of as many as six marijuana plants. The products of those plants have flooded the black market, depriving Colorado of more taxable pot.

The bottom line is that politicians better figure out how to limit their greed if they truly want the legal market to function properly.

2. A spending cap ensures that new revenue won’t finance bigger government.

I’m a big fan of restraining the growth of government. Needless to say, this means I don’t like giving politicians new sources of revenue.

That’s my view on all of the proposals for new revenue that are percolating in the corridors of power, including energy taxes, financial taxes, value-added taxes, and wealth taxes.

But if there’s actually some sort of binding limit on the growth of government, then politicians can’t use new revenue to finance a more bloated public sector.

And thanks to the nation’s best expenditure limit, that’s the case in Colorado.

Here’s what Mic wrote on the topic.

Colorado’s state constitution limits how much tax money the state treasury can receive before having to return it to taxpayers. The provision, known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR… Since Colorado’s economy has been growing as a faster rate than expected, the state underestimated its total revenue, which means Centennial State residents may soon get a cut of the estimated $50 million in taxes collected from the sale of recreational marijuana during its first year of legalization. …TABOR, passed in 1992, dictates that Colorado can’t spend revenue made from taxation if those revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation and population growth. That money, known as a TABOR bonus, must be refunded to taxpayers unless voters approve a revenue change. This amendment has netted Colorado taxpayers about $3.3 billion since 1992.

Let’s return to the Daily Beast story.

In a state with one of the strictest tax and expenditure limitations in the country, Colorado operates under a Taxpayer Bill of Rights called TABOR. According to the bill, refunds are to be considered when state tax revenues don’t match up to the state estimates. This year, owing to a slight rise in the economy, the overall revenue was higher.

Though you won’t be surprised to learn that politicians want to figure out a way of spending the money. Check out these passages from the aforementioned piece in the New York Times.

Colorado will likely have to return to voters to ask to keep the pot tax money. That’s because of a 1992 amendment to the state constitution that restricts government spending. The amendment requires new voter-approved taxes, such as the pot taxes, to be refunded if overall state tax collections rise faster than permitted. Lawmakers from both parties are expected to vote this spring on a proposed ballot measure asking Coloradans to let the state keep pot taxes.

So both Republicans and Democrats will join hands in an effort to spend the money.

Gee, knock me over with a feather. What a surprise!

But let’s not focus on whether politicians want more of our money. Let’s learn from TABOR.

What it teaches us is that you get better policy when you limit the growth of government spending. And the closest thing we have to TABOR at the national level is the Swiss Debt Brake.

It’s worked very well in Switzerland because it puts the focus on the underlying problem of too much government. Notwithstanding the name, it limits the annual growth of spending, not the growth of debt.

The moral of the story is that when you address the real problem of too much spending, you automatically address the symptom of red ink.

And politicians presumably won’t have much incentive to impose higher taxes if they can’t use the money to buy votes with bigger government, so it’s a win-win situation!

P.S. Though there are some who favor higher taxes solely for reasons of spite and envy.

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