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Archive for the ‘Marginal Tax Rate’ Category

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a widespread consensus that high tax rates were economically misguided. Many Democrats, for instance, supported the 1986 Tax Reform Act that lowered the top tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent (albeit offset by increased double taxation and more punitive depreciation rules).

And even in the 1990s, many on the left at least paid lip service to the notion that lower tax rates were better for prosperity than higher tax rates. Perhaps that’s because the overwhelming evidence of lower tax rates on the rich leading to higher revenue was fresh in their minds.

The modern left, however, seems completely fixated on class-warfare tax policy. Some of them want higher tax rates even if the government doesn’t collect more revenue!

I’ve already shared a bunch of data and evidence on the importance of low tax rates.

A review of the academic evidence by the Tax Foundation found overwhelming support for the notion that lower tax rates are good for growth.

An economist from Cornell found lower tax rates boost GDP.

Other economists found lower tax rates boost job creation, savings, and output.

Even economists at the Paris-based OECD have determined that high tax rates undermine economic performance.

Today, we’re going to augment this list with some fresh and powerful evidence.

Lots of new evidence. So grab a cup of coffee.

The New York Times, for instance, is noticing that high taxes drive away productive people. At least in France.

Here are some excerpts from a remarkable story.

A year earlier, Mr. Santacruz, who has two degrees in finance, was living in Paris near the Place de la Madeleine, working in a boutique finance firm. He had taken that job after his attempt to start a business in Marseille foundered under a pile of government regulations and a seemingly endless parade of taxes. The episode left him wary of starting any new projects in France. Yet he still hungered to be his own boss. He decided that he would try again. Just not in his own country.

What pushed him over the edge? Taxes, taxes, and more taxes.

…he returned to France to work with a friend’s father to open dental clinics in Marseille. “But the French administration turned it into a herculean effort,” he said. A one-month wait for a license turned into three months, then six. They tried simplifying the corporate structure but were stymied by regulatory hurdles. Hiring was delayed, partly because of social taxes that companies pay on salaries. In France, the share of nonwage costs for employers to fund unemployment benefits, education, health care and pensions is more than 33 percent. In Britain, it is around 20 percent. “Every week, more tax letters would come,” Mr. Santacruz recalled.

Monsieur Santacruz has lots of company.

…France has been losing talented citizens to other countries for decades, but the current exodus of entrepreneurs and young people is happening at a moment when France can ill afford it. The nation has had low-to-stagnant economic growth for the last five years and a generally climbing unemployment rate — now about 11 percent — and analysts warn that it risks sliding into economic sclerosis. …This month, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris, which represents 800,000 businesses, published a report saying that French executives were more worried than ever that “unemployment and moroseness are pushing young people to leave” the country, bleeding France of energetic workers. As the Pew Research Center put it last year, “no European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France.”

But it’s not just young entrepreneurs. It’s also those who already have achieved some level of success.

Some wealthy businesspeople have also been packing their bags. While entrepreneurs fret about the difficulties of getting a business off the ground, those who have succeeded in doing so say that society stigmatizes financial success. …Hand-wringing articles in French newspapers — including a three-page spread in Le Monde, have examined the implications of “les exilés.” …around 1.6 million of France’s 63 million citizens live outside the country. That is not a huge share, but it is up 60 percent from 2000, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thousands are heading to Hong Kong, Mexico City, New York, Shanghai and other cities. About 50,000 French nationals live in Silicon Valley alone. But for the most part, they have fled across the English Channel, just a two-hour Eurostar ride from Paris. Around 350,000 French nationals are now rooted in Britain, about the same population as Nice, France’s fifth-largest city. …Diane Segalen, an executive recruiter for many of France’s biggest companies who recently moved most of her practice, Segalen & Associés, to London from Paris, says the competitiveness gap is easy to see just by reading the newspapers. “In Britain, you read about all the deals going on here,” Ms. Segalen said. “In the French papers, you read about taxes, more taxes, economic problems and the state’s involvement in everything.”

Let’s now check out another story, this time from the pages of the UK-based Daily Mail. We have some more news from France, where another successful French entrepreneur is escaping Monsieur Hollande’s 75 percent tax rate.

François-Henri Pinault, France’s third richest man, is relocating his family to London.  Pinault, the chief executive of Kering, a luxury goods group, has an estimated fortune of £9 billion.  The capital has recently become a popular destination for wealthy French, who are seeking to avoid a 75 per cent supertax introduced by increasingly unpopular Socialist President François Hollande. …It has been claimed that London has become the sixth largest ‘French city’ in the world, with more than 300,000 French people living there.

But it’s not just England. Other high-income French citizens, such as Gerard Depardieu and Bernard Arnault, are escaping to Belgium (which is an absurdly statist nation, but at least doesn’t impose a capital gains tax).

But let’s get back to the story. The billionaire’s actress wife, perhaps having learned from all the opprobrium heaped on Phil Mickelson when he said he might leave California after voters foolishly voted for a class-warfare tax hike, is pretending that taxes are not a motivating factor.

But despite the recent exodus of millionaires from France, Ms Hayek insisted that her family were moving to London for career reasons and not for tax purposes.  …Speaking about the move in an interview with The Times Magazine, the actress said: ‘I want to clarify, it’s not for tax purposes. We are still paying taxes here in France.  ‘We think that London has a lot more to offer than just a better tax situation.

And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I’m willing to sell for a very good price.

Speaking of New York bridges, let’s go to the other side of Manhattan and cross into New Jersey.

It seems that class-warfare tax policy isn’t working any better in the Garden State than it is in France.

Here are some passages from a story in the Washington Free Beacon.

New Jersey’s high taxes may be costing the state billions of dollars a year in lost revenue as high-earning residents flee, according to a recent study. The study, Exodus on the Parkway, was completed by Regent Atlantic last year… The study shows the state has been steadily losing high-net-worth residents since 2004, when Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey signed the millionaire’s tax into law. The law raised the state income tax 41 percent on those earning $500,000 or more a year. “The inception of this tax, coupled with New Jersey’s already high property and estate taxes, leaves no mystery about why the term ‘tax migration’ has become a buzzword among state residents and financial, legal, and political professionals,” the study, conducted by Regent states. …tax hikes are driving residents to states with lower tax rates: In 2010 alone, New Jersey lost taxable income of $5.5 billion because residents changed their state of domicile.

No wonder people are moving. New Jersey is one of the most over-taxed jurisdictions in America – and it has a dismal long-run outlook.

And when they move, they take lots of money with them.

“The sad reality is our residents are suffering because politicians talk a good game, but no one is willing to step up to the plate,” Americans for Prosperity New Jersey state director Daryn Iwicki said. The “oppressive tax climate is driving people out.” …One certified public accountant quoted in the study said he lost 95 percent of his high net worth clients. Other tax attorneys report similar results. …Michael Grohman, a tax attorney with Duane Morris, LLP, claimed his wealthy clients are “leaving [New Jersey] as fast as they can.” …If the current trend is not reversed, the consequences could be dire. “Essentially, we’ll find ourselves much like the city of Detroit, broke and without jobs,” Iwicki said.

By the way, make sure you don’t die in New Jersey.

The one bit of good news, for what it’s worth, is that Governor Christie is trying to keep matters from moving further in the wrong direction.

Here’s another interesting bit of evidence. The Wall Street Journal asked the folks at Allied Van Lines where wealthy people are moving. Here’s some of the report on that research.

Spread Sheet asked Allied to determine where wealthy households were moving, based on heavy-weight, high-value moves. According to the data, Texas saw the largest influx of well-heeled households moving into the state last year, consistent with move trends overall. South Carolina and Florida also posted net gains. On the flip side, Illinois and Pennsylvania saw more high-value households move out of state than in, according to the data. California saw the biggest net loss of heavy-weight moves. Last year, California had a net loss of 49,259 people to other states, according to the U.S. Census. …Texas had the highest net gain in terms of domestic migration—113,528 more people moved into the state than out last year, census data show. Job opportunities are home-buyers’ top reason for relocating to Texas, according to a Redfin survey last month of 1,909 customers and website users.

The upshot is that Texas has thumped California, which echoes what I’ve been saying for years.

One can only imagine what will happen over the next few years given the punitive impact of the higher tax rate imposed on the “rich” by spiteful California voters.

If I haven’t totally exhausted your interest in this topic, let’s close by reviewing some of the research included in John Hood’s recent article in Reason.

Over the past three decades, America’s state and local governments have experienced a large and underappreciated divergence. …Some political scientists call it the Big Sort. …Think of it as a vast natural experiment in economic policy. Because states have a lot otherwise in common-cultural values, economic integration, the institutions and actions of the federal government-testing the effects of different economic policies within America can be easier than testing them across countries. …And scholars have been studying the results. …t present our database contains 528 articles published between 1992 and 2013. On balance, their findings offer strong empirical support for the idea that limited government is good for economic progress.

And what do these studies say?

Of the 112 academic studies we found on overall state or local tax burdens, for example, 72 of them-64 percent-showed a negative association with economic performance. Only two studies linked higher overall tax burdens with stronger growth, while the rest yielded mixed or statistically insignificant findings. …There was a negative association between economic growth and higher personal income taxes in 67 percent of the studies. The proportion rose to 74 percent for higher marginal tax rates or tax code progressivity, and 69 percent for higher business or corporate taxes.

Here are some of the specific findings in the academic research.

James Hines of the University of Michigan found that “state taxes significantly influence the pattern of foreign direct investment in the U.S.” A 1 percent change in the tax rate was associated with an 8 percent change in the share of manufacturing investment from taxed investors. Another study, published in Public Finance Review in 2004, zeroed in on counties that lie along state borders. …Studying 30 years of data, the authors concluded that states that raised their income tax rates more than their neighbors had significantly slower growth rates in per-capita income. …economists Brian Goff, Alex Lebedinsky, and Stephen Lile of Western Kentucky University grouped pairs of states together based on common characteristics of geography and culture. …Writing in the April 2011 issue of Contemporary Economic Policy, the authors found “strong support for the idea that lower tax burdens tend to lead to higher levels of economic growth.”

By the way, even though this post is about tax policy, I can’t resist sharing some of Hood’s analysis of the impact of government spending.

Of the 43 studies testing the relationship between total state or local spending and economic growth, only five concluded that it was positive. Sixteen studies found that higher state spending was associated with weaker economic growth; the other 22 were inconclusive. …a few Keynesian bitter-enders insist that transfer programs such as Medicaid boost the economy via multiplier effects… Nearly three-quarters of the relevant studies found that welfare, health care subsidies, and other transfer spending are bad for economic growth.

And as I’ve repeatedly noted, it’s important to have good policy in all regards. And Hood shares some important data showing that laissez-faire states out-perform their neighbors.

…economists Lauren Heller and Frank Stephenson of Berry College used the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America index to explore state economic growth from 1981 to 2009. They found that if a state adopted fiscal and regulatory policies sufficient to improve its economic freedom score by one point, it could expect unemployment to drop by 1.3 percentage points and labor-force participation to rise by 1.9 percentage points by the end of the period studied.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a reward. We have some amusing cartoons on class-warfare tax policy here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

And here’s a funny bit from Penn and Teller on class warfare.

P.S. Higher tax rates also encourage corruption.

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On several occasions, I’ve observed that the poverty rate in America was steadily falling, but that progress came to a halt in the mid-1960s when the government declared a War on Poverty.

And I almost always included a chart showing the annual poverty rate over several decades.

Moreover, I posted graphs showing how government programs trap people in dependency because of very high implicit marginal tax rates. And that’s true in other nations as well.

But it didn’t matter how many times I revisited this issue, I was never clever enough to look at the poverty-rate data to estimate what would have happened if the federal government hadn’t become involved.

Fortunately, John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis was insightful enough to fill the breach. He shows that the War on Poverty has made a big difference. But in the wrong way.

Poverty Goodman

Here’s some of what John wrote about the topic in a column for Forbes.

From the end of World War II until 1964 the poverty rate in this country was cut in half. Further, 94% of the change in the poverty rate over this period can be explained by changes in per capita income alone. Economic growth is clearly the most effective antipoverty weapon ever devised by man. The dotted line shows what would have happened had this trend continued. Economic growth would have reduced the number in poverty to a mere 1.4% of the population today—a number so low that private charity could probably have taken care of any unmet needs. …we didn’t continue the trend. In 1965 we launched a War on Poverty. And as the graph shows, in the years that followed the portion of Americans living in poverty barely budged.

John augments this analysis by looking at some of the social science research about poverty and government dependency.

The numbers are very depressing.

…here is something you may not know. Early on ― in the first decade of our 50-year experiment with an expanded welfare state ― carefully controlled experiments funded by the federal government established without question that welfare changes behavior. It leads to the very behavioral changes that keep people in a state of poverty and dependency. …The experiments were all conducted by social scientists who believed in the welfare state and had no doubt about its capacity to be successful. …The experiments were all controlled. Randomly selected people were assigned to a “control group” and an “experimental group.” …the results were not pretty. To the dismay of the researchers, they largely confirmed what conventional wisdom had thought all along. …The number of hours worked dropped 9% for husbands and 20% for wives, relative to the control group. For young male adults it dropped 43% more. The length of unemployment increased 27% among husbands and 42% for wives, relative to the control group. For single female heads of households it increased 60% more. Divorce increased 36% more among whites and 42% more among blacks. (In a New Jersey experiment, the divorce rate was 84% higher among Hispanics.)

President Obama and other folks on the left don’t seem overly interested in this data.

Instead, they beat the drums about class warfare and income inequality.

They want us to believe the economy is a fixed pie and that all of us somehow get less if some entrepreneur becomes rich.

But John’s point from the column is correct. Economic growth is the way to help the poor, not redistribution.

Unfortunately, many politicians are hostile to the types of policies that produce more growth. Maybe it’s because they don’t understand economics. Or maybe they understand economics but don’t care because they think they’ll be more successful at the ballot box if they pursue the politics of envy and division.

But regardless of motive, bigger government doesn’t have good results, as illustrated by this Gary Varvel cartoon.

Political Cartoons by Gary Varvel

This Chip Bok cartoon, featuring Obama with his ideological soulmate, also is worth sharing.

Political Cartoons by Chip Bok

P.S. Margaret Thatcher has the best-ever takedown of the left’s inequality agenda.

P.P.S. If you want to get agitated, click here to see how a bureaucracy in Paris is using American tax dollars to push a crazy new definition of poverty. Why? To promote more redistribution.

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The title of this piece has an asterisk because, unfortunately, we’re not talking about progress on the Laffer Curve in the United States.

Instead, we’re discussing today how lawmakers in other nations are beginning to recognize that it’s absurdly inaccurate to predict the revenue impact of changes in tax rates without also trying to measure what happens to taxable income (if you want a short tutorial on the Laffer Curve, click here).

But I’m a firm believer that policies in other nations (for better or worse) are a very persuasive form of real-world evidence. Simply stated, if you’re trying to convince a politician that a certain policy is worth pursuing, you’ll have a much greater chance of success if you can point to tangible examples of how it has been successful.

That’s why I cite Hong Kong and Singapore as examples of why free markets and small government are the best recipe for prosperity. It’s also why I use nations such as New Zealand, Canada, and Estonia when arguing for a lower burden of government spending.

And it’s why I’m quite encouraged that even the squishy Tory-Liberal coalition government in the United Kingdom has begun to acknowledge that the Laffer Curve should be part of the analysis when making major changes in taxation.

UK Laffer CurveI don’t know whether that’s because they learned a lesson from the disastrous failure of Gordon Brown’s class-warfare tax hike, or whether they feel they should do something good to compensate for bad tax policies they’re pursuing in other areas, but I’m not going to quibble when politicians finally begin to move in the right direction.

The Wall Street Journal opines that this is a very worthwhile development.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has cut Britain’s corporate tax rate to 22% from 28% since taking office in 2010, with a further cut to 20% due in 2015. On paper, these tax cuts were predicted to “cost” Her Majesty’s Treasury some £7.8 billion a year when fully phased in. But Mr. Osborne asked his department to figure out how much additional revenue would be generated by the higher investment, wages and productivity made possible by leaving that money in private hands.

By the way, I can’t resist a bit of nit-picking at this point. The increases in investment, wages, and productivity all occur because the marginal corporate tax rate is reduced, not because more money is in private hands.

I’m all in favor of leaving more money in private hands, but you get more growth when you change relative prices to make productive behavior more rewarding. And this happens when you reduce the tax code’s penalty on work compared to leisure and when you lower the tax on saving and investment compared to consumption.

The Wall Street Journal obviously understands this and was simply trying to avoid wordiness, so this is a friendly amendment rather than a criticism.

Anyhow, back to the editorial. The WSJ notes that the lower corporate tax rate in the United Kingdom is expected to lose far less revenue than was predicted by static estimates.

The Treasury’s answer in a report this week is that extra growth and changed business behavior will likely recoup 45%-60% of that revenue. The report says that even that amount is almost certainly understated, since Treasury didn’t attempt to model the effects of the lower rate on increased foreign investment or other “spillover benefits.”

And maybe this more sensible approach eventually will spread to the United States.

…the results are especially notable because the U.K. Treasury gnomes are typically as bound by static-revenue accounting as are the American tax scorers at Congress’s Joint Tax Committee. While the British rate cut is sizable, the U.S. has even more room to climb down the Laffer Curve because the top corporate rate is 35%, plus what the states add—9.x% in benighted Illinois, for example. This means the revenue feedback effects from a rate cut would be even more substantial.

The WSJ says America’s corporate tax rate should be lowered, and there’s no question that should be a priority since the United States now has the least competitive corporate tax system in the developed world (and we rank a lowly 94 out of the world’s top 100 nations).

But the logic of the Laffer Curve also explains why we should lower personal tax rates. But it’s not just curmudgeonly libertarians who are making this argument.

Writing in London’s City AM, Allister Heath points out that even John Maynard Keynes very clearly recognized a Laffer Curve constraint on excessive taxation.

Supply-side economist?!?

Even Keynes himself accepted this. Like many other economists throughout the ages, he understood and agreed with the principles that underpinned what eventually came to be known as the Laffer curve: that above a certain rate, hiking taxes further can actually lead to a fall in income, and cutting tax rates can actually lead to increased revenues.Writing in 1933, Keynes said that under certain circumstances “taxation may be so high as to defeat its object… given sufficient time to gather the fruits, a reduction of taxation will run a better chance than an increase of balancing the budget. For to take the opposite view today is to resemble a manufacturer who, running at a loss, decides to raise his price, and when his declining sales increase the loss, wrapping himself in the rectitude of plain arithmetic, decides that prudence requires him to raise the price still more—and who, when at last his account is balanced with nought on both sides, is still found righteously declaring that it would have been the act of a gambler to reduce the price when you were already making a loss.”

For what it’s worth, Keynes also thought that it would be a mistake to let government get too large, having written that “25 percent [of GDP] as the maximum tolerable proportion of taxation.”

But let’s stay on message and re-focus our attention on the Laffer Curve. Amazingly, it appears that even a few of our French friends are coming around on this issue.

Here are some passages from a report from the Paris-based Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues.

In an interview given to the newspaper Les Echos on November 18th, French Prime Minister Jean -Marc Ayrault finally understood that “the French tax system has become very complex, almost unreadable, and the French often do not understand its logic or are not convinced that what they are paying is fair and that this system is efficient.” …The Government was seriously disappointed when knowing that a shortfall of over 10 billion euros is expected in late 2013 according to calculations by the National Assembly. …In fact, we have probably reached a threshold where taxation no longer brings in enough money to the Government because taxes weigh too much on production and growth.

This is a point that has also been acknowledged by France’s state auditor. And even a member of the traditionally statist European Commission felt compelled to warn that French taxes had reached the point whether they “destroy growth and handicap the creation of jobs.”

But don’t hold your breath waiting for good reforms in France. I fear the current French government is too ideologically fixated on punishing the rich to make a shift toward more sensible tax policy.

P.S. The strongest single piece of evidence for the Laffer Curve is what happened to tax collections from the rich in the 1980s. The top tax rate dropped from 70 percent to 28 percent, leading many statists to complain that the wealthy wouldn’t pay enough and that the government would be starved of revenue. To put it mildly, they were wildly wrong.

I cite that example, as well as other pieces of evidence, in this video.

P.P.S. And if you want to understand specifically why class-warfare tax policy is so likely to fail, this post explains why it’s a fool’s game to target upper-income taxpayers since they have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

P.P.P.S. Above all else, never forget that the goal should be to maximize growth rather than revenues. That’s because we want small government. But even for those that don’t want small government, you don’t want to be near the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve since that implies significant economic damage per every dollar collected.

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Obamacare was put together by people who don’t understand economics.

This is probably the understatement of the year since I could be referring to many features of the bad law.

The higher tax burden on saving and investment, making an anti-growth tax system even worse.

The exacerbation of the third-party payer problem, which is the nation’s biggest healthcare problem.

The increased burden of government spending, worsening America’s entitlement crisis.

Those are all significant problems, but today I want to focus on how Obamacare encourages people to be less productive. And I’m going to use a rather unexpected source. The left-leaning San Francisco Chronicle has a financial advice column that inadvertently show how Obamacare discourages people from earning income.

The article nonchalantly explains that people may want to reduce their income so they can get more goodies from the government.

People whose 2014 income will be a little too high to get subsidized health insurance from Covered California next year should start thinking now about ways to lower it to increase their odds of getting the valuable tax subsidy. “If they can adjust (their income), they should,” says Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It’s not cheating, it’s allowed.” Under the Affordable Care Act, if your 2014 income is between 138 and 400 percent of poverty level for your household size, you can purchase health insurance on a state-run exchange (such as Covered California) and receive a federal tax subsidy to offset all or part of your premium. …getting below the 400 percent poverty limit could save many thousands of dollars per year.

You may be thinking that this is just a theoretical problem, but the article cites a very real example.

To get a subsidy, the couple’s modified adjusted gross income for 2014 income would need to fall below $62,040, which is 400 percent of poverty for a family of two. …Proctor estimates that her 2014 household income will be $64,000, about $2,000 over the limit. If she and her husband could reduce their income to $62,000, they could get a tax subsidy of $1,207 per month to offset the purchase of health care on Covered California. That would reduce the price of a Kaiser Permanente bronze-level plan, similar to the replacement policy she was quoted, to $94 per month from $1,302 per month. Instead of paying more than $15,000 per year, the couple would pay about $1,100.

To put it in even simpler terms, this couple has figured out that they can get almost $14,000 of other people’s money by reducing how much they earn by just $2,000.

That, in a nutshell, is the perfect illustration of the welfare state. It tells people that they can get more by producing less. And the system is based on the theory that there will always be some suckers who work hard to provide the subsidies.

But as we’ve seen in Greece, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, this system eventually breaks down as more and more people learn that it’s easier to ride in the wagon than it is to pull the wagon (as powerfully illustrated by these two cartoons).

And remember that the United States isn’t too far behind Europe’s welfare states.

Thanks to the plethora of welfare programs and income-redistribution schemes that already exist, millions of Americans have an incentive to earn less money and get trapped in government dependency. This graph, for instance, shows that various handouts mean that a single mom with $29,000 of income can be better off than a self-reliant person with $69,000 of income.

And a local CBS station discovered that a low-income household could be eligible for more than $80,000 of goodies from the government. Earning more money, though, would mean fewer handouts.

The same problem exists, by the way, in other nations such as Denmark and the the United Kingdom.

Remember Julia, the mythical moocher created by the Obama campaign to show the joys of government dependency? As illustrated by this Ramirez cartoon, Julia symbolizes the entitlement mentality. But the cartoon doesn’t go far enough. It should show how Julia decides to lead a less productive and less fulfilling life because she gets hooked on the heroin of handouts.

P.S. Some honest liberals recognize that redistribution can trap people in poverty.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, Thomas Sowell explains this issue with blunt and powerful logic.

P.P.P.S. To close with some humor, here’s a new Declaration of Dependency put together for our leftist friends. Though they may want to think twice before asking for a divorce from Red State America.

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I periodically cite new academic research about tax policy and economic activity. I sometimes even publicize research from international bureaucracies showing the link between taxes and growth.

I’m not naive enough to think that any particular study will change minds, but when the bulk of the research unambiguously tells us that lower tax rates are better for economic performance, I think (or at least hope) that it may have some impact on government officials.

Which is why I’m particularly interested in some new research by Professor Karel Mertens from Cornell University.

Here are some key findings from Professor Mertens’ study, beginning with some observations on existing research.

To what extent do marginal tax rates matter for individual decisions to work and invest? The answer is essential for public policy and its role in shaping economic growth. The strand of the empirical literature that uses tax return data, surveyed in Saez, Slemrod and Giertz (2012), finds that incomes before taxes react only modestly to marginal tax rates and that the response is mostly situated at the very top of the income distribution.

So what does this mean? A lot depends on how one defines “modestly,” though it’s worth noting that even very small changes in growth – if sustained over time – can have big impacts on prosperity. Which, in turn, has a significant effect on government finances.

And I have no objection to the assertion that upper-income taxpayers are most sensitive to changes in tax rates. After all, people like me who rely on wage and salary income don’t have much opportunity to alter our compensation in response to changes in tax rates.

But upper-income taxpayers get most of their compensation in the form of business profits and investment returns, and this gives them substantial control over the timing, level, and composition of their income. So it’s quite understandable that their taxable income is quite sensitive to changes in tax rates.

That being said, Professor Mertens’ research suggests that conventional analysis has underestimated the impact of tax rates on the general population.

This paper adopts a macro-time series approach that addresses the endogeneity of average marginal tax rates in novel ways and permits insight into dynamics. Based on this approach, I find large income responses to marginal tax rates that extend across the income distribution. …The empirical results in this paper are relevant for several important debates. First, they reinforce the findings by a number of recent macro studies of large effects of aggregate tax changes on real GDP both in the US and internationally. The results imply that raising marginal tax rates to resolve budget deficits comes at a high price and that a proportional across-the-board tax cut provides successful stimulus that does not necessarily lead to greater income concentration at the top.

Interestingly, the first part of the last sentence helps to explain the very poor results of tax-heavy “austerity” packages in places such as Greece, Spain, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Portugal.

Politicians in those countries are squeezing the private sector in hopes of minimizing the restraint imposed on bloated public sectors. But that doesn’t generate good results.

The Baltic nations took a much better approach, imposing genuine spending cuts the moment the crisis hit. Now their finances are in stronger shape and they’re enjoying renewed growth.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to Professor Mertens’ research. He also produced some interesting results about tax rates and high-income taxpayers.

Many of the postwar tax reforms have made particularly large changes in top marginal tax rates. This variation in top statutory rates may be used to estimate the effects of a hypothetical tax reform that only alters marginal tax rates for the top 1%. …The specification…displays the response to a one percent rise in the net-of-tax rate of the top 1% in the income distribution. …The tax cut leads to significant increases in average top 1% incomes, which rise on impact by 0.52 percent and by 0.97 and 1.02 percent in the following two years, after which there is a gradual decline. …the cut in top 1% tax rates leads to a statistically significant increase in real GDP of up to 0.34 percent in the third year. …There are also spillover effects to incomes outside of the top 1%. Average incomes of the bottom 99% rise by 0.15 percent on impact and by up to 0.35 percent in the third year.

So we learn that lower tax rates for the “rich” are good for the economy and also beneficial for the living standards of the general population.

Why, then, would anybody want to impose high tax rates? Here’s a hint from the study.

Despite the spillover effects, a top marginal rate cut unambiguously leads to greater inequality in pre-tax income.

In other words, the rich get richer faster than the non-rich get richer when the top tax rate is reduced. So if you’re driven by class-warfare animus, you may decide that you’re willing to hurt poor and middle-class people in order to prevent upper-income taxpayers from realizing a bigger share of the economy’s increased output.

That doesn’t make much sense. But if you watch this video on class-warfare tax policy, there’s no logical reason to support higher tax rates on more successful taxpayers.

Unfortunately, politicians generally are motivated by a desire to maximize votes and power, not by what’s logical.

Which is why, when I’m doing educational outreach on Capitol Hill, I often make an extra effort to explain that a bigger economy – enabled by small government and free markets – is the same as a bigger tax base.

That’s far from a pure libertarian argument, to be sure, but it’s not easy when you’re trying to convince the foxes that it doesn’t make long-run sense to deplete the henhouse.

P.S. Notwithstanding all the academic evidence, there’s one group of people in Washington who deliberately assume that tax policy has no impact on economic output.

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I often argue that we need to preserve tax competition and tax havens in order to limit the greed of the political class.

Without some sort of external constraint, they will over-tax and over-spend, creating the kind of downward economic spiral already happening in some European nations.

Speaking of which, new evidence from Europe bolsters my case.

Back in 2009, facing pressure from the big G-20 nations, all of the world’s major low-tax jurisdictions – even Switzerland – acquiesced to the notion that human rights laws protecting financial privacy no longer would apply to foreign investors.

In other words, high-tax governments now have much greater ability to track – and tax – flight capital.

So how have they responded since that time? Well, look at this chart from the European Union’s new report on taxation trends. Tax rates have begun to increase, reversing a very positive trend (which began with the Reagan and Thatcher tax cuts, though this chart only shows data since 1995).

Top EU Tax Rates

We can’t say, of course, that the increase in tax rates since 2009 is because tax competition was eroded. Just like we can’t say the reduction of tax rates in the preceding years was because of tax competition.

But we do know that simple economic theory tells us that monopolists are more likely to raise prices than firms in competitive markets. Likewise, governments are more likely to raise tax rates if they think taxpayers don’t have escape options.

And we also know that the proponents of higher tax rates, such as the statist bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD, are also the biggest opponents of tax competition. The OECD even complained in one of its reports that tax competition “may hamper the application of progressive tax rates.”

Well, those international bureaucrats (who, by the way, get tax-free salaries) are getting their wish. Tax rates are increasing.

“Let them eat cake”

So the political class can breathe a sigh of relief.

But what about the people of Europe? Well, economic growth is almost non-existent and unemployment is at record levels.

However, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. As a past representative of Europe’s political elite once remarked, “let them eat cake.”

Marie Antoinette eventually may have regretted her choice of words, but Europe’s current politicians are probably more clever and have contingency plans. When the you-know-what hits the fan and Europe descends into social disarray and economic chaos, ordinary people will be the ones at risk.

Unfortunately, the United States is on the same path, as shown by these sobering charts from the Bank for International Settlements (and also as illustrated by these very funny Michael Ramirez and Bob Gorrell cartoons).

For more information on the important liberalizing impact of tax competition, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But remember that restraining fiscal burdens is not the only reason to preserve tax competition and tax havens. There also are very important moral reasons to support low-tax jurisdictions.

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How do you define a terrible team? No, this isn’t going to be a joke about Notre Dame foolishly thinking it could match up against a team from the Southeastern Conference in college football’s national title game (though the Irish win the contest for prettiest make-believe girlfriends).

I’m asking the question because a winless record is usually a good indication of a team that doesn’t know what it’s doing and is in over its head.

With that in mind, and given the White House’s position that class warfare taxation is good fiscal policy, how should we interpret a recent publication from the Tax Foundation, which reviews the academic research on taxes and growth and doesn’t find a single study supporting the notion that higher tax rates are good for prosperity.

None. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

Twenty-three studies found a negative relationship between taxes and growth, by contrast, while three studies didn’t find any relationship.

For those keeping score at home, that’s a score of 0-23-3 for the view espoused by the Obama Administration.

This new Tax Foundation report is also useful if you want more information to debunk the absurd study from the Congressional Research Service that claimed no relationship between tax policy and growth. Indeed, the TF report even explains that serious methodological flaws made “the CRS study unpublishable in any peer-reviewed academic journal.”

So what do we find in the Tax Foundation report?

…what does the academic literature say about the empirical relationship between taxes and economic growth? While there are a variety of methods and data sources, the results consistently point to significant negative effects of taxes on economic growth even after controlling for various other factors such as government spending, business cycle conditions, and monetary policy. In this review of the literature, I find twenty-six such studies going back to 1983, and all but three of those studies, and every study in the last fifteen years, find a negative effect of taxes on growth.

And what does this mean?

…results support the Neo-classical view that income and wealth must first be produced and then consumed, meaning that taxes on the factors of production, i.e., capital and labor, are particularly disruptive of wealth creation. Corporate and shareholder taxes reduce the incentive to invest and to build capital. Less investment means fewer productive workers and correspondingly lower wages. Taxes on income and wages reduce the incentive to work. Progressive income taxes, where higher income is taxed at higher rates, reduce the returns to education, since high incomes are associated with high levels of education, and so reduce the incentive to build human capital. Progressive taxation also reduces investment, risk taking, and entrepreneurial activity since a disproportionately large share of these activities is done by high income earners.

To be blunt, the report’s findings suggest the Obama White House is clueless about tax policy.

…there are not a lot of dissenting opinions coming from peer-reviewed academic journals. More and more, the consensus among experts is that taxes on corporate and personal income are particularly harmful to economic growth… This is because economic growth ultimately comes from production, innovation, and risk-taking.

Here’s my cut-and-paste copy of the table summarizing all the academic research.

Taxes and growthTaxes and growth 2Taxes and Growth 3Taxes and Growth 4Taxes and Growth 5

So what’s the bottom line? The Tax Foundation report concludes with the following.

In sum, the U.S. tax system is a drag on the economy.  Pro-growth tax reform that reduces the burden of corporate and personal income taxes would generate a more robust economic recovery and put the U.S. on a higher growth trajectory, with more investment, more employment, higher wages, and a higher standard of living.

In other words, America would be more prosperous with a simple and fair system such as the flat tax.

Too bad the political elite is more focused on maintaining (or even exacerbating) a corrupt status quo, even if it means less prosperity for the nation.

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Because of Obama’s class-warfare tax hike and additional tax increases by kleptocrats at the state level, many successful taxpayers will now lose more than 50 percent of any additional income they generate for the American economy.

I discuss the implications of this punitive tax policy in this CNBC interview.

Normally, this is the section where I highlight certain points I made, or bemoan the fact that I failed to mention an important fact or overlooked a key argument. Today, though, I want to address the do-taxes-impact-growth issue raised by Robert Frank.

More specifically, I want to debunk the Congressional Research Service study that he indirectly mentioned about two minutes into the segment. This is the report that asserted that it doesn’t matter if we impose high tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers.

The results of the analysis suggest that changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax rate do not appear correlated with economic growth. The reduction in the top tax rates appears to be uncorrelated with saving, investment, and productivity growth. The top tax rates appear to have little or no relation to the size of the economic pie.

The good news is that I don’t really need to debunk this CRS study because Steve Entin already has undertaken that unpleasant task. Writing for the Tax Foundation, Steve points out some rather fatal flaws in the CRS study.

The study makes no effort to determine the channels through which the tax changes ought to work to affect the economy, looks at the wrong measure of progress over the wrong time frame, and takes inadequate account of what other tax or economic events are occurring at the same time that might mask the results. …Other changes in taxes and other influences on the economy occurring at the same time can easily hide or counteract the effect of the top tax rate changes alone. It is often impossible to hold other things constant to allow one to see the impact of the single item one wants to assess. When these other influences are omitted from the model, the “missing variables” problem poisons the results. …one should look at the long-term change in the capital stock and the ultimate level of output, not the short-term rise in investment and the short-term change in the growth rate. If one looks only at the growth rate, and not at the level of GDP, one could conclude that the tax rate change has only a temporary benefit, when in fact it is permanently helpful. …Looking only at the amount of investment triggered in the year following the tax change misses the point. The same holds true in the opposite direction for a tax increase. It takes years to retire through attrition the excess capital made redundant by a tax increase. Looking only at the change in investment in the year after the tax cut, rather than the cumulative increase in the stock of capital over time, misses about 95 percent of the impact. You can’t predict this fall’s apple crop by counting the number of seedlings planted this spring. The CRS study omits important variables and poisons its results by not holding other factors constant. The variables it does examine are indirectly related to the relationship one should be studying, but the study does not follow them for long enough to get the whole picture. The study is as weak now as it was when it was first issued. Grade: F.

By the way, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the author of the CRS study is not exactly dispassionate and neutral on these matters.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Mr. Hungerford has donated to the Obama campaign and Senate Democrats and worked as an economist at the White House budget office under Bill Clinton.

In closing, I did address the taxes-growth issue last year. I wasn’t debunking the CRS study, but I was exposing the errors in some very similar analysis by a writer for the New York Times.

Here’s the key passage from that post.

Yes, lower tax rates are better for economic performance, just as wheels matter for a car’s performance. But if a car doesn’t have an engine, transmission, steering wheel, and brakes, it’s not going to matter how nice the wheels are.

In other words, I was focusing on the fact that you can’t accurately and honestly examine tax policy without looking at the impact of other public policy issues.

I made that point in the CNBC interview, of course, though it’s unclear whether the message got through.

But I think the Clinton years and Bush years make my point. Bill Clinton was bad on tax policy in 1993, but was good on almost everything else (including a cut in the capital gains tax rate in 1997), whereas George W. Bush was okay on tax policy, but was bad on just about everything else.

So here are a couple of very simple questions.

  1. Given what we now know about the increase in economic freedom under Clinton and the loss in economic freedom under Bush, is anybody surprised that the economy did better under Clinton than it did under Bush?
  2. Does anybody think that the economy prospered under Clinton because he raised tax rates in 1993?
  3. Does anybody think the economy was anemic under Bush because he lowered taxes in 2001 and 2003?

Depending on how you answer those questions, you may be qualified to work at the Congressional Research Service.

But if you understand that it’s important to look at the overall burden of government when measuring the impact of public policy on economic performance, then…well, I’m not sure whether I can promise anything other than you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re intellectually honest and economically literate.

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Back in 2011, I linked to a simple chart that illustrated how handouts and subsidies create very high implicit marginal tax rates for low-income people and explained how “generosity” from the government leads to a tar-paper effect that limits upward mobility.

Earlier this year, I shared an amazing chart that specifically measured how the welfare state imposes these high implicit tax rates. Unbelievably, some people would be better off earning $29,000 rather than $69,000.

Simply stated, the multitude of redistribution programs are worth a lot of money, but you begin to lose those goodies if you begin to live a productive and independent life.

And since we know that rich people respond to high tax rates by declaring less income to the government, we shouldn’t be surprised that poor people also respond to incentives.

We also shouldn’t be surprised to learn that other nations have these same perverse policies. Here are some excerpts from a powerful piece for the UK-based Spectator.

…today’s Sunday Times magazine has a long piece asking whether there is a “fundamental difference in our attitudes to work”. It’s still one of the most important questions in Britain today: what’s the use of economic growth if it doesn’t shorten British dole queues? And should we blame these industrious immigrants; aren’t the Brits just lazy? …The quality of the British debate is so poor that we almost never look at this from the point of view of the low-wage worker. Every budget, the IFS will dutifully work out if it has been “fair” – ie, gives the most to the poorest. The LibDems will judge a budget by this metric. That’s a nice, easy, simple graph. But what about destroying the work incentive? Each budget and each change to tax should be judged on how many people are then ensnared in the welfare trap. I adapted the below (nasty, complex) graphs from an internal government presentation, which still make the case powerfully. The bottom axis is money earned from employer and the side axis is income retained. The graphs are complex but worth studying, if only to get a feel for the horrific system confronting millions of the lowest-paid in Britain today.

Here are the two charts. the author is correct. They are quite complex. But they show that there’s no much incentive to work harder, whether you’re a young person or a single parent.

After showing these amazing charts, the author makes some very powerful additional observations.

…if I was in a position of a British single mother I have not the slightest doubt that I would choose welfare. Why break your back on the minimum wage for longer than you have to, if it doesn’t pay? Some people do have the resolve to do it. I know I wouldn’t. …So let’s not talk about “lazy” Brits. The problem is a cruel and purblind welfare system which still, to this day, strengthens the welfare trap with budgets passed without the slightest regard for its effect on the work incentives on the poorest. …Meanwhile, the cash-strapped British government is still creating still the most expensive poverty in the world.

The final sentence in the excerpt really sums it up, noting that the government is “creating the most expensive poverty in the world.” Sort of like a turbo-charged version of Mitchell’s Law. The politicians create a few redistribution programs. Poverty begins to get worse. So then they add a few more handouts to address the problems caused by the first set of programs. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In other words, this poster applies in all nations.

P.S. If you want some real-world examples of the horrible impact of the British welfare state, you can see how the welfare state destroys lives, creates perverse incentives, and turns people into despicable moochers.

P.P.S. We have the same problems in America, and even leftists are beginning to admit this is bad for poor people. Heck, just look at this chart showing that the poverty rate was falling until the War on Poverty began.

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The folks at the Center for Freedom and Prosperity have been on a roll in the past few months, putting out an excellent series of videos on Obama’s economic policies.

Now we have a new addition to the list. Here’s Mattie Duppler of Americans for Tax Reform, narrating a video that eviscerates the President’s tax agenda.

I like the entire video, as you can imagine, but certain insights and observations are particularly appealing.

1. The rich already pay a disproportionate share of the total tax burden – The video explains that the top-20 percent of income earners pay more than 67 percent of all federal taxes even though they earn only about 50 percent of total income. And, as I’ve explained, it would be very difficult to squeeze that much more money from them.

2. There aren’t enough rich people to fund big government – The video explains that stealing every penny from every millionaire would run the federal government for only three months. And it also makes the very wise observation that this would be a one-time bit of pillaging since rich people would quickly learn not to earn and report so much income. We learned in the 1980s that the best way to soak the rich is by putting a stop to confiscatory tax rates.

3. The high cost of the death tax – I don’t like double taxation, but the death tax is usually triple taxation and that makes a bad tax even worse. Especially since the tax causes the liquidation of private capital, thus putting downward pressure on wages. And even though the tax doesn’t collect much revenue, it probably does result in some upward pressure on government spending, thus augmenting the damage.

4. High taxes on the rich are a precursor to higher taxes on everyone else – This is a point I have made on several occasions, including just yesterday. I’m particularly concerned that the politicians in Washington will boost income tax rates for everybody, then decide that even more money is needed and impose a value-added tax.

The video also makes good points about double taxation, class warfare, and the Laffer Curve.

Please share widely.

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I’ve beaten up on Newt Gingrich for his views on global warming and his attack on the Ryan budget plan, but I’m completely on his side in the faux controversy about whether it is racist to call Barack Obama the “food stamp president.”

This story from ABC News should worry everybody, regardless of whether the people getting trapped in government dependency are white, black, brown, yellow, or green with yellow polka dots.

Congress is under pressure to cut the rapidly rising costs of the federal government’s food stamps program at a time when a record number of Americans are relying on it. The House Appropriations Committee today will review the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture that includes $71 billion for the agency’s “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” That’s $2 billion less than what President Obama requested but a 9 percent increase from 2011, which, critics say, is too large given the sizeable budget deficit. A record number of Americans — about 14 percent — now rely on the federal government’s food stamps program and its rapid expansion in recent years has become a politically explosive topic. More than 44.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits in March, an 11 percent increase from one year ago and nearly 61 percent higher than the same time four years ago.

Most people focus on the huge burden that the food stamp program imposes on taxpayers, which surely is significant, but there is another economic cost that is equally worrisome, and it applies to all income redistribution programs. Whenever the government gives people money simply because their incomes are below a certain level, that creates a poverty trap. More specifically, because people lose benefits for earning more income, they are penalized with very onerous implicit marginal tax rates for climbing the economic ladder.

This isn’t intuitive, so here’s a back-of-the-envelope hypothetical example. Let’s assume you are a low-income person who wants a better life and you have a chance to earn an additional $1,000. How much better off will you be, and will it be worth the costs you might incur (non-pecuniary costs such as the loss of leisure and pecuniary costs such as commuting and child care)?

To answer that question, let’s assume your official tax burden on that additional income is 10 percent for federal income tax, 15 percent for payroll tax, and 5 percent for state income tax. You may not even be aware of the employer portion of the payroll tax, so let’s drop that to 7.5 percent (actually 7.65 percent, but let’s keep this simple). And while state taxes are deductible, the vast majority of people with modest incomes don’t utilize itemized deductions. So the marginal tax rate on this additional income, depending on what assumptions you want to make, is between 20 percent and 25 percent.

So if you earn an additional $1,000, your disposable income only increases by about $750-$800. Is that worth it? Maybe, but maybe not, depending on the costs you incur to earn that income. In any event, the marginal tax rate is rather steep for a low-income person, you may be thinking.

But it gets worse. Let’s say that you lose $15 of government handouts for every $100 of additional income your earn. So when you earn $1,000 of income, you only keep $750-$800, but you also have to give up $150 of goodies from the government – meaning your effective disposable income only rises by $600-$650.

This means that your implicit marginal tax rate on earning more money is actually somewhere between 35 percent and 40 percent. In other words, your marginal tax rate is at least as high as the tax rate on rock stars and professional athletes.

Here’s a chart showing the number of food stamp recipients. It certainly looks like America is becoming a food stamp nation. But if you want to see an even more disturbing image, look at the second chart in this article from the Mises Institute. You’ll see that my hypothetical example dramatically understates the marginal tax rate on people trying to join the middle class. As a taxpayer, I don’t like the cost of the food stamp program. As an economist, I hate the high marginal tax rates caused by income redistribution programs.

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