Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Marginal Tax Rate’ Category

Yesterday’s column featured some of Milton Friedman’s wisdom from 50 years ago on how a high level of societal capital (work ethic, spirit of self-reliance, etc) is needed if we want to limit government.

Today, let’s look at what he said back then about that era’s high tax rates.

His core argument is that high marginal tax rates are self-defeating because the affected taxpayers (like Trump and Biden) will change their behavior to protect themselves from being pillaged.

This was in the pre-Reagan era, when the top federal tax rate was 70 percent, and notice that Friedman made a Laffer Curve-type prediction that a flat tax of 19 percent would collect more revenue than the so-called progressive system.

We actually don’t know if that specific prediction would have been accurate, but we do know that Reagan successfully lowered the top tax rate on the rich from 70 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 1988.

So, by looking at what happened to tax revenues from these taxpayers, we can get a pretty good idea whether Friedman’s prediction was correct.

Well, here’s the IRS data from 1980 and 1988 for taxpayers impacted by the highest tax rate. I’ve circled (in red) the relevant data showing how we got more rich people, more taxable income, and more tax revenue.

The bottom line is that Friedman was right.

Good tax policy (i.e., lower rates on productive behavior) can be a win-win situation. Taxpayers earn more and keep more, while politicians also wind up with more because the economic pie expands.

Something to keep in mind since some politicians in Washington want a return to confiscatory taxes on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Read Full Post »

Two weeks ago, I shared some video from a presentation to the New Economic School of Georgia (the country, not the state) as part of my “Primer on the Laffer Curve.”

Here’s that portion of that presentation that outlines the principles of sensible taxation.

Just in case you don’t want to watch me pontificate for nearly 14 minutes, here’s the slide from the presentation that most deserves attention since it captures the key principle of good tax policy.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of that thing.

By the way, I had an opportunity earlier this year to share some similar thoughts about the principles of sound tax policy with the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Financial Accountability Transparency & Integrity.

Given my past interactions with fiscal people at the U.N., I’m not overflowing with optimism that the following observations with have an impact, but hope springs eternal.

The ideal fiscal environment is one that has a vibrant and productive economy that generates sufficient revenue with modest tax rates that do not needlessly penalize productive behavior. Public finance experts generally agree on the following features

  • Low marginal tax rates. A tax operates by increasing the “price” of whatever is being taxed. This is most obvious in the case of some excise taxes –such as levies on tobacco –where governments explicitly seek to discourage certain behaviors. …but there should be a general consensus in favor of keeping tax rates reasonable on the behaviors –work, saving, investment, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship –that make an economy more prosperous.
  • A “consumption-base.” Because of capital gains taxes, death taxes, wealth taxes, and double taxation of interest and dividends, many nations impose a disproportionately harsh tax burden on income that is saved and invested. This creates a bias against capital formation, which is problematical since every economic theory –including various forms of socialism –share the view that saving and investment are necessary for rising wages and higher living standards.
  • Neutrality. Special preferences in a tax system distort the relative “prices” of how income is earned or how income is spent. Such special tax breaks encourage taxpayers to make economically inefficient choices simply to lower their tax liabilities. Moreover, loopholes, credits, deductions, exemptions, holidays, exclusions, and other preferences reduce tax receipts, thus creating pressure for higher marginal tax rates, which magnifies the adverse economic impact.
  • Territoriality. This is the simple notion that governments should not tax activity outside their borders. If income is earned in Brazil, for instance, the Brazilian government should have the authority over how that income is taxed.The same should be true for all other nations.

By the way, “consumption-base” is simply the jargon used by public-finance economists when referring to a tax system that doesn’t impose double taxation (i.e., extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested).

Here’s a flowchart I prepared showing the double taxation in the current system compared to what happens with a flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of understatement, it’s impossible to have a good tax system with a bloated public sector, which means it’s not easy to be optimistic about future fiscal policy in the United States.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2016, I shared an image that showed how the welfare state punishes both the poor and rich.

Rich people are hurt for the obvious reason. They get hit with the highest statutory tax rates, and also bear the brunt of the double taxation (the extra layers of tax on saving and investment resulting from capital gains taxes, double taxes on dividends, death taxes, etc).

But I also pointed out that the poor are penalized because they get trapped in dependency.

In large part, this is because they face bad incentives when they work and try to become self sufficient. Not only do they get hit by federal and state taxes, but they also can lose access to various redistribution programs. And the combination of those two factors can produce very high implicit marginal tax rates.

I cited an astounding example of this phenomenon in 2012, showing that a single mother in Pennsylvania would be better off earning $29,000 rather than $57,000. In other words, her implicit marginal tax rate on an extra $28,000 would be 100 percent (thus fulfilling FDR’s odious dream, albeit against a different set of victims).

How pervasive is this problem?

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research gives us the answer. Authored by David Altig, Alan J. Auerbach, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Elias Ilin, and Victor Ye, it estimates implicit marginal tax rates for various segments of the population.

A plethora of federal and state tax and benefit policies jointly determine Americans’ incentives to work. …complex and often arcane provisions that condition tax payments and benefit receipts on labor income, asset income, total income, and the level of assets. …The myriad features of our fiscal system raise this paper’s central questions: What are the typical levels of marginal net tax rates facing Americans of different ages and resource levels, taking the entire federal and state fiscal system into account? …How much does one’s choice of the state in which to live impact one’s incentive to work? …We address these questions by running 2016 Survey-of-Consumer-Finances (SCF) data through The Fiscal Analyzer (TFA).

The five economists discovered that lower-income people are often hit by very high marginal tax rates on work (τL).

Our main findings, which focus on the fiscal consequences of SCF household heads earning $1,000 more in our base year – 2018, are striking. One in four low-wage workers face lifetime marginal net tax rates above 70 percent, effectively locking them into poverty. Over half face remaining lifetime marginal net tax rates above 45 percent. …marginal net lifetime tax rates are generally higher for those in the lowest quintile than for those in the middle three quintiles… The potential poverty trap arising under our fiscal system is highlighted by the 75th τL-percentile values for the bottom quintiles. Moving from the youngest to the oldest cohorts, these values are 67.4 percent, 75.9 percent, 69.3 percent, 76.5 percent, 74.4 percent, and 73.9 percent. Hence, one in four of our poorest households, regardless of age, make between two and three times as much for the government than they make for themselves in earning an extra $1,000.

This graph from the study shows how poor people can even face marginal tax rates of more than 100 percent (which I’ve highlighted in red). The vertical axis is the tax rate and the horizontal axis is household prosperity.

Subjecting poor people to very high implicit tax rates is horrible economic policy, just like it’s horrible policy to hit any other group of people with high marginal tax rates.

Simply stated, when people are punished for engaging in productive economic behavior, they respond by reducing their work, their saving, their investment, and their entrepreneurship.

Interestingly, some states are better (or less worse) than others.

One’s choice of state in which to live can dramatically affect marginal net tax rates. Across all cohorts, the typical bottom-quintile household can lower its remaining lifetime marginal net tax rate by 99.7 percentage points by switching states! …The typical household can raise its total remaining lifetime spending by 8.1 percent by moving from a high-tax to a low-tax state, holding its human wealth, housing expenses, and other characteristics fixed. …To illustrate how τL varies from state to state, we calculate the median τL for households in the 30-39 age cohort in the lowest resource quintile in each state. …Figure 11 shows the cross-state variation in median lifetime marginal tax rates. …median rates varies between a low of 38.8 percent in South Carolina and a high of 55.0 percent in Connecticut. Clearly, where people live can matter a lot for their incentives to work.

Here’s a map showing the marginal tax rate on people in the bottom 20 percent. The obvious takeaway is that you don’t want to be a poor person in Connecticut, Minnesota, or Illinois.

For what it’s worth, tax rates are still too high in the best states (South Carolina, Texas, Indiana, and South Dakota).

The bottom line is that the welfare state is bad news for both taxpayers and recipients. All of which may help to explain why the poverty rate stopped falling once the government declared a “War on Poverty.”

Read Full Post »

In some cases, politicians actually understand the economics of tax policy.

It’s quite common, for instance, to hear them urging higher taxes on tobacco because they want to discourage smoking.

I don’t think it’s their job to tell people how to live their lives, but I agree with their economic analysis. The more you tax something, the less you get of it.

One of my many frustrations is that those politicians then conveniently forget that lesson when it comes to taxing things that are good, such as work, saving, production, and investment.

And some countries are more punitive than others. There’s some new research from the European Policy Information Center, Timbro, and the Tax Foundation, that estimates the “effective marginal tax rate” for successful taxpayers for 41 major countries.

And they don’t simply look at the top income tax rates. They quite properly include other taxes that contribute to “deadweight loss” by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

The political discussion around taxing high-earners usually revolves around the income tax, but in order to get a complete picture of the tax burden high-income earners face, it is important to consider effective marginal tax rates. The effective marginal tax rate answers the question, “If a worker gets a raise such that the total cost to the employer increases by one dollar, how much of that is appropriated by the government in the form of income tax, social security contributions, and consumption taxes?” …all taxes that affect the return to work should be taken into account. …Combining data mainly from international accounting firms, the OECD, and the European Commission, we are able to calculate marginal tax rates in the 41 members of the OECD and/or EU.

The main message of this research is that you don’t want to live in Sweden, where you only keep 24 percent of any additional income you produce.

And you should also avoid Slovenia, Belgium, Portugal, Finland, France, etc.

Congratulations to Bulgaria for being the anti-class warfare nation. That’s a smart strategy for a nation trying to recover from decades of communist deprivation.

American readers will be happy to see that the United States looks reasonably good, though New Zealand is the best of the rich nations, followed by Switzerland.

Speaking of which, we need a caveat for nations with federalist systems, such as the U.S., Switzerland, and Canada. In these cases, the top income tax rate is calculated by adding the central government’s top rate with the average top rate for sub-national governments.

So successful entrepreneurs in those countries actually have the ability to reduce their tax burdens if they make wise decisions on where to live (such as Texas or Florida in the case of the United States).

Let’s now shift to some economic analysis. The report makes (what should be) an obvious point that high tax rates have negative economic effects.

Countries should be cautious about placing excessive tax burdens on high-income earners, for several reasons. In the short run, high marginal tax rates induce tax avoidance and tax evasion, and can cause high-income earners to reduce their work effort or hours.

I would add another adverse consequence. Successful taxpayers can move.

That’s especially true in Europe, where cross-border tax migration is much easier than it is in the United States.

But even though there are odious exit taxes for people leaving the United States, we’ll see an exodus if we wind up with some of the crazy tax policies being advocated by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

P.S. Today’s column looks at how nations rank based on the taxation of labor income. For taxation of capital income, the rankings look quite different. For instance, because of pervasive double taxation, the United States gets poor scores for over-taxing dividends, capital gains, and businesses.

P.P.S. If you want to see tax rates on middle-income workers (though it omits value-added taxes), here is some OECD data.

Read Full Post »

In addition to being a contest over expanding the burden of government spending, the Democratic primary also is a contest to see who wants the biggest tax increases.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made class-warfare taxation an integral part of their campaigns, but even some of the supposedly reasonable Democrats are pushing big increases in tax rates.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute opines about the anti-growth effect of these proposed tax hikes, particularly with regard to entrepreneurship and successful new firms.

The Democratic presidential candidates have plenty of ideas about taxes. Wealth taxes. Wall Street taxes. Inequality taxes. And probably more to come. So lots of creative thinking about wealth redistribution. Wealth creation? Not so much. …one way to look at boosting GDP growth is thinking about specific policies to boost labor force and productivity growth. But there’s another way of approaching the issue: How many fast-growing growing new firms would need to be generated each year to lift the economy-wide growth rate each year by one percent? …a rough calculation by analyst Robert Litan figures there about 15 billion-dollar (in sales) companies formed every year. But what if the American entrepreneurial ecosystem were so vibrant that it produced 60 such companies annually? …The big point here is that the American private sector is key to growth. No other large economy is as proficient as the US in creating high-impact startups. But it doesn’t appear that the Democratic enthusiasm for big and bold tax plans is matched by concern about unwanted trade-offs.

If you want a substantive economic critique of class-warfare tax policy, Alan Reynolds has a must-read article on the topic.

He starts by explaining why it’s important to measure how sensitive taxpayers are (the “elasticity of taxable income”) to changes in tax rates.

Elasticity of taxable income estimates are simply a relatively new summary statistic used to illustrate observed behavioral responses to past variations in marginal tax rates. They do so by examining what happened to the amount of income reported on individual tax returns, in total and at different levels of income, before and after major tax changes. …For example, if a reduced marginal tax rate produces a substantial increase in the amount of taxable income reported to the IRS, the elasticity of taxable income is high. If not, the elasticity is low. ETI incorporates effects of tax avoidance as well as effects on incentives for productive activity such as work effort, research, new business start-ups, and investment in physical and human capital.

Alan then looks at some of the ETI estimates and what they imply for tax rates, though he notes that the revenue-maximizing rate is not the optimal rate.

Diamond and Saez claim that, if the relevant ETI is 0.25, then the revenue-maximizing top tax rate is 73 percent. Such estimates, however, do not refer to the top federal income tax rate, …but to the combined marginal rate on income, payrolls, and sales at the federal, state, and local level. …with empirically credible changes in parameters, the Diamond-Saez formula can more easily be used to show that top U.S. federal, state, and local tax rates are already too high rather than too low. By also incorporating dynamic effects — such as incentives to invest in human capital and new ideas — more recent models estimate that the long-term revenue-maximizing top tax rate is between 22 and 49 percent… Elasticity of taxable, or perhaps gross income…can be “a sufficient statistic to approximate the deadweight loss” from tax disincentives and distortions. Although recent studies define revenue-maximization as “optimal,” Goolsbee…rightly emphasizes, “The fact that efficiency costs rise with the square of the tax rate are likely to make the optimal rate well below the revenue-maximizing rate.”

These excerpts only scratch the surface.

Alan’s article extensively discusses how high-income taxpayers are especially sensitive to high tax rates, in part because they have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

He also reviews the empirical evidence from major shifts in tax rates last century.

All told, his article is a devastating take-down of the left-of-center economists who have tried to justify extortionary tax rates. Simply stated, high tax rates hinder the economy, create deadweight loss, and don’t produce revenue windfalls.

That being said, I wonder whether his article will have any impact. As Kevin Williamson points out is a column for National Review, the left isn’t primarily motivated by a desire for more tax money.

Perhaps the strangest utterance of Barack Obama’s career in public office…was his 2008 claim that raising taxes on the wealthy is a moral imperative, even if the tax increase in question ended up reducing overall federal revenue. Which is to say, Obama argued that it did not matter whether a tax increase hurt the Treasury, so long as it also hurt, at least in theory and on paper, certain wealthy people. …ideally, you want a tax system with low transaction costs (meaning a low cost of compliance) and one that doesn’t distort a lot of economic activity. You want to get enough money to fund your government programs with as little disruption to life as possible. …Punitive taxes aren’t about the taxes — they’re about the punishment. That taxation should have been converted from a technical question into a moral crusade speaks to the basic failure of the progressive enterprise in the United States…the progressive demand for a Scandinavian welfare state at no cost to anybody they care about…ends up being a very difficult equation to balance, probably an impossible one. And when the numbers don’t work, there’s always cheap moralistic histrionics.

So what leads our friends on the left to pursue such misguided policies? What drives their support for punitive taxation?

Is is that they’re overflowing with compassion and concern for the poor?

Hardly.

Writing for the Federalist, Emily Ekins shares some in-depth polling data that discovers that envy is the real motive.

Supporters often contend their motivation is compassion for the dispossessed… In a new study, I examine…competing explanations and ask whether envy and resentment of the successful or compassion for the needy better explain support for socialism, raising taxes on the rich, redistribution, and the like. …Statistical tests reveal resentment of the successful has about twice the effect of compassion in predicting support for increasing top marginal tax rates, wealth redistribution, hostility to capitalism, and believing billionaires should not exist. …people who agree that “very successful people sometimes need to be brought down a peg or two even if they’ve done nothing wrong” were more likely to want to raise taxes on the rich than people who agree that “I suffer from others’ sorrows.” …I ran another series of statistical tests to investigate the motivations behind the following beliefs: 1) It’s immoral for our system to allow the creation of billionaires, 2) billionaires threaten democracy, and 3) the distribution of wealth in the United States is “unjust.” Again, the statistical tests find that resentment against successful people is more influential than compassion in predicting each of these three beliefs. In fact, not only is resentment more impactful, but compassionate people are significantly less likely to agree that it’s immoral for our system to allow people to become billionaires.

Here’s one of her charts, showing that resentment is far and away the biggest driver of support for class-warfare proposals.

These numbers are quite depressing.

They suggest that no amount of factual analysis or hard data will have any effect on the debate.

And there is polling data to back up Emily’s statistical analysis. Heck, some folks on the left openly assert that envy should be the basis for tax policy.

In other words, Deroy Murdock and Margaret Thatcher weren’t creating imaginary enemies.

P.S. If you think Kevin Williamson was somehow mischaracterizing or exaggerating Obama’s spiteful position on tax policy, just watch this video.

Read Full Post »

The New York Times is going overboard with disingenuous columns.

A few days ago, I pointed out the many errors in David Leonhardt’s column extolling the wealth tax.

I also explained back in August how Steven Greenhouse butchered the data when he condemned the American economy.

And Paul Krugman is infamous for his creative writing.

But Mr. Leonhardt is on a roll. He has a new column promoting class warfare tax policy.

Almost a decade ago, Warren Buffett made a claim that would become famous. He said that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary, thanks to the many loopholes and deductions that benefit the wealthy.oct-8-19-nyt …“Is it the norm?” the fact-checking outfit Politifact asked. “No.” Time for an update: It’s the norm now. …the 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group, according to newly released data. …That’s a sharp change from the 1950s and 1960s, when the wealthy paid vastly higher tax rates than the middle class or poor.

Here’s the supposed proof for Leonhardt’s claim, which is based on a new book from two professors at the University of California at Berkeley, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

Here are the tax rates from 1950.

oct-8-19-1950

And here are the tax rates from last year, showing the combined effect of the Kennedy tax cut, the Reagan tax cuts, the Bush tax cuts, and the Trump tax cut (as well as the Nixon tax increase, the Clinton tax increase, and the Obama tax increase).

oct-8-19-2018

So is Leonhardt (channeling Saez and Zucman) correct?

Are these charts evidence of a horrid and unfair system?

Nope, not in the slightest.

But this data is evidence of dodgy analysis by Leonhardt and the people he cites.

First and foremost, the charts conveniently omit the fact that dividends and capital gains earned by high-income taxpayers also are subject to the corporate income tax.

Even the left-leaning Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development acknowledges that both layers of tax should be included when measuring the effective tax rate on households.

Indeed, this is why Warren Buffett was grossly wrong when claiming he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary.

But there’s also another big problem. There’s a huge difference between high tax rates and high tax revenues.

feb-4-19-perrySimply stated, the rich didn’t pay a lot of tax when rates were extortionary because they can choose not to earn and declare much income.

Indeed, there were only eight taxpayers in 1960 who paid the top tax rates of 91 percent.

Today, by contrast, upper-income taxpayers are paying an overwhelming share of the tax burden.

It’s especially worth noting that tax collections from the rich skyrocketed when Reagan slashed the top tax rate in the 1980s.

Let’s close by pointing out that Saez and Zucman are promoting a very radical tax agenda.

Saez and Zucman sketch out a modern progressive tax code. The overall tax rate on the richest 1 percent would roughly double, to about 60 percent. The tax increases would bring in about $750 billion a year, or 4 percent of G.D.P…. One crucial part of the agenda is a minimum global corporate tax of at least 25 percent. …Saez and Zucman also favor a wealth tax

Punitive income tax rates, higher corporate tax rates, and a confiscatory wealth tax.

Does anybody think copying France is a recipe for success?

P.S. I pointed out that Zucman and Saez make some untenable assumptions when trying to justify how a wealth tax won’t hurt the economy.

P.P.S. It’s also worth remembering that the income of rich taxpayers will be subject to the death tax as well, which means Leonhardt’s charts are doubly misleading.

Read Full Post »

At the risk of over-simplifying, the difference between “supply-side economics” and “demand-side economics” is that the former is based on microeconomics (incentives, price theory) while the latter is based on macroeconomics (aggregate demand, Keynesianism).

When discussing the incentive-driven supply-side approach, I often focus on two key points.

  • Marginal tax rates matter more than average tax rates because the incentive to earn additional income (rather than enjoying leisure) is determined by whether the government grabs a small, medium, or large share of any extra earnings.
  • Some taxpayers such as investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners are especially sensitive to changes in marginal tax rates because they have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Today, let’s review some new research from Spain’s central bank confirms these supply-side insights.

Here’s what the authors investigated.

The impact of personal income taxes on the economic decisions of individuals is a key empirical question with important implications for the optimal design of tax policy. …the modern public finance literature has devoted significant efforts to study behavioral responses to changes in taxes on reported taxable income… Most of this work focuses on the elasticity of taxable income (ETI), which captures a broad set of real and reporting behavioral responses to taxation. Indeed, reported taxable income reflects not only individuals’ decisions on hours worked, but also work effort and career choices as well as the results of investment and entrepreneurship activities. Besides these real responses, the ETI also captures tax evasion and avoidance decisions of individuals to reduce their tax bill.

By the way, “elasticity” is econ-speak for sensitivity. In other words, if there’s high elasticity, it means taxpayers are very responsive to a change in tax rates.

Anyhow, here’s how authors designed their study.

In this paper, we estimate the elasticity of taxable income in Spain, an interesting country to study because during the last two decades it has implemented several major personal income tax reforms… In the empirical analysis, we use an administrative panel dataset of income tax returns… We calculate the MTR as a weighted average of the MTR applicable to each income source (labor, financial capital, real-estate capital, business income and capital gains).

You can see in Figure 1 that the 2003 reform was good for taxpayers and the 2012 reform was bad for taxpayers.

If nothing else, though, these changes created the opportunity for scholars to measure how taxpayers respond.

And here are the results.

We obtain estimates of the ETI around 0.35 using the Gruberand Saez (2002) estimation method, 0.54 using Kleven and Schultz (2014)’s method and 0.64 using Weber (2014)’s method. …In addition to the average estimates of the ETI, we analyze heterogeneous responses across groups of taxpayers and sources of income. …As expected, stronger responses are documented for groups of taxpayers with higher ability to respond. In particular, self-employed taxpayers have a higher ETI than wage employees, while real-estate capital and business income respond more strongly than labor income. …we find large responses on the tax deductions margin, especially private pension contributions.

In other words, taxpayers do respond to changes in tax policy.

And some taxpayers are very sensitive (high elasticity) to those changes.

Here’s Table 6 from the study. Much of it will be incomprehensible if you’re not familiar with econometrics. But all that matters is that I circled (in red) the measures of how elasticities vary based on the type of income (larger numbers mean more sensitive).

I’ll close with a very relevant observation about American fiscal policy.

Currently, upper-income taxpayers finance the vast majority of America’s medium-sized welfare state.

But what if the United States had a large-sized welfare state, like the ones that burden many European nations?

If you review the data, those large-sized welfare states are financed with stifling tax burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers. Politicians in Europe learned that they couldn’t squeeze enough money out of the rich (in large part because of high elasticities).

Indeed, I wrote early this year about how taxes are confiscating the lion’s share of the income earned by ordinary workers in Spain.

And if we adopt the expanded welfare state envisioned by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Kamala Harris, the same thing will happen to American workers.

P.S. I admire how Spanish taxpayers have figured out ways of escaping the tax net.

P.P.S. There’s also evidence about the impact of Spain’s corporate tax.

Read Full Post »

Assuming the goal is faster growth and higher living standards, there are three core principles of good tax policy.

You could call this list the Holy Trinity of supply-side economics. Simply stated, incentives matter, so it makes no sense for government to discourage the things that make a nation more prosperous.

Regarding low marginal tax rates, my left-leaning friends sometimes dismiss the importance of this principle by pointing out that they don’t pay much attention to their marginal tax rates.

I can sympathize with their skepticism. When I was first learning about public finance and studying supply-and-demand curves showing deadweight loss, I also wondered about the supply-side claim that marginal tax rates mattered. Even after I started working, I had doubts. Would I somehow work harder if my tax rate fell? Or goof off if my tax rate went up? It didn’t make much sense.

What I didn’t recognize, however, is that I was looking at the issue from the perspective of someone working a standard, 9-to-5 job with a modest income. And it is true that such workers are not very responsive (especially in the short run) to changes in tax rates.

In the real world, though, there are lots of people who don’t fit that profile. They have jobs that give them substantial control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

And these people – such as business owners, professionals, second earners, investors, and entrepreneurs – often are very responsive to changes in marginal tax rates.

We have a new example of this phenomenon. Check out these excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Times.

About three quarters of GPs and hospital consultants have cut or are planning to cut their hours… About 42 per cent of family doctors and 30 per cent of consultants have reduced their working times already, claiming that they are being financially penalised the more they work. A further 34 per cent and 40 per cent respectively have confirmed that they plan to reduce their hours in the coming months… The government has launched an urgent consultation over the issue, which is the result of changes to pension rules limiting the amount that those earning £110,000 or more can pay into their pensions before they are hit with a large tax bill.

In other words, high tax rates have made leisure more attractive than work. Why work long hours, after all, if the tax authority is the biggest beneficiary?

There are also indirect victims of these high tax rates.

Last month figures from NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, showed that waiting lists had climbed by up to 50 per cent since April as doctors stopped taking on extra shifts to avoid the financial penalties. Richard Vautrey, chairman of the BMA GPs’ committee, said: “These results show the extent to which GPs are being forced to reduce their hours or indeed leave the profession altogether because of pension taxes. …swift and decisive action is needed from the government to end this shambolic situation and to limit the damage that a punitive pensions taxation system is inflicting on doctors, their patients and across the NHS as a whole.”

The U.K.’s government-run health system already has plenty of problems, including long wait times and denial of care. The last thing it needs is for doctors and other professionals to cut back their hours because politicians are too greedy.

The moral of the story is that tax rates matter. Depending on the type of person, they can matter a lot.

This doesn’t mean tax rates need to be zero (though I like that idea).

It simply means that taxes impose costs, and those costs become increasingly apparent as tax rates climb.

P.S. If you want a horror story about marginal tax rates, check out what happened to Cam Newton, the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

Read Full Post »

I’m not a big fan of the current tax system. I’m also not supportive of America’s bankrupt Social Security system.

The country would be much better off with fundamental reform of both the tax system and Social Security.

Some groups will be reap especially large rewards if that happens.

For instance, a new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research examines the impact of taxes and Social Security on female labor supply.

…we ask to what extent the fact that taxes and old age Social Security benefits depend on one’s marital status discourages female labor supply and affect welfare. …as couples file taxes jointly, the secondary earner in the married couple faces a higher marginal tax rate, which tends to discourage their labor supply. …reduced labor supply does not necessarily imply lower Social Security benefits. Since women have historically been the secondary earners, both provisions tend to discourage female labor supply… to what extent are these disincentives holding it back? …We estimate our dynamic structural model using…data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) for the cohort born in 1941-1945 (the “1945” cohort). …we also estimate our model for the 1951-1955 cohort (the “1955” cohort),

This chart from the study shows that married women face a tax penalty – i.e., higher marginal tax rates – compared to single women.

The main takeaway is that this marriage penalty, combined with discriminatory features of Social Security, discourages women from working.

How big is the effect?

The report, authored by Margherita Borella, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Fang Yang, finds that government policies have a significant adverse impact on labor-force participation.

For the 1945 cohort, we find that Social Security spousal and survivor benefits and the current structure of joint income taxation provide strong disincentives to work to married women and single women who expect to get married… For instance, the elimination of all of these marriage-based rules raises participation at age 25 by over 20 percentage points for married women and by five percentage points for single women. At age 45, participation for these groups is, respectively, still 15 and 3 percentage point higher without these marital benefits provisions. In addition, these marriage-based rules reduce the participation of married men starting at age 55, resulting in a participation that is 8 percentage points lower by age 65. Finally, for these cohorts, these marital provisions decrease the savings of married couples by 20.3% at age 66.1 In terms of welfare, abolishing these marital provisions would benefit…over ninety percent of the people in this cohort. …We find that the effects for the 1955 cohort on participation, wages, earnings, and savings are large and similar to those in the 1945 cohort, thus indicating that the effects of marriage-related provisions are large also for cohorts in which the labor participation of married women is higher.

What if these discriminatory policies were fixed?

It depends, of course, on how the problems are addressed.

The report finds that a budget-neutral approach (i.e., returning any budgetary windfall to taxpayers) would be a significant net plus.

…there would also be large aggregate gains from removing marriage related provisions and reducing the income tax… Overall our policy experiments thus indicate that removing marriage related taxes and Social Security benefits would increase female labor supply and the welfare of the majority of the populations.

Here are a couple of charts from the study, showing both an increase in labor supply and an increase in labor income.

I’ll close with a final point about family structure.

Some people will argue that the current penalties in the tax code and Social Security system are desirable because they don’t punish stay-at-home moms as much as working women.

That’s a very strange argument. Sort of like the folks on the left, including the IMF, who advocate policies that hurt the poor if rich people suffer even more.

P.S. If there’s reform, older people also will enjoy significant gains.

Read Full Post »

A couple of weeks ago, I used a story about a local tax issue in Washington, DC, to make an important point about how new tax increases cause more damage than previous tax increases because “deadweight losses” increase geometrically rather than arithmetically.

Simply stated, if a tax of X does Y amount of damage, then a tax of 2X will do a lot more damage than 2Y.

This is the core economic reason why even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree that class-warfare taxes are so destructive. When you take a high tax rate and make it even higher, the damage grows exponentially.

As such, I was very interested to see a new study on this topic from the World Bank. It starts by noting that higher tax rates are the wrong way to address fiscal shortfalls.

…studies have used the narrative approach for individual or multi-country analyses (in all cases, focusing solely on industrial economies, and mostly on industrial European countries). These studies find large negative tax multipliers, ranging between 2 and 5. This recent consensus pointing to large negative tax multipliers, especially in industrial European countries, naturally entails important policy prescriptions. For example, as part of a more comprehensive series of papers focusing on spending and tax multipliers, Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi (2015) point that policies based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of short run output losses than tax based adjustments.

The four authors used data on value-added taxes to investigate whether higher tax rates did more damage or less damage in developing nations.

A natural question is whether large negative tax multipliers are a robust empirical regularity… In order to answer this highly relevant academic and policy question, one would ideally need to conduct a study using a more global sample including industrial and, particularly, developing countries. …This paper takes on this challenge by focusing on 51 countries (21 industrial and 30 developing) for the period 1970-2014. …we focus our efforts on building a new series for quarterly standard value-added tax rates (henceforth VAT rates). …We identify a total of 96 VAT rate changes in 35 countries (18 industrial and 17 developing).

The economists found that VAT increases did the most damage in developing nations.

…when splitting the sample into industrial European economies and the rest of countries, we find tax multipliers of 3:6 and 1:2, respectively. While the tax multiplier in industrial European economies is quite negative and statistically significant (in line with recent studies), it is about 3 times smaller (in absolute value) and borderline statistically significant for the rest of countries.

Here’s a chart showing the comparison.

Now here’s the part that merits close attention.

The study confirms that the deadweight loss of VAT hikes is higher in developed nations because the initial tax burden is higher.

Based on different types of macroeconomic models (which in turn rely on different mechanisms), the output effect of tax changes is expected to be small at low initial levels of taxation but exponentially larger when initial tax levels are high. Therefore, the distortions and disincentives imposed by taxation on economic activity are directly, and non-linearly, related to the level of tax rates. By the same token, for a given level of initial tax rates, larger tax rate changes have larger tax multipliers. …In line with theoretical distortionary and disincentive-based arguments, we find, using our novel worldwide narrative, that the effect of tax changes on output is indeed highly non-linear. Our empirical findings show that the tax multiplier is essentially zero under relatively low/moderate initial tax rate levels and more negative as the initial tax rate and the size of the change in the tax rate increase. …This evidence strongly supports distortionary and disincentive-based arguments regarding a nonlinear effect of tax rate changes on economic activity…the economy will inevitably suffer when taxes are increased at higher initial tax rate levels.

What makes these finding especially powerful is that value-added taxes are less destructive than income taxes on a per-dollar-raised basis.

So if taking a high VAT rate and making it even higher causes a disproportionate amount of economic damage, then imagine how destructive it is to increase top income tax rates.

P.S. The fact that a VAT is less destructive than an income tax is definitely not an argument for enacting a VAT. That would be akin to arguing that it would be fun to break your wrist because that wouldn’t hurt as much as the broken leg you already have.

I’ve even dealt with people who actually argue that a VAT isn’t economically destructive because it imposes the same tax on current consumption and future consumption. I agree with them that it is a good idea to avoid double taxation of saving and investment, but that doesn’t change the fact that a VAT increases the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

And that means less incentive to earn income in the first place.

Which is confirmed by the study.

Panels A and B in Figure 18 show the relationship between the VAT rate a and the perceived effect of taxes on incentives to work and invest, respectively, for a sample of 123 countries for the year 2014. Supporting our previous findings, the relationship is highly non-linear. While the perceived effect of taxes on the incentives to work and invest barely changes as VAT rates increase at low/moderate levels (approximately until the VAT rate reaches 14 percent), it falls rapidly for high levels of VAT rates.

Here’s the relevant chart from the report.

The moral of the story is that all tax increases are misguided, but class-warfare taxes wreak the most economic havoc.

P.S. Not everyone understands this common-sense observation. For instance, the bureaucrats at the Congressional Budget Office basically argued back in 2010 that a 100 percent tax rate was the way to maximize growth.

Read Full Post »

When I write about the economics of fiscal policy and need to give people an easy-to-understand explanation on how government spending affects growth, I share my four-part video series.

But. other than a much-too-short primer on growth and taxation from 2016, I don’t have something similar for tax policy. So I have to direct people to various columns about marginal tax rates, double taxation, tax favoritism, tax reform, corporate taxation, and tax competition.

Today’s column isn’t going to be a comprehensive analysis of taxes and growth, but it is going to augment the 2016 primer by taking a close look at how some taxes are more destructive than others.

And what makes today’s column noteworthy is that I’ll be citing the work of left-leaning international bureaucracies.

Let’s look at a study from the OECD.

…taxes…affect the decisions of households to save, supply labour and invest in human capital, the decisions of firms to produce, create jobs, invest and innovate, as well as the choice of savings channels and assets by investors. What matters for these decisions is not only the level of taxes but also the way in which different tax instruments are designed and combined to generate revenues…investigating how tax structures could best be designed to promote economic growth is a key issue for tax policy making. … this study looks at consequences of taxes for both GDP per capita levels and their transitional growth rates.

For all intents and purposes, the economists at the OECD wanted to learn more about how taxes distort the quantity and quality of labor and capital, as illustrated by this flowchart from the report.

Here are the main findings (some of which I cited, in an incidental fashion, back in 2014).

The reviewed evidence and the empirical work suggests a “tax and growth ranking” with recurrent taxes on immovable property being the least distortive tax instrument in terms of reducing long-run GDP per capita, followed by consumption taxes (and other property taxes), personal income taxes and corporate income taxes. …relying less on corporate income relative to personal income taxes could increase efficiency. …Focusing on personal income taxation, there is also evidence that flattening the tax schedule could be beneficial for GDP per capita, notably by favouring entrepreneurship. …Estimates in this study point to adverse effects of highly progressive income tax schedules on GDP per capita through both lower labour utilisation and lower productivity… a reduction in the top marginal tax rate is found to raise productivity in industries with potentially high rates of enterprise creation. …Corporate income taxes appear to have a particularly negative impact on GDP per capita.”

Here’s how the study presented the findings. I might quibble with some of the conclusions, but it’s worth noting all the minuses in the columns for marginal tax, progressivity, top rates, dividends, capital gains, and corporate tax.

This is all based on data from relatively prosperous countries.

A new study from the International Monetary Fund, which looks at low-income nations rather than high-income nations, reaches the same conclusion.

The average tax to GDP ratio in low-income countries is 15% compared to that of 30% in advanced economies. Meanwhile, these countries are also those that are in most need of fiscal space for sustainable and inclusive growth. In the past two decades, low-income countries have made substantial efforts in strengthening revenue mobilization. …what is the most desirable tax instrument for fiscal consolidation that balances the efficiency and equity concerns. In this paper, we study quantitatively the macroeconomic and distributional impacts of different tax instruments for low-income countries.

It’s galling that the IMF report implies that there’s a “need for fiscal space” and refers to higher tax burdens as “strengthening revenue mobilization.”

But I assume some of that rhetoric was added at the direction of the political types.

The economists who crunched the numbers produced results that confirm some of the essential principles of supply-side economics.

…we conduct steady state comparison across revenue mobilization schemes where an additional tax revenues equal to 2% GDP in the benchmark economy are raised by VAT, PIT, and CIT respectively. Our quantitative results show that across the three taxes, VAT leads to the least output and consumption losses of respectively 1.8% and 4% due to its non-distorting feature… Overall, we find that among the three taxes, VAT incurs the lowest efficiency costs in terms of aggregate output and consumption, but it could be very regressive… CIT, on the other hand, though causes larger efficiency costs, but has considerable better inequality implications. PIT, however, deteriorates both the economic efficiency and equity, thus is the most detrimental instrument.

Here’s the most important chart from the study. It shows that all taxes undermine prosperity, but that personal income taxes (grey bar) and corporate income tax (white bar) do the most damage.

I’ll close with two observations.

First, these two studies are further confirmation of my observation that many – perhaps most – economists at international bureaucracies generate sensible analysis. They must be very frustrated that their advice is so frequently ignored by the political appointees who push for statist policies.

Second, some well-meaning people look at this type of research and conclude that it would be okay if politicians in America imposed a value-added tax. They overlook that a VAT is bad for growth and are naive if they think a VAT somehow will lead to lower income tax burdens.

Read Full Post »

In the past few years, I’ve bolstered the case for lower tax rates by citing country-specific research from Italy, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Israel, Portugal, South Africa, the United States, Denmark, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom.

Now let’s look to the north.

Two Canadian scholars investigated the impact of provincial tax policy changes in Canada. Here are the issues they investigated.

The tax cuts introduced by the provincial government of British Columbia (BC) in 2001 are an important example… The tax reform was introduced in two stages. In an attempt to make the BC’s economy more competitive, the government reduced the corporate income tax (CIT) rate initially by 3.0 percentage points with an additional 1.5 percentage point reduction in 2005. The government also cut the personal income tax (PIT) rate by about 25 percent. …The Canadian provincial governments’ tax policies provide a good natural experiment for the study of the effects of tax rates on growth. …The principal objective of this paper is to investigate the effects of taxation on growth using data from 10 Canadian provinces during 1977-2006. We also explore the relationship between tax rates and total tax revenue. We use the empirical results to assess the revenue and growth rate effects of the 2001 British Columbia’s incentive-based tax cuts.

And here are the headline results.

The results of this paper indicate that higher taxes are associated with lower private investment and slower economic growth. Our analysis suggests that a 10 percentage point cut in the statutory corporate income tax rate is associated with a temporary 1 to 2 percentage point increase in per capita GDP growth rate. Similarly, a 10 percentage point reduction in the top marginal personal income tax rate is related to a temporary one percentage point increase in the growth rate. … The results suggest that the tax cuts can result in significant long-run output gains. In particular, our simulation results indicate that the 4.5 percentage point CIT rate cut will boost the long-run GDP per capita in BC by 18 percent compared to the level that would have prevailed in the absence of the CIT tax cut. …The result indicates that a 10 percentage point reduction in the corporate marginal tax rate is associated with a 5.76 percentage point increase in the private investment to GDP ratio. Similarly, a 10 percentage point cut in the top personal income tax rate is related to a 5.96 percentage point rise in the private investment to GDP ratio.

The authors look specifically at what happened when British Columbia adopted supply-side tax reforms.

…In this section, we attempt to gauge the magnitude of the growth effects of the CIT and PIT rate cuts in BC in 2001… the growth rate effect of the tax cut is temporary, but long-lasting. Figure 2 shows the output with the CIT rate cut relative to the no-tax cut output over the 120 years horizon. Our model indicates that in the long-run per capita output would be 17.6 percent higher with the 4.5 percentage point CIT rate cut. …We have used a similar procedure to calculate the effects of the five percentage point reduction in the PIT rate in BC. …The solid line in Figure 3 shows simulated relative output with the PIT rate cut compared to the output with the base line growth rate of 1.275. Our model indicates that per capita output would be 7.6 percent higher in the long run with the five percentage point PIT rate cut.

Here’s their estimate of the long-run benefits of a lower corporate tax rate.

And here’s what they found when estimating the pro-growth impact of a lower tax rate on households.

In both cases, lower tax rates lead to more economic output.

Which means that lower tax rates result in more taxable income (the core premise of the Laffer Curve).

The amount of tax revenue that a provincial government collects depends on both its tax rates and tax bases. Thus one major concern that policy makers have in cutting tax rates is the implication of tax cuts for government tax receipts. …The true cost of raising a tax rate to taxpayers is not just the direct cost of but also the loss of output caused by changes in taxpayers’ economic decisions. The Marginal Cost of Public Funds (MCF) measures the loss created by the additional distortion in the allocation of resources when an additional dollar of tax revenue is raised through a tax rate increase. …if…government is on the negatively-sloped section of its present value revenue Laffer curve…, a tax rate reduction would increase the present value of the government’s tax revenues.

And the Canadian research determined that, measured by present value, the lower corporate tax rate will increase tax revenue.

…computations indicate that including the growth rate effects substantially raises our view of the MCF for a PIT. Our computations therefore support previous analysis which indicates that it is much more costly to raise revenue through a PIT rate increase than through a sales tax rate increase and that there are potentially large efficiency gains if a province switches from an income tax to a sales tax. When the growth rate effects of the CIT are included in the analysis, …a CIT rate reduction would increase the present value of the government’s tax revenues. A CIT rate cut would make taxpayers better off and the government would have more funds to spend on public services or cut other taxes. Therefore our computations provide strong support for cutting corporate income tax rates.

Needless to say, if faced with the choice between “more funds to spend” and “cut other taxes,” I greatly prefer the latter. Which is why I worry that people learn the wrong lesson when I point out that the rich paid a lot more tax after Reagan lowered the top rate in the 1980s.

The goal is to generate more prosperity for people, not more revenue for government. So if a tax cut produces more revenue, the immediate response should be to drop the rate even further.

But I’m digressing. The point of today’s column is simply to augment my collection of case studies showing that better tax policy produces better economic performance.

P.S. The research from Canada also helps to explain the positive effect of decentralization and federalism. British Columbia had the leeway to adopt supply-side reforms because the central government in Canada is somewhat limited in size and scope. That’s even more true in Switzerland (where we see the best results), and somewhat true about the United States.

Read Full Post »

Three years ago, I shared two videos explaining taxation and deadweight loss (i.e., why high tax burdens are bad for prosperity).

Today, I have one video on another important principle of taxation. To set the stage for this discussion, here are two simple definitions

  • The “average tax rate” is the share of your income taken by government. If you earn $50,000 and your total tax bill is $10,000, then your average tax rate is 20 percent.
  • The “marginal tax rate” is the amount of money the government takes if you earn more income. In other words, the additional amount government would take if your income rose from $50,000 to $51,000.

These definitions are important because we want to contemplate why and how a tax cut helps an economy.

But let’s start by explaining that a tax cut doesn’t boost growth because people have more money to spend.

I want people to keep more of their earnings, to be sure, but that Keynesian-style explanation overlooks the fact that the additional “spending power” for taxpayers is offset when the government borrows more money to finance the tax cut.

Instead, when thinking about taxes and prosperity, here are the three things you need to know.

1. Economic growth occurs when we increase the quantity and/or quality of labor and capital.

2. Taxes increase the cost of whatever is being taxed, and people respond by doing less of whatever is being taxed.

3. To get more prosperity, lower tax rates on productive behaviors such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

All this is completely correct, but there’s one additional point that needs to be stressed.

4. The tax rate that matters is the marginal tax rate, not the average tax rate.

I discussed the importance of marginal tax rates in 2016, pointing out that Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers was going to lose the Super Bowl (from a financial perspective) because the additional tax he was going to pay was going to exceed the additional income he would earn. In other words, his marginal tax rate was more than 100 percent.

Mon Dieu!

But I also included an example that’s more relevant to the rest of us, looking at our aforementioned hypothetical taxpayer with a 20 percent average tax rate on annual earnings of $50,000. I asked about incentives for this taxpayer to earn more money if the marginal tax rate on additional income was 0 percent, 20 percent, or 100 percent.

Needless to say, as shown in this expanded illustration, the incentive to earn $51,000 will be nonexistent if all of the additional $1,000 goes to government.

That’s why “supply-side economics” is focused on marginal tax rates. If we want more productive behavior, we want the lowest-possible marginal tax rates so people have the greatest-possible incentive to generate more prosperity.

Here’s a very short video primer on this issue.

One very important implication of this insight is that not all tax cuts (or tax increases) are created equal. For instance, as I explained in a three-part series (here, here, and here), there will be very little change in incentives for productive activity if the government gives you a tax credit because you have kids.

But if the government reduces the top tax rate or lowers the tax bias against saving and investment, the incentive for additional productive behavior will be significant.

And this helps to explain why the country enjoyed such positive results from the supply-side changes to tax policy in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s.

Let’s close with some good news (at least relatively speaking) for American readers. Compared to other industrialized countries, top marginal tax rates in the United States are not overly punitive.

Admittedly, this is damning with faint praise. Our tax system is very unfriendly if you compare it to Monaco, Hong Kong, or Bermuda.

But at least we’re not France, where there’s a strong argument to be made that the national sport is taxation rather than soccer.

P.S. I’m not saying tax preferences for kids are wrong. But I am saying they’re not pro-growth.

P.P.S. I mentioned above that Cam Newton – based on his personal finances – lost the Super Bowl even before the opening kickoff. Well, there’s scholarly evidence that teams in high-tax states actually win fewer games.

P.P.P.S. Today’s analysis focuses on the individual income tax, but this analysis also applies to corporate taxation. A company with clever lawyers and accountants may have the ability to lower its average tax rate, but the marginal tax rate is what drives the incentive to earn more income. Which is why reducing the federal corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent was the best part of last year’s tax bill.

Read Full Post »

I strongly applauded the tax reform plan that was enacted in December, especially the lower corporate tax rate and the limit on the deduction for state and local taxes.

But I’m not satisfied. Our long-run goal should be fundamental tax reform. And that means replacing the current system with a simple and fair flat tax.

And the recent tax plan only took a small step in that direction. How small? Well, the Tax Foundation just calculated that it only improved the United States from #30 to #25 in their International Tax Competitiveness Ranking. In other words, we have a long way to go before we catch up to Estonia.

 

It’s possible, of course, to apply different weights and come up with a different list. I think the Tax Foundation’s numbers could be improved, for instance, by including a measure of the aggregate tax burden. And that presumably would boost the U.S. score.

But the fact would remain that the U.S. score would be depressingly low. In other words, the internal revenue code is still a self-imposed wound and huge improvements are still necessary.

That’s why we need another round of tax reform, based on the three core principles of good tax policy.

  1. Lower tax rates
  2. Less double taxation
  3. Fewer loopholes

But how is tax reform possible in a fiscal environment of big government and rising deficits?

This is a challenge. In an ideal world, there would be accompanying budget reforms to save money, thus creating leeway for tax reform to be a net tax cut.

But even in the current fiscal environment, tax reform is possible if policy makers finance pro-growth reforms by closing undesirable loopholes.

Indeed, that’s basically what happened in the recent tax plan. The lower corporate rate was financed by restricting the state and local tax deduction and a few other changes. The budget rules did allow for a modest short-run tax cut, but the overall package was revenue neutral in the long run (i.e., starting in 2027).

It’s now time to repeat this exercise.

The Congressional Budget Office periodically issues a report on Budget Options, which lists all sort of spending reforms and tax increases, along with numbers showing what those changes would mean to the budget over the next 10 years.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this report because it is too limited on the spending side. You won’t find fleshed-out options to shut down departments, for instance, which is unfortunate given the target-rich environment (including TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture).

And on the tax side, it has a lengthy list of tax hikes, generally presented as ways to finance an ever-expanding burden of government spending. The list must be akin to porn for statists like Bernie Sanders.

It includes new taxes.

And it includes increases in existing taxes.

But the CBO report also includes some tax preferences that could be used to finance good tax reforms.

Here are four provisions of the tax code that should be the “pay-fors” in a new tax reform plan.

We’ll start with two that are described in the CBO document.

Further reductions in itemized deductions – The limit on the state and local tax deduction should be the first step. The entire deduction could be repealed as part of a second wave of tax reform. And the same is true for the home mortgage interest deduction and the charitable contributions deduction.

Green-energy pork – The House version of tax reform gutted many of the corrupt tax preferences for green energy. Unfortunately, those changes were not included in the final bill. But the silver lining to that bad decision is that those provisions can be used to finance good reforms in a new bill.

Surprisingly, the CBO report overlooks or only gives cursory treatment to a couple of major tax preferences that each could finance $1 trillion or more of pro-growth changes over the next 10 years.

Municipal bond interest – Under current law, there is no federal tax on the interest paid to owners of bonds issued by state and local governments. This “muni-bond” loophole is very bad tax policy since it creates an incentive that diverts capital from private business investment to subsidizing the profligacy of cities like Chicago and states like California.

Healthcare exclusion – Current law also allows a giant tax break for fringe benefits. When companies purchase health insurance plans for employees, that compensation escapes both payroll taxes and income taxes. Repealing – or at least capping – this exclusion could raise a lot of money for pro-growth reforms (and it would be good healthcare policy as well).

What’s potentially interesting about the four loopholes listed above is that they all disproportionately benefit rich people. This means that if they are curtailed or repealed and the money as part of tax reform, the left won’t be able to argue that upper-income taxpayers are getting unfair benefits.

Actually, they’ll probably still make their usual class-warfare arguments, but they will be laughably wrong.

The bottom line is that we should have smaller government and less taxation. But even if that’s not immediately possible, we can at least figure out revenue-neutral reforms that will produce a tax system that does less damage to growth, jobs, and competitiveness.

Read Full Post »

Last November, I wrote about the lessons we should learn from tax policy in the 1950s and concluded that very high tax rates impose a very high price.

About six months before that, I shared lessons about tax policy in the 1980s and pointed out that Reaganomics was a recipe for prosperity.

Now let’s take a look at another decade.

Amity Shlaes, writing for the City Journal, discusses the battle between advocates of growth and the equality-über-alles crowd.

…progressives have their metrics wrong and their story backward. The geeky Gini metric fails to capture the American economic dynamic: in our country, innovative bursts lead to great wealth, which then moves to the rest of the population. Equality campaigns don’t lead automatically to prosperity; instead, prosperity leads to a higher standard of living and, eventually, in democracies, to greater equality. The late Simon Kuznets, who posited that societies that grow economically eventually become more equal, was right: growth cannot be assumed. Prioritizing equality over markets and growth hurts markets and growth and, most important, the low earners for whom social-justice advocates claim to fight.

Amity analyzes four important decades in the 20th century, including the 1930s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Her entire article is worth reading, but I want to focus on what she wrote about the 1920s. Especially the part about tax policy.

She starts with a description of the grim situation that President Harding and Vice President Coolidge inherited.

…the early 1920s experienced a significant recession. At the end of World War I, the top income-tax rate stood at 77 percent. …in autumn 1920, two years after the armistice, the top rate was still high, at 73 percent. …The high tax rates, designed to corral the resources of the rich, failed to achieve their purpose. In 1916, 206 families or individuals filed returns reporting income of $1 million or more; the next year, 1917, when Wilson’s higher rates applied, only 141 families reported income of $1 million. By 1921, just 21 families reported to the Treasury that they had earned more than a million.

Wow. Sort of the opposite of what happened in the 1980s, when lower rates resulted in more rich people and lots more taxable income.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at what happened starting in 1921.

Against this tide, Harding and Coolidge made their choice: markets first. Harding tapped the toughest free marketeer on the public landscape, Mellon himself, to head the Treasury. …The Treasury secretary suggested…a lower rate, perhaps 25 percent, might foster more business activity, and so generate more revenue for federal coffers. …Harding and Mellon got the top rate down to 58 percent. When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Coolidge promised to “bend all my energies” to pushing taxes down further. …After winning election in his own right in 1924, Coolidge joined Mellon, and Congress, in yet another tax fight, eventually prevailing and cutting the top rate to the target 25 percent.

And how did this work?

…the tax cuts worked—the government did draw more revenue than predicted, as business, relieved, revived. The rich earned more than the rest—the Gini coefficient rose—but when it came to tax payments, something interesting happened. The Statistics of Income, the Treasury’s database, showed that the rich now paid a greater share of all taxes. Tax cuts for the rich made the rich pay taxes.

To elaborate, let’s cite one of my favorite people. Here are a couple of charts from a study I wrote for the Heritage Foundation back in 1996.

The first one shows that the rich sent more money to Washington when tax rates were reduced and also paid a larger share of the tax burden.

And here’s a look at the second chart, which illustrates how overall revenues increased (red line) as the top tax rate fell (blue).

So why did revenues climb after tax rates were reduced?

Because the private economy prospered. Here are some excerpts about economic performance in the 1920s from a very thorough 1982 report from the Joint Economic Committee.

Economic conditions rapidly improved after the act became law, lifting the United States out of the severe 1920-21 recession. Between 1921 and 1922, real GNP (measured in 1958 dollars) jumped 15.8 percent, from $127.8 billion to $148 billion, while personal savings rose from $1.59 billion to $5.40 -billion (from 2.6 percent to 8.9 percent of disposable personal income). Unemployment declined significantly, commerce and the construction industry boomed, and railroad traffic recovered. Stock prices and new issues increased, with prices up over 20 percent by year-end 1922.8 The Federal Reserve Board’s index of manufacturing production (series P-13-17) expanded 25 percent. …This trend was sustained through much of 1923, with a 12.1 percent boost in GNP to $165.9 billion. Personal savings increased to $7.7 billion (11 percent of disposable income)… Between 1924 ‘and 1925 real GNP grew 8.4 percent, from $165.5 billion to $179.4 billion. In this same period the amount of personal savings rose from an already impressive $6.77 billion to about $8.11 billion (from 9.5 percent to 11 percent of personal disposable income). The unemployment rated dropped 27.3 percents interest rates fell, and railroad traffic moved at near record levels. From June 1924 when the act became law to the end of that year the stock price index jumped almost 19 percent. This index increased another 23 percent between year-end 1924 and year-end 1925, while the amount of non-financial stock issues leapt 100 percent in the same period. …From 1925 to 1926 real GNP grew from $179.4 billion to $190 billion. The index of output per man-hour increased and the unemployment rate fell over 50 percent, from 4.0 percent to 1.9 percent. The Federal Reserve Board’s index of manufacturing production again rose, and stock prices of nonfinancial issues increased about 5 percent.

Now for some caveats.

I’ve pointed out many times that taxes are just one of many policies that impact economic performance.

It’s quite likely that some of the good news in the 1920s was the result of other factors, such as spending discipline under both Harding and Coolidge.

And it’s also possible that some of the growth was illusory since there was a bubble in the latter part of the decade. And everything went to hell in a hand basket, of course, once Hoover took over and radically expanded the size and scope of government.

But all the caveats in the world don’t change the fact that Americans – both rich and poor – immensely benefited when punitive tax rates were slashed.

P.S. Since Ms. Shlaes is Chairman of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, I suggest you click here and here to learn more about the 20th century’s best or second-best President.

P.P.S. I assume I don’t need to identify Coolidge’s rival for the top spot.

Read Full Post »

In my decades of trying to educate policy makers about the downsides of class-warfare tax policy, I periodically get hit with the argument that high tax rates don’t matter since America enjoyed a golden period of prosperity in the 1950s and early 1960s when the top tax rate was more than 90 percent.

Here’s an example from Politico of what I’m talking about.

Well into the 1950s, the top marginal tax rate was above 90%. …both real GDP and real per capita GDP were growing more than twice as fast in the 1950s as in the 2000s.

This comparison grates on me in part because both Bush and Obama imposed bad policy, so it’s no surprise that the economy did not grow very fast when they were in office.

But I also don’t like the comparison because the 1950s were not a halcyon era, as Brian Domitrovic explains.

…you may be thinking, “But wait a minute. The 1950s, that was the greatest economic era ever. That’s when everybody had a job. Those jobs were for life. People got to live in suburbia and go on vacation and do all sorts of amazing things. It was post-war prosperity, right?” Actually, all of these things are myths. In the 1950s, the United States suffered four recessions. There was one in 1949, 1953, 1957, 1960 — four recessions in 11 years. The rate of structural unemployment kept going up, all the way up to 8% in the severe recession of 1957-58. …there wasn’t significant economic growth in the 1950s. It only averaged 2.5 percent during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

For today’s purposes, though, I want to focus solely on tax policy. And my leftist friends are correct that the United States had a punitive top tax rate in the 1950s.

This chart from the Politico story shows the top tax rate beginning on that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was adopted. It started very low, then jumped dramatically during the horrible presidency of Woodrow Wilson, followed by a big reduction during the wonderful presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Then it jumped again during the awful presidencies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. The rate stayed high in the 1950s before the Kennedy tax cuts and Reagan tax cuts, which were followed by some less dramatic changes under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

What do we know about the impact of the high tax rates put in place by Hoover and Roosevelt? We know the 1930s were an awful period for the economy, we know the 1940s were dominated by World War II, and we know the 1950s was a period of tepid growth.

But we also know that high tax rates don’t result in high revenues. I don’t think Hauser’s Law always applies, but it’s definitely worked so far in the United States.

This is because highly productive taxpayers have three ways to minimize and/or eliminate punitive taxes. First, they can simply choose to live a more relaxed life by reducing levels of work, saving, and investment. Second, they can engage in tax evasion. Third, they can practice tax avoidance, which is remarkably simple for people who have control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

All these factors mean that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue (a.k.a., the Laffer Curve).

And if you want some evidence on how high tax rates don’t work, Lawrence Lindsey, a former governor at the Federal Reserve, noted that extortionary tax rates are generally symbolic – at least from a revenue-raising perspective – since taxpayers will arrange their financial affairs to avoid the tax.

…if you go back and look at the income tax data from 1960, as a place to start, the top rate was 91 percent. There were eight — eight Americans who paid the 91 percent tax rate.

Interestingly, David Leonhardt of the New York Times inadvertently supported my argument in a recent column that was written to celebrate the era when tax rates were confiscatory.

A half-century ago, a top automobile executive named George Romney — yes, Mitt’s father — turned down several big annual bonuses. He did so, he told his company’s board, because he believed that no executive should make more than $225,000 a year (which translates into almost $2 million today). …Romney didn’t try to make every dollar he could, or anywhere close to it. The same was true among many of his corporate peers.

I gather the author wants us to think that the CEOs of the past were somehow better people than today’s versions.

But it turns out that marginal tax rates played a big role in their decisions.

The old culture of restraint had multiple causes, but one of them was the tax code. When Romney was saying no to bonuses, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent. Even if he had accepted the bonuses, he would have kept only a sliver of them. The high tax rates, in other words, didn’t affect only the post-tax incomes of the wealthy. The tax code also affected pretax incomes. As the economist Gabriel Zucman says, “It’s not worth it to try to earn $50 million in income when 90 cents out of an extra dollar goes to the I.R.S.”

By the way, Zucman is far from a supply-sider (indeed, he’s co-written with Piketty), yet he’s basically agreeing that marginal tax rates have a huge impact on incentives.

The only difference between the two of us is that he thinks it is a good idea to discourage highly productive people from generating more income and I think it’s a bad idea.

Meanwhile, Leonhardt also acknowledges the fundamental premise of supply-side economics.

For more than 30 years now, the United States has lived with a top tax rate less than half as high as in George Romney’s day. And during those same three-plus decades, the pay of affluent Americans has soared. That’s not a coincidence.

But he goes awry by then assuming (as is the case for many statists) the economy is a fixed pie. I’m not joking. Read for yourself.

..,the most powerful members of organizations have fought to keep more money for themselves. They have usually won that fight, which has left less money for everyone else.

A market economy, however, is not a zero-sum game. It is possible for all income groups to become richer at the same time.

That’s why lower tax rates are a good idea if we want more prosperity – keeping in mind the important caveat that taxation is just one of many policies that impact economic performance.

P.S. Unbelievably, President Franklin Roosevelt actually tried to impose a 100 percent tax rate (and that’s not even the worst thing he advocated).

Read Full Post »

Supply-side economics is simply the common-sense notion that people respond to incentives, though some folks think this elementary observation is “voodoo economics” or “trickle-down economics.”

If you want a wonkish definition of supply-side economics, it is the application of micro-economic principles. In other words, what does “price  theory” tell us about how people will respond when a tax goes up or down.

All of which can be illustrated using supply and demand curves, for those who prefer something visual.

None of this is controversial. Indeed, left-wing economists presumably will agree with everything I just wrote.

There is disagreement, however, about magnitude of supply-side responses. Do people respond a lot or a little when tax policy changes (using economic jargon, what are the “elasticities” of behavioral response)?

And even if there was a consensus on those magnitudes, that still wouldn’t imply agreement on the proper policy since people have different views on whether the goal should be more growth or more redistribution (what economist Arthur Okun referred to as the equality-efficiency tradeoff).

For what it’s worth, this is why there is a lot of fighting about the Laffer Curve. Every left-wing economist agrees with the underlying principle of the Laffer Curve (in other words, because people can change their behavior, nobody actually thinks there is a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue).

But economists don’t agree on the shape of the curve. Is the revenue-maximizing rate for the personal income tax 25 percent or 75 percent? And even if people somehow agreed on the shape of the curve, that doesn’t lead to agreement on the ideal tax rate because some statists want very high rates even if the result is less revenue. And people like me only care about the growth-maximizing tax rate.

I’m giving this background for the simple reason that the policy world is lagging the economics profession. And I’m not just referring to the Joint Economic Committee’s resistance to “dynamic scoring.” My bigger complaint is that a lot of politicians still act as if there is zero insight from supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve.

In hopes of rectifying this situation, I’ve been sharing examples of supply-side-motivated tax changes that have been adopted by leftists. In other words, tax changes that were adopted specifically to alter behavior.

Here’s the list of “successful” leftist tax hikes that have crossed my desk.

Now we have another example to add to my collection, this time from a tax on plastic bags in Chicago.

Just as predicted, there is revenue feedback because people change their behavior in response to changes in tax policy.

Chicago’s effort to keep plastic and paper bags out of area landfills by imposing a 7 cents-per-bag tax is succeeding beyond officials’ wildest dreams. The bad news is that the success of the fee in dissuading shoppers from taking single-use bags means the city’s coffers are taking a steep hit. Chicago officials balanced the city’s 2017 spending plan based on an assumption that the city would earn $9.2 million this year from the tax.

But receipts will fall far short of that goal.

The city has earned just $2.4 million in the five months the tax has been in effect, said Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the city’s Finance Department. If bag use continues at the current pace, that means the city would net just $7.7 million from the tax for the year. …the number of plastic and paper bags Chicagoans used to haul home their groceries dropped 42 percent in the first month after the tax was imposed.

Incidentally, the Mayor claims that the tax is a success because the real goal was discouraging plastic bags rather than raising revenue.

That’s certainly a very legitimate position, but note that his policy is based on supply-side economics: The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

My frustration is that the politicians who say we need higher taxes to discourage bad things (smoking, sugar, plastic bags, etc) oftentimes are the same ones who say that higher taxes won’t discourage good things (work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, etc).

Needless to say, this doesn’t make sense. They are either clueless or hypocritical. But maybe if I accumulate enough example of “successful” supply-side tax hikes, they’ll finally realize it’s not a good idea to punish productive behavior.

P.S. Check out the IRS data from the 1980s on what happened to tax revenue from the rich when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. I’ve used this information in plenty of debates and I’ve never run across a statist who has a good response.

P.P.S. Here’s my video with more evidence in favor of the Laffer Curve.

P.P.P.S. I also think this polling data from certified public accountants is very persuasive. I don’t know about you, but I suspect CPAs have a much better real-world understanding of the impact of tax policy than the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Read Full Post »

The tax system is bad news for professional sports, with plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that athletes (and even fans) get pillaged by government.

Now we have some comprehensive academic research to augment the anecdotes.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on a new study about the impact of marginal tax rates on professional sports teams.

Erik Hembre, an economist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, looked at the question: Do tax rates affect a team’s performance? He analyzed data in professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey between 1977 and 2014. Since the mid-1990s, he writes, “a ten percentage point increase in income tax rates is associated with between a 1.9-3.0 percentage point decrease in winning percentage.” Here’s why: Professional athletes are taxed at the highest marginal rate. The average NBA player earned more than $4.8 million in 2013 and the average was $2.3 in the NFL, so athletes who play for the Minnesota Vikings earn less after taxes than do Dallas Cowboys. …The effect appears strongest in the NBA, “where moving from a high-tax state to a low-tax state has a similar effect on winning as upgrading a bench player to an All-Star.” An NBA team that fled Minnesota (top rate: 9.85%) for Florida (0%) could expect to win an additional 4.5 games a season, Mr. Hembre found.

This makes sense.

Indeed, there’s evidence from Monaco, which plays in the French soccer league, that low taxes produce better results on the playing field.

The editorial concludes with a caveat…and a political lesson.

Players make free-agent decisions for many reasons, and New York or Los Angeles can offer attractions and endorsement deals that offset their horrendous tax rates. But no one should be surprised that professional athletes respond to incentives like individuals in any industry. Perhaps this evidence will tempt governors and state lawmakers to cut rates now that they know that, along with a growing economy, they might end up with better sports teams and happier fans, also known as voters.

None of this should be a surprise. We know taxes impact the decisions of high-income, high-productivity people, everyone from entrepreneurs to inventors.

Now that we’ve looked at the impact of taxes on an industry, let’s now consider the impact of taxes on the overall economy.

Professor Ed Lazear, in an article for the University of Chicago’s Becker-Friedman Institute, makes some critical observations on the American tax code.

Starting with the system’s complexity.

In the first 20 years after the 1986 Tax Reform Act was passed, there were already about 15,000 changes to the basic law. The lack of transparency is costly: resources devoted to tax preparation and avoidance alone amount to more than 1% of GDP.

Continuing with distortions in the internal revenue code.

The tax system is full of inconsistencies, preferences, complex rules, and contradictory definitions that encourage distortionary behavior by Americans in their legitimate attempts to minimize their tax liabilities. …Additionally, there are parallel systems that are not fully integrated into one coherent tax structure. Within the income tax category, the Alternative Minimum Tax has rules that are layered on top of the basic tax rate structure, which override the tax calculation for a sizeable fraction of taxpayers. Beyond that, the payroll tax, both employer and employee contributions, are distinct from the income tax rules, but for most Americans, act as a basic income tax that is an add-on to the income taxes that they pay.

And there’s a big section on the economic harm caused by over-taxing business investment.

…growth is most affected by taxes on capital. Notorious is the high US corporate tax rate of 35% that the US imposes, which results in obvious evasive action like locating business overseas. More important, but less visible, is the actual reduction in investment that occurs because capital is taxed so heavily in the United States. The marginal dollar of investment is one that can find its home in another country as easily as in the US. When we raise taxes on capital, a German investor who might have preferred to invest in an American company simply chooses to keep that money in Germany. The easy flow of capital across borders means that lowering tax rates will encourage more capital to flow to American businesses. …if investment were untaxed altogether, the economy would grow by an additional 5% to 9%. In the short run, the easiest way to accomplish this is to allow full expensing of investment with indefinite carry-forwards. This simply means that firms can deduct the cost of investments from their tax liabilities immediately and fully. Allowing full and immediate deductibility of investment expenses removes the distortions that impede capital investment and, as a consequence, raises productivity, incomes, and GDP.

Augmented by the economic damage caused by over-taxing human capital.

Economists have estimated the human capital portion of the total capital stock in the United States as between 70% and 90%. …increasing tax rates is likely to have profound effects on occupational choice and investment in the skills that are required to be productive in high-value occupations. …The personal income tax, and especially extreme progressivity, which places high burdens on professionals, discourages entry into professional occupations. Since human capital is such an important component of all capital, it is important to avoid over-taxing individuals directly. …

He concludes by explaining why the class-warfare crowd is misguided.

Lowering capital taxation and paying close attention to the progressivity of the tax structure both benefit the rich directly. The middle- and lower-income parts of the income distribution also benefit, however. …there is a close relation between average income wage growth and productivity. Furthermore, there is a close link between GDP growth and productivity growth…unless we ensure that the economy grows, which means that productivity grows, we will not have wage growth. …the poor and rich alike did best when economic growth was robust.

This last excerpt is critical. Some of my leftist friends think the economy is fixed pie, and this leads them to think the rest of us lose money any time a rich person earns more money.

Or they are motivated by envy. In some cases, this even leads them to support policies that hurt poor people so long as rich people suffer even more.

Both these views are wrong. President John F. Kennedy was right about a rising tide lifting all boats.

And we see that in the incredible data that’s been shared by scholars such as Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux.

And since we just quoted Kennedy, let’s close with an equally appropriate quote from Winston Churchill, who famously observed that “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

And the best example of that is in the data comparing the US with Denmark and Sweden. Or the words of Margaret Thatcher.

The moral of the story is that Slovakia has the right approach on taxes while Sweden has the wrong approach. That’s true, whether you want a winning sports team or a winning economy.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2014, I shared some data from the Tax Foundation that measured the degree to which various developed nations punished high-income earners.

This measure of relative “progressivity” focused on personal income taxes. And that’s important because that levy often is the most onerous for highly productive residents of a nation.

But there are other taxes that also create a gap between what such taxpayers earn and produce and what they ultimately are able to consume and enjoy. What about the effects of payroll taxes? Of consumption taxes and other levies?

To answer that question, we have a very useful study from the European Policy Information Center on this topic. Authored by Alexander Fritz Englund and Jacob Lundberg, it looks at the total marginal tax rate on each nation’s most productive taxpayers.

They start with some sensible observations about why marginal tax rates matter, basically echoing what I wrote after last year’s Super Bowl.

Here’s what Englund and Lundberg wrote.

The marginal tax rate is the proportion of tax paid on the last euro earned. It is the relevant tax rate when deciding whether to work a few extra hours or accept a promotion, for example. As most income tax systems are progressive, the marginal tax rate on top incomes is usually also the highest marginal tax rate. It is an indicator of how progressive and distortionary the income tax is.

They then explain why they include payroll taxes in their calculations.

The income tax alone does not provide a complete picture of how the tax system affects incentives to work and earn income. Many countries require employers and/or employees to pay social contributions. It is not uncommon for the associated benefits to be capped while the contribution itself is uncapped, meaning it is a de facto tax for high-income earners. Even those social contributions that are legally paid by the employer will in the end be paid by the employee as the employer should be expected to shift the burden of the tax through lower gross wages.

Englund and Lunberg are correct. A payroll tax (sometimes called a “social insurance” levy) will be just as destructive as a regular income tax if workers aren’t “earning” some sort of additional benefit. And they’re also right when they point out that payroll taxes “paid” by employers actually are borne by workers.

They then explain why they include a measure of consumption taxation.

One must also take value-added taxes and other consumption taxes into account. Consumption taxes reduce the purchasing power of wage-earners and thus affect the return to working. In principle, it does not matter whether taxation takes place when income is earned or when it is consumed, as the ultimate purpose of work is consumption.

Once again, the authors are spot on. Taxes undermine incentives to be productive by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption, so you have to look at levies that grab your income as it is earned as well as levies that grab your income as it is spent.

And when you begin to add everything together, you get the most accurate measure of government greed.

Taking all these taxes into account, one can compute the effective marginal tax rate. This shows how many cents the government receives for every euro of additional employee compensation paid by the firm. …If the top effective tax rate is 75 percent, as in Sweden, a person who contributes 100 additional euros to the economy will only be allowed to keep 25 euros while 75 euros are appropriated by the government. The tax system thus drives a wedge between the social and private return to work. …High marginal tax rates disconnect the private and social returns to economic activity and thereby the invisible hand ceases to function. For this reason, taxation causes distortions and is costly to society. High marginal tax rates make it less worthwhile to supply labour on the formal labour market and more worthwhile to spend time on household work, black market activities and tax avoidance.

Here’s their data for various developed nation.

Keep in mind that these are the taxes that impact each nation’s most productive taxpayers. So that includes top income tax rates, both for the central governments and sub-national governments, as well as surtaxes. It includes various social insurance levies, to the extent such taxes apply to all income. And it includes a measure of estimated consumption taxation.

And here’s the ranking of all the nations. Shed a tear for entrepreneurs in Sweden, Belgium, and Portugal.

Slovakia wins the prize for the least-punitive tax regime, though it’s worth noting that Hong Kong easily would have the best system if it was included in the ranking.

For what it’s worth, the United States does fairly well compared to other nations. This is not because our personal income tax is reasonable (see dark blue bars), but rather because Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were unsuccessful in their efforts to bust the “wage base cap” and apply the Social Security payroll tax on all income. We also thankfully don’t have a value-added tax. These factors explain why our medium-blue and light-blue bars are the smallest.

By the way, this doesn’t mean we have a friendly system for upper-income taxpayers in America. They lose almost half of every dollar they generate for the economy. And whether one is looking at Tax Foundation numbers, Congressional Budget Office calculations, information from the New York Times, or data from the IRS, rich people in the United States are paying a hugely disproportionate share of the tax burden.

Though none of this satisfies the statists. They actually would like us to think that letting well-to-do taxpayers keep any of their money is akin to a handout.

Now would be an appropriate time to remind everyone that imposing high tax rates doesn’t necessarily mean collecting high tax revenues.

In the 1980s, for instance, upper-income taxpayers paid far more revenue to the government when Reagan lowered the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Also keep in mind that these calculations don’t measure the tax bias against saving and investment, so the tax burden on some upper-income taxpayers may be higher or lower depending on the degree to which countries penalize capital formation.

P.S. If one includes the perverse incentive effects of various redistribution programs, the very highest marginal tax rates (at least when measuring implicit rates) sometimes apply to a nation’s poor people.

P.P.S. Our statist friends sometimes justify punitive taxes as a way of using coercion to produce more equality, but the net effect of such policies is weaker growth and that means it is more difficult for lower-income and middle-income people to climb the economic ladder. In other words, unfettered markets are the best way to get social mobility.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2010, I shared a cartoon video making a very important point that there’s a big downside when class-warfare politicians abuse and mistreat highly productive taxpayers.

Simply stated, the geese with the golden eggs may fly away. And this isn’t just theory. As revealed by IRS data, taxpayer will move across borders to escape punitive taxation.

It’s harder to move across national borders, of course, but it happens. Record numbers of Americans have given up their passports, including some very high-profile rich people.

Some folks on the left like to argue that taxes don’t actually lead to behavioral changes. Whenever there’s evidence of migration from high-tax jurisdictions to low-tax jurisdictions, they argue other factors are responsible. The rich won’t move just because tax rates are high, they contend.

Oh, really?

Here are some excerpts from a new Research Brief from the Cato Institute. Authored by economists from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Italy’s Einaudi Institute, the article summarizes some scholarly research on how top-level inventors respond to differences in tax rates. Here’s what they did.

According to World Intellectual Property Organization data, inventors are highly mobile geographically with a migration rate of around 8 percent. But what determines their patterns of migration, and, in particular, how does tax policy affect migration? …Our research studies the effects of top income tax rates on the international migration of inventors, who are key drivers of technological progress. …We use a unique international data set on all inventors from the U.S. and European patent offices to track the international location of inventors since the 1970s. …We combine these inventor data with international top effective marginal tax rates data. Particularly interesting are “superstar” inventors, those with the most abundant and most valuable innovations. …We define superstar inventors as those in the top 1 percent of the quality distribution, and similarly construct the top 1–5 percent, the top 5–10 percent, and subsequent quality brackets. The evidence presented suggests that the top 1 percent superstar inventors are well into the top tax bracket.

And here’s what they ascertained about the behavioral response of the superstar inventors.

We start by documenting a negative correlation between the top tax rate and the share of top quality foreign inventors who locate in a country, as well as the share of top quality domestic inventors who remain in their home country. …We find that the superstar top 1 percent inventors are significantly affected by top tax rates when choosing where to locate. …the elasticity of the number of foreign top 1 percent superstar inventors to the net-of-tax rate is much larger, with corresponding values of 0.63, 0.85, and 1.04. The far greater elasticity for foreign relative to domestic inventors makes sense since, when a given country adjusts its top tax rate, it potentially affects inventor migration from all other countries.

And they point out a very obvious lesson.

…if the economic contribution of these key agents is important, their migratory responses to tax policy might represent a cost to tax progressivity. … An additional relevant consideration is that inventors may have strong spillover effects on their geographically close peers, making it even more important to attract and retain them domestically

And don’t forget the research I shared last year showing that superstar entrepreneurs are more likely to be found in lower-tax jurisdictions.

P.S. Seems to me, given that upper-income taxpayers shoulder most of the nation’s fiscal burden, that our leftist friends should be applauding the rich rather than demonizing them.

P.P.S. Let’s close with some more election-related humor.

Saw this very clever item on Twitter today.

And connoisseurs of media bias will have to double check to confirm this is satire rather than reality.

Regular readers know I’m skeptical about whether Trump will seek to control big government, but one thing I can safely say is that we’ll have an opportunity to enjoy some amusing political humor for the next four years.

Read Full Post »

Since I’m not a fan of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I think that puts me in a good position to fairly assess whether the candidates are being dishonest.

And since several media outlets just produced their “fact-checks” on Donald Trump’s acceptance speech to the Republican convention, this is a perfect opportunity to see not only whether Trump was being dishonest but also whether media fact-checking is honest.

Here’s some of the “fact-checking” from NBC., with each indented example being followed by my two cents.

TRUMP CLAIM: Nearly four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58 percent of African-American youth are now not employed. Two million more Latinos are in poverty today than when the President took his oath of office less than eight years ago.

THE FACTS: Yes, 38 percent of African American children are living in poverty, according to Census data. But Trump isn’t correct that 58 percent of African American youth are unemployed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the African American unemployment rate for those ages 16-19 is 28.4 percent (versus 16.9 percent for all youth that age). And Trump is misleading on his claim about Latinos living in poverty. In 2009, 12.3 million Latinos were living in poverty (with a rate of 25.3 percent). In 2014, the number jumped to 13 million — but the rate actually DECLINED to 23.6 percent.

Shame on NBC for pulling a bait-and-switch. Trump didn’t say that there is a 58-percent unemployment rate among black youth. He said that 58 percent of them aren’t employed.

What NBC doesn’t understand (or deliberately chooses to hide) is that the unemployment rate only counts those “actively” looking for work.

Trump was focusing on labor-force participation.

I’m sure he made that choice because it gave him a number that sounded bad, but there are very good reasons to focus on the share of people employed rather than the unemployment rate (though it’s worth noting that a 28.4 percent unemployment rate for young blacks is plenty scandalous, which raises the question of why Trump didn’t point out that African-Americans have been hurt by Obamanomics).

On the other hand, Trump may be factually wrong about the number of Latinos living in poverty, though you’ll notice below that National Public Radio basically said Trump is right on this issue.

TRUMP CLAIM: President Obama has almost doubled our national debt to more than 19 trillion dollars, and growing.

THE FACTS: He’s right. When Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, the public debt stood at $10.6 trillion. It is now $19.4 trillion, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Since I’ve already explained that George W. Bush deserves the overwhelming share of the blame for the budget numbers in Fiscal Year 2009 (which started on October 1, 2008), I think NBC actually missed a chance to criticize Trump for either being dishonest or for overstating the case against Obama.

Now let’s see what the New York Times wrote about Trump’s accuracy.

• “Nearly four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58 percent of African-American youth are not employed.”

Fact Check: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of African Americans ages 16-19 in June was 31.2 percent (among whites of the same age, it was 14.1 percent).

The NYT does the same bait-and-switch as NBC, accusing Trump of saying A when he actually said B.

Is this because of dishonesty or sloppiness? Beats me, though I suspect the former.

• “Household incomes are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000.”

Fact Check: This is mostly true. Median household income in 2000 was $57,724; in 2014, which has the most recent available data, it was $53,657.

My only comment is that I’m surprised the NYT didn’t go after Trump for using 2000 as his starting year, which obviously includes the stagnant big-government Bush years as well as the stagnant big-government Obama years.

• “Our manufacturing trade deficit has reached an all-time high – nearly $800 billion in a single year.”

Fact Check: The goods deficit — more imported goods, less exported goods — was $763 billion last year. But that includes agricultural products and raw materials like coal. Moreover, the total trade deficit last year was only $500 billion because the U.S. runs a trade surplus in services.

I think Trump is wrong about trade. Wildly wrong.

But the NYT is once again doing a bait-and-switch. Trump was talking about the trade is goods, not the overall trade balance.

They could have accurately accused him of selective use of statistics, or even misleading use of statistics. But his claim was accurate (depending whether you think $763 billion is “nearly” $800 billion).

• “President Obama has doubled our national debt to more than $19 trillion, and growing.”

Fact Check: The national debt was $10.6 trillion on the day Obama took office. It was $19.2 trillion in April, so not quite double, but close.

As I explained above, this is an example of the media missing a chance to hit Trump, presumably because journalists don’t understand the budget process.

• “Forty-three million Americans are on food stamps.”

Fact Check: As of October, this figure was largely accurate, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

At least the New York Times didn’t try to spin this number by claiming food stamps are “stimulus.”

Speaking of spin, here’s the fact-checking from National Public Radio.

Nearly 4 in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58% of African-American youth are now not employed.

[Thirty-six percent of African-Americans under 18 were below the poverty line as of 2014, according to the Census Bureau. It’s not entirely clear what Trump means by “not employed,” which is not technically the same as “unemployed,” which counts people who aren’t working and are looking for work. However, the unemployment rate for black Americans ages 16 to 19 was 38.1 percent as of June. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

It’s actually very clear what Trump meant by “not employed.” As should be obvious, it means the share of the population that is not working.

But NPR presumably is pretending to  be stupid so they can do a bait-and-switch and focus on the unemployment rate.

2 million more Latinos are in poverty today than when President Obama took his oath of office less than eight years ago.

[That’s roughly true, by the latest data available. Around 11 million Hispanic-Americans were in poverty in 2008, compared with 13.1 million in 2014. The poverty rate makes more sense to compare, though — that has grown 0.4 points since 2008, but it has also declined lately, down by nearly 3 points since 2010. As for whether President Obama is responsible for this, we get to that below. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

The fact that NBC and NPR disagree appears to be based on whether one uses the total number of poor Latinos in 2008 or 2009.

Obama took his oath of office in early 2009, so it seems that NPR missed a chance to attack Trump.

Though without knowing how the Census Bureau measures the number of people in poverty in any given year (average for the entire year? the number as of January 1? July 1? December 31?), there’s no way to know whether Trump exaggerated or misspoke.

Another 14 million people have left the workforce entirely.

[There’s a lot going on in this statistic. So here goes: Trump may be talking about the number of adults not in the labor force — that is, neither working nor looking for work (so it includes retirees and students, for example). That figure has climbed by 14 million since January 2009 (importantly, this isn’t people leaving the labor force; it’s just people not in it, period). But while labor force participation is relatively low, the labor force has still been growing — Trump’s 14 million figure might imply that it’s not. And that low labor force participation isn’t entirely about a tough economy — a lot of it is simple demographics. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office found that half of a recent 3-point drop in the rate had been due to baby boomers retiring. The other half was economic factors. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

That’s a long-winded way of saying that Trump’s number was accurate, but they want to imply his number is inaccurate.

Household incomes are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000. That’s sixteen years ago.

[That’s true, using median household income data, though he is not measuring from the start of the Obama administration as he is for the other stats here. If he measured from 2008, the drop was $1,656. Measuring from 2000 means measuring from the figure’s near-peak.

[A broader point about all of these economic statistics: A lot of them have been true, but the question is whether Obama is to blame. Higher poverty, for example, doesn’t appear to be Obama’s doing, as we wrote in a fact check last year. Moreover, many experts believe a president generally has only very limited ability to affect the economy. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

As suggested from my earlier analysis, I think it’s fair to point out that Trump was being somewhat arbitrary to use 2000 as his base year.

But it’s amusing to see NPR admit that the number is right but then engage in gymnastics in an effort to excuse the weak economic numbers during Obama’s tenure.

Excessive regulation is costing our country as much as $2 trillion a year, and we will end it very, very quickly.

[A few analyses have found that regulation costs around $2 trillion — one of the best-known, from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, estimated it at around $1.9 trillion this year. But as the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker has pointed out, in the past this figure has been characterized as a “back of the envelope” count, and that moreover, it doesn’t make sense to talk about costs without trying to count the benefits of regulation. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

This is another example of Trump making an accurate point, but NPR then blowing smoke in an attempt to imply he was being dodgy.

Last but not least, here are some assertions from Factcheck.org.

Trump claimed Clinton “plans a massive … tax increase,” but tax experts say 95 percent of taxpayers would see “little or no change” in their taxes under Clinton’s plan.

The fact that Clinton targets the top-5 percent doesn’t change the fact that she’s proposing a very large tax hike.

Trump claimed Clinton “illegally” stored emails on her private server while secretary of state, and deleted 33,000 to cover-up “her crime.” But the FBI cleared Clinton of criminal wrongdoing, and found no evidence of a cover-up.

This isn’t an economic issue, but I can’t resist making a correction.

The FBI Director explicitly pointed out that she repeatedly broke the law.

He simply chose not to recommend prosecution.

He said the “trade deficit in goods … is $800 billion last year alone.” It was nearly that, but it discounts the services the U.S. exports. The total trade deficit for goods and services is just over $500 billion.

As I noted above, Trump is wrong on trade, but the media shouldn’t do a bait-and-switch and criticize him for something he didn’t say.

By the way, the fact that media fact-checkers are largely wrong and dishonest is not a reason to be pro-Trump.

People can decide, if they want, to choose between the lesser of two evils.

My only message is that Trump is wrong on lots of issues, but that’s no excuse for hackery from self-styled fact-checkers.

P.S. Here’s my best Trump humor and here’s my best Hillary humor.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been advocating for good tax reform for more than two decades, specifically agitating for a simple and fair flat tax.

I get excited when politicians make bold proposals, such as many of the plans GOP presidential candidates proposed over the past year or so.

But sometimes I wind up feeling deflated when there’s a lot of discussion about tax reform and the final result is a milquetoast plan that simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic. For instance, back in 2014, the then-Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled a proposal that – at best – was underwhelming. Shifts in the right direction in some parts of the plan were largely offset by shifts in the wrong direction in other parts of the plan. What really doomed the plan was a political decision that the tax code had to raise just as much money (on a static basis) as the current system and that there couldn’t be any reduction in the amount of class warfare embedded in the current system (i.e., the “distribution” of the tax burden couldn’t change).

Well, we have some good news. Led by the new Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Kevin Brady, House Republicans have unveiled a new plan that it far, far better. Instead of being hemmed in by self-imposed constraints of static revenue and distributional neutrality, their two guidelines were dynamic revenue neutrality and no tax increase for any income group.

With those far more sensible constraints, they were able to put together a plan that was almost entirely positive. Let’s look at the key features, keeping in mind these theoretical principles that should guide tax reform.

  1. The lowest possible tax rate – High tax rates on work and entrepreneurship make no sense if the goal is faster growth and more competitiveness.
  2. No double taxation – It is foolish to penalize capital formation (and thereby wages) by imposing extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.
  3. No loopholes or special preferences – The tax code shouldn’t be riddled with corrupt deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits, and other goodies.

What’s Great

Here are the features that send a tingle up my leg (apologies to Chris Matthews).

No value-added tax – One worrisome development is that Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz included value-added taxes in their otherwise good tax plans. This was a horrible mistake. A value-added tax may be fine in theory, but giving politicians another source of revenue without permanently abolishing the income tax would be a tragic mistake. So when I heard that House Republicans were putting together a tax plan, I understandably was worried about the possibility of a similar mistake. I can now put my mind at rest. There’s no VAT in the plan.

Death tax repeal – Perhaps the most pure (and therefore destructive) form of double taxation is the death tax, which also is immoral since it imposes another layer of tax simply because someone dies. This egregious tax is fully repealed.

No state and local tax deduction – If it’s wrong to subsidize particular activities with special tax breaks, it’s criminally insane to use the tax code to encourage higher tax rates in states such as New York and California. So it’s excellent news that House GOPers are getting rid of the deduction for state and local taxes.

No tax bias against new investment – Another very foolish provision of the tax code is depreciation, which forces companies to pretend some of their current investment costs take place in the future. This misguided approach is replaced with expensing, which allows companies to deduct investments when they occur.

What’s Really Good

Here are the features that give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

A 20 percent corporate tax rate – America’s corporate tax system arguably is the worst in the developed world, with a very high rate and onerous rules that make it difficult to compete in world markets. A 20 percent rate is a significant step in the right direction.

A 25 percent small business tax rate – Most businesses are not traditional corporations. Instead, they file using the individual portion of the tax code (using forms such as “Schedule C”). Lowering the tax rate on business income to 25 percent will help these Subchapter-S corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships.

Territorial taxation – For a wide range of reasons, including sovereignty, simplicity, and competitiveness, nations should only tax economic activity within their borders. The House GOP plan does that for business income, but apparently does not extend that proper treatment to individual capital income or individual labor income.

By shifting to this more sensibly designed system of business taxation, the Republican plan will eliminate any incentive for corporate inversions and make America a much more attractive place for multinational firms.

What’s Decent but Uninspiring

Here are the features that I like but don’t go far enough.

Slight reduction in top tax rate on work and entrepreneurship – The top tax rate is reduced to 33 percent. That’s better than the current top rate of 39.6 percent, but still significantly higher than the 28 percent top rate when Reagan left office.

Less double taxation of savings – The plan provides a 50-percent exclusion for individual capital income, which basically means that there’s double taxation of interest, dividends, and capital gains, but at only half the normal rate of tax. There’s also some expansion of tax-neutral savings accounts, which would allow some saving and investment fully protected from double taxation.

Simplification – House GOPers assert that all their proposed reforms, if enacted, would create a much simpler tax system. It wouldn’t result in a pure Hall-Rabushka-style flat tax, with a 10-line postcard for a tax return, but it would be very close. Here’s their tax return with 14 lines.

In an ideal world, there should be no double taxation of income that is saved and invested, so line 2 could disappear (in Hall-Rabushka flat tax, investment income/capital income is taxed once and only once at the business level). All savings receives back-ended IRA (Roth IRA) treatment in a pure flat tax, so there’s no need for line 3. There is a family-based allowance in a flat tax, which is akin to lines 4 and 9, but there are no deductions, so line 5 and line 6 could disappear. Likewise, there would be no redistribution laundered through the tax code, so line 10 would vanish. As would line 11 since there are no special preferences for higher education.

But I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good. The postcard shown above may have four more lines than I would like, but it’s obviously far better than the current system.

What’s Bad but acceptable

Increase in the double taxation of interest – Under current law, companies can deduct the interest they pay and recipients of interest income must pay tax on those funds. This actually is correct treatment, particularly when compared to dividends, which are not deductible to companies (meaning they pay tax on those funds) while also being taxable for recipients. The House GOP plan gets rid of the deduction for interest paid. Combined with the 50 percent exclusion for individual capital income, that basically means the income is getting taxed 1-1/2 times. But that rule would apply equally for shareholders and bondholders, so that pro-debt bias in the tax code would be eliminated. And the revenue generated by disallowing any deduction for interest would be used for pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate.

What’s Troublesome

No tax on income generated by exports and no deduction for cost of imported inputs for companies – The House GOP proposal is designed to be “border adjustable,” which basically means the goal is to have no tax on exports while levying taxes on imports. I’ve never understood why politicians think it’s a good idea to have higher taxes on what Americans consume and lower taxes on what foreigners consume. Moreover, border adjustability normally is a feature of a “destination-based” value-added tax (which, thankfully, is not part of the GOP plan), so it’s not completely clear how the tax-on-imports  portion would be achieved. If I understand correctly, there would be no deduction for the cost of foreign purchases by American firms. That’s borderline protectionist, if not over-the-line protectionist. And it’s unclear whether this approach would pass muster with the World Trade Organization.

To conclude, the GOP plan isn’t perfect, but it’s very good considering the self-imposed boundaries of dynamic revenue neutrality and favorable outcomes for all income groups.

And since those self-imposed constraints make the plan politically viable (unlike, say, the Trump plan, which is a huge tax cut but unrealistic in the absence of concomitant savings from the spending side of the budget), it’s actually possible to envision it becoming law.

Read Full Post »

Who is the worst President in U.S. history?

No, regardless of polling data, the answer is not Barack Obama. Or even Jimmy Carter. Those guys are amateurs.

At the bottom of the list is probably Woodrow Wilson, who gave us both the income tax and the Federal Reserve. And he was a disgusting racist as well.

However, Wilson has some strong competition from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who advocated and implemented policies that exacerbated the bad policies of Herbert Hoover and thus deepened and lengthened the Great Depression.

Today we’re going to look at a new example of FDR’s destructive statism. Something so malicious that he may actually beat Wilson for the prize of being America’s most worst Chief Executive.

Wilson, after all, may have given us the income tax. But Roosevelt actually proposed a top tax rate of 99.5 percent and then tried to impose a 100 percent tax rate via executive order! He was the American version of Francois Hollande.

These excerpts, from an article by Professor Burton Folsom of Hillsdale College, tell you everything you need to know.

Under Hoover, the top rate was hiked from 24 to 63 percent. Under Roosevelt, the top rate was again raised—first to 79 percent and later to 90 percent. In 1941, in fact, Roosevelt proposed a 99.5 percent marginal rate on all incomes over $100,000. “Why not?” he said when an adviser questioned him. After that proposal failed, Roosevelt issued an executive order to tax all income over $25,000 at the astonishing rate of 100 percent. Congress later repealed the order, but still allowed top incomes to be taxed at a marginal rate of 90 percent. …Elliott Roosevelt, the president’s son, conceded in 1975 that “my father may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution.”

Note that FDR also began the odious practice of using the IRS as a political weapon, something that tragically still happens today.

For more detail about Roosevelt’s confiscatory tax policy, here are some blurbs from a 2011 CBS News report.

When bombers struck on December 7, 1941, taxes were already high by historical standards. There were a dizzying 32 different tax brackets, starting at 10% and topping out at 79% on incomes over $1 million, 80% on incomes over $2 million, and 81% on income over $5 million. In April 1942, just a few short months after the attack, President Roosevelt proposed a 100% top rate. At a time of “grave national danger,” he argued, “no American citizen ought to have a net income, after he has paid his taxes, of more than $25,000 a year.” (That’s roughly $300,000 in today’s dollars). Roosevelt never got his 100% rate. However, the Revenue Act of 1942 raised top rates to 88% on incomes over $200,000. By 1944, the bottom rate had more than doubled to 23%, and the top rate reached an all-time high of 94%.

And here are some excerpts from a column that sympathized with FDR’s money grab.

FDR proposed a 100 percent top tax rate. …Roosevelt told Congress in April 1942, “no American citizen ought to have a net income, after he has paid his taxes, of more than $25,000 a year.” That would be about $350,000 in today’s dollars. …lawmakers would quickly reject FDR’s plan. Four months later, Roosevelt tried again. He repeated his $25,000 “supertax” income cap call in his Labor Day message. Congress shrugged that request off, too. FDR still didn’t back down. In early October, he issued an executive order that limited top corporate salaries to $25,000 after taxes. The move would “provide for greater equality in contributing to the war effort,” Roosevelt declared. …lawmakers…ended up attaching a rider repealing the order to a bill… FDR tried and failed to get that rider axed, then let the bill with it become law without his signature.

Regarding FDR’s infamous executive order, here are the relevant passages.

In order to correct gross inequities…, the Director is authorized to take the necessary action, and to issue the appropriate regulations, so that, insofar as practicable no salary shall be authorized under Title III, Section 4, to the extent that it exceeds $25,000 after the payment of taxes allocable to the sum in excess of $25,000.

And from the archives at the University of California Santa Barbara, here is what FDR wrote when Congress used a debt limit vote to slightly scale back the 100 percent tax rate.

First, from a letter on February 6, 1943.

…there is a proposal before the Ways and Means Committee to amend the Public Debt Bill by adding a provision which in effect would nullify the Executive Order issued by me under the Act of Oct. 2, 1942 (price and wage control), limiting salaries to $25,000 net after taxes. …It is my earnest hope that the Public Debt Bill can be passed without the addition of amendments not related to the subject matter of the bill.

And here are excerpts from another letter from FDR later that month.

When the Act of October 2, 1942, was passed, it authorized me to adjust wages or salaries whenever I found it necessary “to correct gross inequities…” Pursuant to this authority, I issued an Executive Order in which, among other things, it was provided that in order to correct gross inequities and to provide for greater equality in contributing to the war effort no salary should be authorized to the extent that it exceeds $25,000 net after the payment of taxes.

Even though Congress was overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, there was resistance to FDR’s plan to confiscate all income.

So Roosevelt had a back-up plan.

If the Congress does not approve the recommendation submitted by the Treasury last June that a flat 100 percent supertax be imposed on such excess incomes, then I hope the Congress will provide a minimum tax of 50 percent, with steeply graduated rates as high as 90 percent. …If taxes are levied which substantially accomplish the purpose I have indicated, either in a separate bill or in the general revenue bill you are considering, I shall immediately rescind the section of the Executive Order in question.

And, sadly, Congress did approve much higher tax rates, not only on the so-called rich, but also on ordinary taxpayers.

Indeed, this was early evidence that tax hikes on the rich basically serve as a precedent for higher burdens on the middle class, something that bears keeping in mind when considering the tax plans of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (or, tongue in cheek, the Barack Obama flat tax).

Let’s close by considering why FDR pushed a confiscatory tax rate. Unlike modern leftists, he did have the excuse of fighting World War II.

But if that was his main goal, surely it was a mistake to push the top tax rate far beyond the revenue-maximizing level.

That hurt the economy and resulted in less money to fight Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

So what motivated Roosevelt? According to Burton and Anita Folsom, it was all about class warfare.

Why “soak the rich” for 100 percent of their income (more or less) when they already face rates of 90 percent in both income and corporate taxes? He knew that rich people would shelter their income in foreign investments, tax-exempt bonds, or collectibles if tax rates were confiscatory. In fact, he saw it happen during his early New Deal years. When he raised the top rate to 79 percent in 1935, the revenue into the federal government from income taxes that year was less than half of what it was six years earlier when the top rate was 24 percent. …First, FDR, as a progressive, believed…that “swollen fortunes” needed to be taxed at punitive rates to redistribute wealth. In fact, as we can see, redistributing wealth was more important to FDR than increasing it. …Second, high taxes on the rich provided excellent cover for his having made the income tax a mass tax. How could a steelworker in Pittsburgh, for example, refuse to pay a new 24 percent tax when his rich factory owner had to pay more than 90 percent? Third, and possibly most important, class warfare was the major campaign strategy for FDR during his whole presidency. He believed he won votes when he attacked the rich.

In other words, FDR’s goal was fomenting resentment rather than collecting revenue.

And there are leftists today who still have that attitude. Heck, there’s an entire political party with that mentality.

Read Full Post »

We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

As of 2012, there were €9 of tax hikes for every €1 of supposed spending cuts according to one estimate. That’s even worse than some of the terrible budget deals we’ve seen in Washington.

At this point, a clever statist will accuse me of sour grapes and state that I’m simply unhappy that politicians opted for policies I don’t like.

I’ll admit to being unhappy, but my real complaint is that higher tax burdens don’t work.

And you don’t have to believe me. We have some new evidence from an international bureaucracy based in Europe.

In a working paper for the European Central Bank, Maria Grazia Attinasi and Luca Metelli crunch the numbers to determine if and when “austerity” works in Europe.

…many Euro area countries have adopted fiscal consolidation measures in an attempt to reduce fiscal imbalances…in most cases, fiscal consolidation did not result, at least in the short run, in a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio…calls for a more temperate approach to fiscal consolidation have increased on the ground that the drag of fiscal restraint on economic growth could lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the debt-to-GDP ratio, as such fiscal consolidation may turn out to be self-defeating. …The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of fiscal consolidation on the general government debt-to-GDP ratio in order to assess whether and under which conditions self defeating effects are likely to materialise and whether they tend to be short-lived or more persistent over time.

Now let’s look at the results of their research.

It turns out that austerity does work, but only if it’s the right kind. The authors find that spending cuts are successful and higher tax burdens backfire.

The main finding of our analysis is that…In the case of revenue-based consolidations the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to be larger and to last longer than in the case of spending-based consolidations. The composition also matters for the long term effects of fiscal consolidations. Spending-based consolidations tend to generate a durable reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio compared to the pre-shock level, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not produce any lasting improvement in the sustainability prospects as the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to revert to the pre-shock level. …strategy is more likely to succeed when the consolidation strategy relies on a durable reduction of spending, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not appear to bring about a durable improvement in debt sustainability.

Unfortunately, European politicians generally have chosen the wrong approach.

This is an important policy lesson also in view of the fact that revenue-based consolidations tend to be the preferred form of austerity, at least in the short run, given also the political costs that a durable reduction in government spending entail.

Here are a few important observations from the study’s conclusion.

…the findings of our analysis are in line with those of the literature on successful consolidation, namely that the composition of fiscal consolidation matters and that a durable reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio is more likely to be achieved if consolidation is implemented on the expenditure side, rather than on the revenue side. In particular, when fiscal consolidation is implemented via an increase in taxation, the debt-to-GDP ratio reverts back to its pre-shock level only in the long run, thus failing to generate an improvement in the debt ratio, and producing what we call a self-defeating fiscal consolidation. …fiscally stressed countries benefit from an immediate reduction in the level of debt when reducing spending.

In other words, restraining the growth of spending is the best way to reduce red ink. Heck, it’s the only way.

When debating my leftists friends, I frequently share this table showing nations that have obtained very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

My examples are from all over the world and cover all sorts of economic conditions. And the results repetitively show that when you deal with the underlying problem of too much government, you automatically improve the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my statist pals to show me a similar table of data for countries that have achieved good results with higher taxes.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

Which is why the only good austerity is spending restraint.

P.S. Paul Krugman is remarkably sloppy and inaccurate when writing about austerity. Check out his errors when commenting on the United Kingdom, Germany, and Estonia.

Read Full Post »

I’m hoping the “Panama Papers” issue will quickly fade from the news (as happened after a similar data theft from BVI in 2013)  for the simple reason that even left-leaning reporters will get bored when they discover it is mostly a story about internationally active investors legally using structures designed for cross-border investment.

Yes, statists have a broader agenda of trying to make tax avoidance somehow shameful and illegitimate. But I doubt they’ll make much progress since no rational person (not even Bono or Donald Trump) voluntarily pays more to the government than is legally required.

Instead, I’m hoping that advocates of economic liberty can use this non-controversy controversy to our advantage by explaining that good tax policy is the best way to encourage both growth and compliance.

I often explain, for instance, that the best way to “hurt” tax havens is for onshore countries to have lower tax rates and less double taxation.

But is it really possible to have a simple tax system that accomplishes all these things? Some folks say no. They argue that there are competing goals in tax policy and that lawmakers are in the unenviable position of having to choose among goals that are mutually inconsistent.

Indeed, a writer for The Economist has a column that purports to show the existence of a “trilemma.”

…the trilemma, under which three options are available, but only two at most can be selected. In this case, it is a simple tax system; independent national tax policies; and the existence of multinational companies and investors.

Here’s my amateur depiction of this supposed trilemma, which ostensibly allows only two out of the three goals to be achieved.

And why does the author think these three things can’t simultaneously exist?

…simple tax systems are the best; they do not distort behaviour. But countries also like to set their own tax policies… The existence of national tax policies also allows economies like Ireland to offer themselves as an attractive place to do business… But that freedom also means that multinational companies and investors can arrange their affairs so as to minimise their tax charge. Governments react to that possibility with a series of carrots and sticks; tax breaks to persuade companies to stay and regulations designed to close loopholes that multinationals try to exploit… This makes the tax system more complex.

This may sound superficially persuasive, but it’s wrong.

And it’s not just wrong in theory. There are real-world examples that show that the trilemma is false.

  • Hong Kong has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • The Cayman Islands has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • Switzerland has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.
  • Estonia has a simple tax system, an independent national tax policy, and lots of multinational companies and investors.

So why is the author wrong?

For the simple reason that he omitted one word. The trilemma can be switched from false to true by adding “high” before “tax.”

To be fair, perhaps this is what the author actually meant since he writes at one point about the level of taxes needed to finance ever-expanding welfare states.

…a world of simple taxes, and independent tax policies, would probably undermine the tax base governments need to fund the welfare states

So there actually is a real lesson to be learned and a real trilemma to analyze. If nations have high taxes, they can’t also have simple tax systems that are appealing to companies and investors.

By the way, the author makes a very good point, noting that tax rates would be more punitive if politicians didn’t have to worry that jobs and investment could cross national borders.

…without…tax competition, one suspects the global tax take would creep higher and higher.

Actually, this is not something “one suspects.” It is a 99.9999 percent certainty. Heck, the OECD even admitted at the very beginning of its anti-tax competition project that the goal was to enable high tax rates and large fiscal burdens. Here’s what the (tax-free!) bureaucrats wrote on page 14 of their 1998 report about the impact of “harmful tax competition.”

Since I’ve pointed out that the OECD has an unseemly pattern of dishonest data manipulation, I feel compelled to give them credit for being uncharacteristically truthful in this instance.

P.S. Let’s take a look at some other trilemmas.

From what I can tell, the most famous trilemma in economics is the Impossible Trinity, which says you can’t simultaneously have fixed exchange rates, open capital flows, and an independent monetary policy. Instead, you have to pick only two of the three options. I try to steer clear of monetary policy issues, but this makes sense.

And it’s definitely true that you can spark an argument among libertarians by raising the possibility, as put forth by an economist from Sweden, that there is a trilemma regarding immigration policy. Is it really true that you can’t simultaneously have limited government, open borders, and democracy? Do you really have to pick two of the three options? For what it’s worth, I would change “democracy” to “majoritarianism.”

Though if you prefer non-policy trilemmas, there’s the one circulates in the business world. It hypothesizes that you can’t have a process for producing a product that is good, cheap, and fast. You have to pick two of the three options. I suspect this is true in the short run, but one of the great thing about capitalism is that markets over time generally make things cheaper, better, and faster.

Last but not least, while searching for good examples of trilemmas, I found this one about communism. It’s amusing, obviously, but can someone truly be both communist and intelligent? Maybe that was possible 100 years ago, before all the horrors that have been unleashed by communism, but is that possible today? Though maybe that’s the point of the trilemma. You can be a smart communist, but only if you actually understand that the system doesn’t work and you’re willing to make dishonest arguments. But, if that’s the case, are you really a communist, or are you some sort of sleazy, power-hungry opportunist?

P.P.S. For those who appreciate politically incorrect humor, here’s another trilemma that you may find amusing.

P.P.P.S. Returning to our original topic, I can’t resist sharing a blurb from this story about New Jersey’s fiscal problems.

The decision by billionaire hedge-fund manager David Tepper to quit New Jersey for tax-friendly Florida could complicate estimates of how much tax money the struggling state will collect, the head of the Legislature’s nonpartisan research branch warned lawmakers. …New Jersey relies on personal income taxes for about 40 percent of its revenue, and less than 1 percent of taxpayers contribute about a third of those collections.

Gee, what a surprise. A state that punishes success over time has less successful people.

But let’s now match this story to our aforementioned tax trilemma. I don’t know if New Jersey’s tax system is simple, but Tepper’s escape means we now have more evidence that high-tax policy is not compatible with attracting and retaining investors.

Read Full Post »

When I give speeches in favor of tax reform, I argue for policies such as the flat tax on the basis of both ethics and economics.

The ethical argument is about the desire for a fair system that neither punishes people for being productive nor rewards them for being politically powerful. As is etched above the entrance to the Supreme Court, the law should treat everyone equally.

The economic argument is about lowering tax rates, eliminating double taxation, and getting rid of distorting tax preferences.

Today, let’s focus on the importance of low tax rates. More specifically, let’s look at why it’s important to have a low marginal tax rate, which is the rate that applies when people earn more income.

Here’s the example I sometimes use in my remarks. Imagine a taxpayer who earns $50,000 and pays $10,000 in tax.

With that information, we know the taxpayer’s average tax rate is 20 percent. But this information tells us nothing about incentives to earn more income because we don’t know the marginal tax rate that would apply if the taxpayer was more productive and earned another $5,000.

Consider these three simple scenarios with wildly different marginal tax rates.

  1. The tax system imposes a $10,000 annual charge on all taxpayers (sometimes referred to as a “head tax”). Under this system, our taxpayer pays that tax, which means the average tax rate on $50,000 of income is 20 percent. But the marginal tax rate would be zero on the additional $5,000 of income. In this system, the tax system does not discourage additional economic activity.
  2. The tax system imposes a flat rate of 20 percent on every dollar of income. Under this system, our taxpayer pays that tax on every dollar of income, which means the average tax rate on $50,000 of income is 20 percent. And the marginal tax rate would also be 20 percent on the additional $5,000 of income. In this system, the tax system imposes a modest penalty on additional economic activity.
  3. The tax system has a $40,000 personal exemption and then a 100 percent tax rate on all income about that level. Under this system, our taxpayer pays $10,000 of tax on $50,000 of income, which means an average tax rate of 20 percent. But the marginal tax rate on another $5,000 of income would be 100 percent. In this system, the tax system would destroy incentives for any additional economic activity.

These examples are very simplified, of course, but they accurately show how systems with identical average tax rates can have very different marginal tax rates. And from an economic perspective, it’s the marginal tax rate that matters.

Remember, economic growth only occurs if people decide to increase the quantity and/or quality of labor and capital they provide to the economy. And those decisions obviously are influenced by marginal tax rates rather than average tax rates.

This is why President Obama’s class-warfare tax policies are so destructive. This is why America’s punitive corporate tax system is so anti-competitive, even if the average tax rate on companies is sometimes relatively low.

And this is why economists seem fixated on lowering top tax rates. It’s not that we lose any sleep about the average tax rate of successful people. We just don’t want to discourage highly productive investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners from doing things that result in more growth and prosperity for the rest of us.

We’d rather have the benign tax system of Hong Kong instead of the punitive tax system of France. Now let’s look at a real-world (though very unusual) example.

Writing for Forbes, a Certified Public Accountant explains why Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers is guaranteed to lose the Super Bowl.

Not on the playing field. The defeat will occur when he files his taxes.

Remember when Peyton Manning paid New Jersey nearly $47,000 in taxes two years ago on his Super Bowl earnings of $46,000? …Newton is looking at a tax bill more than twice as much, which will swallow up his entire Super Bowl paycheck, win or lose, thanks to California’s tops-in-the-nation tax rate of 13.3%.

You may be wondering why California is going to pillage Cam Newton since he plays for a team from North Carolina, but there is a legitimate “nexus” for tax since the Super Bowl is being playing in California.

But it’s the level of the tax and marginal impact that matters. More specifically, the tax-addicted California politicians impose taxes on out-of-state athletes based on how many days they spend in the Golden State.

Before we get into the numbers, let’s do a quick review of the jock tax rules… States tax a player based on their calendar-year income. They apply a duty day calculation which takes the ratio of duty days within the state over total duty days for the year.

Now let’s look at the tax implication for Cam Newton.

If the Panthers win the Super Bowl, Newton will earn another $102,000 in playoff bonuses, but if they lose he will only net another $51,000. The Panthers will have about 206 total duty days during 2016, including the playoffs, preseason, regular season and organized team activities (OTAs), which Newton must attend or lose $500,000. Seven of those duty days will be in California for the Super Bowl… To determine what Newton will pay California on his Super Bowl winnings alone, …looking at the seven days Newton will spend in California this week for Super Bowl 50, he will pay the state $101,600 on $102,000 of income should the Panthers be victorious or $101,360 on $51,000 should they lose.

So what’s Cam’s marginal tax rate?

The result: Newton will pay California 99.6% of his Super Bowl earnings if the Panthers win. Losing means his effective tax rate will be a whopping 198.8%. Oh yeah, he will also pay the IRS 40.5% on his earnings.

In other words, Cam Newton will pay a Barack Obama-style flat tax. The rules are very simple. The government simply takes all your money.

Or, in this case, more than all your money. So it’s akin to a French-style flat tax.

Some of you may be thinking this analysis is unfair because California isn’t imposing a 99.6 percent or 198.8 percent tax on his Super Bowl earnings. Instead, the state is taxing his entire annual income based on the number of days he’s working in the state.

But that’s not the economically relevant issue. What matters if that he’ll be paying about $101,000 of extra tax simply because the game takes place in California.

However, if the Super Bowl was in a city like Dallas and Miami, there would be no additional tax.

The good news, so to speak, is that Cam Newton has a contract that would prevent him from staying home and skipping the game. So he basically doesn’t have the ability to respond to the confiscatory tax rate.

Many successful taxpayers, by contrast, do have flexibility and they are the job creators and investors who help decide whether states grow faster and stagnate. So while California will have the ability to pillage Cam Newton, the state is basically following a suicidal fiscal policy.

Basically the France of America. And that’s the high cost of high marginal tax rates.

Read Full Post »

Since I’m a big fan of the Laffer Curve, I’m always interested in real-world examples showing good results when governments reduce marginal tax rates on productive activity.

Heck, I’m equally interested in real-world results when governments do the wrong thing and increase tax burdens on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship (and, sadly, these examples are more common).

My goal, to be sure, isn’t to maximize revenue for politicians. Instead, I prefer the growth-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

In any event, my modest hope is that politicians will learn that higher tax rates lead to less taxable income. Whether taxable income falls by a lot or a little obviously depends on the specific circumstance. But in either case, I want policy makers to understand that there are negative economic effects.

Writing for Forbes, Jeremy Scott of Tax Notes analyzes the supply-side policies of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu…argued that the Laffer curve worked, and that his 2003 tax cuts had transformed Israel into a market economy and an engine of growth. …He pushed through controversial reforms… The top individual tax rate was cut from 64 percent to 44 percent, while corporate taxes were slashed from 36 percent to 18 percent. …Netanyahu credits these reforms for making Israel’s high-tech boom of the last few years possible. …tax receipts did rise after Netanyahu’s tax cuts. In fact, they were sharply higher in 2007 than in 2003, before falling for several years because of the global recession. …His tax cuts did pay for themselves. And he has transformed Israel into more of a market economy…In fact, the prime minister recently announced plans for more cuts to taxes, this time to the VAT and corporate levies.

Pretty impressive.

Though I have to say that rising revenues doesn’t necessarily mean that the tax cuts were completely self-financing. To answer that question, you have to know what would have happened in the absence of the tax cut. And since that information never will be available, all we can do is speculate.

That being said, I have no doubt there was a strong Laffer Curve response in Israel. Simply stated, dropping the top tax rate on personal income by 20 percentage points creates a much more conducive environment for investment and entrepreneurship.

And cutting the corporate tax rate in half is also a sure-fire recipe for improved investment and job creation.

I’m also impressed that there’s been some progress on the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Netanyahu explained that the public sector had become a fat man resting on a thin man’s back. If Israel were to be successful, it would have to reverse the roles. The private sector would need to become the fat man, something that would be possible only with tax cuts and a trimming of public spending. …Government spending was capped for three years.

The article doesn’t specify the years during which spending was capped, but the IMF data shows a de facto spending freeze between 2002 and 2005. And the same data, along with OECD data, shows that the burden of government spending has dropped by about 10 percentage points of GDP since that period of spending restraint early last decade.

Here’s the big picture from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see from the data on Israel, the nation moved dramatically in the right direction after 1980. And there’s also been an upward bump in recent years.

Since I’m not an expert on Israeli economic policy, I don’t know the degree to which Netanyahu deserves a lot of credit or a little credit, but it’s good to see a country actually moving in the right direction.

Let’s close by touching on two other points. First, there was one passage in the Forbes column that rubbed me the wrong way. Mr. Scott claimed that Netanyahu’s tax cuts worked and Reagan’s didn’t.

Netanyahu might have succeeded where President Reagan failed.

I think this is completely wrong. While it’s possible that the tax cuts in Israel has a bigger Laffer-Curve effect than the tax cuts in the United States, the IRS data clearly shows that Reagan’s lower tax rates led to more revenue from the rich.

Second, the U.S. phased out economic aid to Israel last decade. I suspect that step helped encourage better economic policy since Israeli policy makers knew that American taxpayers no longer would subsidize statism. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson there for other nations?

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

The tax-reform landscape is getting crowded.

Adding to the proposals put forth by other candidates (I’ve previously reviewed the plans offered by Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Donald Trump), we now have a reform blueprint from Ted Cruz.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, the Texas Senator unveiled his rewrite of the tax code.

…tax reform is a powerful lever for spurring economic expansion. Along with reducing red tape on business and restoring sound money, it can make the U.S. economy boom again. That’s why I’m proposing the Simple Flat Tax as the cornerstone of my economic agenda.

Here are the core features of his proposal.

…my Simple Flat Tax plan features the following: • For a family of four, no taxes whatsoever (income or payroll) on the first $36,000 of income. • Above that level, a 10% flat tax on all individual income from wages and investment. • No death tax, alternative minimum tax or ObamaCare taxes. • Elimination of the payroll tax and the corporate income tax… • A Universal Savings Account, which would allow every American to save up to $25,000 annually on a tax-deferred basis for any purpose.

From an economic perspective, there’s a lot to like. Thanks to the low tax rate, the government no longer would be imposing harsh penalties on productive behavior. Major forms of double taxation such as the death tax would be abolished, creating a much better environment for wage-boosting capital formation.

And I’m glad to see that the notion of a universal savings account, popularized by my colleague Chris Edwards, is catching on.

Moreover, the reforms Cruz is pushing would clean up some of the most complex and burdensome sections of the tax code.

But Cruz’s plan is not a pure flat tax. There would be a small amount of double taxation of income that is saved and invested, though the adverse economic impact would be trivial because of the low tax rate.

And the Senator would retain some preferences in the tax code, which is somewhat unfortunate, and expand the earned income credit, which is more unfortunate.

It maintains the current child tax credit and expands and modernizes the earned-income tax credit… The Simple Flat Tax also keeps the current deduction for all charitable giving, and includes a deduction for home-mortgage interest on the first $500,000 in principal.

But here’s the part of Cruz’s plan that raises a red flag. He says he wants a “business flat tax,” but what he’s really proposing is a value-added tax.

…a 16% Business Flat Tax. This would tax companies’ gross receipts from sales of goods and services, less purchases from other businesses, including capital investment. …My business tax is border-adjusted, so exports are free of tax and imports pay the same business-flat-tax rate as U.S.-produced goods.

His proposal is a VAT because wages are nondeductible. And that basically means a 16 percent withholding tax on the wages and salaries of all American workers (for tax geeks, this part of Cruz’s plan is technically a subtraction-method VAT).

Normally, I start foaming at the mouth when politicians talking about value-added taxes. But Senator Cruz obviously isn’t proposing a VAT for the purpose of financing a bigger welfare state.

Instead, he’s doing a swap, imposing a VAT while also getting rid of the corporate income tax and the payroll tax.

And that’s theoretically a good deal because the corporate income tax is so senselessly destructive (swapping the payroll tax for the VAT, as I explained a few days ago in another context, is basically a wash).

But it’s still a red flag because I worry about what might happen in the future. If the Cruz plan is adopted, we’ll still have the structure of an income tax (albeit a far-less-destructive income tax). And we’ll also have a VAT.

So what happens 10 years from now or 25 years from now if statists control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and they decide to reinstate the bad features of the income tax while retaining the VAT? They now have a relatively simple way of getting more revenue to finance European-style big government.

And also don’t forget that it would be relatively simple to reinstate the bad features of the corporate income tax by tweaking Cruz’s business flat tax/VAT.

By the way, I have the same specific concern about Senator Rand Paul’s tax reform plan.

My advice to both of them is to ditch the VAT and keep the payroll tax. Not only would that address my concern about enabling the spending proclivities of statists in the future, but I also think Social Security reform is more feasible when the system is financed by the payroll tax.

Notwithstanding my concern about the VAT, Senator Cruz has put forth a plan that would be enormously beneficial to the American economy.

Instead of being a vehicle for punitive class warfare and corrupt cronyism, the tax code would simply be the method by which revenue was collected to fund government.

Which gives me an opportunity to raise an issue that applies to every candidate. Simply stated, no good tax reform plan will be feasible unless it’s accompanied by a serious plan to restrain government spending.

Read Full Post »

It’s time for a lesson in tax economics.

Though hopefully today’s topic won’t be as dry and boring as my missives on more technical issues like depreciation and worldwide taxation.

That’s because we’re going to talk about the taxation of workers, which is something closer to home for most of us.

And our lesson comes from Belgium, where the government wants a “new social contract” based on lower “direct” taxes on workers in exchange for higher “indirect” taxes on consumers.

Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg column by Jean-Michel Paul.

Belgium’s one-year-old government announced measures, radical by that country’s standards, to move the burden of taxation to consumption from labor.  The measures are being hailed as the start of a new social contract in the heart of Europe.

But before discussing this new contract, let’s look at how Belgium’s system evolved. Monsieur Paul explains that his nation has a bloated welfare state, which has resulted in heavy taxes on workers (vigorous tax competition precludes onerous taxes on capital).

…In order to sustain large government expenses of more than 50 percent GDP on top of servicing its debt, Belgium became the OECD’s second most-taxed economy. …Belgium made a choice: It decided to heavily tax labor, which it figured, wrongly, was stuck. At the same time, it decided to provide attractive tax treatment to highly mobile capital. The gambit meant that Belgium attracted a large number of wealthy families from higher tax countries, particularly France and the Netherlands, eager to take advantage of the low rates of tax on capital. However, Belgian workers got hammered. In 2014 Belgian workers were the most taxed labor in the developed world, taking home only 46 percent of employers’ labor costs.

Here’s a chart from the article, showing that Belgian workers are the most mistreated in the developed world.

Keep in mind, by the way, that average rates only measure the overall burden of taxation.

Marginal tax rates, which are what matters most for incentives, are even higher.

According to Wikipedia, the personal income tax has a top rate of 50 percent, and that punitive rate hits a lot of ordinary workers (it’s imposed on income “in excess of €37750”). But there’s also a 13 percent payroll tax on workers and a concomitant payroll tax of more than 30 percent on employers (which, needless to say, is borne by workers).

So an ambitious Belgian worker who wants to earn more money will be confronted by the ugly reality that the government will get the lion’s share of any additional income. Geesh, no wonder Belgium gets a high score (which is not a good outcome) in the World Bank’s “tax effort report card.”

Not surprisingly, high tax rates on labor have led to some predictably bad consequences.

The entrepreneurial class is voting with its feet and regular workers are being taxed into the unemployment line.

This unusual policy mix has increasingly created problems. …Educated professionals and entrepreneurs, those most in demand in other countries, have voted with their feet in borderless Europe. As a result, productivity growth has been limited and Belgium’s economy remained low-growth. Its business start-up rate is the second lowest of the EU. …Whole segments of the country’s industrial tissue, such as the automobile sector, have gradually closed down… This has led to what the European Commission described as “a chronic underutilisation of labour” (read: unemployment) especially among the least qualified and the young. Youth unemployment stands at over 22 percent. …In its 2015 country report the Commission noted that this “reflects Belgium’s high social security charges on labour, which add to the large tax wedge”

Given these horrid numbers, it’s understandable that some policy makers in Belgium want to make changes.

But as Americans have learned (very painfully), “change” doesn’t necessarily mean better policy.

So let’s see what Belgian policy makers have in mind.

The new policy…is to reduce taxes on labor and increase indirect taxes to compensate. Social Security taxes on companies are being reduced to 25 percent from 33 percent over the next two years, bringing an increase in the net after-tax income of 100 euros ($113) per month for low and middle-wage earners. This is mainly financed by an increase in value added tax on electricity consumption. …Belgium is the first to implement what some call a “social VAT” (a tax on consumption to finance social security). …it rewards work and may well change the entitlement mind-set that has hampered innovation and job growth for decades. …a significant step in the right direction, correcting some of the worst distortions of Belgium’s social model.

In other words, politicians in Belgium want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Workers will be allowed to earn more of their income when they earn it, but the government will grab more of their income when they spend it.

Now for the economics lesson.

People work because they want to earn money. And they want to earn money so they can spend it. In other words, as Adam Smith observed way back in 1776, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”

Now ask yourself whether the change in Belgian tax policy will boost employment when there’s no change in the tax wedge between pre-tax income (the income you generate) and post-tax consumption (the income you get to spend)?

The answer presumably is no.

This doesn’t mean that the proposed reform is completely useless. It appears that the VAT increase is achieved by ending a preferential tax rate on electricity consumption. And since I don’t like distorting tax preferences, I’m guessing the net effect of the overall package is slightly positive.

In other words, the lower payroll tax rate is unambiguously good and the increase in the VAT burden is only partially bad (I would be more critical if the proposal included an increase in the VAT rate rather than the elimination of a preference).

That being said, now let’s address Belgium’s real problem. Simply stated, it’s impossible to have a good tax system when government spending consumes more than 50 percent of economic output.

In no uncertain terms, an excessive burden of government spending is the problem that needs to be solved.

P.S. Interestingly, Belgium’s tax shift is somewhat similar to Rand Paul’s tax plan. In addition to all the other changes envisioned by the Kentucky Senator, he would get rid of the payroll tax and replace it with a value-added tax.

P.P.S. In addition to much smaller government, I suspect Belgium also needs to split into two different countries.

P.P.P.S. To get an idea of Belgium’s challenge, the politicians in Brussels actually criticize Germany for being too capitalistic.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: