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Archive for the ‘Marginal Tax Rate’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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