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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.

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I’m not sure I could pick out a significant victory for human freedom in 2012.

Maybe I’m missing something, but the only good policy that’s even worth mentioning was the decision in Wisconsin to rein in the special privileges and excessive compensation for government workers.

But there definitely have been lots of sad developments.

The hard part is picking the most disappointing story.

1. Was it the craven decision by John Roberts to put politics before the Constitution and cast the deciding vote for Obamacare? This certainly could be the most disappointing event of the year, but technically it didn’t represent a step in the wrong direction since the Supreme Court basically gave a green light to unlimited federal power back in the 1930s and 1940s. The Obamacare case is best characterized as a failure to do the right thing. A very tragic decision, to be sure, but it maintained the status quo.

2. Was it the lawless decision by the Internal Revenue Service to impose a horrible regulation that forces American banks to put foreign law above U.S. law? This was a very bad development in the battle for tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another in a long line of policies (such as FATCA) designed to increase the power of governments to impose and enforce bad tax policy.

3. Was it the Japanese government’s decision to double the value-added tax? I’m definitely not a fan of adding a VAT on top of the income tax, but Japan made that mistake years ago. The choice to increase the tax rate just shows why it’s dangerous to give politicians any new source of revenue. So this isn’t the worst policy development of 2012, particularly since the new Japanese government may suspend the tax hike.

4. Was it the delusional decision by 54 percent of California voters to impose a big, class-warfare tax hike? I thought the vote for Prop 30 was a very troubling development since it signaled that voters could be tricked into enacting class-warfare tax policy, even though they should have realized that more revenue for the state’s politicians would simply exacerbate the eventual fiscal collapse. But since I think this will be a learning experience on what not to do, I can’t put this at the top of my list.

5. Was it the French government’s punitive decision to impose a 75-percent top tax rate? This is a spectacularly misguided policy, and it’s already resulting in an exodus of entrepreneurs and other successful people. But just as I enjoy have California as a negative role model, I like using France as an example of bad policy. So it would be a bit hypocritical for me to list this as the worst policy of 2012.

6. Or was it the envy-motivated decisions by politicians in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic to replace flat tax systems with so-called progressive tax regimes? This is a strong candidate for the worst policy of the year. It’s very rare to see governments do the right thing, so it’s really tragic when politicians implement good reforms and later decide to reinstate class-warfare policies.

All things considered, I think this last option is the worst policy development of 2012. To be sure, I’m a bit biased since my work focuses on public finance issues and I’ve spent 20 years advocating for tax reform.

But I think there’s a strong case to be made, by anyone who believes in freedom, that politicians from Slovakia and the Czech Republic deserve the booby prize for worst public policy development of 2012.

Alvin Rabushka, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Flat Tax , summarizes the grim news.

On December 4, 2013, the center-left parliament of Slovakia modified the country’s historic 19% flat-rate tax…  Effective January 1, 2013, the income tax rate for corporations was raised from 19% to 23%, while that on individuals earning more than €39,600 (€1=$1.30) a year was raised to 25%, thereby creating two brackets of 19% and 25%. …On November 7, 2012, the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of the national parliament approved a proposal to impose a second higher rate of 22% on annual income exceeding Czech Koruna (CZK) 100,000 ($5,200) per month.  President Vaclav Klaus signed the bill on December 22, 2012, which will take effect on January 1, 2013.

What’s especially depressing about these two defeats is that the supposedly right-wing parties deserve the blame.

Two nations filled with brain-dead conservative politicians

In Slovakia, all but one of the right-leaning parties in the old government decided to support the Greek bailout, leading to the collapse of the government and the election of a new socialist government that then sabotaged tax reform.

And in the Czech Republic, the current right-of-center government decided to scrap the flat tax for “fairness” reasons. I’m sure that will really be comforting to the Czech people as the economy suffers from less growth.

To understand what the people of those nations are losing, here’s my video on the flat tax.

Now for a bit of good news. There are still more than 25 flat tax jurisdictions in the world, including two of my favorite places – Hong Kong and Estonia.

So there are still some pockets of rationality. It’s just very unfortunate that the scope of human liberty is getting smaller every year.

P.S. The absolute worst thing that happened in 2012, if we look beyond public policy, was Georgia falling 4 yards short of beating Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship.

P.P.S. Speaking of sports, the best thing about 2012 occurred in Virginia Beach back in October.

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I’m in Slovakia, where I just returned from some meetings at the annual conference of the Freedom and Solidarity Party. Unlike Republicans in the United States, these people practice what they preach about free markets and individual liberty.

Indeed, the SAS Party (which I gather must be Slovak initials for Freedom and Solidarity) is so committed to principles that it refused to join with other coalition members to support the European bailout fund.

The same cannot be said about the other supposedly right-leaning parties that were part of the government. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s party wound up supporting the bailout (even though she initially was opposed). Amazingly, these other parties thought the bailouts were such a good idea that they were willing to lose a “no-confidence” vote – paving the way for the Social Democrats to win the most recent election!

I guess the analogy is Bush and the other GOP statists supporting corrupt policies such as TARP, which helped pave the way for Obama to get elected.

In this analogy, the SAS Party is akin to the tea party, representing honest conservatives and libertarians.

By the way, there are a small handful of genuinely good political parties in the world. If we limit ourselves to ones that have legislative seats, SAS is on the list, of course, but I would also include the Reform Party in Estonia, which leads that nation’s coalition government. It’s worth noting that Estonia responded to the recent economic crisis by imposing genuine spending cuts, which helps explain why that nation’s economy has bounced back while other nations are languishing.

New Zealand’s ACT Party also deserves a mention, though they’re down to just one seat in that nation’s Parliament. Hopefully they’ll bounce back.

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I’m routinely critical of politicians, even the “good” ones that say they want to limit government and promote freedom.

But I think I’ve found a lawmaker who is worthy of strong praise. Unfortunately, he’s not in America.

He is Richard Sulik, the head of the Slovakian parliament and leader of the libertarian-leaning Freedom and Solidarity party.

Along with other members of his party, he is the best hope to block the bailouts that will reward profligacy and dig Europe’s debt hole even deeper.

Here’s some of what the UK-based Telegraph reported about Sulik’s battle for liberty.

European leaders fear that Slovakia’s attempt to block the new bail-out fund is as dangerous as David’s stand against Goliath. But it’s not just the difference in size and power that’s the worry – it’s that Slovakia’s rebel might have “right” on his side.  Slovakia’s hero is Richard Sulik, head of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS) the junior partner in a four-party coalition. He has passionately described Slovakia’s 20-year journey from Communism to the European Union – and the deep national pride of meeting the membership requirements against the odds.  Mr Sulik has articulated the dismay of many that in Greece, Slovakians are faced with a country that bent the rules, rather than sacrificed, to gain entry – and now are demanding their luxuries are maintained by others. The average Slovak, whose salary is lowest in the euro zone, Sulik claims, would have to work 300 extra hours to cover the increase in the country’s guarantees of the EFSF, which will rise from €4.4bn to €7.7bn under the proposed deal. Mr Sulik has been criticised for being nationalistic, but he’s fast-becoming the voice of the discontented European masses.
By the way, the former nation of Czechoslovakia seems to have produced worthy leaders once it split in half. Not only is Sulik worthy of praise in Slovakia, but so are other Slovak lawmakers, and  I’ve already pointed out the President Klaus of the Czech Republic is one of the few people in Europe fighting for freedom.

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The Congressional Budget Office has just released the update to its Economic and Budget Outlook.

There are several things from this new report that probably deserve commentary, including a new estimate that unemployment will “remain above 8 percent until 2014.”

This certainly doesn’t reflect well on the Obama White House, which claimed that flushing $800 billion down the Washington rathole would prevent the joblessness rate from ever climbing above 8 percent.

Not that I have any faith in CBO estimates. After all, those bureaucrats still embrace Keynesian economics.

But this post is not about the backwards economics at CBO. Instead, I want to look at the new budget forecast and see what degree of fiscal discipline is necessary to get rid of red ink.

The first thing I did was to look at CBO’s revenue forecast, which can be found in table 1-2. But CBO assumes the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012, as well as other automatic tax hikes for 2013. So I went to table 1-8 and got the projections for those tax provisions and backed them out of the baseline forecast.

That gave me a no-tax-hike forecast for the next 10 years, which shows that revenues will grow, on average, slightly faster than 6.6 percent annually. Or, for those who like actual numbers, revenues will climb from a bit over $2.3 trillion this year to almost $4.4 trillion in 2021.

Something else we know from CBO’s budget forecast is that spending this year (fiscal year 2011) is projected to be a bit below $3.6 trillion.

So if we know that tax revenues will be $4.4 trillion in 2021 (and that’s without any tax hike), and we know that spending is about $3.6 trillion today, then even those of us who hate math can probably figure out that we can balance the budget by 2021 so long as government spending does not increase by more than $800 billion during the next 10 years.

Yes, you read that correctly. We can increase spending and still balance the budget. This chart shows how quickly the budget can be balanced with varying degrees of fiscal discipline.

The numbers show that a spending freeze balances the budget by 2017. Red ink disappears by 2019 if spending is allowed to grow 1 percent each years. And the deficit disappears by 2021 if spending is limited to 2 percent annual growth.

Not that these numbers are a surprise. I got similar results after last year’s update, and also earlier this year when the Economic and Budget Outlook was published.

Some of you may be thinking this can’t possibly be right. After all, you hear politicians constantly assert that we need tax hikes because that’s the only way to balance the budget without “draconian” and “savage” budget cuts.

But as I’ve explained before, this demagoguery is based on the dishonest Washington practice of assuming that spending should increase every year, and then claiming that a budget cut takes place anytime spending does not rise as fast as previously planned.

In reality, balancing the budget is very simple. Modest spending restraint is all that’s needed. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in a corrupt town dominated by interest groups, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and politicians.

But if we takes tax hikes off the table and somehow cap the growth of spending, it can be done. This video explains.

And we know other countries have succeeded with fiscal restraint. As is explained in this video.

Or we can acquiesce to the Washington establishment and raise taxes and impose fake spending cuts. But that hasn’t worked so well for Greece and other European welfare states, so I wouldn’t suggest that approach.

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America faces a fiscal crisis. The burden of federal spending has doubled during the Bush-Obama years, a $2 trillion increase in just 10 years. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget is going to consume larger and larger shares of America’s economic output in coming decades.

For all intents and purposes, the United States appears doomed to become a bankrupt welfare state like Greece.

But we can save ourselves. A previous video showed how both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton achieved positive fiscal changes by limiting the growth of federal spending, with particular emphasis on reductions in the burden of domestic spending. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity provides examples from other nations to show that good fiscal policy is possible if politicians simply limit the growth of government.

These success stories from Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand share one common characteristic. By freezing or sharply constraining the growth of government outlays, nations were able to rapidly shrinking the economic burden of government, as measured by comparing the size of the budget to overall economic output.

Ireland and New Zealand actually froze spending for multi-year periods, while Canada and Slovakia limited annual spending increases to about 1 percent. By comparison, government spending during the Bush-Obama years has increased by an average of more than 7-1/2 percent. And the burden of domestic spending has exploded during the Bush-Obama years, especially compared to the fiscal discipline of the Reagan years. No wonder the United States is in fiscal trouble.

Heck, even Bill Clinton looks pretty good compared to the miserable fiscal policy of the past 10 years.

The moral of the story is that limiting the growth of spending works. There’s no need for miracles. If politicians act responsibly and restrain spending, that allows the private sector to grow faster than the burden of government. That’s the definition of good fiscal policy. The new video above shows that other nations have been very successful with that approach. And here’s the video showing how Reagan and Clinton limited spending in America.

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President Andrew Jackson is believed to have said that “One man with courage makes a majority.” Well, let’s hope this statement also applies to women. The incoming Prime Minister of Slovakia, Ms. Iveta Radicova, has the power to stop the corrupt and misguided European bailout scheme. At one point, Irish voters had the power to stop more centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization in Brussels. Then the President of the Czech Republic had the opportunity to derail the movement to a socialist superstate in Brussels. In both cases, the forces of statism eventually prevailed. The bailout is a different issue, but the underlying issues are the same. Should nations have both the sovereign right to determine their own policies and should they also have the responsibility of dealing with the consequences of those actions? Here’s a blurb from the EU Observer about whether Slovakia will save Europe from the political elites:

The emerging new leadership in Slovakia has said the country will not contribute its share of the €110 billion rescue package for Greece. In addition, Bratislava is likely not to add its signature to the €750 billion eurozone support mechanism – something that could put the entire project on ice. …”It would be a serious blow to the EFSF and the euro area’s ability to stand behind its members [if a member does not sign],” a senior eurozone official told this website. He explained that all 16 signatures on the document – which specifies provisions on how to issue loan guarantees if necessary – are required to bring the emergency mechanism to life. …Conservative politician Iveta Radicova, the likely next prime minister, described the bloc’s €750 billion rescue fund during the pre-election debates as “bad, dangerous and [the] worst possible solution.” On Tuesday (15 June), Ms Radicova also re-iterated that she is against Slovakia providing any financial support to Greece.

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