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Archive for the ‘Supply-side economics’ Category

There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a hard-nosed businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting – albeit depressing – article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

But let’s get back to Will’s article. He asserts that Wagner’s Law is bad news for advocates of smaller government.

…free-marketeers tend to insist that the key to achieving higher rates of economic growth is slashing the size of government. After all, it’s true that the private sector is better than government at putting resources to their most productive use and that some public spending crowds out private investment. If you’re really committed to the idea of stronger economic growth through government contraction, you’re pretty much committed to the idea that the pattern behind Wagner’s Law is a sort of fluke—a contingent correlation without any real cause-and-effect basis—and that there’s got to be some workaround or fix.

I don’t particularly agree with his characterization. You can believe (as I surely do) that smaller government would lead to faster growth without having to disbelieve, deny, or debunk Wagner’s Law.

  • First, it’s quite possible to have decent growth along with expanding government so long as other policy levers are moving in the right direction. Which is exactly what one Spanish scholar found when examining data for developed nations during the post-World War II period.
  • Second, it’s overly simplistic to characterize this debate as government or growth. The real issue is the rate of growth. After all, even France has a bit of growth in an average year. The real issue is whether there could be more growth with a lower level of taxes and spending. In other words, would the rest of the developed world grow faster with Hong Kong-sized government?

All that being said, Will certainly is right in his article when he points out that libertarians and other advocates of smaller government haven’t done a good job of constraining government spending.

He then examines some of the ideas have been proposed by folks on the right who want to constrain spending. Beginning with the starve-the-beast hypothesis.

The idea that it is possible to “starve the beast”—to reduce the size of government by starving the government of tax revenue—springs from this hope. But the actual effect of cutting taxes below the amount necessary to sustain current levels of government spending only underscores the unforgiving lawlikeness of Wagner’s Law. As our namesake Bill Niskanen showed, tax cuts that lead to budget shortfalls don’t lead to corresponding cuts in government spending. On the contrary, financing government spending through debt rather than taxes makes voters feel that government spending is cheaper than it really is, which makes them want even more of it.

Here’s my first substantive disagreement with Will. I’m definitely not in the all-we-have-to-do-is-cut-taxes camp, but I certainly like lower tax rates and I definitely believe that higher taxes would worsen our long-run fiscal outlook.

And I’ve looked closely at the starve-the-beast academic research. Niskanen’s study has some methodological problems and the Romer & Romer study that most people cite when arguing against the starve-the-beast hypothesis actually shows that cutting taxes is somewhat effective so long as tax cuts are durable.

Will then looks at whether it would be effective to end withholding.

…withholding made tax collection cheaper and more reliable. …paying taxes automatically and with a minimum of pain makes it less likely that you’ll be livid about them when you vote. The complaint…is the libertarian/conservative argument against a VAT or national sales tax in a nutshell. It’s the same line of reasoning that leads some libertarians and conservatives to flirt with the idea that we ought to pass a law that requires us to write a single, hugely infuriating check to the IRS each year.  The idea is that if voters are really ticked off about taxes, they’ll want lower tax rates. So taxes need to be as salient and painful—i.e., as inefficient and distortionary—as possible.

Will is skeptical of this approach, though I would point out that the one major developed economy that doesn’t have withholding is Hong Kong. And that’s a place that has successfully constrained government spending.

To be sure, the spending restraint could exist for other reasons (such as the spending cap in Article 107 of the jurisdiction’s Basic Law), but the hypothesis that people will want less government if taxes are painful is quite reasonable.

And, by the way, requiring lump-sum payments rather than withholding wouldn’t change the degree to which taxes are distortionary.

Will then turns his attention to the ‘supply-side” argument about lower tax rates.

Supply-siders generally present two scenarios, and neither helps reduce the size of government. One: If the tax cuts pushed by ticked-off taxpayers create supply-side stimulus and increase rather than decrease revenue, there’s no downward pressure on spending. …But it doesn’t make government smaller. Two: If tax cuts aren’t self-funding and simply leave a hole in the budget, the beast (as Niskanen showed) does not therefore get starved. Instead, spending feels cheap, the beast grows even more, and the tax bill gets shifted to the future.

Since I’ve already addressed the starve-the-beast issue, I’ll simply note that self-financing tax cuts (which do exist, though only in rare cases) are only possible if there’s a big uptick in growth and/or compliance. And to the extent that the revenue feedback is due to growth, that will mean that the burden of government spending will fall relative to the size of the private sector even if actual outlays stay the same.

Maybe I’m insufficiently libertarian, but I’ll take that outcome every day of the week. Heck, I’m willing to let government get bigger so long as the private sector gets to grow at a faster pace.

Now we get to Will’s main point. He suggests that maybe libertarians shouldn’t be so fixated on the size of government.

…well-funded and well-organized attempts “to convince voters to reduce their demand for the services financed by federal spending” so far have all failed. It’s time to consider the possibility that there’s no convincing them. …If we look at the world, what we see is that when people get richer, they want more welfare state. Maybe there’s nothing much we can do about that. …When people get richer, they want more welfare state. You can want Americans to get continuously wealthier and also want the government to consume a smaller share of national economic output, but there’s very little reason to think you can have both of those things. That is what the world is telling us.

To the extent that Will is simply making a prediction about the likelihood of continued government expansion, I assume (and fear) he’s right.

But to the degree he’s arguing that we should meekly acquiesce to that outcome, then I’ll strongly disagree. I may lose the fight against big government, but I intend to go down swinging.

Interestingly, Will and I may not actually disagree. This passage points out that it’s a good idea to fight against ineffective programs and to support entitlement reform.

…accepting that it’s probably not possible to shrink government would have a transformative effect on right-leaning politics. We would focus on figuring out the best ways to match receipts to outlays… You start to accept that spending cuts are ultimately more about optimizing the composition and effectiveness of spending than about the overall level of spending or its rate of growth. This doesn’t mean not fighting like hell to slash nonsense programs, or not prioritizing reforms to make entitlement programs fiscally sustainable, or not trying to balance budgets from the spending side, or not trying to minimize the rate of spending growth. This just means that you do it all knowing that the rate of spending growth isn’t going to go negative unless you hit a recession, a debt crisis, or end a major war.

And, most important, this passage also highlights the desirability of a policy to “minimize the rate of spending growth.”

Gee, I think I know someone who relentlessly argues in favor of that approach. Indeed, this guy is so fixated on that policy that he even created a “Rule” to give the concept more attention.

I can’t remember his name right now, but I’m sure he’s a swell guy.

More seriously (and to echo the point I made above), it would be a libertarian victory to have government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy. To be sure, obeying my rule (which actually does happen every so often) doesn’t mean we’ll soon reach the libertarian Nirvana of the “night watchman” state set forth in the Constitution.

But the real fiscal fight in America is whether government is becoming a bigger burden, relative to the private economy, or whether its growth is being constrained so that it’s becoming a smaller burden.

Will closes with a very sensible point about not overlooking the other policy areas where government is hindering prosperity (though that doesn’t require us to give up on the very practical quest to limit the growth of government).

Giving up on the quixotic quest to…falsify Wagner’s Law would also lead us to…focus our energy on removing regulatory barriers to economic participation, innovation, and growth.

And his concluding passage is correct, but too pessimistic.

This is just a conjecture. But when…the United States—where the freedom-as-small-government philosophy is most powerfully promoted and most widely accepted—has lost ground in economic freedom year after year for nearly two decades, it’s a conjecture worth taking very seriously.

Yes, he’s right that overall economic freedom has declined during the Bush-Obama years.

But what about the fact that overall economic freedom increased during the ReaganClinton years? And what about the fact that we achieved a five-year nominal spending freeze even with Obama in the White House?

In other words, there’s no need to throw in the towel. I may not be overflowing with optimism about whether we ultimately succeed in sufficiently constraining the growth of government, but I feel very confident that it’s a worthwhile fight.

P.S. While I disagree with a few of Will’s points, I think his article is very worthwhile. Moreover, a consensus on restraining the growth of government would be an excellent outcome to the debate he has triggered.

But I can’t resist being a bit more critical about something Noah Smith wrote about Will’s article. In his Bloomberg column discussing the hypothesis that libertarians should focus less on (or perhaps even give up on) the battle against government spending, he has a passage that is designed to lure readers into thinking that small government is associated with economic deprivation.

…a stark fact — the richer a country is, the more its government tends to spend. …Today, the top spenders include countries such as France, Denmark and Finland, while the small-government ranks include Sudan, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Sigh.

It’s true that the burden of government spending is much higher in France, Denmark, and Finland than in Sudan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, but let’s take a look at the overall data from Economic Freedom of the World.

France (#57), Denmark (#21), and Finland (#20) are all much more market-oriented than Sudan (unrated, but would have an awful score), Nigeria (#113), and Bangladesh (#121). Smith’s argument is akin to me saying that government-built roads cause economic misery because that’s how they do it in the hellhole of North Korea.

More important, he either ignores or is unaware of the research showing that nations such as France, Denmark, and Finland became rich when government spending was very small. Sigh, again.

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There are several features of President-Elect Trump’s tax plan that are worthy of praise, including death tax repeal, expensing, and lower marginal tax rates on households.

But the policy that probably deserves the most attention is Trump’s embrace of a 15 percent tax rate for business.

What makes this policy so attractive – and vitally important – is that the rest of the world has been in a race to reduce corporate tax burdens.

Ironically, the U.S. helped start the race by cutting the corporate tax rate as part of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. But ever since then, policy in America has stagnated while other developed nations are engaged in a virtuous contest to become more competitive.

And that race continues every day.

Most impressively, as reported by the Financial Times, Hungary will cut its corporate tax rate from 19 percent to 9 percent.

Hungary’s government is to cut its corporate tax rate to the lowest level in the EU in a sign of increasingly competitive tax practices among countries seeking to lure foreign direct investment. Prime Minister Viktor Orban said a new 9 per cent corporate tax rate would be introduced in 2017, significantly lower than Ireland’s 12.5 per cent. …The government said the new single band would apply to all businesses. “Corporation tax will be lowered to single digits next year: a rate of 9 per cent will apply equally to small and medium-sized enterprises and large corporations,” a statement said. …Gabor Bekes, senior research fellow at Hungary’s Institute of Economics…said the measure would likely provoke complaints of unfair tax competition from western capitals.

Needless to say, complaints from Paris, Rome, and Berlin would be a sign that Hungary is doing the right thing.

Croatia also is moving policy in the right direction, albeit in a less aggressive fashion.

Corporate income tax will…be cut from 20 to 18 per cent for large companies and from 20 to 12 per cent for small and mid-level companies whose income is no higher than 400,000 euros annually.

Though the Croatian government also plans to lower tax rates on households.

Before the reform, people with salaries between 300 and 1,750 euros a month were taxed at 25 per cent, while now everyone earning up to 2,325 euros a month will be taxed at a 24 per cent rate. People earning more than 2,325 euros a month will have a 36 per cent tax rate, replacing a 40 per cent tax rate for anyone earning over 1,750 euros a month.

But let’s keep the focus on business taxation.

Our friends on the left don’t like Trump’s plan for a corporate tax cut, but here are there things they should know.

  1. A lower corporate tax rate won’t necessarily reduce corporate tax revenue, particularly over time as there’s more investment and job creation.
  2. A lower corporate tax rate will dramatically – if not completely – eliminate any incentive for American companies to engage in inversions.
  3. A lower corporate tax rate will boost workers wages by increasing the nation’s capital stock and thus improving productivity.

If you want more information, here’s my primer on corporate taxation. You can also watch this video.

Or, to make matters simple, we can just copy Estonia, which has the world’s best system according to the Tax Foundation.

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Back in August, I acknowledged that lifestyle leftists in California won a real victory. They imposed a tax on sugary soft drinks in Berkeley and achieved a reduction in consumption.

But I pointed out that their success actually was an affirmation of supply-side economics, which is simply the common-sense principle that taxes impact behavior. Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

Which is why I’m constantly trying to get my leftist friends to be intellectually consistent. Even though I don’t think it’s the role of government to dictate our private behavior, I tell them that they are right about higher taxes on tobacco leading to less smoking (also more smuggling, but that’s a separate issue).

Yet these people simultaneously claim that higher tax rates on income (especially on the evil rich!) won’t lead to less work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Maybe the disconnect is that leftists think tobacco and sugar are special cases.

So let’s look at another example of a “successful” tax increase.

Oct 4 Home sales in the Vancouver region’s heated housing market fell for the second consecutive month after the province introduced a tax on foreign home ownership, the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver said on Tuesday. In a statement, the board said September’s sales were at 2,253 homes, down 32.6 percent on a year-to-year basis and down 9.5 percent from August, the first full month after British Columbia announced a 15 percent tax on foreign buyers.

Hmmm…., a tax gets imposed on X (in this case, housing) and the result in less X. What a shocking outcome!

One week ago, I would have suggested that Hillary Clinton look at this story before moving forward with her plan for more class-warfare tax hikes.

Given the surprising election outcome, I’ll suggest that Donald Trump look at this story before moving forward with his plan to boost the capital gains tax on “carried interest.” And he definitely should use this example to bolster support for the main features of his tax plan, particularly the lower corporate rate and death tax repeal.

P.S. Even Barack Obama has endorsed the core principle of supply-side economics.

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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.

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I know exactly how Ronald Reagan must have felt back in 1980 when he famously said “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter during their debate.

That’s because I endlessly have to deal with critics who try to undercut the Laffer Curve by claiming that it’s based on the notion that all tax cuts “pay for themselves.”

Now it’s time for me to say “There you go again.”

Reuters regurgitated this misleading trope about the Laffer Curve last year, issuing a report about how the head of the Congressional Budget Office supposedly disappointed “devotees” of “Reaganomics” by saying that tax cuts are not self-financing.

The…Republican-appointed director of the Congressional Budget Office delivered some bad news…to the party’s “Reaganomics” devotees: Tax cuts don’t pay for themselves through turbocharged economic growth. Keith Hall, who served as an economic adviser to former President George W. Bush, made the pronouncement… “No, the evidence is that tax cuts do not pay for themselves,” Hall said in response to a reporter’s question. “And our models that we’re doing, our macroeconomic effects, show that.” His comment is at odds with lingering economic theory from the 1980s.

Well, I’m a “devotee of Reaganomics.” So was I disappointed?

Nope. I largely agree with the CBO Director on this topic.

But I think he should have included two caveats.

First, while there are some politicians (both now and also back in the 1980s) who blindly act as if all tax cuts are self-financing, Reaganomics was not based on that notion.

Instead, proponents of the Reagan tax cuts simply argued reforms would lead to more growth – and therefore more taxable income. And, on that basis, it was a slam-dunk victory.

Interestingly, the report from Reuters quasi-admits that Reaganomics wasn’t based on self-financing tax cuts, noting instead that the core belief was that revenue generated by additional growth would result in “less need” (as opposed to “no need”) to find offsetting budget cuts.

Stronger economic growth generated by tax cuts would boost revenues so much that there is less need to find offsetting savings.

The second caveat is that not all tax cuts (or tax increases) are created equal. Some changes in tax policy have big effects on incentives to work, save, and invest. Others don’t have much impact on economic activity because the tax system’s penalty on productive behavior isn’t altered.

In a few cases, it actually is possible for a tax cut to be self-financing. But in the vast majority of cases, the real issue is the degree to which there is some amount of revenue feedback. In other words, the discussion should focus on the extent to which the foregone revenue from lower tax rates is offset by revenue gains from increased taxable income.

Let’s now look at a real-world example from Sweden to see how politicians are blind to this common-sense insight. The left-wing coalition government in that country indirectly increased marginal tax rates (by phasing out a credit) for some high-income taxpayers this year. The experts at Timbro have examined the potential revenue impact. They start with a description of what happened to policy.

To finance their reforms, …the marginal tax rate for some 400,000 people working in Sweden – e g doctors, engineers, accountants/auditors and others in high income brackets – will be increased by three percentage points to 60 per cent. …it is also necessary to take into consideration payroll tax… Under current rules, the effective marginal tax rate is 75 per cent for high earners. After the phase-out it rises to 77 per cent.

Amazingly, the Swedish government assumes that taxpayers won’t change their behavior in reaction to this high marginal tax rate.

Decades of economics research show that if you raise income tax, people will reduce their working time, put in less effort on the job and engage in more tax planning. When the government calculated the expected increase in revenue of SEK 2.7 billion from the earned income tax credit’s phase out, it failed to take changes in behaviour into consideration because revenue and expenses in the budget are calculated statically.

The folks at Timbro explain what likely will happen as upper-income taxpayers respond to the higher marginal tax rate.

The amount of revenue generated from a tax hike depends on how people change their behaviour as a result. … High elasticity means that salary earners are sensitive to changes in taxation, and that they are very likely to alter their behaviour with certain types of reforms. Examples of this are increasing or decreasing hours worked, switching jobs, or starting a company to enable more tax-planning options. …Elasticity of 0.3 is often used in international literature (e g Hendren, 2014) as a reasonable estimate of the mainstream for this area of research. Piketty & Saez (2012) state that most estimates of elasticity are within the range of 0.1 and 0.4. They conclude that 0.25 is “a realistic mid-range estimate” of elasticity.

So what happens when you apply these measures of taxpayer responsiveness to the Swedish tax hike?

With zero elasticity, i e a static assessment, the revenue increase from phase-out of the earned income tax is assessed at SEK 2.6 billion. That is in line with the government’s estimate of SEK 2.7 billion. … all revenue disappears already at a low, 0.1, level of elasticity.

And when you look at the more mainstream measures of taxpayer responsiveness, the net effect of the government’s tax hike is that the Swedish Treasury will have less revenue.

In other words, this is one of those rare examples of taxable income changing by enough to swamp the impact of the change in the marginal tax rate.

And since we’re dealing with turbo-charged examples of the Laffer Curve, let’s look at what my colleague Alan Reynolds shared about the “huge across-the-board increase in marginal tax rates…Herbert Hoover pushed for” in the early 1930s.

Total federal revenues fell dramatically to less than $2 billion in 1932 and 1933 – after all tax rates had been at least doubled and the top rate raised from 25% to 63%.  That was a sharp decline from revenues of $3.1 billion in 1931 and more than $4 billion in 1930, when the top tax was just 25%. …Revenues fell even as a share of falling GDP –  from 4.1% in 1930 and 3.7% in 1931 to 2.8% in 1932 (the first year of the Hoover tax increase) and 3.4% in 1933. That illusory 1932-33 “increase” was entirely due to less GDP, not more revenue.

Roosevelt’s additional tax increases in the mid-1930s didn’t work much better.

The 15 highest tax rates were increased again in 1936, dividends were made fully taxable at those higher rates, and both corporate and capital gains tax rates were also increased…  Yet all of those massive “tax increases”…failed to bring as much revenue in 1936 as was collected with much lower tax rates in 1930.

The point of these examples is not that governments wound up with less money. What matters is that politicians destroyed private-sector output as a consequence of more punitive tax policy.

And that’s why the tax increases that generate more tax revenue are almost as misguided as the ones that lose revenue.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s tax-hike plan. The Tax Foundation crunched the numbers and concluded it would generate more revenue for the federal government. But I argued that shouldn’t matter.

she’s willing to lower our incomes by 0.80 percent to increase the government’s take by 0.46 percent. A good deal for her and her cronies, but bad for America.

At the risk of repeating myself, we shouldn’t try to be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve.

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My buddy from grad school, Steve Horwitz, has a column for CapX that looks at the argument over “trickle-down economics.” As he points out (and as captured by the semi-clever nearby image), this is mostly a term used by leftists to imply that supporters of economic liberty want tax cuts for the “rich” based on a theory that some of those tax cuts eventually will trickle down to the less fortunate.

People who argue for tax cuts, less government spending, and more freedom for people to produce and trade what they think is valuable are often accused of supporting something called “trickle-down economics.” It’s hard to pin down exactly what that term means, but it seems to be something like the following: “those free market folks believe that if you give tax cuts or subsidies to rich people, the wealth they acquire will (somehow) ‘trickle down’ to the poor.”

But Steve points out that no economist actually uses this argument.

The problem with this term is that, as far as I know, no economist has ever used that term to describe their own views. …There’s no economic argument that claims that policies that themselves only benefit the wealthy directly will somehow “trickle down” to the poor.

So why, then, do leftists characterize tax cuts as “trickle-down economics” when no actual advocate uses that term or that argument?

There are a couple of possible answers, one of which is malicious and one of which is mistaken.

  • First, they’ve latched on to a politically effective way of characterizing tax cuts, so it’s understandable that they want to continue with that approach.
  • Second, their argument for Keynesian economics actually is a version of trickle-down economics since the people who get money from so-called stimulus programs spend the money, which means it gradually trickles to other people (that part is true, but Keynesians fail to understand that government can’t inject money into the economy in this fashion without first taking money out of the economy by borrowing from private capital markets). And since they believe the economy is driven by people spending money (rather than people earning money) and having it trickle to other people, maybe they assume that advocates of tax cuts believe the same thing.

In reality, of course, proponents of lower tax rates are motivated by a desire to improve incentives for people to earn additional income with more work, more saving, and more investment. That’s the basic insight of supply-side economics. It has nothing to do with how they spend (or don’t spend) their income.

With that out of the way, I want to address the part of Steve’s column where he suggested that policies which benefit one group are never helpful to other groups.

I don’t think that’s worded very well. If we lower the capital gains tax on people making more than $10 million annually, that is a policy that obviously benefits only the rich, at least when looking at direct or first-order effects.

But the impact of less double taxation should boost economic performance, even if only by a modest amount, and that will benefit everyone in society.

By the way, this works both ways. If we do something that is particularly beneficial for the poor, such as cutting back on occupational licensing requirements, that presumably doesn’t generate any direct benefit for rich people. But they will gain (as will middle-class people) as the economy becomes more productive and efficient.

Steve understands this. He closes his column by making a very similar argument about the economy-wide benefits of more economic liberty.

…allowing everyone to pursue all the opportunities they can in the marketplace, with the minimal level of taxation and regulation, will create generalized prosperity. The value of cutting taxes is not just cutting them for higher income groups, but for everyone. Letting everyone keep more of the value they create through exchange means that everyone has more incentive to create such value in the first place, whether it’s through the ownership of capital or finding new uses for one’s labor.

Now that we’ve dispensed with the silly left-wing caricature of trickle-down economics, let’s discuss how there actually is a sensible way to think about the issue.

Way back in 1996, I gave a speech in Sweden about the impact of fiscal policy on economic growth (later reprinted as a Heritage Foundation publication).

As part of my comments, I spoke about the damaging impact of the tax code’s bias against saving and investment and explained that this lowered wages because of the link between the capital stock (machinery, technology, etc) and employee compensation.

I also quoted John Shoven, a professor at Stanford University who wrote a paper back in 1990 about this topic for the American Council for Capital Formation. And here we actually have an example of an economist using “trickle-down economics” in the proper sense.

The mechanism of raising real wages by stimulating investment is sometimes derisively referred to as “trickle-down” economics. But regardless of the label used, no one doubts that the primary mechanism for raising the return to work is providing each worker with better and more numerous tools. One can wonder about the length of time it takes for such a policy of increasing saving and investments to have a pronounced effect on wages, but I know of no one who doubts the correctness of the underlying mechanism. In fact, most economists would state the only way to increase real wages in the long run is through extra investments per worker.

Amen. Capital and labor are complementary goods, which means that more of one helps make the other more valuable.

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Our statist friends like high taxes for many reasons. They want to finance bigger government, and they also seem to resent successful people, so high tax rates are a win-win policy from their perspective.

They also like high tax rates to micromanage people’s behavior. They urge higher taxes on tobacco because they don’t like smoking. They want higher taxes on sugary products because they don’t like overweight people. They impose higher taxes on “adult entertainment” because…umm…let’s simply say they don’t like capitalist acts between consenting adults. And they impose higher taxes on tanning beds because…well, I’m not sure. Maybe they don’t like artificial sun.

Give their compulsion to control other people’s behavior, these leftists are very happy about what’s happened in Berkeley, California. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, a new tax on sugary beverages has led to a significant reduction in consumption.

Here are some excerpts from a release issued by the press shop at the University of California Berkeley.

…a new UC Berkeley study shows a 21 percent drop in the drinking of soda and other sugary beverages in Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods after the city levied a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. …The “Berkeley vs. Big Soda” campaign, also known as Measure D, won in 2014 by a landslide 76 percent, and was implemented in March 2015. …The excise tax is paid by distributors of sugary beverages and is reflected in shelf prices, as a previous UC Berkeley study showed, which can influence consumers’ decisions. …Berkeley’s 21 percent decrease in sugary beverage consumption compares favorably to that of Mexico, which saw a 17 percent decline among low-income households after the first year of its one-peso-per-liter soda tax that its congress passed in 2013.

I’m a wee bit suspicious that we’re only getting data on consumption by poor people.

Why aren’t we seeing data on overall soda purchases?

And isn’t it a bit odd that leftists are happy that poor people are bearing a heavy burden?

I’m also amused by the following passage. The politicians want to discourage people from consuming sugary beverages. But if they are too successful, then they won’t collect all the money they want to finance bigger government.

In Berkeley, the tax is intended to support municipal health and nutrition programs. To that end, the city has created a panel of experts in child nutrition, health care and education to make recommendations to the City Council about funding programs that improve children’s health across Berkeley.

In other words, one of the lessons of the Berkeley sugar tax and the 21-percent drop in consumption is that the Laffer Curve applies to so-called sin taxes just like it applies to income taxes.

But the biggest lesson to learn from this episode is that it confirms the essential insight of supply-side economics. Simply stated, when you tax something, you get less of it.

Which is something that statists seem to understand when they urge higher “sin taxes,” but they deny when the debate shifts to taxes on work, saving, entrepreneurship, and investment.

I’m not joking. I debate leftists all the time and they will unabashedly argue that it’s okay to have higher tax rates on labor income and more double taxation on capital income because taxpayers supposedly don’t care about taxes.

Oh, and the same statists who say that high tax burdens don’t matter because people don’t change their behavior get all upset about “tax havens” and “tax competition” because…well, because people will change their behavior by shifting their economic activity where tax rates are lower.

It must be nice not to be burdened by a need for intellectual consistency.

Speaking of which, Mark Perry used the Berkeley soda tax as an excuse to add to his great collection of Venn Diagrams.

P.S. On the issue of sin taxes, a brothel in Austria came up with an amusing form of tax avoidance. The folks in Nevada, by contrast, believe in sin loopholes. And the Germans have displayed Teutonic ingenuity and efficiency.

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