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Archive for the ‘Tax Increase’ Category

According to leftists like Bernie Sanders, European nations have wonderfully generous welfare states financed by high tax rates on the rich.

They’re partly right. There are very large welfare states in Europe (though I wouldn’t use “wonderfully” and “generous” to describe systems that have caused economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment).

But they’re wrong about how those welfare states are financed. Yes, tax rates on the rich are onerous, but not that much higher than in the United States. Instead, the big difference between America and Europe is that ordinary people pay much higher taxes on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, I’ve previously cited Tax Foundation data showing that the United States arguably has the most “progressive” tax system in the developed world. Not because we tax the rich more, but simply because we impose comparatively modest burdens on everyone else.

And now we have some new evidence making the same point. Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal has some very sobering data on how the German tax system imposes a heavy weight on poor and middle-income taxpayers.

Europeans believe their tax codes are highly progressive, giving lower earners a break while levying significant proportions of the income of higher earners and corporations to fund generous social benefits. But that progressivity holds true only for direct taxes on personal and corporate income. Indirect taxes, such as the value-added tax on consumption and social-security taxes (disguised as “contributions”), are a different matter. The VAT disproportionately affects lower earners, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes. And social taxes tend to kick in at lower income levels than income taxes, and extract a higher and more uniform proportion of income. …if you look at the proportion of gross household income paid in all forms of tax, the rate varies by only 25 points. The lowest-earning 5% of households pay roughly 27% of their income in various taxes—mainly VAT—while a household in the 85th income percentile pays total taxes of around 52%, mostly in social-security taxes that amount to nearly double the income-tax bill.

Here’s a chart the WSJ included with the editorial.

As you can see, high payroll taxes and the value-added tax are a very costly combination.

And the rest of Europe is similar to Germany.

…Germany is not unique. The way German total revenues are split among income taxes, social taxes and the consumption tax is in line with the rest of Western Europe, as are its tax rates, according to OECD data. If other countries are more progressive than Germany, it’s only because Germany applies its second-highest marginal income-tax rate of 42% at a lower level of income than most.

Speaking of the OECD, here’s the bureaucracy’s data on the burden of government spending.

Germany is in the middle of the pack, with the public sector consuming 44 percent of economic output (Finland edges out France and Greece for the dubious honor of having the most expensive government).

The overall burden of the public sector is far too high in the United States, but we’re actually on the “low” side by OECD standards.

According to the data, total government spending “only” consumes 37.7 percent of America’s GDP. Only Ireland, Switzerland, and Latvia have better numbers (though my friend Constantin Gurdgiev explains we should be cautious about Irish economic data).

But I’m digressing. The point I want to emphasize is that punitive taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers are unavoidable once politicians decide to impose a large welfare state.

Which is why I’m so inflexibly hostile to any tax increase, especially a value-added tax (or anything close to a VAT, such as the BAT) that would vacuum up huge amounts of money from the general population. Simply stated, politicians in Washington will have a hard time financing a bigger burden of government if they can only target the rich.

Sternberg makes the same point in his column.

Tax cuts have emerged as an issue ahead of Germany’s national election next month, with both major parties promising various timid tinkers… Not gonna happen. The VAT and social taxes are too important to the modern welfare state. The great lie is that there are a) enough “rich people,” b) who are rich enough, that c) taxing their incomes heavily enough can pay for generous health benefits and an old-age pension at 65. None of those propositions are true, and the third is especially wrong in an era of globally mobile capital and labor. That leaves the lower and middle classes, and taxes concealed in price tags or dolled up as “insurance contributions” to obscure exactly how much voters are paying for the privilege of their welfare states. …reform of the indirect taxes that impose such a drag on European economies awaits a more serious discussion about the proper role of the state overall.

Exactly.

There’s no feasible way to ease the burden on ordinary German taxpayers (or regular people in other European nations) unless there are sweeping reforms to reduce the welfare state.

And the moral of the story for Americans is that we better enact genuine entitlement reform if we don’t want to suffer the same fate.

P.S. If you don’t like German data, for whatever reason, I wrote last year about Belgium and made the same point about how a big welfare state necessarily means a bad tax system.

P.P.S. By the way, even the OECD admitted that European nations would grow faster if the burden of government was reduced.

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The great thing about the Economic Freedom of the World is that it’s like the Swiss Army Knife of global policy. No matter where you are or what issue you’re dealing with, EFW will offer insight about how to generate more prosperity.

Since today’s focus is Central America, let’s look at the EFW data.

As you can see, it’s a mixed bag. Some nations are in the top quartile, such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama, though none of them get high absolute scores. Mexico, by contrast, has a lot of statism and is ranked only #88, which means it is in the third quartile. And Belize is a miserable #122 and stuck in the bottom quartile (where Cuba also would be if that backwards country would be ranked if it produced adequate statistics).

One of the great challenges for development in central America (as well as other parts of the developing world) is figuring out how to get poor and middle-income nations to make the jump to the next level.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal has a column on how to get more growth in Central America. She focuses on Guatemala, but what she writes is applicable for all neighboring countries.

…faster economic growth is part of what’s needed for the region… To succeed, it will have to break with the State Department’s conventional wisdom that underdevelopment is caused by a paucity of taxes and regulation. It will also have to climb down from its view that trade is a zero-sum game. Policy makers might start by reading a new report on micro, small and medium-sized businesses in Guatemala by the Kirzner Center for Entrepreneurship at Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala City. It measures—by way of household surveys in 179 municipalities and interviews with industry experts—“attitudes, activities and aspirations of the entrepreneur.” …the GEM study ranks Guatemala No. 1 for its positive view of entrepreneurship as a career choice. Guatemala also ranks high (No. 9) for the percentage of the population engaged in new businesses, defined as less than 3½ years old. And it ranks 12th in terms of the percentage of the population who “are latent entrepreneurs and who intend to start a business within three years.”

She explains that Guatemalan entrepreneurship is hampered by excessive taxation and regulation.

Yet Guatemalan eagerness to run a business has not translated into prosperity for the nation… The country ranks a lowly 59th in entrepreneurs’ expectations that they will create six or more jobs in five years. It also sinks to near the bottom of the pack (62nd) in creating business-service companies. …The World Bank’s 2017 “Doing Business” survey provides many clues about why the informal economy is so large. Guatemala ranks 88th out of 190 countries world-wide for ease of running an enterprise, but in key categories that make up the index it performs much worse. The survey finds that it takes 256 hours to comply with the tax code. The total tax take is 35.2% of profits. It takes almost 20 days to start a legal enterprise and costs 24% of per capita income. To enforce a contract it takes more than 1,400 days and costs more than 26% of the claim.

The good news is that we know the answers that will generate prosperity. The bad news is that Guatemala gets a lot of bad advice.

The obvious solution is an overhaul of the tax, regulatory and legal systems in order to increase economic freedom. A lower tax rate and a simpler code would give companies an incentive to operate legally, thereby broadening the base and improving access to credit. Instead the Guatemalan authorities—encouraged by the State Department and the International Monetary Fund—spend their resources trying to impose a complex, costly system in an economy of mostly informal businesses with a much-smaller number of legal, productive entrepreneurs. Recently the United Nations International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala recommended a new tax to fight “impunity.” This is no way to attract capital or raise revenue.

Speaking of bad advice, let’s now contrast the sensible recommendations of Ms. O’Grady to the knee-jerk statism of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In a new report on Costa Rica’s tax system, the OECD urged ever-higher fiscal burdens for the country. Including destructive class warfare.

Costa Rica’s tax revenues are…insufficient to finance the country’s current spending needs. …In addition to raising more tax revenue…, Costa Rica needs to…enhance the redistributive role of its tax system. …the role of the personal income tax (PIT) should be strengthened as it currently raises little revenue and does not contribute to reducing inequality. …Collecting greater revenues from the PIT, by lowering the income threshold above which PIT has to be paid as well as by introducing additional PIT brackets and gradually raising the top PIT rate, could contribute to reducing income inequality.

But the OECD doesn’t merely want to hurt successful taxpayers.

The bureaucracy is proposing other taxes that target everyone in the country. Including a pernicious value-added tax.

Costa Rica does not have a modern VAT system in place. …Costa Rica’s priority should be to introduce a well-designed and broad-based VAT system…to be able to generate additional revenues… There is scope to improve the environmental effectiveness of tax policy while also increasing revenue.

So why is the OECD so dogmatically in favor of higher taxes in Costa Rica?

Are revenues less than 5 percent of GDP, indicating that the country is unable to finance genuine public goods such as rule of law?

Is the government so starved of revenue that Costa Rico can’t replicate the formula – a public sector consuming about 10 percent of economic output – that enabled the western world to become rich?

Of course not. The report openly acknowledges that the Costa Rican tax system already consumes more than 23 percent of GDP.

The obvious conclusion if that the burden of government in Costa Rica should be downsized. And that’s true whether you think that the growth-maximizing size of government, based on the experience of the western world, is 5 percent-10 percent of GDP. Or whether you limit yourself to modern data and think the growth-maximizing size of government, based on Hong Kong and Singapore, is 15 percent-20 percent of economic output.

Here’s another amazing part of the report, as in amazingly bad and clueless.

The OECD actually admits that rising levels of government debt are the result of spending increases.

…significant increases in expenditures have not been matched by increases in tax revenues. …Between 2008 and 2013, overall government spending increased as a result of higher public sector remuneration as well as higher government transfers to finance public sector social programmes.

What’s particularly discouraging, as you just read, is that the higher spending wasn’t even in areas, such as infrastructure, where there might arguably be a potential for some long-run economic benefit.

Instead, the government has been squandering money on bureaucrat compensation and the welfare state.

Here’s another remarkable admission in the OECD report.

The high tax burden is a key driver of the informal economy in Costa Rica. The IMF estimated the size of the informal economy in Costa Rica at approximately 42% of GDP in the early 2000s… Past work from the IMF showed that rigidities in the labor market and the high tax burden were the most important drivers of informality.

Yet does the OECD reach the logical conclusion that Costa Rica needs deregulation and lower tax rates? Of course not.

The Paris-based bureaucrats instead want measures to somehow force workers into the tax net.

Bringing more taxpayers within the formal economy should be a key priority. …the tax burden in Costa Rica is borne by a small number of taxpayers. This puts a limit on the amount of tax revenue that can be raised…and puts a limit to the impact of the tax system in reducing inequality.

Ironically, the OECD report actually includes a table showing why the IMF is right in this instance. As you can see, social insurance taxes create an enormous wedge between what it costs to employ a worker and how much after-tax income a worker receives.

In other words, the large size of the underground economy is a predictable consequence of high tax rates.

Let’s conclude with the sad observation that the OECD’s bad advice for Costa Rica is not an anomaly. International bureaucracies are routinely urging higher tax burdens.

Indeed, I joked a few years ago in El Salvador that the nation’s air force should shoot down any planes with IMF bureaucrats in order to protect the country from bad economic advice.

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If you want to see a bunch of hypocritical leftists squirming with embarrassment, there’s a very clever video showing what happens when a bunch of pro-tax hike millionaires are asked to voluntarily pay more money to the IRS.

I’ve even debated some of these rich, pro-tax statists on TV, telling them not to make the rest of us victims of their neurotic guilt feelings.

They definitely don’t put their money where their mouths are. There is an official government webpage where people can voluntary send extra cash to Washington, but the amount of money raised doesn’t even qualify as an asterisk in the federal budget.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that people elsewhere in the world also are not keen on the idea of deliberately giving politicians extra money to spend.

Bloomberg has a rather amusing story about the utter failure of a voluntary tax in Norway.

Eager to pay more taxes? Then look no further than Norway. …Launched in June, the initiative has received a lukewarm reception, with the equivalent of just $1,325 in extra revenue being collected so far, according to the Finance Ministry. That’s not much for a country of 5.3 million people… “The tax scheme was set up to allow those who want to pay more taxes to do so in a simple and straightforward way,” Finance Minister Siv Jensen said in an emailed comment. “If anyone thinks the tax level is too low, they now have the chance to pay more.” …Jonas Gahr Store, the wealthy Labor Party contender…, has so far refused to take up the government’s offer.

I’m not surprised that the ordinary people of Norway aren’t sending extra cash to their politicians.

After all, the country already has a costly welfare state financed by very high tax rates as well as lots of oil revenue. So why enable an even bigger burden of government?

But Mr. Store hardly seems a very ethical proponent of higher taxes if he’s not willing to lead by example.

Again, this is not very shocking. It’s a pattern among rich leftists.

The state of Massachusetts has a program for voluntary tax payments, but the Boston Globe revealed that Elizabeth Warren somehow couldn’t bring herself to cough up additional money to finance bigger government.

Elizabeth Warren acknowledged this morning that she does not pay a voluntary higher tax rate on her state income taxes, a question her campaign had previously refused to answer. …state Republicans have criticized Warren, who has earned a six-figure salary and owns assets worth millions, for her previous refusal to answer whether she pays a voluntary higher rate, calling her an “elitist hypocrite” who “lectures others about their responsibility to pay higher taxes.”

And John Kerry also decided that he wouldn’t pay extra tax to his state’s politicians.

Sen. John Kerry (D. Mass.) sailed into hot water last year when tax returns revealed that he also paid the Bay State’s lower tax rate. …perhaps he intended to pay Massachusetts’ higher rate, but his calculator slid off his yacht.

Though since Kerry uses tax havens to protect his wealth, and even keeps a yacht in a neighboring low-tax state, at least he’s consistent in his hypocrisy.

Though according to New England Public Radio, there are a few people in Massachusetts who actually do contribute extra money.

Lenox accountant William Keen said it’s his job to save his clients money, so he just assumes they want to pay their state income tax at 5.1 percent, and not the optional rate of 5.85 percent. “If somebody specifically asked to be set at the higher rate, I would do it,” Keen said Friday. “Nobody has ever even asked for that. It’s never even come up.” And very few taxpayers across Massachusetts do pay at that higher rate. According to the state Department of Revenue, on average since 2002, 1,200 people each year check the box on the tax form to voluntarily pay more. That’s contributed to just over a quarter million dollars to the state’s coffers each year — a drop in the bucket since Massachusetts has a budget of about $40 billion.

I think people who deliberately over-pay to government are very misguided, but it’s better to be naive than to be hypocritical. Like the Clintons. And Warren Buffett. Or any of the other rich leftists who want higher taxes for you and me while engaging in very aggressive tax avoidance.

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Here’s what I wrote last month about the fiscal situation in Illinois.

Illinois is a mess. Taxes and spending already are too high, and huge unfunded liabilities point to an even darker future. Simply stated, politicians and government employee unions have created an unholy alliance to extract as much money as possible from the state’s beleaguered private sector. That’s not a surprise. Indeed, it’s easily explained by the “stationary bandit” theory of government. But while the bandit of government may be stationary, the victims are not. At least not in a nation with 50 different states.

Looking at this grim situation, the state legislature decided it had to act.

Unfortunately, the politicians in Springfield decided that action meant stepping on the accelerator while driving in the wrong direction. Democrats in the state legislature (joined by some big-government Republicans, just like in Kansas) just overrode Governor Rauner’s veto and imposed a huge tax hike on a state that already has one of the nation’s highest tax burdens.

This will hasten the state’s collapse.

Here’s what I said earlier this week about the prospect of another tax hike in the state.

I specifically want to highlight something I said about halfway through the interview about the burden of government spending in Illinois compared to regional competitors.

Here’s a chart I prepared based on data culled from the Census Bureau. As you can see, per-capita outlays are higher in Illinois than in neighboring states. In some cases, thousands of dollars higher.

Given this data, I’d like to ask the people of Illinois the same question I asked an audience in Paris when comparing France and Switzerland. What exactly are you getting for all that money?

The answer is nothing. Just like the French governments spends far more than the Swiss government without delivering better services, the Illinois government spends far more than the Indiana government without delivering better services.

Instead, the money gets diverted to the pockets of the various interest groups. In the case of Illinois, it’s almost as if the state exists to enrich a cossetted class of state and local bureaucrats.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial earlier this week made several key points.

In Illinois, Democrats spent the long weekend coaxing Republican legislators to join their suicide pact to raise taxes to plug a $6 billion deficit… And don’t forget the $130 billion unfunded pension liability—none of which will be solved by the $5 billion tax hike. …The state legislature is controlled by public unions that refuse to compromise. …Pensions will consume about a quarter of Illinois’s general fund this year. Nearly 40% of state education dollars go toward teacher pensions, and the state paid nearly as much into the State Universities Retirement System last year as it spent on higher education. Anemic revenue and economic growth can’t keep up with entitlement spending. The state’s GDP has ticked up by a mere 0.8% annually over the last four years compared to 2% nationwide and 1.4% in the Great Lakes region. Since 2010 more than 520,000 Illinois residents on net have fled to other states.

And Jonathan Williams of the American Legislative Exchange Council also opined on the mess in Illinois.

…the focus should be on fixing the state’s big-government policy prescriptions that are killing economic growth and opportunity. It should come as no surprise that businesses and citizens continue to leave the Land of Lincoln in droves. The credit rating agencies are right to question Illinois’ ability to pay its bills, as the tax base flees to other states. …When the rosy accounting assumptions are stripped away, Illinois has a dismal 23.77 percent funding ratio, $362.6 billion in total amount of unfunded liabilities. That staggering number represents an unfunded pension liability of $28,200 for every man, woman and child in Illinois. …one might assume the state government is not bringing in enough revenue and merely needs to raise taxes. This is simply false. According to Tax Foundation’s analysis, Illinois’ taxpayers pay the 5th highest combined state-local tax burden in America. …It should come as no surprise, then, that nearly 700,000 Illinois residents left from 2006-2015… Only New York and California experienced higher levels of domestic out-migration during the same period.

The bottom line is that this latest tax hike will cause more productive people to leave the state. Politicians in the state also will have an excuse to postpone much-needed reforms of the state pension system, which is the primary threat to long-run solvency. And government, which already is too big, will become an even bigger burden.

P.S. At some point, I need to write about Indiana, a state that quietly has amassed a very good track record of fiscal prudence. Especially since it’s about to benefit from an influx of tax refugees from its neighbor to the west.

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Back at the end of April, President Trump got rolled in his first big budget negotiation with Congress. The deal, which provided funding for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year, was correctly perceived as a victory for Democrats.

How could this happen, given that Democrats are the minority party in both the House and the Senate? Simply stated, Republicans were afraid that they would get blamed for a “government shutdown” if no deal was struck. So they basically unfurled the white flag and acquiesced to most of the other side’s demands.

I subsequently explained how Trump should learn from that debacle. To be succinct, he should tell Congress that he will veto any spending bills for FY2018 (which begins October 1) that exceed his budget request, even if that means a shutdown.

For what it’s worth, I don’t really expect Trump or folks in the White House to care about my advice. But I am hoping that they paid attention to what just happened in Maine. That state’s Republican Governor, Paul LePage, just prevailed in a shutdown fight with the Maine legislature.

Here are some details on what happened, as reported by CNN.

The three-day government shutdown in Maine ended early Tuesday morning after Gov. Paul LePage signed a new budget, according to a statement from his office.The shutdown had closed all non-emergency government functions, prompting protests from state employees in Augusta. …The key contention for the governor was over taxes. LePage met Monday afternoon with House Republicans and pledged to sign a budget that eliminated an increase in the lodging tax from 9 to 10.5 percent, according to the statement from the governor’s office. Once the lodging tax hike was off the table, negotiations sped up as the state House voted 147-2 and the Senate 35-0 for the new budget. “I thank legislators for doing the right thing by passing a budget that does not increase taxes on the Maine people,” said LePage in a statement.

And here are some excerpts from a local news report.

Partisan disagreements over a new two-year spending plan were finally resolved late Monday. The final budget eliminated a proposed 1.5 percent increase to Maine’s lodging tax – a hike that represented less than three-tenths of one percent of the entire $7.1 billion package but held up the process for days. …Gideon and other Democrats complained about the constantly-changing proposals being presented by House Republicans, who were acting as a proxy for LePage. Representative Ken Fredette, the House Minority Leader, insisted that his members were simply fighting back against tax hikes and making sure the governor was involved in the process. …Republicans in the Senate who, over the past several months, were able to negotiate away a three-percent income tax surcharge on high-income earners that was approved by voters last fall.

What’s particularly amazing is that Democrats in the state legislature even agreed to repeal a class-warfare tax hike (the 3-percentage point increase in the top income tax rate) that was narrowly adopted in a referendum last November.

This is a remarkable development. I had listed this referendum as one of the worst ballot initiatives of 2016 and was very disappointed when voters made the wrong choice.

So why did the state’s leftists not fight harder to preserve this awful tax?

One of the reasons they surrendered on that issue is that there was a big Laffer-Curve effect. Taxpayers with large incomes predictably decided to earn and report less income in Maine.

The moral of the story is that Maine’s Democrats were willing to give up on the surtax because they realized it wasn’t going to give them any revenue to redistribute. And unlike some DC-based leftists, they didn’t want a tax hike that resulted in less revenue.

Here are some passages from a report by the state’s Revenue Forecasting Committee.

The RFC has reduced its forecast of individual income tax receipts by $15.9 million in FY17, $40.3 million in the 2018-2019 biennium, and $43.9 million in the 2020-2021 biennium. While there was no so-called “April Surprise” to report for 2016 final payments in April, the first estimated payment for tax year 2017 was $9.3 million under budget; flat compared to a year ago. The committee had expected an increase of 25% or more in the April and June estimated payments because of the 3 percent surtax passed by the voters last November. … there is concern that high-income taxpayers impacted by the surtax may be taking some action to reduce their exposure to the surtax. The forecast accepted by the committee today assumes a reduction of approximately $250 million in taxable income by the top 1% of Maine resident tax returns and similarly situated non-resident returns. This reduction in taxable income translates into a total decrease in annual individual income tax liability of approximately $30 million; $10 million from the 3% surtax and $20 million from the regular income tax liability.

And here’s the relevant table from the appendix showing how the state had to reduce estimated income tax receipts.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

Let’s return to the lessons that Trump should learn from Governor LePage about how to win a shutdown fight.

One of the lessons is to stake out the high ground. Have the fight over something important. LePage wanted to kill the lodging tax and the referendum surtax. Since those taxes were so damaging, it was very easy for the Governor to justify his position.

Another lesson is to go on offense. Republicans in Maine explained that higher taxes would make the state less competitive. Here’s a chart they disseminated comparing the tax burden in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

And here’s another very powerful chart that was circulated to policy makers, showing the migration of taxpayers from high-tax states to zero-income-tax states.

Trump should do something similar. The fight later this year in DC (assuming the President is willing to fight) will be about spending levels. And leftists will be complaining about “savage” and “draconian” cuts.

So the Trump Administration should respond with charts showing that the other side is being hysterical and inaccurate since he’s merely trying to slow down the growth of government.

But the most important lesson of all is that Trump holds a veto pen. And that means he (just like Gov. LePage in Maine) controls the situation. He can veto bad budget legislation. And when the interest groups start to squeal that the spending faucet is no longer dispensing goodies because of a shutdown, he should understand that those interest groups feeling the pinch generally will be on the left. And when they complain, it is the big spenders in Congress who will feel the most pressure to capitulate in order to reopen the faucet. Moreover, the longer the government is shut down, the greater the pinch on the pro-spending lobbies.

In other words, Trump has the leverage, if he is willing to use it.

This assumes, of course, that Trump has the brains and fortitude to hold firm when the press tries to create a fake narrative about the world coming to an end, (just like they did with the sequester in 2013 and the shutdown fight that same year).

P.S. The only way Trump could lose a shutdown fight is if enough big-spending Republicans sided with Democrats to override a veto. That’s what happened in Kansas. And it may happen in Illinois. At this point, though, there’s no way that happens in Washington.

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Leftists don’t have many reasons to be cheerful.

Global economic developments keep demonstrating (over and over again) that big government and high taxes are not a recipe for prosperity. That can’t be very encouraging for them.

They also can’t be very happy about the Obama presidency. Yes, he was one of them, and he was able to impose a lot of his agenda in his first two years. But that experiment with bigger government produced very dismal results. And it also was a political disaster for the left since Republicans won landslide elections in 2010 and 2014 (you could also argue that Trump’s election in 2016 was a repudiation of Obama and the left, though I think it was more a rejection of the status quo).

But there is one piece of good news for my statist friends. The tax cuts in Kansas have been partially repealed. The New York Times is overjoyed by this development.

The Republican Legislature and much of Kansas has finally turned on Gov. Sam Brownback in his disastrous five-year experiment to prove the Republicans’ “trickle down” fantasy can work in real life — that huge tax cuts magically result in economic growth and more, not less, revenue. …state lawmakers who once abetted the Brownback budgeting folly passed a two-year, $1.2 billion tax increase this week to begin repairing the damage. …It will take years for Kansas to recover.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman also is pleased.

Here’s some of what he wrote in his NYT column.

…there was an idea, a theory, behind the Kansas tax cuts: the claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy would produce explosive economic growth. It was a foolish theory, belied by decades of experience: remember the economic collapse that was supposed to follow the Clinton tax hikes, or the boom that was supposed to follow the Bush tax cuts? …eventually the theory’s failure was too much even for Republican legislators.

Another New York Times columnist did a victory dance as well.

The most momentous political news of the past week…was the Kansas Legislature’s decision to defy the governor and raise income taxes… Kansas, under Gov. Sam Brownback, has come as close as we’ve ever gotten in the United States to conducting a perfect experiment in supply-side economics. The conservative governor, working with a conservative State Legislature, in the home state of the conservative Koch brothers, took office in 2011 vowing sharp cuts in taxes and state spending, except for education — and promising that those policies would unleash boundless growth. The taxes were cut, and by a lot.

Brownback’s supply-side experiment was a flop, the author argues.

The cuts came. But the growth never did. As the rest of the country was growing at rates of just above 2 percent, Kansas grew at considerably slower rates, finally hitting just 0.2 percent in 2016. Revenues crashed. Spending was slashed, even on education… The experiment has been a disaster. …the Republican Kansas Legislature faced reality. Earlier this year it passed tax increases, which the governor vetoed. Last Tuesday, the legislators overrode the veto. Not only is it a tax increase — it’s even a progressive tax increase! …More than half of the Republicans in both houses voted for the increases.

If you read the articles, columns, and editorials in the New York Times, you’ll notice there isn’t a lot of detail on what actually happened in the Sunflower State. Lots of rhetoric, but short on details.

So let’s go to the Tax Foundation, which has a thorough review including this very helpful chart showing tax rates before the cuts, during the cuts, and what will now happen in future years (the article also notes that the new legislation repeals the exemption for small-business income).

We know that folks on the left are happy about tax cuts being reversed in Kansas. So what are conservatives and libertarians saying?

The Wall Street Journal opined on what really happened in the state.

…national progressives are giddy. Their spin is that because the vote reverses Mr. Brownback’s tax cuts in a Republican state that Donald Trump carried by more than 20 points, Republicans everywhere should stop cutting taxes. The reality is more prosaic—and politically cynical. …At bottom the Kansas tax vote was as much about unions getting even with the Governor over his education reforms, which included making it easier to fire bad teachers.

And the editorial also explains why there wasn’t much of an economic bounce when Brownback’s tax cuts were implemented, but suggests there was a bit of good news.

Mr. Brownback was unlucky in his timing, given the hits to the agricultural and energy industries that count for much of the state economy. But unemployment is still low at 3.7%, and the state has had considerable small-business formation every year since the tax cuts were enacted. The tax competition across the Kansas-Missouri border around Kansas City is one reason Missouri cut its top individual tax rate in 2014.

I concur. When I examined the data a few years ago, I also found some positive signs.

In any event, the WSJ is not overly optimistic about what this means for the state.

The upshot is that supposedly conservative Kansas will now have a higher top marginal individual income-tax rate (5.7%) than Massachusetts (5.1%). And the unions will be back for another increase as spending rises to meet the new greater revenues. This is the eternal lesson of tax increases, as Illinois and Connecticut prove.

And Reason published an article by Ben Haller with similar conclusions.

What went wrong? First, the legislature failed to eliminate politically popular exemptions and deductions, making the initial revenue drop more severe than the governor planned. The legislature and the governor could have reduced government spending to offset the decrease in revenue, but they also failed on that front. Government spending per capita remained relatively stable in the years following the recession to the present, despite the constant fiscal crises. In fact, state expenditure reports from the National Association of State Budget Officers show that total state expenditures in Kansas increased every year except 2013, where expenditures decreased a modest 3 percent from 2012. It should then not come as a surprise that the state faced large budget gaps year after year. …tax cuts do not necessarily pay for themselves. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, …may have the right idea when it comes to lowering rates to spur economic growth, but lower taxes by themselves are not a cure-all for a state’s woes. Excessive regulation, budget insolvency, corruption, older demographics, and a whole host of other issues can slow down economic growth even in the presence of a low-tax environment.

Since Haller mentioned spending, here’s another Tax Foundation chart showing inflation-adjusted state spending in Kansas. Keep in mind that Brownback was elected in 2010. The left argued that he “slashed” spending, but that assertion obviously is empty demagoguery.

Now time for my two cents.

Looking at what happened, there are three lessons from Kansas.

  1. A long-run win for tax cutters. If this is a defeat, I hope there are similar losses all over the country. If you peruse the first chart in this column, you’ll see that tax rates in 2017 and 2018 will still be significantly lower than they were when Brownback took office. In other words, the net result of his tenure will be a permanent reduction in the tax burden, just like with the Bush tax cuts. Not as much as Brownback wanted, to be sure, but leftists are grading on a very strange curve if they think they’ve won any sort of long-run victory.
  2. Be realistic and prudent. It’s a good idea to under-promise and over-deliver. That’s true for substance and rhetoric.
    1. Don’t claim that tax cuts pay for themselves. That only happens in rare circumstances, usually involving taxpayers who have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income. In the vast majority of cases, tax cuts reduce revenue, though generally not as much as projected once “supply-side” responses are added to the equation.
    2. Big tax cuts require some spending restraint. Since tax cuts generally will lead to less revenue, they probably won’t be durable unless there’s eventually some spending restraint (which is one of the reasons why the Bush tax cuts were partially repealed and why I’m not overly optimistic about the Trump tax plan).
    3. Tax policy matters, but so does everything else. Lower tax rates are wonderful, but there are many factors that determine a jurisdiction’s long-run prosperity. As just mentioned, spending restraint is important. But state lawmakers also should pay attention to many other issues, such as licensing, regulation, and pension reform.
  3. Many Republicans are pro-tax big spenders. Most fiscal fights are really battles over the trend line of spending. Advocates of lower tax rates generally are fighting to reduce the growth of government, preferably so it expands slower than the private sector. Advocates of tax hikes, by contrast, want to enable a larger burden of government spending. What happened in Kansas shows that it’s hard to starve the beast if you’re not willing to put government on a diet.

By the way, all three points are why the GOP is having trouble in Washington.

The moral of the story? As I noted when writing about Belgium, it’s hard to have good tax policy if you don’t have good spending policy.

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I don’t like international bureaucracies that push statist policies.

In a perverse way, though, I admire their brassiness. They’re now arguing that higher taxes are good for growth.

This isn’t a joke. They never offer any evidence, of course, but it’s now routine to find international bureaucrats asserting that there will be more prosperity if more resources are taken out of the private sector and given to politicians (see the 3:30 mark of this video for some evidence).

Christine Lagarde, the lavishly paid head of the IMF, is doubling down on this bizarre idea that higher tax burdens are a way to generate more growth for poor nations.

…we are here to discuss an equally powerful tool for global growth — domestic resource mobilization. …taxes, and the improvement of tax systems, can boost development in incredible ways… So today, allow me first to explain the IMF’s commitment to capacity development and second, to outline strategies governments can use to generate stable sources of revenue…the IMF has a third important development mission — capacity development.

Keep in mind that all of the buzz phrases in the preceding passages – “resource mobilization” and “capacity development” – refer to governments imposing and collecting more taxes.

Again, I’m not joking.

…the focus of our event today — enabling countries to raise public tax revenues efficiently.

And there’s plenty of rhetoric about how higher taxes somehow translate into more prosperity.

Resource mobilization can, if pursued wisely, become a key pillar of strong economy… For many developing countries, increased revenue is a necessary catalyst to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and can be a driver of inclusive growth. Yet in some countries revenue remains stagnant, as the resources needed to enhance economic and civic life sit on the sidelines.

Wow, money that the government doesn’t grab apparently will just “sit on the sidelines.”

Lagarde’s entire speech was a triumph of anti-empiricism.

For instance, the western world went from poverty to prosperity in the 1800s when government was very small, averaging less than 10 percent of economic output.

Yet Lagarde makes an unsubstantiated assertion that today’s poor nations should have tax burdens of at least 15 percent of GDP (the OECD is even worse, arguing that taxes should consume 25 percent of economic output).

How significant is the resource problem? Developing countries typically collect between 10 to 20 percent of GDP in taxes, while the average for advanced economies is closer to 40 percent. IMF staff research shows that developing countries should aim to collect 15 percent of GDP to improve the likelihood of achieving stable and sustainable growth.

By the way, I should not that the IMF partnered with Oxfam, the radical left-wing pressure group, at the conference where her speech was delivered (sort of like the OECD cooperating with the crazies in the Occupy movement).

Moreover, her support for higher taxes is rather hypocritical since she doesn’t have to pay tax on her munificent salary.

I’ve also written about the various ways the IMF has endorsed higher taxes in the United States.

It’s also worth noting that the IMF boss thinks America should have a bigger welfare state as well. Here’s some of what she said about policy in the United States.

Policies need to help lower income households – including through a higher federal minimum wage, more generous earned income tax credit, and upgraded social programs for the nonworking poor. …There is a need to deepen and improve the provision of reasonable benefits to households… This should include paid family leave to care for a child or a parent, childcare assistance, and a better disability insurance program. I would just note that the U.S. is the only country among advanced economies without paid maternity leave at the national level.

The IMF even figured out a way to criticize the notion of lower corporate taxation in the United States.

The IMF…said that already highly leveraged U.S. companies may not be in a position to translate a cash-flow boost from U.S. Republican tax reform proposals into productive capital investments that can aid sustainable growth. Instead, the Fund said the slug of cash, which is likely to include repatriation of profits held overseas by multinational corporations, could be channelled into risks such as purchases of financial assets, mergers and dividend payouts. Such temptations would be highest in the information technology and health care sectors, according to the report. “Cash flow from tax reforms may accrue mainly to sectors that have engaged in substantial financial risk taking,” the IMF said. “Such risk taking is associated with intermittent large destabilising swings in the financial system over the past few decades.”

Basically, the bureaucrats at the IMF want us to believe that money left in private hands will be poorly used.

That’s a strange theory, but the oddest part of this report is that the IMF actually argued that a small repatriation holiday in 2004 somehow caused the recession of 2008 (almost all rational people put the blame on the Federal Reserve and the duo of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

The report noted that past major tax changes typically were followed by increases in financial risk-taking, including the tax reforms in 1986 and a corporate tax repatriation “holiday” in 2004. In both cases, these led to leverage buildups that were followed by recessions, in 1990 and 2008. …inflation and interest rates could rise more sharply than expected. This could increase market volatility and raise debt service costs for already-stretched corporate balance sheets, the IMF said. …”Tighter financial conditions could lead to distress” for weaker firms, the IMF said, noting that resulting losses would be borne by banks, life insurers, mutual funds, pension funds, and overseas institutions.

But the U.S. isn’t special.

The IMF wants higher tax burdens everywhere. Such as the Caribbean.

Over the past decade, governments in the Caribbean region have introduced the value-added tax (VAT) to modernize their tax system, rapidly mobilize revenue… VAT…has boosted revenues, the VAT has not reached its potential. …The paper also finds that although tax administration reforms can boost revenues, countries have just started… These reforms need to intensify in order to have a more significant impact on compliance and revenue.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer has a very dim assessment of the International Monetary Fund’s actions.

He starts with some background information.

The original vision of the IMF was as an agency attending to global stability… Along with the World Bank, the agency was created at an alcohol-fueled conference of 730 delegates from 44 nations, convened 72 years ago in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. No matter that the delegates from one of the important attendees, the Soviet Union, did not speak English: Harry Dexter White, the head of the U.S. delegation, was a Soviet agent who kept Moscow informed of the goings-on. …Today’s IMF includes 189 nations, has some 2,700 employees and an annual budget in excess of $1 billion, almost 18 percent of which comes from U.S. taxpayers.

He then points out that the IMF has a bad habit of putting dodgy people in charge.

In 2004 Rodrigo Rato took the top chair and served until 2007, when he resigned to face trial in Spain for a variety of frauds involving over 70 bank accounts, and the amassing of a €27 million fortune in a web of dozens of companies. Sr. Rato was succeeded by Dominique Strauss-Kahn… Strauss-Kahn did a reasonable job until arrested in New York City on charges of imposing himself on a hotel maid whose testimony proved so incredible that all criminal charges were dropped. But DSK did settle her civil suit for a reported $1.5 million… Madame Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister, took over as managing director. …Lagarde now faces a criminal trial in France for approving a 2008 arbitration decision award of £340 million to a major financial supporter of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy that was later reversed by an appeals court.

And he notes that these head bureaucrats are lavishly compensated.

…her job…pays $500,000 per year, tax free, plus benefits and a $75,000 allowance to be paid “without any certification or justification by you, to enable you to maintain, in the interests of the Fund, a scale of living appropriate to your position as Managing Director.” The salary is twice the take-home pay of the American president, who must pay taxes on his $400,000 salary… Vacations and sick leave follow generous European standards.

Last but not least, he points out that IMF economists have a lousy track record.

All of which might be money well spent if the IMF had been reasonably successful in one of its key functions—forecasting the outlook for the international economy. …one can’t help wondering what is going on in the IMF’s highly paid forecasting shop. A study of the 189 IMF members by the Economist finds 220 instances between 1999 and 2014 in which an economy grew one year before sinking the next. “In its April forecasts the IMF never once foresaw the contraction looming in the next year.” The magazine’s random-number generator got it right 18 percent of the time.

If all the IMF did was waste a lot of money producing inaccurate forecasts, I wouldn’t be overly upset.

After all, economists seemingly specialize in getting the future wrong. My problem is that the IMF pushes bad policy.

Let’s close with a defense of the bureaucracy.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the IMF is needed because of future crises.

A number of recent senior U.S. Treasury nominations, who are known for their antipathy towards the International Monetary Fund, seems to signal that President Trump might want to have a smaller IMF. Before he yields to the temptation of trying to downsize that institution, he might want to reflect on the fact that there is a high probability that during his term he will be confronted with a global economic crisis that will require a large IMF… It is generally not a good idea to think about downsizing the fire brigade on the eve of a major conflagration. In the same way, it would seem that President Trump would be ill-advised to think about reigning in the IMF at a time when there is the real prospect of a global economic crisis during his term of office.

I actually agree with much of what Desmond wrote about the possibility of economic and fiscal crisis in the near future.

The problem, though, is that the IMF is not a fire brigade. It’s more akin to a collection of fiscal pyromaniacs.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I want to acknowledge that we sometimes get good analysis from the IMF. Economists from that bureaucracy have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule. They also made some good observations about tax policy earlier this year. And IMF researchers in 2016 concluded that smaller government and lower taxes produce more prosperity. Moreover, an IMF study in 2015 found that decentralized government works better.

P.P.S. On the other hand, I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period. And I also think it’s funny that IMF bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

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