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Archive for the ‘Taxation’ Category

A few years ago, I put together a basic primer on corporate taxation. Everything I wrote is still relevant, but I didn’t include much discussion about international topics.

In part, that’s because those issues are even more wonky and more boring than domestic issues such as depreciation. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important – especially when they involve tax competition. Here are some comments I made in March of last year.

The reason I’m posting this video about 18 months after the presentation is that the issue is heating up.

The tax-loving bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund have published a report whining about the fact that businesses utilize low-tax jurisdictions when making decisions on where to move money and invest money.

According to official statistics, Luxembourg, a country of 600,000 people, hosts as much foreign direct investment (FDI) as the United States and much more than China. Luxembourg’s $4 trillion in FDI comes out to $6.6 million a person. FDI of this size hardly reflects brick-and-mortar investments in the minuscule Luxembourg economy. …much of it is phantom in nature—investments that pass through empty corporate shells. These shells, also called special purpose entities, have no real business activities. Rather, they carry out holding activities, conduct intrafirm financing, or manage intangible assets—often to minimize multinationals’ global tax bill. …a few well-known tax havens host the vast majority of the world’s phantom FDI. Luxembourg and the Netherlands host nearly half. And when you add Hong Kong SAR, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, Ireland, and Mauritius to the list, these 10 economies host more than 85 percent of all phantom investments.

That’s a nice list of jurisdictions. My gut instinct, of course, is to say that high-tax nations should copy the pro-growth policies of places such as Bermuda, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland.

The IMF, however, thinks those are bad places and instead argues that harmonization would be a better approach.

…how does this handful of tax havens attract so much phantom FDI? In some cases, it is a deliberate policy strategy to lure as much foreign investment as possible by offering lucrative benefits—such as very low or zero effective corporate tax rates. …This…erodes the tax bases in other economies. The global average corporate tax rate was cut from 40 percent in 1990 to about 25 percent in 2017, indicating a race to the bottom and pointing to a need for international coordination. …the IMF put forward various alternatives for a revised international tax architecture, ranging from minimum taxes to allocation of taxing rights to destination economies. No matter which road policymakers choose, one fact remains clear: international cooperation is the key to dealing with taxation in today’s globalized economic environment.

Here’s a chart that accompanied the IMF report. The bureaucrats view this as proof of something bad

I view it as prudent and responsible corporate behavior.

At the risk of oversimplifying what’s happening in the world of international business taxation, here are four simple points.

  1. It’s better for prosperity if money stays in the private sector, so corporate tax avoidance should be applauded. Simply stated, politicians are likely to waste any funds they seize from businesses. Money in the private economy, by contrast, boosts growth.
  2. Multinational companies will naturally try to “push the envelope” and shift as much income as possible to low-tax jurisdictions. That’s sensible corporate behavior, reflecting obligation to shareholders, and should be applauded.
  3. Nations can address “profit shifting” by using rules on “transfer pricing,” so there’s no need for harmonized rules. If governments think companies are pushing too far, they can effectively disallow tax-motivated shifts of money.
  4. A terrible outcome would be a form of tax harmonization known as “global formula apportionment.” This wouldn’t be harmonizing rates, as the E.U. has always urged, but it would force companies to overstate income in high-tax nations.

Why does all this wonky stuff matter?

As I said in my presentation, we will suffer from “goldfish government” unless tax competition exiss to serve as a constraint on the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

P.S. Sadly, America’s Treasury Secretary is sympathetic to global harmonization of business taxation.

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When I wrote about the wealth tax early this year, I made three simple points.

I obviously have not been very persuasive.

At least in certain quarters.

A story in the Wall Street Journal explores the growing interest on the left in this new form of taxation.

The income tax..system could change fundamentally if Democrats win the White House and Congress. …Democrats want to shift toward taxing their wealth, instead of just their salaries and the income their assets generate. …At the end of 2017, U.S. households had $3.8 trillion in unrealized gains in stocks and investment funds, plus more in real estate, private businesses and artwork… Democrats are eager to tap that mountain of wealth to finance priorities such as expanding health-insurance coverage, combating climate change and aiding low-income households. …The most ambitious plan comes from Sen. Warren of Massachusetts, whose annual wealth tax would fund spending proposals such as universal child care and student-loan forgiveness. …rich would pay whether they make money or not, whether they sell assets or not and whether their assets are growing or shrinking.

The report includes this comparison of current law with various soak-the-rich proposals (click here for my thoughts on the Wyden plan).

The article does acknowledge that there are some critiques of this class-warfare tax proposal.

European countries tried—and largely abandoned—wealth taxes. …For an investment yielding a steady 1.5% return, a 2% wealth levy would be equivalent to an income-tax rate above 100% and cause the asset to shrink. …The wealth tax also has an extra asterisk: it would be challenged as unconstitutional.

The two economists advising Elizabeth Warren, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, have a new study extolling the ostensible benefits of a wealth tax.

I want to focus on their economic arguments, but I can’t resist starting with an observation that I was right when I warned that the attack on financial privacy and the assault on so-called tax havens was a precursor to big tax increases.

Indeed, Saez and Zucman explicitly argue this is a big reason to push their punitive new wealth tax.

European countries were exposed to tax competition and tax evasion through offshore accounts, in a context where until recently there was no cross-border information sharing. …offshore tax evasion can be fought more effectively today than in the past, thanks to recent breakthrough in cross-border information exchange, and wealth taxes could be applied to expatriates (for at least some years), mitigating concerns about tax competition. …Cracking down on offshore tax evasion, as the US has started doing with FATCA, is crucial.

Now that I’m done patting myself on the back for my foresight (not that it took any special insight to realize that politicians were attacking tax competition in order to grab more money), let’s look at what they wrote about the potential economic impact.

A potential concern with wealth taxation is that by reducing large wealth holdings, it may reduce the capital stock in the economy–thus lowering the productivity of U.S. workers and their wages. However, these effects are likely to be dampened in the case of a progressive wealth tax for two reasons. First, the United States is an open economy and a significant fraction of U.S. saving is invested abroad while a large fraction of U.S. domestic investment is financed by foreign saving. Therefore, a reduction in U.S. savings does not necessarily translate into a large reduction in the capital stock used in the United States. …Second, a progressive wealth tax applies to only the wealthiest families. For example, we estimated that a wealth tax above $50 million would apply only to about 10% of the household wealth stock. Therefore increased savings from the rest of the population or the government sector could possibly offset any reduction in the capital stock. …A wealth tax would reduce the financial payoff to extreme cases of business success, but would it reduce the socially valuable innovation that can be associated with such success? And would any such reduction exceed the social gains of discouraging extractive wealth accumulation? In our assessment the effect on innovation and productivity is likely to be modest, and if anything slightly positive.

I’m not overly impressed by these two arguments.

  1. Yes, foreign savings could offset some of the damage caused by the new wealth tax. But it’s highly likely that other nations would copy Washington’s revenue grab. Especially now that it’s easier for governments to track money around the world.
  2. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that other people may save more to offset the damage caused by the new wealth tax. But why would that happen when Warren and other proponents want to give people more goodies, thus reducing the necessity for saving and personal responsibility?

By the way, they openly admit that there are Laffer Curve effects because their proposed levy will reduce taxable activity.

With successful enforcement, a wealth tax has to deliver either revenue or de-concentrate wealth. Set the rates low (1%) and you get revenue in perpetuity but little (or very slow) de-concentration. Set the rates medium (2-3%) and you get revenue for quite a while and de-concentration eventually. Set the rates high (significantly above 3%) and you get de-concentration fast but revenue does not last long.

Now let’s look at experts from the other side.

In a column for Bloomberg, Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute takes aim at Elizabeth Warren’s bad math.

Warren’s plan would augment the existing income tax by adding a tax on wealth. …The tax would apply to fortunes above $50 million, hitting them with a 2% annual rate; there would be a surcharge of 1% per year on wealth in excess of $1 billion. …Not only would such a tax be very hard to administer, as many have pointed out. It likely won’t collect nearly as much revenue as Warren claims. …Under Warren’s proposal, the fair market value of all assets for the wealthiest 0.06% of households would have to be assessed every year. It would be difficult to determine the market value of partially held private businesses, works of art and the like… This helps to explain why the number of countries in the high-income OECD that administer a wealth tax fell from 14 in 1996 to only four in 2017. …It is highly unlikely that the tax would yield the $2.75 trillion estimated by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the University of California, Berkeley, professors who are Warren’s economic advisers. Lawrence Summers, the economist and top adviser to the last two Democratic presidents, and University of Pennsylvania professor Natasha Sarin…convincingly argued Warren’s plan would bring in a fraction of what Saez and Zucman expect once real-world factors like tax avoidance…are factored in. …economists Matthew Smith, Owen Zidar and Eric Zwick present preliminary estimates suggesting that the Warren proposal would raise half as much as projected.

But a much bigger problem is her bad economics.

…a household worth $50 million would lose 2% of its wealth every year to the tax, or 20% over the first decade. For an asset yielding a steady 1.5% return, a 2% wealth tax is equivalent to an income tax of 133%. …And remember that the wealth tax would operate along with the existing income tax system. The combined (equivalent income) tax rate would often be well over 100%. Underlying assets would routinely shrink. …The tax would likely reduce national savings, resulting in less business investment in the U.S… Less investment spending would reduce productivity and wages to some extent over the longer term.

Strain’s point is key. A wealth tax is equivalent to a very high marginal tax rate on saving and investment.

Of course that’s going to have a negative effect.

Chris Edwards, in a report on wealth taxes, shared some of the scholarly research on the economic effects of the levy.

Because wealth taxes suppress savings and investment, they undermine economic growth. A 2010 study by Asa Hansson examined the relationship between wealth taxes and economic growth across 20 OECD countries from 1980 to 1999. She found “fairly robust support for the popular contention that wealth taxes dampen economic growth,” although the magnitude of the measured effect was modest. The Tax Foundation simulated an annual net wealth tax of 1 percent above $1.3 million and 2 percent above $6.5 million. They estimated that such a tax would reduce the U.S. capital stock in the long run by 13 percent, which in turn would reduce GDP by 4.9 percent and reduce wages by 4.2 percent. The government would raise about $20 billion a year from such a wealth tax, but in the long run GDP would be reduced by hundreds of billions of dollars a year.Germany’s Ifo Institute recently simulated a wealth tax for that nation. The study assumed a tax rate of 0.8 percent on individual net wealth above 1 million euros. Such a wealth tax would reduce employment by 2 percent and GDP by 5 percent in the long run. The government would raise about 15 billion euros a year from the tax, but because growth was undermined the government would lose 46 billion euros in other revenues, resulting in a net revenue loss of 31 billion euros. The study concluded, “the burden of the wealth tax is practically borne by every citizen, even if the wealth tax is designed to target only the wealthiest individuals in society.”

The last part of the excerpt is key.

Yes, the tax is a hassle for rich people, but it’s the rest of us who suffer most because we’re much dependent on a vibrant economy to improve our living standards.

My contribution to this discussion it to put this argument in visual form. Here’s a simply depiction of how income is generated in our economy.

Now here’s the same process, but with a wealth tax.

For the sake of argument, as you can see from the letters that have been fully or partially erased, I assumed the wealth tax would depress the capital stock by 10 percent and that this would reduce national income by 5 percent.

I’m not wedded to these specific numbers. Both might be higher (especially in the long run), both might be lower (at least in the short run), or one of them might be higher or lower.

What’s important to understand is that rich people won’t be the only ones hurt by this tax. Indeed, this is a very accurate criticism of almost all class-warfare taxes.

The bottom line is that you can’t punish capital without simultaneously punishing labor.

But some of our friends on the left – as Margaret Thatcher noted many years ago – seem to think such taxes are okay if rich people are hurt by a greater amount than poor people.

P.S. Since I mentioned foresight above, I was warning about wealth taxation more than five years ago.

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I’ve warned (over and over and over again) that supporters of larger government want big tax hikes on ordinary people.

But you don’t have to believe me.

CNN hosted a discussion yesterday with the major Democratic candidates about global warming…oops, I mean climate change…no, sorry, the preferred term is now climate crisis.

Shockingly, something newsworthy actually happened. As reported by the New York Times, most of the candidates expressed support for a big carbon tax that would be especially painful for poor and middle-class taxpayers.

…more than half of the 10 candidates at the forum openly embraced the controversial idea of putting a tax or fee on carbon dioxide… Around the country and the world, opponents have attacked it as an “energy tax” that could raise fuel costs, and it has been considered politically toxic in Washington for nearly a decade. …In addition to proposing $3 trillion in spending on environmental initiatives, Ms. Warren also responded “Yes!” when asked by a moderator, Chris Cuomo, if she would support a carbon tax… Senator Kamala Harris of California, who on Wednesday morning released a plan to put a price on carbon, …calling for outright bans on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas, and on offshore oil and gas drilling. …Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who also released his climate plan on Wednesday, took the stage declaring his support for a carbon tax… The parade of far-reaching plans on display, ranging in cost from $1.7 trillion to $16.3 trillion… Two other candidates who said they would support carbon pricing, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and the former housing secretary Julián Castro.

Interestingly, Crazy Bernie didn’t hop on the bandwagon.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont…is one of the few candidates who has not called for a carbon tax.

In this case, his desire to selectively target upper-income taxpayers presumably is even stronger than his desire to grab more revenue to fund bigger government (and the burden of government would be far bigger under the Green New Deal).

By the way, there was a very interesting admission in the article.

The United States generates almost 25 percent of global economic output, yet our share of carbon emissions is much smaller.

…the United States is the world’s largest historic polluter of greenhouse gases, it today produces about 15 percent of total global emissions.

You would think the climate fanatics would be praising America. But they instead want people to believe the U.S. is worse than Cuba.

Anyhow, let’s return to the main topic of today’s column.

What exactly would it mean for ordinary people if politicians imposed a carbon tax?

The Democrats didn’t offer many specifics last night, so we’ll have to use a proxy estimate. In a column for the Hill, Vance Ginn and Elliott Raia highlight how families would get hit if U.S. politicians followed U.N. suggestions.

…travel…could soon be cost-prohibitive, if the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has its way. …Its recommendation: a carbon tax of as much as $200 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 to an astonishing $27,000 per ton by 2100. For America families, this could mean the price of gasoline soaring to $240 per gallon. Remember when we thought $4 per gallon was high? …Regardless of the amount, a carbon tax would…disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class, who pay a higher percentage of their incomes for motor fuel and energy. …Concrete, for example, is perhaps one of the most common carbon-intensive products… At the IPCC rate of $200 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, the cost of building with concrete would rapidly rise. …Take a new home of 3,000 square feet. A simple slab foundation (with no basement) could use 100 cubic yards of concrete. Adding a $370 tax per cubic yard for a ton of carbon based on the $200 rate above would mean the cost of that home would likely rise $37,000.

For what it’s worth, the statists at the International Monetary Fund endorsed a $1.40 tax increase on a gallon of gas in America, which was part of a proposal to increases taxes on the average household by more than $5,000.

To be fair, I imagine the Democrats – if ever pressed for specifics – will propose taxes lower than what the U.N. or I.M.F. are suggesting.

That being said, it’s also fair to warn that taxes which start small almost always wind up becoming onerous.

Let’s close with a political observation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, people don’t like being saddled with higher taxes. And, as Sterling Burnett explains, they seem especially hostile to energy-related taxes.

From Alberta to Australia, from Finland to France, and beyond, voters are increasingly showing their displeasure with expensive energy policies imposed by politicians in an inane effort to purportedly fight human-caused climate change. …This is what originally prompted protesters in France to don yellow vests and take to the streets in 2018. They were protesting scheduled increases in fuel taxes, electricity prices, and stricter vehicle emissions controls, which French President Emmanuel Macron had claimed were necessary to meet the country’s greenhouse gas reduction commitments… Also in 2018, in part as a reaction against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate policies, global warming skeptic Doug Ford was elected as premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. Ford announced he would end energy taxes imposed by Ontario’s previous premier and would join Saskatchewan’s premier in a legal fight against Trudeau’s federal carbon dioxide tax. …in August 2018, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced to resign over carbon dioxide restrictions he had planned… In Finland, …the Finns Party, which made the fight against expensive climate policies the central part of its platform, came out the big winner with the second-highest number of seats in Parliament.

I’ve previously written about taxpayer uprisings in France and Australia.

Perhaps the most relevant data, though, is from the state of Washington. Voters in that left-leaning state rejected a carbon tax in 2018 (after rejecting a different version in 2016).

So maybe Crazy Bernie was being Smart Bernie by not embracing the tax. And Joe Biden also chose not to explicitly back the proposed tax hike.

P.S. The parasitical bureaucrats at the OECD also have endorsed higher energy taxes on the United States.

P.P.S. I don’t have an informed opinion on the degree of man-made warming, but I am highly confident that statists are using the issue to promote bad policies that they can’t get through any other way.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what the authors investigated.

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

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

Anyhow, here’s how authors designed their study.

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

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

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

And here are the results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In my libertarian fantasies, we dramatically shrink the size of the federal government and return to pre-1913 policy by getting rid of the income tax.

But if I’m forced to be at least vaguely realistic, the second-best option is scrapping the current tax code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax based on the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

The third-best option (i.e., the best we can hope for in the real world) is to adopt incremental reforms that move the tax code in the right direction.

That happened in 2017. I’ve written many times about why it was a very good idea to reduce the tax rate on corporate income. And I’ve also lauded the 2017 law’s limitation on the state and local tax deduction.

Today, let’s focus on the changes in that law that reduced the tax preference for residential real estate.

The housing lobby (especially builders and realtors) tried to scare lawmakers that any reduction in their privileged tax status would cause a large amount of damage.

Yet, as reported last year by the New York Times, there was no adverse effect in the first year of the new tax law.

It wasn’t supposed to take long for the Trump tax cuts to hobble housing prices… Nearly nine months later, those warnings have not materialized. …Economists see only faint effects from the new law so far in housing data. They’re small, and they’re contained to a few high-priced, highly taxed ZIP codes, largely in blue states. They’re nothing close to the carnage that real estate groups warned about when the law was under debate last fall. …the tax law has unquestionably diminished the value of several federal subsidies for homeowners. It limits deductions for state and local taxes, including property taxes, to $10,000 per household, which hurts owners of expensive homes in high-tax states. It lowers the cap on the mortgage interest deduction, which raises housing prices by allowing homeowners to write off the interest payments from their loans, to $750,000 for new loans, down from $1 million.

To the extent the impact could even be measured, it was a net plus for the economy.

After the law passed, ZIP codes in the Boston area saw a 0.6 percentage point slowdown in home appreciation on the Massachusetts side — and a 0.1 percent acceleration on the New Hampshire side. The effect there is “not huge, it’s small,”… Experts say several forces are helping to counteract the diminished federal home-buying subsidies. …said Kevin Hassett, “…if you’re getting a lot of income growth, the income growth increases the demand for housing, and the mortgage interest deduction reduces it. And the effects offset.”

This chart from the story is particularly persuasive. If anything, it appears housing values rose faster after the law was changed (though presumably due to bad policies such as building restrictions and zoning laws, not just the faster growth caused by a a shift in tax policy).

There’s also no negative effect one year later. A report from today’s New York Times finds that the hysterical predictions of the housing lobby haven’t materialized.

Even though the tax preference was significantly reduced.

The mortgage-interest deduction, a beloved tax break bound tightly to the American dream of homeownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it nearly vanished in middle-class neighborhoods across the country, and it appears that hardly anyone noticed. …The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction — to $24,000 for a couple filing jointly — on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming itemized deductions. As a result, far fewer families — and, in particular, far fewer middle-class families — are claiming the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, about one in five taxpayers claimed the deduction, Internal Revenue Service statistics show. This year, that number fell to less than one in 10. The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it once was: The 2017 law capped the maximum value of new mortgage debt eligible for the deduction at $750,000, down from $1 million.

Once again, the evidence shows good news.

…housing professionals, home buyers and sellers — and detailed statistics about the housing market — show no signs that the drop in the use of the tax break is weighing on prices or activity. …Such reactions challenge a longstanding American political consensus. For decades, the mortgage-interest deduction has been alternately hailed as a linchpin of support for homeownership (by the real estate industry)…. most economists on the left and the right…argued that the mortgage-interest deduction violated every rule of good policymaking. It was regressive, benefiting wealthy families… Studies repeatedly found that the deduction actually reduced ownership rates by helping to inflate home prices, making homes less affordable to first-time buyers. …In the debate over the tax law in 2017, the industry warned that the legislation could cause house prices to fall 10 percent or more in some parts of the country. …Places where a large share of middle-class taxpayers took the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, have not seen any meaningful difference in price increases from less-affected areas.

Incidentally, here’s a chart from the story. It shows that the rich have always been the biggest beneficiaries of the tax preference.

And now the deduction that remains is even more skewed toward upper-income households.

As far as I’m concerned, the tax code shouldn’t punish people simply because they earn a lot of money.

But neither should it give them special goodies.

For what it’s worth, the mortgage interest deduction is not a left-vs-right or statism-vs-libertarian issue.

I’ve crossed swords on a few occasions with Bill Gale of the Brooking Institute, but his column a few months ago in the Wall Street Journal wisely calls for full repeal of this tax preference.

With any luck, the 2017 tax overhaul will prove to be only the first step toward eventually replacing the century-old housing subsidy… This is a welcome change. The mortgage-interest deduction has existed since the income tax was created in 1913, but it has never been easy to justify. …Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have no mortgage-debt subsidies, yet their homeownership rates are slightly higher than in the U.S. A large reduction in the mortgage-interest deduction in Denmark in 1987 had virtually no effect on homeownership rates. …The next step should be to eliminate the deduction altogether. The phaseout should be gradual but complete.

Here’s another example.

Nobody would ever accuse the folks at Slate of being market friendly, so this article is another sign that there’s a consensus against using the tax code to tilt the playing field in favor of residential real estate.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement, but the GOP aggressively curtailed it in order to pay for cuts elsewhere in the tax code. …just 13.8 million households will subtract mortgage interest from their 2018 returns, down from 32.3 million in 2017. …if Democrats ever get a chance to kill off the vestigial remains of the mortgage interest deduction down the line, they might as well. …any negative effect of the tax law seems to have been drowned out by a healthy economy.

I’ll close by digging into the archives at the Heritage Foundation and dusting off one of my studies from 1996.

Analyzing the flat tax and home values, I pointed out that rising levels of personal income were the key to a strong housing market, not the value of the tax deduction.

Everything that’s happened over the past 23 years – and especially the past two years – confirms my analysis.

Simply stated, economic growth is how we get more good things in society. That’s true for housing, as explained above, and it’s also true for charitable giving.

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When I write about Estonia, I generally have something nice to say.

Today, I want to add to my praise for this Baltic nation.

Unlike politicians in many other nations, lawmakers in Estonia responded wisely when they saw a tax increase was backfiring.

As Estonia tries to recover its alcohol customers lost to neighbouring Latvia due to high excise duty, the parliament in Tallinn has passed a 25% cut in excise duty rate. Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports that the bill was passed on Thursday, June 13, in the Riigikogu by landslide. In the final reading, the bill was passed by 70-9 MP in favour backing the cutting of the alcohol excise duty rates for beer, cider and hard liquor by 25% beginning July 1. The amendments to the Estonian Alcohol, Tobacco, Fuel and Electricity Excise Duty Law…are aimed at reducing cross-border trade of Estonians buying their drinks much cheaper in northern Latvia.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Estonian politicians shouldn’t have increased excise taxes on booze in the first place.

And they may have fixed the problem because they got on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., tax revenue was falling), not because of a philosophical preference for lower tax rates.

But rectifying a mistake is definitely better than doubling down on a mistake, which is how politicians in many other nations probably would have reacted.

This approach, combined with the good policies listed above, helps to explain why Estonia is one of the few economic success stories to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Though, in closing, I’ll note that the country needs additional pro-market reform to deal with the challenge of demographic decline.

P.S. Read what Estonia’s Minister of Justice wrote about totalitarian socialism.

P.P.S. Also read about how Paul Krugman earned an “exploding cigar” with some sloppy analysis about Estonia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are also indirect victims of these high tax rates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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