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Archive for the ‘Taxation’ Category

In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I explained that the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior.

2. Pervasive double taxation that discourages saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that bribe people to make less productive choices.

These problems all need to be addressed, but I also acknowledged additional concerns with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms an civil liberties.

In a perfect world, we would shrink government to such a small size that there was no need for any sort of broad-based tax (remember, the United States prospered greatly for most of our history when there was no income tax).

In a good world, we could at least replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

In today’s Washington, the best we can hope for is incremental reform.

But some incremental reforms can be very positive, and that’s the best way of describing the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan” unveiled today by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

The two GOP senators have a column in today’s Wall Street Journal, and you can read a more detailed description of their plan by clicking here.

But here are the relevant details.

What’s wrong with Rubio-Lee

In the interest of fairness, I’ll start with the most disappointing feature of the plan. The top tax rate will be 35 percent, only a few percentage points lower than the 39.6 percent top rate that Obama imposed as a result of the fiscal cliff.

Even more troubling, that 35 percent top tax rate will be imposed on any taxable income above $75,000 for single taxpayers and $150,000 for married taxpayers.

Since the 35 percent and 39.6 percent tax rates currently apply only when income climbs above $400,000, that means a significant number of taxpayers will face higher marginal tax rates.

That’s a very disappointing feature in any tax plan, but it’s especially unfortunate in a proposal put forth my lawmakers who wrote in their WSJ column that they want to “lower rates for families and individuals.”

What’s right with Rubio-Lee

This will be a much longer section because there are several very attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan.

Some households, for instance, will enjoy lower marginal tax rates under the new bracket structure, particularly if those households have lots of children (there’s a very big child tax credit).

But the really attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan are those that deal with business taxation, double taxation, and international competitiveness.

Here’s a list of the most pro-growth elements of the plan.

A 25 percent tax rate on all business income – This means that the corporate tax rate is being reduced from 35 percent (the highest in the world), but also that there will be a 25 percent maximum rate on all small businesses that file using Schedule C as part of a 1040 tax return.

Sweeping reductions in double taxation – The Rubio-Lee plans eliminates the capital gains tax, the double tax on dividends, and the second layer of tax on interest.

Full expensing of business investment – The proposal gets rid of punitive “depreciation” rules that force businesses to overstate their income in ways that discourage new business investment.

Territorial taxation – Businesses no longer will have to pay a second layer of tax on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other nations.

No death tax – Income should not be subject to yet another layer of tax simply because someone dies. The Rubio-Lee plan eliminates this morally offensive form of double taxation.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the Rubio-Lee plan eliminate the state and local tax deduction, which is a perverse part of the tax code that enables higher taxes in states like New York and California.

Many years ago, while working at the Heritage Foundation, I created a matrix to grade competing tax reform plans. I updated that matrix last year to assess the proposal put forth by Congressman Dave Camp, the former Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

Here’s another version of that matrix, this time including the Rubio-Lee plan.

As you can see, the Rubio-Lee plan gets top scores for “saving and investment” and “international competitiveness.”

And since these components have big implications for growth, the proposal would – if enacted – generate big benefits. The economy would grow faster, more jobs would be created, workers would enjoy higher wages, and American companies would be far more competitive.

By the way, if there was (and there probably should be) a “tax burden” grade in my matrix, the Rubio-Lee plan almost surely would get an “A+” score because the overall proposal is a substantial tax cut based on static scoring.

And even with dynamic scoring, this plan will reduce the amount of money going to Washington in the near future.

Of course, faster future growth will lead to more taxable income, so there will be revenue feedback. So the size of the tax cut will shrink over time, but even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t get that upset if politicians get more revenue because more Americans are working and earning higher wages.

That simply means another opportunity to push for more tax relief!

What’s missing in Rubio-Lee

There are a few features of the tax code that aren’t addressed in the plan.

The health care exclusion is left untouched, largely because the two lawmakers understand that phasing out that preference is best handled as part of a combined tax reform/health reform proposal.

Some itemized deductions are left untouched, or simply tweaked.

And I’m not aware of any changes that would strengthen the legal rights of taxpayers when dealing with the IRS.

Let’s close with a reminder of what very good tax policy looks like.

To their credit, Rubio and Lee would move the tax code in the direction of a flat tax, though sometimes in a haphazard fashion.

P.S. There is a big debate on the degree to which the tax code should provide large child credits. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, I much prefer lower tax rates since faster growth is the most effective long-run way to bolster the economic status of families.

But even the flat tax has a generous family-based allowance, so it’s largely a political judgement on how much tax relief should be dedicated to kids and how much should be used to lower tax rates.

That being said, I think the so-called reform conservatives undermine their case when they argue child-oriented tax relief is good because it might subsidize the creation of future taxpayers to prop up entitlement programs. We need to reform those programs, not give them more money.

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On the issue of so-called progressive taxation, our left-wing friends have conflicting goals. Some of them want to maximize tax revenue in order to finance ever-bigger government.

But others are much more motivated by a desire to punish success. They want high tax rates on the “rich” even if the government collects less revenue.

Some of them simply pretend there isn’t a conflict, as you might imagine. They childishly assert that the Laffer Curve doesn’t exist and that upper-income taxpayers are fiscal pinatas, capable of generating never-ending amounts of tax revenue.

But more rational leftists admit that the Laffer Curve is real. They may argue that the revenue-maximizing rate is up around 70 percent, which is grossly inconsistent with the evidence from the 1980s, but at least they understand that successful taxpayers can and do respond when tax rates increase.

So the question for grown-up leftists is simple: What’s the answer if they have to choose between collecting more revenue and punishing the rich with class-warfare taxation?

And here’s some new research looking at this tradeoff. Authored by economists from the University of Oslo in Norway, École polytechnique de Lausanne in France, and the University of Pennsylvania, they look at “Tax progressivity and the government’s ability to collect additional tax revenue.”

The recent massive expansion of public debt around the world during the Great Recession raises the question how much debt a government can maximally service by raising the level of taxes. Or, to phrase this classic public finance question differently, how much additional tax revenue can the government generate by increasing income taxes?

And since they’re part of the real world (unlike, say, the Joint Committee on Taxation or the Obama Administration), they recognize that higher tax rates impose costs on the economy that lead to feedback effects on tax revenue.

Our research (Holter et al. 2014) investigates how tax progressivity and household heterogeneity impacts the Laffer curve. We argue that a more progressive labour income tax schedule significantly reduces the maximal amount of tax revenues a government can raise…under progressive taxes heterogeneous workers will face different average and marginal tax rates. …the answer to our question is closely connected to the individual (and then properly aggregated) response of labour supply to taxes. The microeconometric literature, as surveyed e.g. by Keane (2011), has found that both the intensive and extensive margins of labour supply (the latter especially for women), life-cycle considerations, and human capital accumulation are important determinants of these individual responses. …households make a consumption–savings choice and decide on whether or not to participate in the labour market (the extensive margin), how many hours to work conditional on participation (the intensive margin), and thus how much labour market experience to accumulate (which in turn partially determines future earnings capacities).

The above passage has a bit of economic jargon, but it’s simply saying that taxpayers respond to incentives.

They also provide estimates of tax progressivity for various developed nations. They’re only looking at the personal income tax, so these numbers don’t include, for instance, the heavy burden of the value-added tax on low-income people in Europe.

The good news (at least relatively speaking) is that the American income tax is not as punitive as it is in many other nations.

But the key thing to consider, at least in the context of this new research, is the degree to which so-called progressivity comes with a high price.

Here is some additional analysis from their research.

Why does the degree of tax progressivity matter for the government’s ability to generate labour income tax revenues…? changes in tax progressivity typically affects hours worked…increasing tax progressivity induces differential income and substitution effects on the workers in different parts of the earnings distribution. …a more progressive tax system may disproportionately reduce labour supply for high earners and lead to a reduction in tax revenue. …more progressive taxes will reduce the incentives for young agents to accumulate labour market experience and become high (and thus more highly taxed) earners.

Now let’s look at some of the results.

Remarkably, they find that the best way of maximizing revenue is to minimize the economic damage of the tax system. And that means…drum roll, please…a flat tax.

For its current choice of progressivity (the green line), the US can sustain a debt burden of about 330% of its benchmark GDP, by increasing the average tax rate to about 42%. Thus, according to our findings the US is currently still nowhere close to its maximally sustainable debt levels…we also observe that larger public debt can be sustained with a less progressive tax system. Converting to a flat tax system (the black line) increases the maximum sustainable debt to more than 350% of benchmark GDP, whereas adopting Danish tax progressivity lowers it to less than 250% of benchmark GDP.

Here are a couple of charts from their study, both of which underscore that punitive tax rates are very counterproductive, assuming the goal is to either maximize revenue or to sustain a larger public sector.

Notice that if you want to punish “the rich” and impose Danish-type levels of progressivity (the dashed line), you’ll get less revenue and won’t be able to sustain as much debt.

Now let’s shift from discussing intellectual quandaries for the left and talk about challenges for believers in limited government.

We like a flat tax because it treats people equally and it raises revenue in a relatively non-destructive manner.

But because it is an “efficient” form of taxation, it’s also an “efficient” way to generate revenues to finance bigger government.

Indeed, this was one of the findings in a 1998 study by Professors Gary Becker and Casey Mulligan.

So does this mean that instead of supporting a flat tax, we should a loophole-riddled system based on high tax rates solely because that system will be so inefficient that it won’t generate revenue?

Of course not. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is why my work on fundamental tax reform is intertwined with my work on constitutional and legal mechanisms to limit the size and scope of government.

And it’s also why Obama’s class-warfare approach is so perversely destructive. If you think I’m exaggerating, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

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Last September, I wrote that America’s business tax system is a nightmare that simultaneously undermines the competitiveness of American companies while also causing lots of irritation in other nations.

Both of those bad things happen because politicians in Washington think the IRS should be able to tax income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other countries. This approach, known as “worldwide taxation,” is contrary to good tax policy.

Indeed, all good tax reform plans, such as the flat tax, are based on “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense principle that governments should only tax activity inside national borders.

Given the self-inflicted wound of worldwide taxation, particularly when combined with the world’s highest corporate tax rate, it’s easy to understand why some companies engage in “inversions” and become foreign-domiciled firms. Simply stated, that’s their best option if they care about the best interests of their workers, customers, and shareholders.

Well, the same problem exists for households. And it exists for the same reason. The United States also imposes “worldwide taxation” on individual taxpayers. But it’s even worse, because there are specific laws, such as the infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, that impose absurdly high costs on Americans with cross-border economic activity, particularly those who live and work in other nations.

And just as our senselessly punitive corporate tax system drives corporations to re-domicile, the same is true for the personal tax code. As CNN reports, record numbers of Americans are officially giving up their citizenship.

The number of Americans choosing to give up their passports hit a record 3,415 last year, up 14% from 2013, and 15 times more than in 2008, when only 231 people renounced their citizenship. Experts say the recent surge is coming from expats who no longer want to deal with complicated tax paperwork, a burden that has only gotten worse in recent years. Unlike most countries, the U.S. taxes all citizens on income, no matter where it is earned or where they live. The mountain of paperwork can be so complicated that expats are often forced to fork over high fees to hire an accountant… “More and more are considering renouncing,” said Vincenzo Villamena of Online Taxman, an accountant who specializes in expat taxes. “There are a lot of uncertainties about FATCA…I don’t think we’ve seen the full effect that FATCA can have on people’s lives.” As both expats and financial institutions rush to understand the new law, some banks have chosen to kick out their Americans clients rather than comply. If a bank mistakenly fails to report accounts held by Americans outside the U.S. — even checking and savings accounts — they can face steep penalties.

Here’s a chart from the CNN article.

As you can see, there was a pause in 2012, perhaps because people were waiting to see what happened in the election.

But ever since, the number of people escaping U.S. citizenship has jumped dramatically.

To better understand how bad tax law is hurting people with U.S. passports, let’s look at the plight of Americans in Canada, as reported by the Vancouver Sun.

…many Ameri-Canadians are feeling rising anger, fear and even hatred toward their powerful country of origin. …The U.S. is the only major country to tax based on citizenship, not residency. …open displays of American pride in Canada are becoming even less likely as Ameri-Canadians seek shelter from the long reach of FATCA. …In addition, the flow of Americans leaving the U.S. for Canada more than doubled in the decade up until 2011, according to Statistics Canada. …Now — with FATCA causing investigators to scour the globe to hunt down more than seven million broadly defined “U.S. persons” it claims should be paying taxes to Uncle Sam — even more people in Canada with U.S. connections are finding another reason to bury their American identities.

Now let’s be even more focused and look at the impact on a single Englishman who happens to be the Mayor of London.

Johnson was characteristically forthright, describing FATCA as “outrageous”, and a “terrible doctrine of taxation.” Born in New York and having never given up his US citizenship, the London mayor cannot escape the clutches of FATCA, which requires that foreign financial institutions report the financial information of Americans. Those affected include many so-called “accidental Americans” like Johnson… What has seemingly brought FATCA to the front of Boris’s mind is the sale of his UK home, on which he is liable to pay tax in America. …What it does do – because of its host of serious, unintended, adverse consequences – is brand Americans, and accidental Americans choosing to live or work overseas, as financial pariahs. …Similarly, American businesses working in international markets are now often branded with a leprosy-like status. Clearly, this can only be detrimental to the country’s global competitiveness, and could, in turn, hit American jobs and the long-term growth of the economy. Questions should be asked about the imperialist characteristics of FATCA. Governments and foreign financial institutions have been coerced into complying with its expensive, burdensome, privacy-infringing, sovereignty-violating regulations by the US – or they have to face heavy penalties and the prospect of being effectively frozen out of US markets. And all this to “recover” an estimated $1bn (£637m) per year, which is enough, according to reports, to run the federal government for less than two hours.

As you can see, FATCA is a major problem.

And not just for specific taxpayers. The law is also bad for economic growth since it throws sand in the gears of global commerce.

Here are some excerpts from another news report, which includes some of my thoughts on the FATCA issue.

Critics say the FATCA has gone too far, is too draconian and is imposing an undue hardship on Americans living overseas. So says Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. He says the law is “causing lots of headaches and heartaches around the world, not only for foreign financial institutions but also for overseas Americans, who are now being treated as Pyrrhus because financial institutions view them as too costly to service.” The U.S. is one of the few countries that tax its citizen on the basis of nationality, not residency. And faced with a larger tax bill, thousands of Americans living overseas would rather give up their passports then pay a new tax to Uncle Sam. The Taxpayer Advocate’s Office of the IRS has reported that the FATCA “has the potential to be burdensome, overly broad and detrimental to taxpayer rights.” Mitchell says, “An American living and working in some other country is required to not only pay tax to that country where they live but also file a tax return to the U.S. No other civilized country does that.”

By the way, I didn’t say that the law was causing overseas Americans to be treated as “Pyrrhus.” I said they were being viewed as “pariahs.” But that’s the risk you take when doing oral interviews.

Returning to matters of substance, you’ll also be happy to know that FATCA is making people more vulnerable to identity theft. It’s gotten so bad that even the IRS was forced to issue an official warning.

The Internal Revenue Service today issued a fraud alert for international financial institutions complying with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Scam artists posing as the IRS have fraudulently solicited financial institutions seeking account holder identity and financial account information. …These fraudulent solicitations are known as “phishing” scams. These types of scams are typically carried out through the use of unsolicited emails and/or websites that pose as legitimate contacts in order to deceptively obtain personal or financial information. Financial institutions or their representatives that suspect they are the subject of a “phishing” scam should report the matter to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 800-366-4484, or through TIGTA’s secure website. Any suspicious emails that contain attachments or links in the message should not be opened.

Gee, nice of them to be so concerned about potential victims.

Though perhaps it would be better if we didn’t have intrusive laws in the first place.

The law is even so destructive that the Associated Press reported that it might be used as a weapon against the Russians!

As the United States attempts to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, the Treasury Department is deploying an economic weapon that could prove more costly than sanctions: the Internal Revenue Service. This summer, the U.S. plans to start using a new law that will make it more expensive for Russian banks to do business in America. “It’s a huge deal,” says Mark E. Matthews, a former IRS deputy commissioner. “It would throw enormous uncertainty into the Russian banking community.” …beginning in July, U.S. banks will be required to start withholding a 30 percent tax on certain payments to financial institutions in other countries — unless those foreign banks have agreements in place… But after Russia annexed Crimea and was seen as stoking separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, the Treasury Department quietly suspended negotiations in March. With the July 1 deadline approaching, Russian banks are now concerned that the price of investing in the United States is about to go up. …For Russia, the penalties could be more damaging to its economy than U.S. sanctions, said Brian L. Zimbler, managing partner of the Moscow office of Morgan Lewis, an international law firm. …The 2010 law is known as FATCA.

So what’s the bottom line?

As you can see, America’s worldwide tax system is bad policy, and it’s a nightmare for millions of innocent people thanks to ill-considered laws such as FATCA.

What’s really remarkable – in a bad way – is the complete lack of proportionality.

Back during the 2008 campaign, Obama claimed that laws like FATCA would generate $100 billion per year. From the perspective of tax collectors, that amount of money may have justified an onerous law.

But when the dust settled, the revenue estimators predicted that FATCA would bring in less than $1 billion per year.

In other words, the amount of money the IRS will collect is dwarfed by the damage to the overall economy and the harm to millions of taxpayers. Not to mention all the negative feelings against America that have been generated by this absurd law.

Yet very few politicians are willing to fight FATCA because they’re afraid that their opponents will engage in demagoguery and accuse them of being in favor of tax evasion. Senator Rand Paul is an admirable exception.

P.S. Since this has been such a depressing discussion, here is some good IRS humor to lighten the mood.

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Regular readers know that I don’t approve of drug use, but that I also favor legalization because the Drug War has been a costly and ineffective failure.

(And it’s led to horrible policies such as intrusive money-laundering laws and Orwellian asset-forfeiture laws).

So I was happy when folks in Colorado voted to decriminalize marijuana use, even if part of me didn’t like the idea that politicians would gain a new source of tax revenue.

If nothing else, what’s happening in Colorado (and Washington state) will be an interesting social experiment.

And even though we only have a modest bit of data, I’m going to be bold and assert that we can already learn two lessons from what’s happened.

1. Politicians are so greedy that they set taxes too high.

In the real world, there’s this thing called the Laffer Curve. And what it shows is that excessive tax rates don’t generate big piles of tax revenue because people change their behavior.

I’ve made this point before when dealing with personal income tax rates, corporate tax rates, capital gains taxes, and tobacco taxes.

Simply stated, the political class is so anxious to get more of our money that they impose punitive tax rates that fail to generate the desired amount of revenue.

And it’s also true with taxes on marijuana.

But don’t believe me. Let’s look at some news sources about what’s happened in Colorado.

Here are some excerpts from a Daily Beast report.

According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, the state collected $44 million in taxes from recreational marijuana in 2014, $25 million less than predicted.  …why did recreational marijuana sales in Colorado fall short? …Coloradoans bought less recreational marijuana than they could have… Looking at the taxes on cannabis in the state, it’s not hard to see why. Pot taxes in Colorado are steep. In Denver, for example, an eighth of cannabis can come with four taxes: an excise tax, regular sales tax, special sales tax (for pot retailers), and a special city tax. That equals a markup of roughly 30 percent. …many pot aficionados looked at the numbers and decided to stick with their medical marijuana programs or their other dealers.

Here’s some similar analysis from a New York Times article.

Colorado’s tax results underscore a big conflict facing public officials considering marijuana legalization. Taxes should be kept low if the goal is to eliminate pot’s black market. …Colorado has also shown that pot-smokers don’t necessarily line up to leave the tax-free black market and pay hefty taxes. If medical pot is untaxed, or if pot can be grown at home and given away as in Colorado, the black market persists.

And here are some passages from the Mic’s analysis.

David Huff…from Aurora, told the AP that the state’s taxes on marijuana, which increase the price of pot by 30 percent or more, are too, um, high. “I don’t care if they write me a check, or refund it in my taxes, or just give me a free joint next time I come in. The taxes are too high, and they should give it back,” Huff said. …only 60 percent of Coloradans obtained their marijuana through a legal exchange in 2014. Some buyers are using the state’s legal medical marijuana, which is untaxed, as a source for green, while others take advantage of Amendment 64’s provision allowing the personal use of as many as six marijuana plants. The products of those plants have flooded the black market, depriving Colorado of more taxable pot.

The bottom line is that politicians better figure out how to limit their greed if they truly want the legal market to function properly.

2. A spending cap ensures that new revenue won’t finance bigger government.

I’m a big fan of restraining the growth of government. Needless to say, this means I don’t like giving politicians new sources of revenue.

That’s my view on all of the proposals for new revenue that are percolating in the corridors of power, including energy taxes, financial taxes, value-added taxes, and wealth taxes.

But if there’s actually some sort of binding limit on the growth of government, then politicians can’t use new revenue to finance a more bloated public sector.

And thanks to the nation’s best expenditure limit, that’s the case in Colorado.

Here’s what Mic wrote on the topic.

Colorado’s state constitution limits how much tax money the state treasury can receive before having to return it to taxpayers. The provision, known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR… Since Colorado’s economy has been growing as a faster rate than expected, the state underestimated its total revenue, which means Centennial State residents may soon get a cut of the estimated $50 million in taxes collected from the sale of recreational marijuana during its first year of legalization. …TABOR, passed in 1992, dictates that Colorado can’t spend revenue made from taxation if those revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation and population growth. That money, known as a TABOR bonus, must be refunded to taxpayers unless voters approve a revenue change. This amendment has netted Colorado taxpayers about $3.3 billion since 1992.

Let’s return to the Daily Beast story.

In a state with one of the strictest tax and expenditure limitations in the country, Colorado operates under a Taxpayer Bill of Rights called TABOR. According to the bill, refunds are to be considered when state tax revenues don’t match up to the state estimates. This year, owing to a slight rise in the economy, the overall revenue was higher.

Though you won’t be surprised to learn that politicians want to figure out a way of spending the money. Check out these passages from the aforementioned piece in the New York Times.

Colorado will likely have to return to voters to ask to keep the pot tax money. That’s because of a 1992 amendment to the state constitution that restricts government spending. The amendment requires new voter-approved taxes, such as the pot taxes, to be refunded if overall state tax collections rise faster than permitted. Lawmakers from both parties are expected to vote this spring on a proposed ballot measure asking Coloradans to let the state keep pot taxes.

So both Republicans and Democrats will join hands in an effort to spend the money.

Gee, knock me over with a feather. What a surprise!

But let’s not focus on whether politicians want more of our money. Let’s learn from TABOR.

What it teaches us is that you get better policy when you limit the growth of government spending. And the closest thing we have to TABOR at the national level is the Swiss Debt Brake.

It’s worked very well in Switzerland because it puts the focus on the underlying problem of too much government. Notwithstanding the name, it limits the annual growth of spending, not the growth of debt.

The moral of the story is that when you address the real problem of too much spending, you automatically address the symptom of red ink.

And politicians presumably won’t have much incentive to impose higher taxes if they can’t use the money to buy votes with bigger government, so it’s a win-win situation!

P.S. Though there are some who favor higher taxes solely for reasons of spite and envy.

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I’ve written several times about the importance of appointing sensible people to head the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT). Heck, making reforms to these Capitol Hill bureaucracies is a basic competency test for Republicans.

That’s because CBO and JCT are the official scorekeepers when politicians consider changes in fiscal policy and it has a big (and bad) impact if they rely on outdated methods and bad analysis.

The CBO, for instance, puts together economic analysis and baseline forecasts of revenue and spending, while also estimating what will happen if there are changes to spending programs. Seems like a straightforward task, but what if the bureaucrats assume that government spending “stimulates” the economy and they fail to measure the harmful impact of diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy to Washington?

The JCT, by contrast, prepares estimates of what will happen to revenue if politicians make various changes in tax policy. Sounds like a simple task, but what if the bureaucrats make the ridiculous assumption that tax policy has no measurable impact on jobs, growth, or competitiveness, which leads to the preposterous conclusion that you maximize revenue with 100 percent tax rates?

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, former Treasury Department officials Ernie Christian and Gary Robbins explain why the controversy over these topics – sometimes referred to as “static scoring” vs “dynamic scoring” – is so important.

It is Economics 101 that many federal taxes, regulations and spending programs create powerful incentives for people not to work, save, invest or otherwise efficiently perform the functions essential to their own well-being. These government-induced changes in behavior set off a chain reaction of macroeconomic effects that impair GDP growth, kill jobs, lower incomes and restrict upward mobility, especially among lower- and middle-income families. …Such measurements are de rigueur among credible academic and private-sector researchers who seek to determine the true size of the tax and regulatory burden on the economy and the true value of government spending, taking into account the economic damage it often causes.

But not all supposed experts look at these second-order or indirect effects of government policy.

And what’s amazing is that the official scorekeepers in Washington are the ones who refuse to recognize the real-world impact of changes in government policy.

These indirect costs of government, in particular or in total, have not been calculated and disclosed in the Budget of the United States or in analyses by the Congressional Budget Office. The result of this deliberate omission by Washington has been to understate many costs of government, often by more than 100%, and grossly overstate its benefits. …It is on this foundation of disinformation that the highly disrespected, overly expensive and too often destructive federal government in Washington has been built.

Christian and Robbins look specifically at the direct and indirect costs of the income tax.

The income tax is a two-part tax, one acknowledged and one deliberately concealed. First, almost $2 trillion of income tax is collected by the IRS for government to spend for presumably beneficial purposes. Then there is the tax-induced economic damage, a stealth tax, indirectly picked from people’s pockets in the form of fewer jobs and lower incomes. This stealth tax is $3.2 trillion each year. …economists often refer to the stealth tax as a deadweight loss. …When the $2 trillion of income tax taken directly out of the economy by the IRS is added to the $3.2 trillion of indirect economic cost, the total private-sector cost of the income tax is $5.2 trillion — and the government has only $2 trillion of income tax revenues to spend in trying to repair the damage.

By the way, I must disagree with the last part of this excerpt.

Government doesn’t “repair the damage” of high taxes when it spends money. Most of the time, it exacerbates the damage of high taxes by spending money in ways that further weaken the economy.

Let’s now get back to the part of the editorial that I like. Ernie and Gary make the very important point that some taxes do more damage than others.

…when the IRS collects a dollar of income tax from corporations, the damage to the overall economy is about $4. Similarly, a dollar of tax on capital gains sets off a ripple effect that does about $6 of damage. Poison pills such as capitalizing (instead of expensing) the job-creating cost of machinery and equipment, taxing dividends, double-taxing personal saving and imposing high tax rates result in stealth taxes ranging from $3 to $8 per dollar of revenues. …Low tax rates do less damage to economic growth per dollar of revenues raised and are preferable to high tax rates, which have the opposite effect.

Here’s a chart based on their analysis.

I’m not overly fixated on their specific estimates. Even good economists, after all, have a hard time making accurate forecasts and correctly isolating the impact of discrete policies on overall economic performance. Moreover, it’s very difficult to factor in the economic impact of America’s tax-haven policies for foreign investors, which help offset the damage of high tax burdens on American citizens.

But Christian and Robbins are completely correct about certain taxes doing more damage than other taxes.

And the lesson they teach us is that the tax bias against saving and investment is extremely destructive.

And the less fortunate are particularly disadvantaged when bad methodology at CBO and JCT perpetuates bad policy.

…it is self-defeating and harmful to require that tax reforms always be revenue neutral in a near-term static sense. Imagine a tax reform that initially costs the IRS $1. Through economic growth, it promptly increases taxable income and well-offness by $2.50. At an average tax rate of 20%, the reform-induced $2.50 increase in taxable income at the outset recoups only 50 cents of the initial $1 cost to the IRS, thereby leaving the IRS 50 cents short in the near term. But who in the White House or Congress would refuse to make mostly lower and middle-income families $2.50 better off at a cost of only 50 cents to Washington’s already overflowing coffers?

The final sentence of the excerpt hits the nail on the head.

I’ve previously cited academic research and expert analysis to show that it is pointlessly punitive to raise tax rates if the damage to the private sector is several times greater than the additional revenue collected by government.

Yet there are plenty of examples of this type of short-sighted analysis, such as Obama’s proposal to expand the Social Security payroll tax (see the 6:43-7:41 section of this video)

And if you like videos, I have a three-part series on the Laffer Curve which is part of this post offering a lesson from the 1980s for Barack Obama.

The bottom line is that we’ll continue to get bad analysis and bad numbers if Republicans aren’t smart enough to clean house at CBO and JCT.

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Last week, I shared a TV interview about Obama’s budget, but much of the discussion was routine and didn’t warrant special attention.

But there was one small part of the interview, dealing with the silly claim that America became a rich nation because of socialism, that got me all agitated.

Well, to quote the great Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again. Here’s an interview I did with CNBC about labor unrest. As you might expect, I made the standard libertarian argument that it’s not the job of government to pick sides when labor and management have squabbles.

That’s a point I’ve made before (here, here, here, here, here, and here), so there’s no need to elaborate on that issue.

But if you pay attention at the 3:00 mark of the video, you’ll notice that the discussion shifts to income inequality. And this is what got me agitated. I’m completely baffled that some people think that redistribution is more important than growth.

As I point out in the interview, nobody wins in the long run if you have a stagnant economy and politicians are fixated on re-slicing a shrinking pie.

The goal of everyone – including unions and leftist politicians – should be growth. If we get robust growth, that will mean tight labor markets, and that’s a big cause of rising wages.

But here’s my hypothesis to explain why statists don’t support good policies. Simply stated, I think they hate the rich more than they like the poor.

That sounds like a rather bold claim, but is there any other explanation for why they reject the types of tax policies (such as lower corporate rates, reduced double taxation, and expensing) that will increase investment, thus boosting productivity and wages?

Heck, look at this chart showing the relationship between capital formation and labor compensation.

Any decent person, after looking at the link between capital and wages, should be clamoring for the flat tax.

Yet Obama wants to move the tax code in the opposite direction!

I confess that I have no idea if this is because of malice or ignorance, but I do know that no nation has ever generated faster growth with class warfare.

I realize I’m ranting, but the more I think about this topic, the more upset I get. Politicians and their allies are making life harder for workers, and I hope I never stop being outraged when that happens.

P.S. On a totally separate subject, here’s a good joke forwarded to me by a friend this morning. It definitely belongs in my collection of gun control humor.

A state trooper in Kansas made a traffic stop of an elderly lady for speeding on U.S. 166 just East of Sedan, KS. He asked for her driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. The lady took out the required information and handed it to him.

In with the cards, he was somewhat surprised (due to her advanced age) to see she had a concealed carry permit. He looked at her and asked if she had a weapon in her possession at this time. She responded that she indeed had a .45 automatic in her glove box.

Something, body language, or the way she said it, made him want to ask if she had any other firearms. She did admit to also having a 9mm Glock in her center console. Now he had to ask one more time if that was all. She responded once again that she did have just one more, a .38 special in her purse.

He then asked her “Ma’am, you sure carry a lot of guns. What are you so afraid of?”

She looked him right in the eye and said, “Not a damn thing!”

You can enjoy other examples of gun control humor by clicking here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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Back in 2013, I actually wrote something vaguely nice about HBO’s Bill Maher. Or at least I expressed approval for a point he made about the limits of class-warfare taxation.

It’s now time to compensate for that action.

Check out this interview. It’s about Obama’s new tax-and-spend budget, but pay particular attention at the 5:15 mark of the video and you’ll hear Maher asserting that “socialism” deserves the credit for the development of a thriving middle class in America.

Wow. Maher’s comments are astonishingly illiterate.

As I remarked in the interview, the United States (like other western nations) had a tiny public sector during the period when it transitioned from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity.

Federal spending averaged only about 3 percent of economic output, and overall government spending (including state and local governments) was only about 10 percent of GDP.

If that was socialism, then sign me up!

This isn’t to say we have laissez-faire paradise in the 1800s and early 1900s. Some of the so-called Robber Barons were cronyists who used government favoritism to line their pockets. Monetary policy oftentimes was a mess because of government regulation and control of banks. Tariffs were very onerous. And Jim Crow laws were an odious example of government power being used to oppress an entire class of citizens and hamper their ability to participate in the market economy.

But the one thing we didn’t have back then was socialism, whether you use the right definition (government ownership of the means of production) or the sloppy definition (a redistributive welfare state).

Sigh.

Enough on that topic. The bulk of the interview, of course, focused on Obama’s budget. I got in my main point, which is that we need to focus on restraining the growth of government spending.

So rather than recycle my thoughts, let’s cite comments by two wise observers.

Here’s how Dan Henninger of the Wall Street Journal described the President’s plan.

The president’s annual budget reminds the Beltway tribes of what they do—tax the country, distribute revenues to their allies, and euphemize it as a budget. With his 2015 budget, Barack Obama at last makes clear his presidency’s reason for being: to establish an empire of taxation. …In six years, the Obama Democrats have abandoned any belief in the idea that the private sector is the primary cause of American prosperity. Instead, they seem to see the private sector as a kind of tax sump-pump, a dumb machine whose only purpose is tax flow. …That is the empire of taxation. It is an isolated system, based in Washington, which allocates what it exacts from the private sector.

And here’s some of what George Will wrote about the poisonous spiral of more government leading to more stagnation leading to more demands for more government.

The progressive project of maximizing the number of people dependent on government is also aided by the acid of insecurity that grows rapidly when the economy does not. Anxious and disappointed people are susceptible to progressives’ blandishments about the political allocation of wealth and opportunity — “free” this and that. By making slow growth normal, iatrogenic government serves the progressive program of defining economic failure down.

I fully agree. Not only the points about the weakness of the Obama “recovery,” but also the concerns about more and more people being lured into government dependency, which sabotages American exceptionalism.

Jerry Holbert has a nice summary of the President’s worldview.

Hmmm…I think we’ve seen this bookstore before.

Though I’m surprised Obama is bothering to shop when he can just go to the library for his favorite books.

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