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Archive for the ‘Taxation’ Category

Earlier today at the Friedman Conference in Australia, I spoke on the proper design of a tax system.

My goal was to explain the problem of double taxation.

I’ve repeatedly shared a flowchart to illustrate the pervasive double taxation in the current system (my example is for the United States, but many other nations make the same mistake).

And to help explain why this is economically misguided, I developed a (hopefully) compelling visual based on how to harvest apples.

But I’ve always wondered if I was presenting the information in an accessible and understandable manner. So for today’s presentation, I decided to experiment with some different visuals.

Here’s how I illustrated the current system.

As you can see, there are several additional layers of tax on people who save and invest their after-tax income.

And I explained to the crowd that this is very foolish since every economic theory agrees that saving and investment are key to long-run growth.

Even socialism. Even Marxism. (Socialists and Marxists are foolish to think government can be in charge of allocating capital, but at least they realize that future growth requires saving and investment.)

In other words, you don’t achieve good tax policy solely by having a low tax rate.

Yes, that’

s important, but genuine tax reform also means no bias against saving and investment.

Here’s another visual. This one shows the difference between the current system and the flat tax. As you can see, all the added layers of tax on saving and investment are jettisoned under true tax reform.

By the way, there are some people who prefer a national sales tax over a flat tax.

I question the political viability of that approach, but I’ve always defended the sales tax.

Why? Because it’s conceptually identical to the flat tax.

As you can see from this next visual, the difference between the two systems is that the flat tax grabs a bit of money when income is earned and the sales tax grabs a bit of money when income is spent (either today or in the future).

Remember, the goal is to eliminate the bias against saving and investing.

To economists who specialize in public finance, this is known as shifting to a “consumption base” system.

But I’ve never liked that language. What really happens under true tax reform is that we tax income, but using the right definition.

The current system, by contrast, is known as a “comprehensive income tax” with a “Haig-Simons” tax base. But that simply means a system that taxes some forms of income over and over again.

Time for one final point.

Some people like a value-added tax because it avoids the problem of double taxation.

That’s certainly true.

But this final visual shows that adding a VAT to the current system doesn’t solve the problem. All that happens is that politicians have a new source of revenue to expand the welfare state.

If a VAT was used to replace the current tax system, that might be a very worthwhile approach.

But that’s about as likely as me playing the outfield later this year for the New York Yankees.

P.S. The VAT visual is overly simplified and it sidesteps the logistical issue of whether politicians would go for a credit-invoice VAT or a subtraction-method VAT. But the visual is correct in terms of how a VAT would interact with the current system.

P.P.S. All you need to know about the VAT is that Reagan was against it and Nixon was for it.

 

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With two dozens candidates in the race, it’s not feasible to review the fiscal and economic plans of every potential nominee for the Democratic Party.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll be silent. I’ve written several times about Crazy Bernie’s agenda, and I’ve recently opined about shortcomings in the plans of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren (I haven’t written about Joe Biden’s agenda since he presumably represents a restoration of Obama’s knee-jerk statism).

Today let’s turn our attention to Pete Buttigieg. Known as Mayor Pete, he positions himself as a pragmatic millennial.

Notwithstanding his moderate demeanor, though, he’s been very aggressive about proposing higher taxes. And, as revealed in this report from Fox, that includes promoting new taxes as part of his unconventional campaign.

On fiscal policy, Buttigieg pushed for four distinct tax hikes when asked about the deficit, saying he favored a “fairer, which means higher” marginal income tax, a “reasonable” wealth tax “or something like that,” a financial transactions tax, and closing “corporate tax loopholes.” …Buttigieg indicated that the long odds didn’t faze him. “There’s a lot of us running for president on the Democratic side, but I think it’s safe to say I’m not like the others,” Buttigieg told Wallace, noting that seeking the presidency is inherently “audacious” — especially given that he would be the youngest person to ever become president. “I would say being a mayor in a city of any size in America right now is about as relevant as it gets,” Buttigieg added.

I agree. Mayor Pete is audacious.

But not because he’s running for President with so little experience. Instead, he’s audacious because his tax agenda is so troubling.

I don’t like that he wants to increase the tax burden. Especially since it’s easy to fix budget problems with some modest spending restraint.

I also don’t like that he wants higher marginal tax rates on households and businesses. Because of exponentially increasing deadweight losses, that’s one of the most economically destructive ways of extracting revenue from the economy’s productive sector.

And I’m most worried about his advocacy of two new sources of taxation. Both proposals would do considerable damage. A financial transactions tax would wreak havoc with financial markets. And a wealth tax would dramatically reduce incentives to save and invest since it’s an explicit form of double taxation.

By the way, Mayor Pete probably supports a national energy tax. At least that’s a logical conclusion given his views on global warming. So we should add that levy to the list as well.

P.S. The only good news is that Buttigieg hasn’t (yet) embraced a value-added tax.

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Back in 2015, when Trump was a long-shot candidate for the Republican nomination, I criticized him for not signing the no-tax-hike pledge.

But he then pushed through a better-than-expected tax plan after getting the White House. And that package reduces the tax burden (at least for the first nine years).

So is it time for me to retract my 2015 criticism?

Nope.

Look at this horrifying tweet that Trump issued yesterday. The President is actually claiming that the economy is doing well because of higher tax payments.

This has to be Trump’s worst-ever tweet, at least with regards to economic policy.

Normally, only hard-left politicians and international bureaucracies have the gall to claim that you can strengthen an economy by having governments collect more money.

Needless to say, it’s strange to see a Republican president make the same argument.

But Trump’s tweet isn’t just bad from the perspective of fiscal policy.

He also shows that he doesn’t understand trade policy, either from a technical perspective or an economic perspective.

For instance, the tariffs (i.e., trade taxes) technically are paid by those making the purchases (i.e., importers), not by the sellers (i.e., Chinese companies).

But just as the corporate income tax is really a tax on people (either as workers, consumers, or shareholders), the burden of trade taxes also falls on people.

In other words, American consumers are paying for Trump’s tariffs.

Which gives me an excuse to share Trump’s second-worst-ever tweet, which was issued this morning.

At the risk of understatement, the United States doesn’t “lose” $500 billion by trading with China.

Americans voluntarily purchase lots of output from China and both sides benefit (otherwise the transactions wouldn’t occur).

And many Chinese use the dollars they earn to invest in the U.S. economy, another set of win-win transactions.

The net result of all these voluntary transactions is that America has a trade deficit, which is a meaningless figure. Basically the flip side of having a capital surplus.

The bottom line is that Trump should stick to tax policy and regulatory policy, since those are areas where his policies have been beneficial.

P.S. If Trump was focused on Chinese technology theft or Chinese industrial subsidies, I would be at least partly sympathetic. Especially if he utilized the World Trade Organization and included our allies. But he’s mostly attacking China because he doesn’t like the voluntary decisions of American and Chinese consumers and businesses.

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My friends on the left hold two impossible-to-reconcile views about taxation.

  • First, they say taxes don’t really have any effect on incentives to work, save and invest, and that governments can impose high tax rates and punitive double taxation without causing meaningful economic damage or loss of national competitiveness.
  • Second, they say differences in taxes between jurisdictions will cause massive tax-avoidance behavior as jobs and investment migrate to places with lower taxes, and that national and international tax harmonization is required to prevent that ostensibly horrible outcome.

Huh?!? They’re basically asserting that taxes simultaneously have no effect on taxpayer behavior and lots of effect on taxpayer behavior.

Well, they’re half right.

Taxpayers do respond to incentives. And when tax rates are too high, both money and people will escape high-tax regimes.

In other words, people do “vote with their feet.”

And it seems pro athletes are not “dumb jocks” when contemplating the best places to sign contracts.

Looking at baseball, taxes presumably had an effect on Bryce Harper’s decision to play for the Phillies.

For Major League Baseball players, three teams are at the bottom of the standings on state taxes: the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. That’s because California is in a league of its own on personal income taxes. We’ve got by far the highest state rate in the nation, topping out at 13.3%. By contrast, Pennsylvania has a low flat rate for every taxpayer regardless of income. It’s just 3.07%. That’s one reason why superstar slugger Bryce Harper signed an eye-popping 13-year, $330-million contract last week with the Philadelphia Phillies, spurning the Dodgers and Giants. …Harper will save tens of millions in taxes by signing with the Phillies instead of a California team. …“The Giants, Dodgers and Padres are in the worst state income tax jurisdiction in all of baseball,” Boras adds. “Players really get hit.” …To what extent do California’s sky-high taxes drive players away? “It’s a red light,” agent John Boggs says. “I’ve had players in the past say they don’t want to go to certain states because they’re going to get hammered by taxes. Obviously, that affects the bottom line.”

Another argument for states to join the flat tax club!

If we cross the Atlantic Ocean, we find lots of evidence that high tax rates in Europe create major headaches in the world of sports.

For example, I’ve previously written about how the absence of an income tax gives the Monaco team a significant advantage competing in the French soccer league.

And there are many other examples from Europe dealing with soccer and taxation.

According to a BBC report, we should highlight the impact on both players and management in Spain.

Ex-Manchester United boss José Mourinho has agreed a prison term in Spain for tax fraud but will not go to jail. A one-year prison sentence will instead be exchanged for a fine of €182,500 (£160,160). That will be added to a separate fine of €2m. …He was accused of owing €3.3m to Spanish tax authorities from his time managing Real Madrid in 2011-2012. Prosecutors said he had created offshore companies to manage his image rights and hide the earnings from tax officials. …In January, Cristiano Ronaldo accepted a fine of €18.8m and a suspended 23-month jail sentence, in a case which was also centred around tax owed on image rights. …Another former Real Madrid star, Xabi Alonso, is also facing charges over alleged tax fraud amounting to about €2m, though he denies any wrongdoing. Marcelo Vieira, who still plays for the club, accepted a four-month suspended jail sentence last September over his use of foreign firms to handle almost half a million euros in earnings. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Neymar have also found themselves embroiled in legal battles with the Spanish tax authorities.

Let’s cross the Atlantic again and look at the National Football League.

Consider Christian Wilkins, who was just drafted in the first round by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. He’s very aware of how lucky he is to have been picked by a football team in a state with no income tax.

The Miami Dolphins picked Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins with the 13th overall pick in Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft. …He’ll be counted on to help usher in a new era of Miami football under first-year head coach Brian Flores. …Wilkins said he “knew they were interested” in him and is happy to be headed to Miami. He also joked that he’s happy he’ll be playing football in Florida, where there is no state income tax. “Pretty excited about them taxes,” he said. “A lot of guys who went before me, I might be making just a little bit more, but hey, it is what it is.”

As he noted, his contract may not be as big as some of the players drafted above him, but he may wind up with more take-home pay since Florida is a fiscally responsible state.

College players have no control over which team drafts them, so Wilkins truly is lucky.

Players in free agency, by contrast, can pick and choose their new team.

And if we travel up the Atlantic coast from Miami to Jacksonville, we can read about how the Jaguars – both players and management – understand how they’re net beneficiaries of being in a no-income tax state.

Hayden Hurst got excited after he received a phone call from someone he trusted who told him the Jaguars were targeting him with the No. 29 overall pick. …Though Hurst…was happy when the Baltimore Ravens took him four slots before the Jaguars, he also knew in advance of the financial consequences that most rookies don’t notice. Since Florida is one of four NFL states (Tennessee, Texas and Washington being the others) with no state income tax, Hurst, who played at South Carolina, understood he’d see a big chunk of his $6.1 million signing bonus disappear on the deduction line when he received his first bonus check. …“I thought about how much of my money was going to be impacted depending on which state I played in,” Hurst said. “I’m paying a pretty hefty percent up in Maryland. To see the amount get taken away right off the bat kind of hurt, it was pretty sickening.” With the NFL free agent market set to open Wednesday, Hurst’s situation illustrates a potential competitive advantage for the Jaguars of being in an income tax-free state when they court free agents.

Yes, the flat tax club is good, but the no-income-tax club is even better.

I’ll close with an observation. Way back in 2009, I speculated that high tax rates could actually hurt the performance of teams in high-tax states.

It turns out I was right, as you can see from academic research I cited in 2017 and 2018.

The bottom line is that teams in high-tax states can still sign big-name players, but they have to pay more to compensate for taxes. And this presumably means less money for other players, thus lowering overall quality (and also lowering average win totals).

P.S. I normally only cheer for NFL athletes who played for my beloved Georgia Bulldogs, but I now have a soft spot in my heart for Christian Wilkins (just like Evan Mathis).

P.P.S. I also have plenty of sympathy for Cam Newton, who paid a tax rate of almost 200 percent on the income he earned for playing in the 2016 Super Bowl.

P.P.P.S. Taxes also impact choices on how often to box and where to box.

P.P.P.P.S. And where to run track.

P.P.P.P.P.S. And where to play basketball.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. While one can argue that there are no meaningful economic consequences if athletes avoid jurisdictions with bad tax law, can the same be said if we have evidence that high tax burdens deter superstar inventors and entrepreneurs?

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If the people who advocate higher taxes really think it’s a good idea to give politicians more cash, why don’t they voluntarily send extra money with their tax returns?

Massachusetts actually makes that an easy choice since state tax forms give people the option of paying extra, yet tax-loving politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry never avail themselves of that opportunity.

And the Treasury Department has a website for people who want to give extra money to the federal government, yet proponents of higher taxes (at least for you and me) never lead by example.

For lack of a better phrase, let’s call this type of behavior – not choosing to pay extra tax – conventional hypocrisy.

But what about politicians who support higher taxes while dramatically seeking to reduce their own tax payments? I guess we should call that nuclear-level hypocrisy.

And if there was a poster child for this category, it would be J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois governor who is trying to replace his state’s flat tax with a money-grabbing multi-rate tax.

The Chicago Sun Times reported late last year that Pritzker has gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure his money isn’t confiscated by government.

…more than $330,000 in property tax breaks and refunds that…J.B. Pritzker received on one of his Gold Coast mansions — in part by removing toilets… Pritzker bought the historic mansion next door to his home, let it fall into disrepair — and then argued it was “uninhabitable” to win nearly $230,000 in property tax breaks. …The toilets had been disconnected, and the home had “no functioning bathrooms or kitchen,” according to documents Pritzker’s lawyers filed with Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.

Wow, maybe I should remove the toilets from my house and see if the kleptocrats in Fairfax County will slash my property taxes.

And since I’m an advocate of lower taxes (for growth reasons and for STB reasons), I won’t be guilty of hypocrisy.

Though Pritzker may be guilty of more than that.

According to local media, the tax-loving governor may face legal trouble because he was so aggressive in dodging the taxes he wants other people to pay.

Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, his wife and his brother-in-law are under federal criminal investigation for a dubious residential property tax appeal that dogged him during his gubernatorial campaign last year, WBEZ has learned. …The developments demonstrate that the billionaire governor and his wife may face a serious legal threat arising from their controversial pursuit of a property tax break on a 126-year-old mansion they purchased next to their Gold Coast home. …The county watchdog said all of that amounted to a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers out of more than $331,000. …Pritzker had ordered workers to reinstall one working toilet after the house was reassessed at a lower rate, though it’s unclear whether that happened.

This goes beyond nuclear-level hypocrisy – regardless of whether he’s actually guilty of a criminal offense.

Though he’s not alone. Just look at the Clintons. And Warren Buffett. And John Kerry. And Obama’s first Treasury Secretary. And Obama’s second Treasury Secretary.

Or tax-loving international bureaucrats who get tax-free salaries.

Or any of the other rich leftists who want higher taxes for you and me while engaging in very aggressive tax avoidance.

To be fair, my leftist friends are consistent in their hypocrisy.

They want ordinary people to send their kids to government schools while they send their kids to private schools.

And they want ordinary people to change their lives (and pay more taxes) for global warming, yet they have giant carbon footprints.

P.S. There is a quiz that ostensibly identifies hypocritical libertarians.

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I admired the Tea Party because it was made up of people who were upset by the bipartisan waste and corruption of Washington. And I think they even had a positive – albeit only temporary – effect.

But the “Yellow Vest” protesters in France, as I explain in this interview, are much less coherent.

Needless to say, I’m glad the Yellow Vests are upset about France’s oppressive tax regime. In that sense, they are like the Tea Party in America.

But the Tea Party also wanted smaller government. That doesn’t seem to be the case in France.

Which means the Yellow Vests are either ignorant or hypocritical. After all, the burden of government spending is very onerous in France, and the country also has high levels of debt. So how is the government supposed to lower taxes unless there’s at least some degree of spending restraint?!?

Some of the Yellow Vests seem to think that class-warfare taxes on the rich could be a silver bullet, but that didn’t work for Francois Hollande and there’s no reason to think it would work for Emmanuel Macron.

Ironically, some American politicians think America should copy France.

Veronique de Rugy, who was born and raised in France but is now an American, explained for FEE why her former nation is not a role model.

…what Sanders and AOC actually have in mind is a regime more like that of France. …That’s because there is one aspect in particular that the AOCs and Sanders of the world fail to mention to their followers when they talk about their socialist dream: all of the goodies that they believe the American people are entitled to receive in fact come at a great cost—and so the only way to pay for these goodies is with oppressive and regressive taxes (i.e., taxes heaped on to the backs of the middle class and the poor). …Paris relies disproportionately on social-insurance, payroll and property taxes. …In France, VAT and other consumption taxes make up 24% of revenue… Consumption taxes often fall hardest on the poor and middle class, who devote a greater proportion of their income to consumption.

Amen.

Big government means stifling taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers. This is the point I’ve made, over and over again.

But Veronique notes that France also suffers from excessive regulation and other forms of intervention.

France has all sorts of labor regulations on the books: some preventing firms from firing workers and, hence, creating a disincentive to hire workers in the first place. …the French also have all sorts of “generous” family friendly laws that end up backfiring and penalizing female employment. …All of these policies make the lives of lower and middle-class people harder… The bottom line is this: All those people in America who currently fall for the socialism soup that AOC and Sanders are selling need to realize that if their dream came to pass, they, not the rich—not the bankers and politicians—will be ones suffering the most from the high taxes, high unemployment, and slow growth that go hand in hand with the level of public spending they want.

Interestingly, Bloomberg recently reported that the French want tax cuts.

The French want to pay less tax. That was the clear message that emerged from a two-month “Great Debate” that saw voters present their grievances and suggest remedies to President Emmanuel Macron. …Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said…“The clear message is that taxes must fall and fall fast.” …Macron announced the “Great Debate” in December to respond to the Yellow Vest protests… Among the findings, valued added tax and income tax were the levies that most people listed as needing reduction. …For 75 percent of the participants, the lower taxes must be accompanied by cutting government spending, though they were vague about where the cuts should come, with 75 percent citing “the lifestyle of the state.”

This is all good news. And it does echo polling data I shared back in 2013.

But I’m nonetheless skeptical. I suspect the French (including the Yellow Vests) would be rioting in the streets if the government proposed to curtail the nation’s bloated welfare state.

Though I hope I’m wrong.

In any event, there are signs that President Macron actually does want to move policy in the right direction.

He’s already gone after some bad tax and regulatory barriers to prosperity.

And the Wall Street Journal recently opined about his effort to trim the country’s massive bureaucracy.

The French President is still reeling from months of “yellow vest” protests against his poorly conceived fuel-tax hike, but now he has a much better idea to take on France’s infamously bloated civil service. …Bureaucrats would lose much of their extra time off and instead work the 35-hour week that’s standard in the private economy. The plan would streamline staff reassignments within the civil service and make it easier for local officials to reorganize government departments. …if the reforms happen, they’ll still be a long-overdue step in a country where 5.5 million government employees out of a population of 67 million consume around 13% of GDP in wages. …The political test will be whether Mr. Macron can dust himself off from his fuel follies and persuade French voters to embrace another crucial reform.

I’ll close with the pessimistic observation that France may have passed the tipping point.

Simply stated, government is so big and there’s so much dependency that real reform is politically impossible.

Heck, I worry the United States is on the same trajectory.

P.S. Veronique has a must-watch video explaining why America shouldn’t become another France.

P.P.S. While I’m sympathetic to Macron’s domestic agenda, he’s very bad on European-wide policy issues.

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The International Monetary Fund is one of my least favorite international bureaucracies because the political types who run the organization routinely support bad policies such as bailouts and tax increases.

But there are professional economists at the IMF who do good work.

While writing about the mess in Argentina yesterday, for instance, I cited some very sensible research from one of the IMF’s economists.

Today, I’m going to cite two other IMF scholars. Serhan Cevik and Fedor Miryugin have produced some new research looking at the relationship between firm survival and business taxation. Here’s the basic methodology of their study.

While creative destruction—through firm entry and exit—is essential for economic progress, establishing a conducive ecosystem for firm survival is also necessary for sustainable private sector development… While corporate income taxes are expected to lower firms’ capital investment and productivity by raising the user cost of capital, distorting factor prices and reducing after-tax return on investment, taxation also provides resources for public infrastructure investments and the proper functioning of government institutions, which are key to a firm’s success. …the overall impact of taxation on firm performance depends on the relative weight of these two opposing effects, which can vary with the composition and efficiency of taxation and government spending. … In this paper, we focus on how taxation affects the survival prospects of nonfinancial firms, using hazard models and a comprehensive dataset covering over 4 million nonfinancial firms from 21 countries with a total of 21.5 million firm-year observations over the period 1995–2015. …we control for a plethora of firm characteristics, such as age, size, profitability, capital intensity, leverage and total factor productivity (TFP), as well as systematic differences across sectors and countries.

By the way, I agree that there are some core public goods that help an economy flourish. That being said, things like courts and national defense can easily be financed without any income tax.

And even with a very broad definition of public goods (i.e., to include infrastructure, education, etc), it’s possible to finance government with very low tax burdens.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s focus on the study. As you can see, the authors grabbed a lot of data from various European nations.

And they specifically measured the impact of the effective marginal tax rate on firm survival.

Unsurprisingly, higher tax burdens have a negative effect.

We find that the tax burden—measured by the firm-specific EMTR—exerts an adverse effect on companies’ survival prospects. In other words, a lower level of EMTR increases the survival probability among firms in our sample. This finding is not only statistically but also economically important and remains robust when we partition the sample into country subgroups. …digging deeper into the tax sensitivity of firm survival, we uncover a nonlinear relationship between the firm-specific EMTR and the probability of corporate failure, which implies that taxation becomes a detriment to firm survival at higher levels. With regards to the impact of other firm characteristics, we obtain results that are in line with previous research and see that survival probability differs depending on firm age and size, with older and larger firms experiencing a lower risk of failure.

For those that like statistics, here are the specific results.

Here are the real-world implications.

Reforms in tax policy and revenue administration should therefore be designed to cut the costs of compliance, facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation, and encourage alternative sources of financing by particularly addressing the corporate debt bias. In this context, the EMTR holds a special key by influencing firms’ investment decisions and the probability of survival over time, especially in capital intensive sectors of the economy. Importantly, the challenge for policymakers is not simply reducing the statutory CIT rate, but to level the playing field for all firms by rationalizing differentiated tax treatments across sectors, capital asset types and sources of financing.

There are some obvious takeaways from this research.

For what it’s worth, this IMF study basically embraces the sensible principles of business taxation that you find in a flat tax.

Too bad we can’t convince the political types who run the IMF to push the policies supported by IMF economists!

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