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Posts Tagged ‘Capital Gains Tax’

Time for a boring and wonky discussion about taxes, capital formation, and growth.

We’ll start with the uncontroversial proposition that saving and investment is a key driver of long-run growth. Simply stated, employees can produce more (and therefore earn more) when they work with better machines, equipment, and technology (i.e., the stock of capital).

But if we want to enjoy the higher incomes that are made possible by a larger and more productive capital stock, somebody has to save and invest. And that means they have to sacrifice current consumption. The good news is that some people are willing to forego current consumption if they think that saving and investment will enable them to have higher levels of future consumption. In other words, if they make wise investments, it’s a win-win situation since society is better off and they are better off.

And these investment decisions help drive financial markets.

Now let’s focus specifically on long-run investments. If you have some serious money to invest, one of your main goals is to find professionals who hopefully can identify profitable opportunities. You want these people, sometimes called “fund managers,” to wisely allocate your money so that it will grow in value. And in some cases, you try to encourage good long-run investments by telling fund managers that if your investments increase in value (i.e., earn a capital gain), they get to keep a share of that added wealth.

In the world of “private equity” and “venture capital,” that share of the added wealth that goes to fund managers is known as “carried interest.” And as a Bloomberg article notes, it has played a big role in some of America’s great business success stories.

Venture capitalists…helped transform novel business ideas into some of the world’s most valuable companies, including Apple, Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc., and Microsoft Corp. According to a 2015 study by Stanford University, 43 percent of public U.S. companies founded since 1979 had raised venture cash.

An article from the National Center for Policy Analysis has some additional data on the key role of investors who are willing to take long-run risks.

…up to 25 percent of pre-initial public offering (preIPO) startup funding comes from private equity or venture capital backers. Increasing the tax burden on these entities would damage a valuable access-to-capital pipeline for some startups — particularly in the energy, technology and biotech sectors where large up-front investments could be required.

The obvious conclusion is that we should be happy that there are people willing to put their money in long-run investments and that we should not be envious if they make good choices and therefore earn capital gains. And most people (other than the hard-core left) presumably will agree that people who take big risks should be able to earn big rewards.

That consensus breaks down, however, when you add taxes to the equation.

There’s the big-picture debate about whether there should be “double taxation” of income that is saved and invested. There are two schools of thought.

  • On one side, you have proponents of “consumption-base” taxation, and they favor reforms such as the flat tax that eliminate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment. These people want to eliminate double taxation because a bigger capital stock will mean a more prosperous economy. Advocates of this approach generally believe in equality of opportunity.
  • On the other side, you have advocates of the “Haig-Simons” or “comprehensive income tax” approach, which is based on the notion that extra layers of tax should be imposed on income that is saved an invested. These people want double taxation because it is consistent with their views of fairness. Advocates of this approach generally believe in equality of outcomes.

In the United States, we’ve historically dealt with that debate by cutting the baby in half. We have double taxation of capital gains and dividends, but usually at modest rates. We have double taxation of interest, but we allow some protection of savings if people put money in IRAs and 401(k)s.

But the debate never ends. And one manifestation of that ongoing fight is the battle over how to tax carried interest.

Folks on the left want to treat carried interest as “ordinary income,” which simply means that they want regular tax rates to apply so that there’s full double taxation rather than partial double taxation.

So who supports such an idea? To quote Claude Rains in Casablanca, it’s the usual suspects. Strident leftists in Congress and their ideological allies are pushing this version of a capital gains tax hike.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and a group of millionaires made a push on Wednesday for consideration of legislation to close the carried-interest tax “loophole.” “We have to eliminate this loophole to make that sure everyone is paying their fair share and especially so that we can invest in an economy that creates jobs and lifts working American wages,” Baldwin said during a news conference on Capitol Hill. …The carried interest tax break is “the most egregious example of tax unfairness,” said Morris Pearl, chair of the Patriotic Millionaires — a group of 200 Americans with annual incomes of at least $1 million and/or assets of at least $5 million.

Folks on the right, by contrast, don’t think there should be any double taxation. And that means they obviously don’t favor an increase in the double taxation on certain types of capital gains. And that included carried interest, which they point out is not some sort of “loophole.” As Cliff Asness has explained, the treatment of carried interest is “consistent with the way employee-incentive stock options and professional partnerships are taxed.

But this isn’t just a left-right issue. Some so-called populists want higher capital gains taxes on carried interest, including the President-Elect of the United States. Kevin Williamson of National Review is not impressed.

Trump doesn’t understand how our economy works. …The big, ugly, stupid tax hike he’s planning is on Silicon Valley and its imitators around the country, the economic ecosystem of startup companies and the venture capitalists who put up the cash to turn their big ideas into viable products, dopey computer games, social-media annoyances, and companies that employ hundreds of thousands of people at very high wages. Which is to say, he wants to punish the part of the U.S. economy that works, for the crime of working. The so-called carried-interest loophole, which isn’t a loophole, drives progressives batty.

Kevin points out how carried interest works in the real world.

If you’re the cash-strapped startup, you go to venture capitalists; if you’re the established business, you go to a private-equity group. In both cases, the deal looks pretty similar: You get cash to do what you need to do, and the investor, rather than lending you money at a high interest rate, takes a piece of your company as recompense (for distressed companies being reorganized by private-equity firms, that’s usually 100 percent of the firm) on the theory that this will be worth more — preferably much more – than the money they put into your business. Eventually, the investor sells its stake in the company and pays the capital-gains tax on its capital gain.

And he doesn’t hold Trump in high regard.

Donald Trump does not understand this, because he isn’t a real businessman — he’s a Potemkin businessman, a New York City real-estate heir with his name on a lot of buildings he doesn’t own and didn’t build and whose real business is peddling celebrity and its by-products. He’s a lot more like Paris Hilton than he is like Henry Ford or Steve Jobs. Miss Hilton sells perfumes and the promise of glamour, Trump sells ugly neckties and the promise of glamour.

In her syndicated column, Veronique de Rugy explains why Republicans shouldn’t make common cause with the class-warfare crowd.

Trump…has seemingly swallowed a key assumption of the left. During the campaign, Trump and Hillary Clinton both pledged to raise taxes on carried interest. …sensing an opening, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently indicated that he’d be willing to work with Trump on the issue. Of course he would. Democrats have been trying for years to raise taxes on capital. In fact, they see the reduced rate on all capital gains as a loophole. Their goal is to treat all capital gains as ordinary income because they want higher tax burdens overall. …Republicans need to remember that the left’s goal is not fairness but higher taxes. Treating carried interest as ordinary income for tax purposes would simply be the first step toward higher taxes on capital in general. That would be bad for economic growth and for our wallets.

Chuck Devore of the Texas Public Policy Foundation also has a sensible take on the economics of this issue.

…If the investment professional sees his marginal tax rate on capital gains from carried interest almost double, from 23.8 percent to 43.4 percent, he’ll change his behavior and charge more for his services. Pension funds and colleges will get less… Increasing taxes on investment success would mean less investment and consequently, fewer jobs, less innovation, and less prosperity. According to the Tax Foundation, the U.S. already levies the 6th-highest capital gains taxes among the 34 developed nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development… Generating capital gains means that money was used efficiently, benefiting not just the professional investment manager, but savers and the world. Losing money, on the other hand, is nothing to celebrate.

I agree.

The carried interest right is really a proxy for the bigger issue of whether there should be increased double taxation of capital gains. Which would be the exact opposite of what should happen if we want America to be more competitive and prosperous.

For more background on the issue of carried interest, this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is very succinct and informative.

And if you want more info on the overall issue of capital gains taxation, I’m quite partial to my video on the topic.

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I’m a big fan of the flat tax because a low tax rate and no double taxation will result in faster growth and more upward mobility.

I also like the flat tax because it gets rid of all deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, exclusions, and other distortions. And a loophole-free tax code would be a great way of reducing Washington corruption and promoting simplicity.

Moreover, keep in mind that eliminating all favors from the internal revenue code also would be good for growth because people then will make decisions on the basis of what makes economic sense rather than because of peculiar quirks of the tax system.

Sounds great, right?

Well, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds because there’s a debate about how to measure loopholes. Sensible people want a tax code that’s neutral, which means the government doesn’t tilt the playing field. And one of the main implications of this benchmark is that the tax code shouldn’t create a bias against income that is saved and invested. In the world of public finance, this means they favor a neutral “consumption-base” tax system, but that’s simply another way of saying they want income taxed only one time.

Folks on the left, however, are advocates of a “Haig-Simons” tax system, which means they believe that there should be double taxation of all income that is saved and invested. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even sometimes see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

Let’s look at three examples to see what this means in practice.

Example #1: Because they don’t want a bias that encourages people to spend their income today rather than in the future, advocates of a neutral tax code want to get rid of all double taxation of savings (Canada is moving in that direction). So that means they like IRAs and 401(k)s since those vehicles at least allow some savings to be protected from double taxation.

Proponents of Haig-Simons taxation, by contrast, think that IRAs and 401(k)s are loopholes.

Example #2: Another controversy revolves around the tax treatment of business investment. Advocates of neutral taxation believe in expensing, which is simply the common-sense view that investment expenditures should be recognized when they actually occur.

Proponents of Haig-Simons, however, think that investment expenditures should be “depreciated,” which means companies are forced to pretend that most of their investment costs which are incurred today actually take place in future years.

Example #3: Supporters of neutral taxation think capital gains taxes should be abolished because there already is tax on the income generated by assets such as stocks and bonds. So the “preferential rates” in the current system aren’t a loophole, but instead should be viewed as the partial mitigation of a penalty.

Proponents of Haig-Simons, not surprisingly, have the opposite view. Not only do they want to double tax capital gains, they also want them fully taxed, which would mean an economically jarring jump in the tax rate of more than 15 percentage points.

Now, having provided all this background information, let’s finally get to today’s topic.

If you’ve been following the presidential campaign, you’ll be aware that there’s a controversy over something called “carried interest.” It’s a wonky tax issue that seems very complicated, so I’m very happy that the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has produced a video that cuts through all the jargon and explains in a very clear and concise fashion that it’s really just an effort by some people to increase the capital gains tax.

There are four points from the video that deserve special emphasis.

  1. Partnerships are voluntary agreements between consenting adults, and both parties concur that carried interest helps create a good incentive structure for productive investment.
  2. Capital formation is very important for growth, which is one of the reasons why there shouldn’t be any capital gains tax.
  3. A capital gain doesn’t magically become labor income just because an investor decides to share a portion of the gain with a fund manager.
  4. An increase in the tax on carried interest would be the camel’s nose under the tent for more broad-based increases in the tax burden on capital gains.

By the way, I liked that the video also took a gentle swipe at some of the ignorant politicians who want to boost the tax burden on carried interest. They claim they’re going after hedge funds, when the tax actually is much more targeted at private equity partnerships.

But what really matters is not the ignorance of politicians. Instead, we should be focused on whether tax policy is being needlessly destructive because of high – and duplicative – taxes on saving and investment.

Such levies would reduce investment. And that means lower levels of productivity and concomitantly lower wages.

In other words, ordinary people will suffer a lot of collateral damage if this tax-the-rich scheme for carried interest is implemented.

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The most compelling graph I’ve ever seen was put together by Andrew Coulson, one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute. It shows that there’s been a huge increase in the size and cost of the government education bureaucracy in recent decades, but that student performance has been stagnant.

But if I had to pick a graph that belongs in second place, it would be this relationship between investment and labor compensation.

The clear message is that workers earn more when there is more capital, which should be a common-sense observation. After all, workers with lots of machines, technology, and equipment obviously will be more productive (i.e., produce more per hour worked) than workers who don’t have access to capital.

And in the long run, worker compensation is tied to productivity.

This is why the President’s class-warfare proposals to increase capital gains tax rates, along with other proposals to increase the tax burden on saving and investment, are so pernicious.

The White House claims that the “rich” will bear the burden of the new taxes on capital, but the net effect will be to discourage capital investment, which means workers will be less productive and earn less income.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth of Economics 21 has some very compelling analysis on the issue.

President Obama will propose raising top tax rates on capital gains and dividends to 28 percent, up from the current rate of 24 percent. Prior to 2013, the rate was 15 percent. Mr. Obama seeks to practically double capital gains and dividend taxes during the course of his presidency, a step that would have negative effects on investment and economic growth. …the middle class would be harmed by higher capital gains tax rates, because capital would be more likely to go offshore. …[a] higher rate would have negative effects on the economy by reducing U.S. investment or driving it overseas. If firms pay more in capital gains taxes in America, they would make fewer investments — especially in the businesses or projects that most need capital — and they would hire fewer workers, many of them middle-class. Higher capital gains taxes would reduce economic activity, especially financing for private companies, innovators, and small firms getting off the ground. Taxes on U.S. investment would be higher compared with taxes abroad, so some investment capital is likely to move offshore.

At this point, I want to emphasize that the point about higher taxes in America and foregone competitiveness isn’t just boilerplate.

According to Ernst and Young, as well as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has one of the highest tax rates on capital gains in the entire developed world.

The only compensating factor is that at least these destructive tax rates aren’t imposed on foreign investors. Yes, it’s irritating that our tax code treats U.S. citizens far worse than foreigners, but at least we benefit from all the overseas capital being invested in the American economy.

By the way, Diana also points out that higher capital gains tax rates may actually lose revenue for the simple reason that investors can decide to hold assets rather than sell them.

Here’s some of what she wrote, accompanied by a chart from the Tax Foundation.

…higher capital gains tax rates rarely result in more revenue, because capital gains realizations can be timed.  When rates go up, people hold on to their assets rather than selling them, expecting that rates will go down at some point. …Capital gains tax revenues rose after 1997, when the rate was reduced from 28 percent to 20 percent, and again after 2003, when rates were reduced further to 15 percent… The decline in rates resulted in higher tax receipts from owners of capitals, as they sold assets, giving funds to Uncle Sam.

Yes, the Laffer Curve is alive and well.

Not that Obama cares. If you pay close attention at the 4:20 mark of this video, you’ll see that he wants higher capital gains tax rates for reasons of spite.

But I don’t care about the revenue implications. I care about good tax policy. And in an ideal tax system, there wouldn’t be any tax on capital gains.

It’s a form of double taxation with pernicious effects, as the Wall Street Journal explained back in 2012.

…the tax on the sale of a stock or a business is a double tax on the income of that business. When you buy a stock, its valuation is the discounted present value of the earnings. …If someone buys a car or a yacht or a vacation, they don’t pay extra federal income tax. But if they save those dollars and invest them in the family business or in stock, wham, they are smacked with another round of tax. Many economists believe that the economically optimal tax on capital gains is zero. Mr. Obama’s first chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, wrote in the American Economic Review in 1981 that the elimination of capital income taxation “would have very substantial economic effects” and “might raise steady-state output by as much as 18 percent, and consumption by 16 percent.” …keeping taxes low on investment is critical to economic growth, rising wages and job creation. A study by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas estimates that if the U.S. eliminated its capital gains and dividend taxes (which Mr. Obama also wants to increase), the capital stock of American plant and equipment would be twice as large. Over time this would grow the economy by trillions of dollars.

John Goodman also has a very cogent explanation of the issue.

…why tax capital gains at all? …The companies will realize their actual income and they will pay taxes on it. If the firms return some of this income to investors (stockholders), the investors will pay a tax on their dividend income. If the firms pay interest to bondholders, they will be able to deduct the interest payments from their corporate taxable income, but the bondholders will pay taxes on their interest income. …Eventually all the income that is actually earned will be taxed when it is realized and those taxes will be paid by the people who actually earned the income. ……why not avoid all these problems by reforming the entire tax system along the lines of a flat tax? The idea behind a flat tax can be summarized in one sentence: In an ideal system, (a) all income is taxed, (b) only once, (c) when (and only when) it is realized, (d) at one low rate.

And if you want to augment all this theory with some evidence, check out the details of this comprehensive study published by Canada’s Fraser Institute.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which explains why the capital gains tax should be abolished.

P.S. These posters were designed by folks fighting higher capital gains taxes in the United Kingdom, but they apply equally well in the United States. And since we’re referencing our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, you’ll be interested to know that Labor Party voters share Obama’s belief in jacking up tax rates even if the economic damage is so severe that the government doesn’t collect any revenue.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that the capital gains tax isn’t indexed for inflation, so the actual tax rate almost always is higher than the statutory rate. Indeed, for folks that have held assets for a long time, the effective tax rate can be more than 100 percent. Mon Dieu!

P.P.P.S. In the past 20-plus years, I’ve seen all sorts of arguments for class-warfare taxation. These include:

I suppose leftists deserve credit for being adaptable. Just about anything is an excuse for soak-the-rich tax hikes. The sun is shining, raise taxes! The sky is cloudy, increase tax rates!

Or, in this case, Obama is giving a speech, so we know higher tax rates are on the agenda.

P.P.P.P.S. You deserve a reward if you read this far. You can enjoy some amusing cartoons on class-warfare tax policy by clicking here, here,here, here, here, here, and here.

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According to the bean counters at Ernst and Young, the United States has one of the highest capital gains tax rates in the world.

But if you don’t trust the numbers from a big accounting firm, then you can peruse a study from the pro-tax Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that reaches the same conclusion.

But does this really matter? Is the United States harmed by having a high tax rate?

The Wall Street Journal certainly makes a compelling case that high tax rates on capital gains are self-destructive.

And this remarkable chart shows that workers are victimized when there is less investment.

Let’s add to all this evidence.

Jason Clemens, Charles Lammam, and Matthew Lo have produced a thorough study for the Fraser Institute about the economic impact of capital gains taxation.

A capital gain (or loss) generally refers to the price of an asset when it is sold compared to its original purchase price. A capital gain occurs if the value of the asset at the time of sale is greater than the initial purchase price. …Capital gains taxes, of course, raise revenues for government but they do so with considerable economic costs. Capital gains taxes impose costs on the economy because they reduce returns on investment and thereby distort decision making by individuals and businesses. This can have a substantial impact on the reallocation of capital, the available stock of capital, and the level of entrepreneurship.

It turns out that there are many reasons why the capital gains tax harms economic performance. Clemens, Lammam, and Lo explain the “lock-in effect.”

Capital gains are taxed on a realization basis. This means that the tax is only imposed when an investor opts to withdraw his or her investment from the market and realize the capital gain. One of the most significant economic effects is the incentive this creates for owners of capital to retain their current investments even if more profitable and productive opportunities are available. Economists refer to this result as the “lock-in” effect. Capital that is locked into suboptimal investments and not reallocated to more profitable opportunities hinders economic output. …Peter Kugler and Carlos Lenz (2001)…examined the experience of regional governments (“cantons”) in Switzerland that eliminated their capital gains taxes. The authors’ statistical analysis showed that the elimination of capital gains taxes had a positive and economically significant effect on the long-term level of real income in seven of the eight cantons studied. Specifically, the increase in the long-term level of real income ranged between 1.1 percent and 3.0 percent, meaning that the size of the economy was 1 percent to 3 percent larger due to the elimination of capital gains taxes.

Then the authors analyze the impact of capital gains taxes on the “user cost” of capital investment.

Capital gains taxes make capital investments more expensive and therefore less investment occurs. …Several studies have investigated the link between the supply and cost of venture capital financing and capital gains taxation, and found theoretical and empirical evidence suggesting a direct causality between a lower tax rate and a greater supply of venture capital. …Kevin Milligan, Jack Mintz, and Thomas Wilson (1999) sought to estimate the sensitivity of investment to changes in the user cost of capital…and found that decreasing capital gains taxes by 4.0 percentage points leads to a 1.0 to 2.0 percent increase in investment.

Next, they investigate the impact on entrepreneurship.

Capital gains taxes reduce the return that entrepreneurs and investors receive from the sale of a business. This diminishes the reward for entrepreneurial risk-taking and reduces the number of entrepreneurs and the investors that support them. The result is lower levels of economic growth and job creation. …Analysing the stock of venture capital and tax rates on capital gains from 1972 to 1994, Gompers and Lerner found that a one percentage point increase in the rate of the capital gains tax was associated with a 3.8 percent reduction in venture capital funding.

Last but not least, the authors also discuss the impact of capital gains taxation on compliance costs, administrative costs, and tax avoidance. They also look at the marginal efficiency cost of capital gains taxation and report on some of the research in that area.

Dale Jorgensen and Kun-Young Yun (1991)…estimate the marginal efficiency costs of select US taxes and find that capital-based taxes (such as capital gains taxes) impose a marginal cost of $0.92 for one additional dollar of revenue compared to $0.26 for consumption taxes. …Baylor and Beausejour find that a $1 decrease in personal income taxes on capital (such as capital gains, dividends, and interest income) increases society’s well-being by $1.30; by comparison, a similar decrease in consumption taxes only produces a $0.10 benefit. …the Quebec government’s Ministry of Finance…found that a reduction in capital gains taxes yields more economic benefits than a reduction in other types of taxes such as sales taxes. Reducing the capital gains tax by $1 would yield a $1.21 increase in the GDP.

Here’s my video on the topic, which explains that the right capital gains tax rate is zero.

The bottom line is that the United States is shooting itself in the foot.

Or, to be more accurate, politicians are hobbling America’s productive sector  and undermining U.S. competitiveness with senseless class-warfare taxation.

And don’t forget that the United States compounds the damage with the world’s highest corporate tax rate, pervasive double taxation of dividends, and a punitive death tax.

So while some countries are doing the right thing and abolishing their capital gains taxes, the United States is languishing in the international contest for more investment.

The only “good news” is that a few other nations also impose foolish policies as well.

P.S. It’s worth noting that all good tax reforms, such as the flat tax, completely abolish the capital gains tax.

P.P.S. This is yet another example of first-rate research from the Fraser Institute. They’re the publishers of Economic Freedom of the World, as well as some excellent research on the harmful impact of excessive government spending.

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Back in the 1960s, Clint Eastwood starred in a movie entitled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I was thinking that might be a good title for today’s post about some new research by Michelle Harding, a tax economist for the OECD. But then I realized that her study on “Taxation of Dividend, Interest, and Capital Gain Income” doesn’t contain any “good” news.

At least not if you want the United States to be more competitive and create more jobs. This is because the numbers show that the internal revenue code results in punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

But it’s not newsworthy that there’s a lot of double taxation in America. What is shocking and discouraging, however, is finding out that our tax code is more punitive than just about every European welfare state.

This is the “bad” part of today’s discussion. Indeed, the tax burden on dividends, interest, and capital gains in America is far above the average for other industrialized nations.

Let’s look at some charts from the study, starting with the one comparing the tax burden on dividends.

OECD Study Dividend Tax Rates

As you can see, the United States has the dubious honor of having the sixth-highest overall tax rate (combined burden of corporate and personal taxes) among developed nations.

Though maybe we should feel lucky we’re not in France or Denmark.

The next chart looks at the tax burden on capital gains.

OECD Study Cap Gains Tax Rates

Once again, the United States has one of the most onerous tax systems among OECD countries, with only four other nations imposing a higher combined tax rate on capital gains.

By the way, if you want to know why this is a very bad idea, click here.

Last but not least, let’s look at the tax burden on interest.

OECD Study Interest Tax Rates

I’m sure you’ve already detected the pattern, but I’ll state the obvious that this is another example of the United States being on the wrong side of the graph.

So the next time you hear somebody bloviating about Americans being too short-sighted and not saving enough, you may want to inform them that there’s not much incentive to save when the IRS gets a big share of any interest we earn.

Not that any of us are getting much interest since the Fed’s easy-money policy has created an atmosphere of artificially low interest rates, but that’s a topic for another day.

Let’s now move to the “ugly” part of the analysis.

Some of you may have noticed that the charts replicated above are based on tax laws on July 1, 2012.

Well, thanks to Obamacare and the fiscal cliff deal, the IRS began imposing higher tax rates on dividends, capital gains, and interest on January 1, 2013.

And because of the new surtax on investments and the higher tax rates on dividends and capital gains, the United States will move even further in the wrong direction on the three charts.

I don’t know if that means we’ll overtake France in the contest to have the most anti-competitive tax treatment of dividends and capital gains, but it’s definitely bad news.

Oh, and let’s add another bit of “ugly” news to the discussion.

The OECD study didn’t look at death tax rates, but a study by the American Council for Capital Formation shows that the United States also has one of the world’s most punitive death taxes.

Even worse than France, Greece, and Venezuela, which is nothing to brag about.

I don’t want to be the bearer of nothing but bad news, so let’s close with some “good” news. At least relatively speaking.

It’s not part of the study, but it’s worth pointing out that the overall burden of taxation – measured as a share of GDP – is higher in most other nations. The absence of a value-added tax is probably the most important reason why the United States retains an advantage in this category.

Needless to say, this is why we should fight to our last breath to make sure this European version of a national sales tax is never imposed in America.

P.S. One of the big accounting firms, Ernst and Young, published some research last year that is very similar to the OECD’s data.

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Back in September, I shared a very good primer on the capital gains tax from the folks at the Wall Street Journal, which explained why this form of double taxation is so destructive.

I also posted some very good analysis from John Goodman about the issue.

Unfortunately, even though the United States already has a very anti-competitive system – as shown by these two charts, some folks think that the tax rate on capital gains should be even higher.

And it looks like they’re going to succeed, either because we go over the fiscal cliff or because Republicans acquiesce to Obama’s punitive proposal.

But this won’t be good for American competitiveness. Here’s some of what my colleague Chris Edwards just wrote about the issue.

Capital Gains Rates US v OECDNearly every country has reduced tax rates on individual long-term capital gains, with some countries imposing no tax at all. …If the U.S. capital gains tax rate rises next year as scheduled, it will be much higher than the average OECD rate. …Capital gains taxes raise less than five percent of federal revenues, yet they do substantial damage. Higher rates will harm investment, entrepreneurship, and growth, and will raise little, if any, added federal revenue. …Figure 1 shows that the U.S. capital gains tax rate of 19.1 percent in 2012 is higher than the OECD average rate of 16.4 percent.  These figures include both federal and average state-level tax rates on long-term capital gains. Next year, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts will push up the U.S. rate by 5 percentage points, and the new investment tax imposed under the 2010 health care law will push up the rate another 3.8 percent. As a result, the top U.S. capital gains tax rate will be 27.9 percent, which will be far higher than the OECD average. The federal alternative minimum tax and other provisions can increase the U.S. capital gains tax rate even higher.

The worst country is Denmark, at 42 percent, followed by France (32.5 percent), Finland (32 percent), Sweden and Ireland (both 30 percent), and the United Kingdom and Norway (both 28 percent).

Every other developed nations will have a capital gains tax rate below the United States level. And even some of those above the U.S. level often have provisions that spare many taxpayers from this pernicious form of double taxation.

Some countries have exemptions for smaller investors. In Britain, for example, individuals can exempt from tax the first $17,000 of capital gains each year. Eleven OECD countries do not impose taxes on longterm capital gains, nor do some jurisdictions outside of the OECD, such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The nations on the list that don’t tax capital gains are Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Korea, Switzerland, and Turkey.

I’m not surprised to see Switzerland on that list since that nation has some very sensible fiscal policies. And the Netherlands, notwithstanding its welfare state and long-run fiscal challenges, is very focused on global competitiveness.

But who would have thought Greece had any good policies?!? Or Belgium? Though maybe that’s one of the reasons why many successful French taxpayers are choosing that nation as a refuge.

Heck, even Russia has abolished its capital gains tax.

In his paper, Chris also gives a good explanation of the underlying tax theory in the capital gains tax debate. Simply stated, the statists like the “Haig-Simons” approach because it justifies class-warfare tax policy.

To maximize growth, we should “tax the fruit of the tree, but not the tree itself.” That is, we should tax the flow of consumption produced by capital assets, not the capital that will provide for future consumption. A Haig-Simons tax base—which includes capital gains—taxes the tree itself.  Why does a Haig-Simons tax base garner support if it is impractical and anti-growth? It appears to be because the liberal idea of “fairness” includes heavy taxation of high earners. Since high earners save more than others, they would be taxed heavily under a Haig-Simons tax base. …Today, many economists favor shifting from an income to a consumption tax base… Under a consumption tax base, savings would not be double-taxed, and capital gains would not face separate taxation because the cashflow from realized gains would be taxed when consumed. With regard to “fairness,” a Haig-Simons tax base penalizes frugal people and rewards the spendthrift. That’s because earnings are taxed a second time when saved, while immediate consumption does not face a further tax. That makes no sense because it is frugal people—savers—who are the benefactors of the economy since their funds get invested in the new businesses and new capital equipment that generates growth.

The right approach is to have a “consumption tax base,” which simply is another way of saying that income shouldn’t be taxed more than one time (as shown in this flowchart).

My video elaborates on all these issues and explains why the right capital gains tax rate is zero.

Writing about the death tax yesterday, I mentioned that it also is a perverse form of double taxation. And just as with the death tax, it’s worth noting that all the major pro-growth tax reform plans  – such as the flat tax or national sales tax – also have no capital gains tax.

It’s bad enough when the IRS gets to tax our income one time. They shouldn’t be allowed more than one bite of the apple.

P.S. Chris makes a very important point about higher capital gains taxes collecting little, if any revenue. Simply stated, there’s a large Laffer Curve effect since investors can choose not to sell an asset if the tax penalty is too high.

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One of the principles of good tax policy and fundamental tax reform is that there should be no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Such a policy promotes current consumption at the expense of future consumption, which is simply an econo-geek way of saying that it penalizes capital formation.

This isn’t very prudent or wise since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth and higher living standards. Even Marxist and socialist theory is based on this notion (they want government to be in charge of investing, so they want to do the right thing in a very wrong way – think Solyndra on steroids).

To help explain this issue, the Wall Street Journal today published a very good primer on taxing capital gains.

The editors begin with an uncontroversial proposition.

The current Democratic obsession with raising the capital gains tax comes from a mistaken belief that the preferential rate applied to the sale of a family business, farm or financial asset is a “loophole” that mainly benefits the rich.

They offer three reasons why this view is wrong, starting with a basic inequity in the tax code.

Far from being a loophole, the low tax rate applied to capital gains is beneficial and fair for several reasons. First, under current tax rules, all gains from investments are fully taxed, but all losses are not fully deductible. This asymmetry is a disincentive to take risks. A lower tax rate helps to compensate for not being able to write-off capital losses.

Next, the editors highlight the unfairness of not letting investors take inflation into account when calculating capital gains. As explained in this video, this can lead to tax rates of more than 100 percent on real gains.

Second, capital gains aren’t adjusted for inflation, so the gains from a dollar invested in an enterprise over a long period of time are partly real and partly inflationary. It’s therefore possible for investors to pay a tax on “gains” that are illusory, which is another reason for the lower tax rate.

This may not seem like an important issue today, but just wait ’til Bernanke gets to QE24 and assets are rising in value solely because of inflation.

The final – and strongest argument – is that any capital gains tax is illegitimate because it is double taxation. I think this flowchart is very helpful for those who want to understand the issue, but the WSJ’s explanation is very good as well.

Third, since the U.S. also taxes businesses on profits when they are earned, the tax on the sale of a stock or a business is a double tax on the income of that business. When you buy a stock, its valuation is the discounted present value of the earnings. The main reason to tax capital investment at low rates is to encourage saving and investment. If someone buys a car or a yacht or a vacation, they don’t pay extra federal income tax. But if they save those dollars and invest them in the family business or in stock, wham, they are smacked with another round of tax.

There’s also good research to back up this theory – some produced by prominent leftists.

Many economists believe that the economically optimal tax on capital gains is zero. Mr. Obama’s first chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, wrote in the American Economic Review in 1981 that the elimination of capital income taxation “would have very substantial economic effects” and “might raise steady-state output by as much as 18 percent, and consumption by 16 percent.”

Summers is talking about more than just the capital gains tax, so his estimate is best viewed as the type of growth that might be possible with a flat tax that eliminated all double taxation.

Nobel laureate Robert Lucas also thinks that such a reform would have large beneficial effects.

Almost all economists agree—or at least used to agree—that keeping taxes low on investment is critical to economic growth, rising wages and job creation. A study by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas estimates that if the U.S. eliminated its capital gains and dividend taxes (which Mr. Obama also wants to increase), the capital stock of American plant and equipment would be twice as large. Over time this would grow the economy by trillions of dollars.

So why aren’t these reforms happening, either the medium-sized goal of getting rid of the capital gains tax, or the larger goal of junking the corrupt internal revenue code for a simple and fair flat tax?

A big obstacle is that too many politicians believe in class-warfare tax policy, even though lower-income people are among the biggest victims when the economy is weak.

For more information, here’s my video explaining that the right capital gains tax rate is zero.

P.S. Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t make a Laffer Curve argument for a lower capital gains tax. The main reason is because I have no interest in maximizing revenue for the government. I simply want good policy, which is why the rate should be zero.

P.P.S. I also didn’t bother to make a competitiveness argument, mostly because the WSJ’s editorial didn’t focus on that subtopic. But check out this post to see how Obama’s policy is putting America at a significant disadvantage.

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