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Posts Tagged ‘Class warfare’

The central argument against punitive taxation is that it leads to less economic activity.

Here’s a visual from an excellent video tutorial by Professor Alex Tabarrok. It shows that government grabs a share of private output when a tax is imposed, thus reducing the benefits to buyers (“consumer surplus”) and sellers (“producer surplus).

But it also shows that some economic activity never takes place (“deadweight loss”).

When discussing the economics of taxation, I always try to remind people that deadweight loss also represents foregone taxable activity, which is why the Laffer Curve is a very real thing (as even Paul Krugman admits).

To see these principles at work in the real world, let’s look at a report from the Washington Post. The story deals with cigarette taxation, but I’m not sharing this out of any sympathy for smokers. Instead, the goal is to understand and appreciate the broader point of how changes in tax policy can cause changes in behavior.

The sign on the window of a BP gas station in Southeast Washington advertises a pack of Newports for $10.75. Few customers were willing to pay that much. But several men in the gas station’s parking lot had better luck illegally hawking single cigarettes for 75 cents. The drop in legal sales and spike in black market “loosies” are the result of $2-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes that took effect last month… Anti-tobacco advocates hailed the higher legal age and the tax increase as ways to discourage smoking. But retailers say the city has instead encouraged the black market and sent customers outside the city.

Since I don’t want politicians to have more money, I’m glad smokers are engaging in tax avoidance.

And I feel sympathy for merchants who are hurt by the tax.

Shoukat Choudhry, the owner of the BP and four other gas stations in the city, says he does not see whom the higher taxes are helping. His customers can drive less than a mile to buy cheaper cigarettes in Maryland. He says the men in his parking lot are selling to teenagers. And the city is not getting as much tax revenue from his shops. Cigarette revenue at the BP store alone fell from $63,000 in September to $45,000 in October, when the tax increase took effect on the first of the month. …The amateur sellers say the higher cigarette tax has not been a bonanza for them. They upped their price a quarter for a single cigarette.

It’s also quite likely that the Laffer Curve will wreak havoc with the plans of the D.C. government.

Citywide figures for cigarette sales in October — as measured by tax revenue — will not be available until next month, city officials said. The District projected higher cigarette taxes would bring in $12 million over the next four years. Proceeds from the tax revenue are funding maternal and early childhood care programs. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the fear of declining tax revenue because of black market sales has not materialized elsewhere.

Actually, there is plenty of evidence – both in America and elsewhere – that higher cigarette taxes backfire.

I would be shocked if D.C. doesn’t create new evidence since avoidance is so easy.

…critics of the tax increase say the District is unique because of how easy it is to travel to neighboring Virginia, which has a 30-cent tax, and Maryland, with a $2 tax. “What person in their right mind is going to pay $9 or $10 for a pack of cigarettes when they can go to Virginia?” said Kirk McCauley of the WMDA Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, a regional association for gas stations. …Ronald Jackson, who declined to buy a loose cigarette from the BP parking lot, says he saves money with a quick drive to Maryland to buy five cartons of Newport 100s, the legal limit. “After they increased the price, I just go over the border,” said Jackson, a 56-year-old Southeast D.C. resident. “They are much cheaper.”

An under-appreciated aspect of this tax is how it encourages the underground economy.

Though I’m happy to see (especially remembering what happened to Eric Garner) that D.C. police have no interest in hindering black market sales.

The D.C. Council originally set aside money from the cigarette tax increase for two police officers to crack down on illegal sales outside of stores. But that funding was removed amid concerns about excessive enforcement and that it would strain police relations with the community. On a Tuesday morning, Choudhry, the owner of the Southeast BP, stopped a police officer who was filling up his motorcycle at the BP station to point out a group of men selling cigarettes in his parking lot. The officer drove off without action. …On a good day, he can pull about $70 in profit. “Would you rather that we rob or steal,” said Mike, who said he has spent 15 years in jail. “Or do you want us out here selling things?”

Kudos to Mike. I’m glad he’s engaging in voluntary exchange rather than robbing and stealing. Though maybe he got in trouble with the law in the first place because of voluntary exchange (a all-too-common problem for people in Washington).

But now let’s zoom out and return to our discussion about economics and taxation.

An under-appreciated point to consider is that deadweight loss grows geometrically larger as tax rates go up. In other words, you don’t just double damage when you double tax rates. The consequences are far more severe.

Here are two charts that were created for a chapter I co-authored in a book about demographics and capital taxation. This first chart shows how a $1 tax leads to 25-cents of deadweight loss.

But if the tax doubles to $2, the deadweight loss doesn’t just double.

In this hypothetical example, it rises to $1 from 25-cents.

For any given tax on any particular economic activity, the amount of deadweight loss will depend on both supply and demand sensitivities. Some taxes impose high costs. Others impose low costs.

But in all cases, the deadweight loss increases disproportionately fast as the tax rate is increased. And that has big implications for whether there should high tax rates on personal income and corporate income, as well as whether there should be heavy death taxes and harsh tax rates on capital gains, interest, and dividends.

Some of my left-wing friends shrug their shoulders because they assume that rich people bear the burden. But remember that the reduction of “consumer surplus” is a measure of the loss to taxpayers. The deadweight loss is the foregone output to society.

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Imagine being a poor person and getting to choose your country. Which one would you select?

The answer probably depends on your goals in life. If you want to emulate “Lazy Robert” and be a moocher, you could pick Denmark. You’ll surely get more than enough money to survive.

Denmark’s also not a bad choice if you have a bit of ambition. It ranks #16 in the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, largely because it has a very laissez-faire approach on trade, regulation, and other non-fiscal policies. So there’s a decent chance you could climb the economic ladder.

But if you have lots of ambition and definitely want a better life for your children and grandchildren, you’d presumably pick a nation such as Singapore, which routinely gets very high grades from Economic Freedom of the World.

There’s a lot of economic liberty, which has resulted in huge improvements in living standards. Indeed, people in Singapore are now much richer than Americans.

The last thing you would do, however, is pick a stagnant country such as Greece. Or a miserably impoverished nation such as Zimbabwe.

Unless you’re one of the buffoons at Oxfam. That “charity” just produced an inequality study that says Singapore is one of the world’s worst nations, ranking far below places where people are very poor with very bleak lives.

Here’s how Oxfam describes its report.

In 2015, the leaders of 193 governments promised to reduce inequality under Goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without reducing inequality, meeting SDG 1 to eliminate poverty will be impossible. In 2017, …Oxfam produced the first index to measure the commitment of governments to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. The index is based on a new database of indicators, now covering 157 countries, which measures government action… The report recommends that all countries should develop national inequality action plans to achieve SDG 10 on reducing inequality. These plans should include delivery of universal, public and free health and education and universal social protection floors. They should be funded by increasing progressive taxation and clamping down on exemptions and tax dodging.

In other words, the study is a measure of whether nations have punitive welfare states, not whether poor people have better lives.

The assertion in the second sentence that poverty can’t be reduced without reducing inequality is especially absurd. Unless, of course, you choose a dishonest definition of poverty (which is what we get from leftist groups like the UN and OECD, not to mention the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, and the Obama Administration).

But let’s focus on Singapore. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters story on the controversy over that nation’s poor score.

Oxfam on Wednesday rejected Singapore’s defense of its low taxes after the NGO ranked the wealthy city state among the 10 worst-offending countries in fuelling inequality with its low-tax regime. Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) index ranked Singapore 149th of 157, below Afghanistan, Algeria, and Cambodia, and marginally higher than Haiti, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. …Oxfam’s head of inequality policy, Max Lawson, said the impact of Singapore’s tax policy went beyond its borders, serving as a tax haven for the rich and big corporations. …Singapore Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said on Tuesday…“Yes, the income tax burden on Singaporeans is low. And almost half the population do not pay any income tax,”…“Yet, they benefit more than proportionately from the high quality of infrastructure and social support that the state provides,” he said. “In Oxfam’s view, Singapore’s biggest failing is our tax rates, which are not punitive enough.” Lee also said 90 percent of Singaporeans owned their homes and home ownership was 84 percent even among the poorest 10 percent of households. “No other country comes close,” he said.

Minister Lee is correct, of course.

Singapore is a great place to be poor, in part because the bottom 10 percent in Singapore would be middle class or above in many of the nation’s that get better scores from Oxfam’s ideologues. But mostly because it’s a place where it’s possible to become rich rather than remain poor.

There are some other aspects of the Oxfam study that merit attention, including the curious omission of some of the world’s most left-wing nations, such as Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.

In the case of North Korea, I’m willing to believe that there simply wasn’t enough reliable data. But why aren’t there scores for Cuba and Venezuela? I strongly suspect that authors deliberately omitted those two hellholes because they didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of incredibly poor nations getting very high scores (which is what made Jeffrey Sachs’ SDG Index an easy target for mockery)

Also, I’d be curious to learn why Hong Kong isn’t ranked? Taxes are even lower and there’s even less redistribution in Hong Kong, so maybe it would have been last rather than merely in the bottom 10.

Was Oxfam worried about looking foolish, so they left prosperous Hong Kong out of the study?

That’s my guess. The last thing the left wants is for people to understand that poor nations only become rich nations with free markets and small government.

The bottom line is that Oxfam is an organization that has been hijacked by hard-left activists. Given it’s track record of shoddy reports, it’s now a joke rather than a charity.

P.S. The OECD also produced a shoddy study that grossly mischaracterized Singapore and totally ignored Hong Kong.

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Politicians who preach class warfare repeatedly assert that we need higher taxes on “the rich.”

Indeed, that’s been the biggest political issue (and oftentimes biggest economic issue) in every recent tax fight (the Trump tax reform and Obama’s fiscal cliff), as well as the issue that generates the most controversy when discussing tax reform.

So it seems almost inconceivable that the class-warfare crowd would support a change to the tax code that would only benefit the top-10 percent, right?

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in the fight over the deduction for state and local taxes.

Democrats want to restore an unlimited deduction, thereby enabling people to shield more of their income from tax. But, as the Tax Foundation notes, that change only produces benefits for upper-income taxpayers.

Itemized deductions such as the SALT deduction are mostly utilized by higher-income individuals. As such, any change to the SALT deduction will chiefly impact them. In addition, the value of a deduction increases as a taxpayer’s statutory tax rate increases. A deduction against the top rate of 37 percent is more valuable than a deduction against the 32 percent tax rate. We estimate that eliminating the SALT deduction cap would have no impact on taxpayers in the bottom two income quintiles and a negligible impact on taxpayers in the third and fourth quintiles. …However, taxpayers in the top 5 and 1 percent of income earners would see an increase in after-tax income of 1.6 percent and 3.7 percent respectively.

And if restoring the deduction is “paid for” by raising the corporate tax rate, the net effect is to raise taxes on the bottom-90 percent in order to give a tax to top-10 percent.

Or, to be more precise, to give a tax cut to the top-1 percent.

Some of you may be thinking that the Tax Foundation leans right and therefore can’t be trusted.

So let’s look at some research from the Tax Policy Center, which is a joint project of the left-leaning Urban Institute and left-leaning Brookings Institution.

Only about 9 percent of households would benefit from repeal of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA) $10,000 cap on the state and local property tax (SALT) deduction, and more than 96 percent of the tax cut would go to the highest-income 20 percent of households… For all middle-income taxpayers, the average tax cut would be $10. Those in the top 1 percent would pay an average of $31,000, or 2 percent of after-tax income, less.

And here’s the TPC chart showing how almost all the tax relief goes to upper-income taxpayers.

So what’s going on? Why are Democrats fighting for an idea that would give the rich a $31,000 tax cut while only providing $10 of relief for middle-class taxpayers?!?

The simple answer is that they think the loophole is a very valuable way of facilitating higher taxes and bigger government at the state and local level. And they’re right, so I don’t blame them.

But it’s nonetheless very revealing that they are willing to jettison their tax-the-rich rhetoric when it interferes with their make-government-bigger agenda.

P.S. This “SALT” debate strikes me as being similar to the Laffer-Curve debate, which requires folks on the left to choose whether it’s more important to punish rich people or to get more revenue to spend.

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I’m happy to discuss theory when debating economic policy, but I mostly focus on real-world evidence.

That’s because my friends on the left always have a hard time answering my two-question challenge, which simply asks them to name one success story for big government.

They usually point to Sweden and Denmark, but get discouraged when I point out that those nations became rich when government was relatively small.

And I’m embarrassed to admit that some of my fellow economists once thought that communist nations grew faster than capitalist nations.

But let’s not digress. I raise this topic because there are many critics of capitalism who admit that free markets generate more wealth, but they assert that society would be better off if incomes were lower so long as rich people suffered more than poor people.

This strikes me as morally poisonous. But it also gives me an opportunity to cite a new study from the International Monetary Fund that allows us to further analyze this issue.

The IMF report starts by noting that globalization (free trade, liberalization, etc) has been good for global prosperity.

Over the course of the last decades the world economy has witnessed rapid integration. Most countries have opened up their economies and experienced an unprecedented rise in the flow of goods and capital across borders. This phenomenon – now widely known as economic globalization – was coincident with rising living standards in a large number of countries. Many developing countries have experienced episodes of strong economic growth and substantial poverty reduction as they integrated their economies with the rest of the world.

Sounds like good news, right?

It is good news, but those who fixate on inequality are worried.

…while globalization might on average be good for growth, more might not always be better for all. …When we shift the analysis to how income gains from globalization are distributed within countries, we also find globalization to have different effects on different incomes…gains are, however, distributed unequally both across and within countries. …Within countries, income inequality increases as a consequence of globalization. The income gains resulting from globalization tend to go primarily to the top of the national income distributions.

In other words, rich people are getting richer at a faster pace.

This phenomenon is captured in these two charts, which show that globalization is associated with more growth and more inequality.

But what’s important is that poor people also are getting richer.

In the subsample of developing countries where the gains from globalization are generally larger, however, they also reach the bottom of the income distribution and reduce poverty. … We find…some evidence of a poverty reducing effect of globalization in developing countries.

Consider, for example, the remarkable data I shared about China. Income inequality increased at the same time that poverty dramatically declined.

And those results seem to hold for the rest of the world, especially in developing nations.

So now let’s look at the most important chart from the IMF study, which shows that all income groups enjoy more prosperity with globalization.

Yes, rich people benefit the most, so official inequality numbers will increase.

But put yourself in the shoes of a poor person. Would you be willing to forego your additional income in order to deny additional income for a rich person? I suspect the vast majority of poor people would think that’s a crazy question.

But, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, there are plenty of folks on the left who think that’s a perfectly reasonable position. Including, incidentally, some of the people at the IMF.

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A few years ago, I shared an image that neatly summarized why the left’s fixation on income inequality is misguided.

Now I have something even better.

I don’t know who “JIMBOB” is, but this cartoon he created is a masterpiece. The car analogy is perfect.

I’ll have to recycle this cartoon every time I write on the issue (along with substantive analysis, including Max Roser’s numbers and the powerful Chinese data).

That being said, I’m going to suggest one possible revision to JIMBOB. I think it would be a slight improvement if both captions started with “some.”

For what it’s worth, I think that phrasing would better reflect how the left thinks.

Or, to be fair, it shows how some on the left think.

I’ve never forgotten a conversation I had with a friend from the other side of the spectrum. His support for class-warfare policies is based on the fact that some (many?) rich people got their wealth via government.

And those people obviously don’t deserve their loot.

The difference between me and my friend is that I’d rather keep tax rates low and get rid of the programs that provide unjust riches. In other words, we should be guided by this very powerful image.

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Assuming elected officials care about the consequences of their actions, the obvious answer to a question isn’t always the right answer.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose the minimum wage, especially since some workers will get a pay hike?

A: Because the bottom rungs of the economic ladder will disappear and marginally skilled people will lose a chance to find employment and develop work skills.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose so-called employment-protection legislation, especially since some employees will be protected from dismissal?

A: Because employers will be less likely to hire workers if they don’t have the freedom to fire them if circumstances change.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose class-warfare taxation, especially since they could redistribute money to 90 percent of voters?

A: Because the short-run benefits of buying votes will be offset by long-run damage to investment, competitiveness, and job creation.

Many politicians are not sensible, of course, which is why bad policy is so common.

So it’s worth noting when someone actually makes the right decision, especially if they do it for the right reason.

With that in mind, President Emmanuel Macron deserves praise for gutting his country’s punitive “exit tax.” The U.K.-based Financial Times has the key details.

French president Emmanuel Macron said that he would remove the so-called exit tax as it was damaging for France’s image as a place to do business. The tax requires those entrepreneurs or investors who hold more than €800,000 in financial assets or at least 50 per cent of a company to pay capital gains up to 15 years after leaving France.  …A finance ministry spokesperson on Saturday confirmed “the removal of the exit tax as it existed.” …”The exit tax sends a negative message to entrepreneurs in France, more than to investors. Why? Because it means that beyond a certain threshold, you are penalised if you leave,” Mr Macron had said… “I don’t want any exit tax. It doesn’t make sense. People are free to invest where they want. I mean, if you are able to attract [investment], good for you, but if not, one should be free to divorce,” added the French president.

Kudos to Macron. He not only points out that such a tax discourages investment and entrepreneurship, but he also makes the moral argument that people should be free to leave a jurisdiction that mistreats them.

To be sure, the proposal isn’t perfect.

Mr Macron has now decided to introduce a new “anti-abuse” tax targeted at assets sold within two years of someone leaving the country. …“The new system will henceforth target divestments occurring shortly after leaving France — two years — to avoid letting people make short trips abroad in order to optimise tax efficiencies,” added the spokesperson.

This is why I gave the plan two-plus cheers instead of three cheers.  Though I understand the political calculation. It would create a lot of controversy if a rich person moved for one year to one of the several European nations that have no capital gains tax (Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, etc), sold their assets, and then immediately moved back to France the following year.

The right policy, needless to say, is for there to be no capital gains tax, period.

But let’s not get sidetracked. Here are a few additional details from Reuters.

France imposed the so-called “Exit Tax” in 2011 during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. …Its aim was to stop individuals temporarily changing their tax domicile in order to skirt French taxes but pro-business President Emmanuel Macron says it damages France’s attractiveness as an investment destination.

Yes, you read correctly, the class-warfare policy wasn’t imposed by the hard-left Francois Hollande, but by the Nicolas Sarkozy, the supposed conservative but de-facto leftist who preceded him.

What’s particularly bizarre is that Macron was a senior official for Hollande, yet he is the pro-market reformer who is trying to save France.

P.S. I’m embarrassed to admit that the United States has a very punitive exit tax (which Hillary Clinton wanted to make even worse).

P.P.S. Since one of my three examples at the beginning of today’s column dealt with the perverse consequences of “employment-protection laws,” I suppose it’s worth noting that’s another area where Macron is trying to reduce government intervention.

P.P.P.S. While Macron is a pro-market reformer at the national level, he advocates very bad ideas for the European Union.

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I’ve repeatedly argued that faster growth is the only effective way of helping the less fortunate.

Class warfare and redistribution, by contrast, are not effective. Such policies are based on the fallacy that the economy is a fixed pie, and proponents of this view fixate on inequality because they mistakenly believe that additional income for the rich means less income for the poor.

Today, let’s look at some numbers that prove that a fixation on inequality is misguided. The Census Bureau this week released its annual report on Income and Poverty in the United States. That publication includes data (Table A-2) showing annual inflation-adjusted earnings by income quintile between 1967-2017.

To see if my left-leaning friends are right about the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, I calculated the annual percent change for each quintile. Lo and behold, the data actually show that there’s a very clear pattern showing how all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together.

The lesson from this data is clear. If you want policies that help the poor, those also will be policies that help the middle class and rich.

And if you hate the rich, you need to realize that policies hurting them will almost certainly hurt the less fortunate as well.

One other lesson is that all income quintiles did particularly well during the 1980s and 1990s when free-market policies prevailed.

P.S. Many people (including on the left) have pointed out that the Census Bureau’s numbers under-count compensation because fringe benefits such as healthcare are excluded. This is a very legitimate complaint, but it doesn’t change the fact that all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together. For what it’s worth, adding other forms of compensation would boost lower quintiles compared to higher quintiles.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting video from Pew Research showing how the middle class has become more prosperous over the past few decades.

P.P.P.S. The Census Bureau’s report also has the latest data on poverty. The good news is that the poverty rate fell. The bad news is that long-run progress ground to a halt once the federal government launched the ill-fated War on Poverty.

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