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Posts Tagged ‘Class warfare’

I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund, in part because the international bureaucracy is infamous for pressuring nations to impose higher taxes.

The bureaucrats at the IMF have even claimed that higher taxes somehow will produce more economic growth.

Even worse, the IMF has argued for class-warfare taxes that do the most economic damage, even using the twisted rationale that it is okay to hurt the poor so long as the rich suffer even greater losses.

To be fair, there are some good fiscal economists at the IMF (even with regards to tax policy), but the political types who run the bureaucracy almost always ignore their research.

Instead, the bureaucracy highlights second-rate analysis in pursuit of bad policy.

The latest example if that the IMF is pressuring Bulgaria to replace its flat tax with a system based on discriminatory rates.

Fiscal policy needs to be flexible given the large uncertainty, but some changes are already advisable in the mid-year budget revision. …Room to address long-term social and investment needs could be significantly increased by…Reviewing the tax system to increase revenue and redistribution . A reform of the low flat personal income tax rate could help create fiscal space and reduce inequalities.

By the way, just in case it’s not obvious, “social and investment needs” is bureaucrat-speak for more redistribution spending.

Some of you may be wondering whether a new system is needed because the flat tax caused a big drop in revenue.

But as you can see from this chart, income tax revenues continued to grow after the flat tax was approved in 2008.

I’ll close by noting that Bulgaria is ranked #36 in the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, which is a good but not great score.

But it gets its lowest score for “size of government,” which is the measure for fiscal policy. The flat income tax is a positive, of course, but that policy is offset by low scores for other features of fiscal policy (payroll tax, redistribution, etc).

So the bottom line is that the IMF wants to get rid of the good part of Bulgaria’s fiscal policy and drive its overall score even lower.

P.S. I also disapprove of the IMF because it subsidizes and encourages debt and instability with endless bailouts.

P.P.S. And I am disgusted that IMF bureaucrats get tax-free salaries while advocating for higher taxes for everyone else.

P.P.P.S. The IMF has a reprehensible track record of bullying nations in Eastern Europe. Though, to be fair, they also push for bad tax policy in big and powerful nations. And in weak and poor nations.

P.P.P.P.S. Here’s my solution to the IMF problem.

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Trump had some economically illiterate tweets about trade during his presidency, including the infamous one about being “Tariff Man.”

I think Joe Biden must be feeling envious that Trump got so much attention, so he has issued a tweet showing that he also suffers from economic illiteracy.

Or maybe Biden’s problem is dishonesty because his tweet is based on a make-believe number about the the average tax rate paid by billionaires.

For what it’s worth, this isn’t the first time that Biden has issued a tweet based on fake numbers.

In the previous instance, he deliberately confused the distinction between the financial concept of book income and and cash-flow concept of taxable income.

What accounts for his most recent error?

Reporting for the Wall Street Journal, Richard Rubin and Rachel Louise Ensign explain how the Biden Administration concocted this number.

What do the wealthy pay in federal taxes? On paper, the top marginal income-tax rate is 37% on ordinary income and 23.8% on capital gains. Government estimates put high-income filers’ average rates in the mid-20s. A new Biden administration analysis, however, pegs the average tax rate for the 400 wealthiest households at 8.2% from 2010 to 2018. …It’s far below traditional estimates from government number crunchers… Recent estimates of a broader group of rich people from the Congressional Budget Office, Treasury Department and the Joint Committee on Taxation fall between 23% and 26%.

So how does the Biden Administration get a number that is radically different than other sources?

By artificially inflating the income of rich people by asserting that changes in wealth should count as income.

White House…economists Greg Leiserson and Danny Yagan..include increases in unrealized capital gains. That is the change in the value of assets, including stocks, that haven’t been sold. …Conventional analyses and the current income-tax law don’t include unrealized gains.

At the risk of making a wonky point, “conventional analysis” and “income-tax law” don’t include unrealized capital gains as income because, well, changes in net worth are not income.

And the fact that some folks on the left want to tax people on unrealized capital gains doesn’t change that reality.

To understand why that would be wretched policy, let’s cite examples that apply to those of us who, sadly, are not billionaires.

  • Imagine filing your taxes next year and having to pay more money to the IRS simply because Zillow estimated that your house rose in value.
  • Imagine that you’re filling out your 1040 form next year and you have to pay more money to the IRS  simply because your IRA or 401(k) rose in value.

Both of these examples sound absurd because they would be absurd. And if a policy is absurd and unfair for regular people, it’s also absurd and unfair for rich people.

Since I’m a fiscal wonk, I’ll close by making the point that the Biden Administration wants to take a bad tax (capital gains tax) and make it worse (by taxing paper gains in addition to actual gains).

The net result is that we would have a backdoor wealth tax – a approach that is so anti-growth that even most European governments have repealed those levies.

But since Joe Biden is motivated by class warfare (see here, here, here, and here), he apparently doesn’t care about the economic consequences.

P.S. Biden once claimed that it is “patriotic” to pay higher taxes, but he then played Benedict Arnold with his own tax return.

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Thomas Piketty is a big proponent of class-warfare tax policy because he views inequality as a horrible outcome.

But a soak-the-rich policy agenda, echoed by many other academics such as Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, is fundamentally misguided. If people really care about helping the poor, they should focus instead on reforms that actually have a proven track record of reducing poverty.

The fact that they fixate on inequality makes me wonder about their motives.

And it also leads me to find their work largely irrelevant. I don’t care if they produce detailed long-run data on changes in inequality.

I prefer detailed long-run data on changes in poverty.

That being said, it appears that some of Piketty’s data is sloppy.

I shared some evidence about his bad numbers back in 2014. And, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, Phil Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research and Professor Vincent Geloso of George Mason University expose another glaring flaw

…the Piketty-Saez theory is less a matter of history than an accounting error caused by their misunderstanding of World War II-era tax statistics. …It’s true that income inequality declined in the early part of the 20th century, but the cause had more to do with the economic devastation of the Great Depression than the New Deal tax regime. …they failed to account properly for historical changes in how the Internal Revenue Service reported income-tax statistics. As a result, their numbers systematically overstate the levels of top income concentrations by as much as a third …Between 1943 and 1944 the tax collection agency shifted from tracking “net income” to “adjusted gross income,” or AGI…a truer depiction of annual earnings… Yet Messrs. Piketty and Saez didn’t bring pre-1944 IRS records into line with AGI accounting standards. Instead, they applied a fixed and arbitrary adjustment to all years before the AGI accounting change that conveniently scaled upward to the highest income brackets. …They used the wrong accounting definition for personal income and neglected to adjust their data for wartime distortions on tax reporting. When we corrected these problems, something stunning happened. The overall level of top income concentration flattened, and the timing of its leveling shifted away from the World War II-era tax rates that Messrs. Piketty and Saez place at the center of their story.

Here’s a chart that accompanied the column, showing how accurate data changes the story.

Since today’s column debunks sloppy class warfare, let’s travel back to 2014, when Deirdre McCloskey reviewed Pikittey’s tome for the Erasmus Journal of Philosophy and Economics.

She also thought his fixation on envy was misguided.

…in Piketty’s tale the rest of us fall only relatively behind the ravenous capitalists. The focus on relative wealth or income or consumption is one serious problem in the book. …What is worrying Piketty is that the rich might possibly get richer, even though the poor get richer too. His worry, in other words, is purely about difference, about the Gini coefficient, about a vague feeling of envy raised to a theoretical and ethical proposition. …Piketty and much of the left…miss the ethical point…of lifting up the poor…by the dramatic increase in the size of the pie, which has historically brought the poor to 90 or 95 percent of “enough”, as against the 10 or 5 percent attainable by redistribution without enlarging the pie. …the main event of the past two centuries was…the Great Enrichment of the average individual on the planet by a factor of 10 and in rich countries by a factor of 30 or more.

But she also explained that he doesn’t understand how the economy works.

The fundamental technical problem in the book…is that Piketty the economist does not understand supply responses. In keeping with his position as a man of the left, he has a vague and confused idea about how markets work, and especially about how supply responds to higher prices. …Piketty, it would seem, has not read with understanding the theory of supply and demand that he disparages, such as in Smith (one sneering remark on p. 9), Say (ditto, mentioned in a footnote with Smith as optimistic), Bastiat (no mention), Walras (no mention), Menger (no mention), Marshall (no mention), Mises (no mention), Hayek (one footnote citation on another matter), Friedman (pp. 548-549, but only on monetarism, not the price system). He is in short not qualified to sneer at self-regulated markets…, because he has no idea how they work.

And she concludes with a reminder that some of our left-wing friends seem most interested in punishing rich people rather than helping poor people.

The left clerisy such as…Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty, who are quite sure that they themselves are taking the ethical high road against the wicked selfishness…might on such evidence be considered dubiously ethical. They are obsessed with first-act changes that cannot much help the poor, and often can be shown to damage them, and are obsessed with angry envy at the consumption of the uncharitable rich, of which they personally are often examples, and the ending of which would do very little to improve the position of the poor. They are very willing to stifle through taxing the rich the market-tested betterments which in the long run have gigantically helped the rest of us.

Amen. If you want to know what Deirdre means by “betterment,” click here and watch her video.

P.S. Click herehere, here, and here for my four-part series on poverty and inequality. Though what Deirdre wrote in 2016 may be even better.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist calling attention to the poll of economists at the end of this column.

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I enjoy defending rich people. In part, that’s because I appreciate how rich entrepreneurs make life better for me and everybody else.

But I also defend rich people because of my deep disdain for the policy agenda of empty-suit politicians and envy-wracked demagogues.

If we want outcomes that are better for society and the economy, I’m 100-percent confident that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk can spend their wealth better than the hacks and clowns in Washington.

But what if rich people get money from government cronyism? What if they became wealthy because of special favors from politicians?

Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal wrote about this issue a couple of years ago and included this chart showing that cronyism is a small problem in the United States but a big problem in Russia.

Here’s some of what Mr. Ip wrote about Russia’s cronyism.

How a billionaire earns his or her fortune matters, of course. Some are “rent seekers,” meaning they skim off the productive efforts of others via corruption, royal prerogative or control of some valuable market or resource. That’s why Russia is an outlier in Ms. Freund’s research: lots of oligarchs, with not much economic benefit to show for it.

Since he wrote that article well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he wasn’t focused on the geopolitical considerations that are dominating the discussion today.

So now let’s look at a very recent report from the U.K.-based Economist. Here are some key excerpts.

…the sanctions levied at Russian oligarchs have intensified scrutiny on the origins of tycoons’ wealth. …Rent-seeking entrepreneurs tend to use their relationships with the state to maximise profits. …Our index uses 25 years of data from Forbes’s annual stock-take of the world’s billionaires. …We have classified the main source of each billionaire’s wealth into crony and non-crony sectors. …Russia’s crony economy sticks out like a blinged-up Muscovite… Some 70% of the 120 Russian billionaires, who together hold 80% of its billionaire wealth, fall within our crony-capitalist definition. Wealth equivalent to 28% of Russia’s gdp in 2021 came from crony sectors, up from 18% in 2016.

The bottom line is that Russia’s “oligarchs” are not like the self-made billionaires that we’re fortunate to have in the United States.

Here’s the accompanying chart from the article. Russia does stand out…in a very bad way. If the numbers are accurate, getting in bed with politicians is the way to get rich.

Now that we’ve established that Russian billionaires generally don’t earn their money, this leads us to the more challenging issue of whether nations such as the United States should freeze and/or expropriate the wealth of the oligarchs in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

Since I’m not a lawyer or an expert on foreign and defense issues, I don’t pretend to know the best approach. I want Putin and his cronies to suffer, but I also have some qualms about the current approach.

  • Is the “rule of law” being overlooked and “due process” getting trampled in the rush to go after the assets of wealthy Russians, some of whom may have emigrated because of their opposition to Putin?
  • Are people being targeted simply because of their Russian ethnicity, just as an awful president targeted Americans of Japanese descent during World War II?
  • If getting rich through cronyism is a sufficient pretext to confiscate wealth, does that mean it’s okay to seize the assets of ethanol producers and stockholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

P.S. For what it’s worth, my gut instinct is that cronyism is a much bigger problem in China’s economy that we see in the data from the WSJ and the Economist.

P.P.S. Click here to learn more about “rent seeking.”

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I wrote back in 2012 that California voters opted for “slow-motion economic suicide” by voting to raise the state’s top income tax rate to 13.3 percent.

Sure enough, having the nation’s highest state income tax rate has been bad news.

More and more companies and households are leaving the (no-longer) Golden State for zero-income-tax states such as Texas, Nevada, and Florida.

Unfortunately, it appears that California politicians aren’t learning any lessons from this exodus.

They’re now pushing for a massive tax increase to fund a government takeover of health care.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the new plan.

California Democrats are busy reviving government-run, single-payer health care, despite its failure in the state five years ago. …Their revived legislation would replace Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance with a state-run system… Californians would also be entitled to an expansive list of benefits including vision, dental, hearing and long-term care. A board of bureaucrats would control costs—i.e., ration care. …While Californians would technically be entitled to a “free” knee replacement, they might not get one if bureaucrats consider them too old—but the state won’t let people know that’s the reason. …Arizona could soon become a hot destination for medical tourism. …As for the tax increases… Start with a 2.3% excise tax on business with more than $2 million in annual gross receipts… Employers with 50 or more workers would also pay a 1.25% payroll tax, which would be passed onto workers. Workers earning more than $49,900 would pay an additional 1% payroll tax. …would raise the effective income tax on wage earners making more than $61,213 to 11.55%—more than millionaires pay in every state but New York. …An additional progressive surtax would start at 0.5% on income over $149,509 and rise to 2.5% at $2,484,121. …The top marginal rate would rise to 15.8% on unearned income, including capital gains, and 18.05% on wage income.

In a column for Reason, Joe Bishop-Henchman and Andrew Wilford of the National Taxpayers Union explain the likely impact of the proposed tax increases.

As the mad scientist laboratory for bad tax policy in America, California is constantly striving to come up with poorly designed and harmful taxes to pay for ever-increasing spending. But even by its own lofty standards, California has truly outdone itself with its latest proposal to fund a state single-payer health care system. …Not only would the proposed $163 billion in new tax revenue nearly double last year’s total revenue for the tax-happy state, but California would structure these new taxes in such a way as to be even more harmful than doubled tax liabilities already imply. …the 2.3 percent gross receipts tax sticks out. …whether a business has a profit margin of 0.1 percent or 10 percent, it would still have to pay the same percentage of its total revenues. …a rate that is three times the level of the nation’s current highest. …the proposal to institute a payroll tax on businesses with 50 or more employees…would create an obvious disincentive for businesses to hire their 50th employee. …the payroll tax would discourage both hiring employees and paying them higher wages, a disastrous outcome for workers. …individual income tax rates…would effectively be…an 18-bracket tax structure with a top marginal tax rate of 18.05 percent. …a trend that California appears to have its head in the sand about: overtaxed businesses and individuals fleeing for greener pastures.

Let’s elaborate on that final sentence and ask ourselves what the tipping point will be for various taxpayers.

  • Imagine you run a business and you have to pay a 2.3 percent tax on all your receipts, even if you happen to be losing money? Do you leave the state?
  • Imagine if you are a typical employee and government takes more than 10 percent of your income in exchange for bad roads and bad schools? Do you leave the state?
  • Imagine that you are a high-value entrepreneur facing the possibility of having to pay more than 18 percent of your income to state politicians? Do you leave?
  • Imagine being an investor who is thinking about forgoing consumption in order to make an investment that might result in a punitive capital gains tax? Do you leave?

And while you contemplate those questions, remember that California is already very unfriendly to taxpayers, ranking #48 according to the Tax Foundation and ranking #49 according to the Fraser Institute.

Moreover, while California politicians consider a massive tax increase, other states are lowering tax rates.

In other words, California already is in trouble and many state politicians now want to double down on a losing bet.

P.S. California considered a government-run health plan a few years ago and backed off, so maybe there’s hope.

P.P.S. Illinois has been the long-time leader in the poll that asks which state will be the first to suffer political collapse. That may change if this California plan is enacted.

P.P.P.S. When I’m feeling petty and malicious, I sometime hope jurisdictions adopt bad policy because that will give me more evidence showing the adverse consequences of bad policy.

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There are many well-meaning people who support statist policies such as punitive taxation because they believe in the zero-sum fallacy, which is explained in this short video by Madsen Pirie of London’s Adam Smith Institute.

The zero-sum fallacy is especially noxious because it naturally leads to all sorts of misguided policies. Not just class-warfare taxation, but also protectionism and the welfare state.

But I can understand why people are drawn to such ideas. If they sincerely believe that people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk only become richer because the rest of us become poorer, it’s hard to blame them.

This is why I repeatedly share evidence showing that the zero-sum fallacy is, well, a fallacy.

Indeed, one very powerful lesson from the above examples is that poor people have been huge winners from economic growth.

As shown by U.S. Census Bureau data, there’s a strong correlation between rising income and falling income among all groups.

Given the importance of this issue, let’s take a closer look at the zero-sum fallacy.

In an article for the Foundation for Economic Education, John Williams used the example of a poker game to explain this cornerstone of bad economics.

Economic activity is depicted in terms of a poker game. One player’s chips are observed to have increased. Immediately one concludes that some other player has lost chips. Poker is, as they say, a zero-sum game: Gains enjoyed by one party must be balanced by losses suffered by another. So it is, people embracing the fallacies of “static wealth” and “the zero-sum game” insist, with economic exchanges. “Winners” must be balanced by corresponding “losers.” …According to the mercantilists, wealth was a constant, a given—like the chips in a poker game. If one community—and typically the mercantilists thought in terms of communities—improved its overall economic situation, another community must have lost out. …What Adam Smith perceived, essentially, was first that “wealth” was not something static and given like gold, or, indeed, poker chips, but rather consisted of goods and services that could be created, and second that both parties to an economic exchange could improve their respective situations. …There are two winners, not one. This is a positive-sum, rather than a gem-sum game.

This type of thinking may even be hard-wired in our brains, as explained by Professor Paul Rubin of Emory University in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

…the worldview of Marxists and woke leftists alike is fundamentally primitive. …It is the economic view of the world that evolved in our brains before the development of the modern economy. …Zero-sum thinking was well-adapted to this world. Since there was no economic growth, incomes and wealth didn’t grow. If one person had access to more food or other goods, or greater access to females, it was likely because of expropriation from others. Since there was little capital, a “labor theory of value”—the idea that all value is created by labor alone—would have been appropriate… Adam Smith and other economists challenged this worldview in the 18th century. They taught that specialization of labor was valuable, that capital was productive, and that labor and capital could work together to increase income. …the creation of wealth would benefit everyone in a society, not only the wealthy. …Members of the woke left want to return to policies based on this primitive economic thinking. One of their major errors is thinking that the world is zero-sum. …Dislike of the rich makes sense in a world where one can become rich only by exploiting others, but not in a society full of creativity and useful inventions.

Prof. Rubin also wrote about this topic back in 2010.

P.S. The good news is that very few left-leaning economists believe in the zero-sum fallacy. They recognize that growth benefits all income groups. Where they go wrong is thinking that bigger government is needed for growth and/or thinking that less growth is okay if rich people suffer more than poor people (they tend to be so fixated on inequality that they overlook very good news).

P.P.S. Just as poor people aren’t poor because of rich people (at least the ones that get rich by markets rather than cronyism), poor nations aren’t poor because of rich nations.

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I created the Eighth Theorem of Government to illustrate the difference between well-meaning people (who want to help the poor) and zero-sum people (who seem to think some people are poor because other people are rich).

This raises the interesting question of whether folks in the latter group are misguided or malicious?

For what it’s worth, I assume most people who fixate on inequality simply don’t understand the issue.

I like to think that they would change their minds if – for instance – they were shown Scott Winship’s devastating, slam-dunk response to Gabriel Zucman.

But there are others (like Zucman) who almost certainly know better, yet they push the inequality narrative for political or ideological reasons.

The bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development definitely also belong in the malicious category.

I first exposed the OECD’s disingenuous approach back in 2012, noting that the Paris-based bureaucrats used an utterly dishonest definition of poverty to make the laughably inaccurate claim that there was more poverty in the United States than in nations such as Greece, Hungary, Turkey, and Portugal.

Well, the OECD is still being dishonest. Here’s a look at the bureaucracy’s latest “poverty” measurement.

For those of us who actually pay attention to details, the data in the above chart have nothing to do with poverty.

Instead, the OECD is showing a particular way of measuring how income is distributed (in this case, the share of the population with less than half of the average income).

To see why it is profoundly absurd to measure poverty by looking at the distribution of income, consider these two examples.

  1. Haiti is a wretchedly poor nation, with per-capita yearly income of $1729. But since almost everyone (other than the political elite) in the country is equally destitute, Haiti would have almost no poverty according to the OECD’s perverse definition.
  2. Poor people in the United States have income equal to (or greater than) than middle class people in other developed nations, yet OECD bureaucrats want people to think poverty is a bigger problem in America than in a backward economy like Mexico’s.

I’ll close by pointing out the greatest absurdity of all.

If something miraculous happened and everyone in the United States somehow wound up with ten times as much income next year, guess what would happen to America’s poverty rate, as measured by the OECD? How much would it decrease?

Give yourself a gold star if you correctly answered that it would not change. At all.

What a crock of you-know-what.

P.S. The OECD is not the only guilty party when it comes to lying about poverty. Others who (willingly or unwittingly) misrepresent distribution data as poverty data include:

P.P.S. It’s also worth noting that poor nations aren’t poor because rich nations are rich.

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I have a four-part series (here, herehere, and here) that explains why it’s much better to focus on fighting poverty rather than fretting about inequality.

I also think that our friends on the left who fixate on inequality are mostly motivated by an ideological desire for bigger government (or an ideological desire to hurt the rich).

Helping the less fortunate seems to be – at best – a secondary concern for them.

But let’s not worry about deciphering their real motives and instead look at why their approach is misguided.

Here’s a tweet from Gabriel Zucman, who (along with Thomas Piketty) is one of the most widely cited crusaders for class-warfare policy.

He is upset that the richest people in the world earn a lot more than the poorest people, and he obviously wants people to view these numbers as scandalous (and, with a reference to colonialism, maybe even subliminally racist).

If the economy was a fixed pie, maybe there would be something scandalous in Zucman’s data, but that’s not the case.

What we’re really seeing in these numbers is that some nations in the 1800s got much richer thanks to capitalism, and that meant their citizens enjoyed much higher levels of income.

But what about the rest of the world, you may ask?

This brings us to the counter-tweet of the year for 2021. Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute responded to Zucman and called attention to a statistic that deserves far more attention.

As far as I’m concerned, every decent and good person should celebrate the information in Swinship’s chart and view the information in Zucman’s chart as irrelevant.

Or, maybe those numbers are relevant, but only in that they tell us that some low-income countries still have lots of room to grow.

But I suspect Zucman would not be in favor of the good policies that would be needed to help poor nations converge with rich ones.

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There’s a political party in the United States – the Democrats – that represents rich people and it is trying very hard to cut taxes for those rich people.

Since I don’t resent rich people (indeed, I applaud them if they earn their money honestly), I generally want lower taxes for upper-income taxpayers. But I don’t want special tax breaks for rich people. Instead, I want to cut their taxes in ways that promote greater national prosperity so that I’ll benefit as well.

Sadly, those aren’t the options the Democrats are choosing.

They are putting all their energy into a dramatic expansion of the state and local tax deduction. This is the tax break that rich people get when they use state and local tax payments to reduce the amount of taxable income they report to the IRS.

It was curtailed as part of the 2017 tax law and now Democrats want to expand it.

The restored tax break would be available to everyone, they say, but let’s look at who really benefits.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is a middle-of-the-road group, and it points out that more only 2.5 percent of the tax cut would go to people making less than $100K per year.

The Tax Policy Center is a left-of-center organization and it also points out that expanding the deduction for state and local taxes means a windfall for the rich.

Here’s TPC’s chart showing that almost all the gains go to those in the top quintile.

While Democrats in Congress are pushing this big tax cut for the rich, some folks on the left are not very happy about what’s happening.

I often disagree with Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post, but she makes some excellent points in her recent column on the SALT deduction.

Wrong. A disaster. Obscene. These are among the ways liberal budget wonks have described Democrats’ determination to give a huge windfall to the rich by repealing the cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions. …Households making $1 million or more a year would receive roughly half the benefit of this policy, according to estimates from the Tax Policy Center. About 70 percent of the benefit would go to households making at least $500,000. …Nearly every millionaire (93 percent)…would get a tax cut, with an average size of $48,000. …As a result, the top 5 percent of households would still likely see their taxes go down on net, after accounting for all tax provisions in the budget bill.

The New York Times made similar points about Democrats in an editorial earlier this year.

…the party is flirting with a major change in tax policy that would allow the wealthiest Americans to pay lower taxes. …Proponents of an unlimited SALT deduction say they are seeking to help middle-class taxpayers. If so, they should go back to the drawing board. The top 20 percent of American households, ranked by income, would receive 96 percent of the benefits of the change… The primary beneficiaries would be an even smaller group of the very wealthiest Americans. The 1 percent of households with the highest incomes would receive 54 percent of the benefit, on average paying about $36,000 less per year in federal income taxes.

Honest folks on the left aren’t just upset that congressional Democrats are pushing a big tax cut for rich people.

They’re also upset that this big tax cut is crowding out some other priorities for the left – such as additional spending.

This tweet from Jason Furman (a former top economist for Obama) captures this sentiment.

The bottom line is that the most important constituency for many elected Democrats is not poor people.

It’s rich people and the politicians at the state and local level who represent those rich people.

I’ll close by observing that I don’t want more spending and I also don’t want a special tax break that subsidizes bad policy by state and local politicians, so I’m  obviously not in full agreement with Mr. Furman.

So the best result is for Biden’s entire agenda to implode. That would be a win for American taxpayers, a win for the American economy, and a win for long-suffering residents of blue states.

P.S. Yes, resentment against success motivates many people on the left, but elected Democrats are not the same as left-wing activists.

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To finance a bigger welfare state and create more dependency, President Biden and his congressional allies have been contemplating all sorts of tax increases.

The common theme is “soak the rich.” Our friends on the left seem to think class-warfare taxation is politically popular, and it’s easy to understand their political calculus – win votes by pillaging a tiny group and distributing goodies to a much bigger group.

But if that’s the case, they may want to look at the results of a referendum that was decided earlier this week. It took place in the blue state of Washington, where voters had the chance to register their approval or disapproval of a capital gains tax imposed earlier in the year by the state’s politicians.

Here are the official results, which show a landslide rejection of the class-warfare levy. And it happened in a state that Biden won by nearly 20 percentage points.

Now for the bad news.

The referendum does not repeal the capital gains tax. It’s simply an “advisory vote.”

If you want to know more details, Jared Walczak wrote about the issue last month for the Tax Foundation.

On May 4th, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed legislation creating a 7 percent capital gains tax, to take effect next year. On November 2nd, Washington lawmakers will learn what voters think about it. Although the ballot measure asking voters to recommend on retaining or repealing the new tax is purely advisory, this gauge of voter sentiment could be particularly illuminating as Washington barrels forward on the implementation of a highly volatile, constitutionally suspect tax that breaches the state’s historic barrier against income taxation. …Legal challenges to the tax are already pending and may ultimately do more to stop it in its tracks than can a nonbinding advisory vote. Nevertheless, the fate of Advisory Question 37 is an important one, not only because the capital gains tax itself would be economically harmful, or because it shows an irreverence for the state constitution, a concern in its own right. It’s also important because if voters signal their opposition to taxing this specific class of income, that sends a strong message that they are decidedly uninterested in efforts to scrap the state’s ban on a broader income tax.

Well, the voters did send a “strong message” that they want to preserve the state’s zero-income-tax status.

Whether the courts listen (or, more important, whether they uphold the state’s constitution) is yet to be determined.

For purposes of today’s column, however, I’ll simply observe that the election results may have an impact on whether Biden’s awful fiscal proposals get enacted.

Most observers are focused on the upset victory for Republicans in Virginia and the huge vote gains for the GOP in New Jersey. And I won’t be upset if those remarkable election results lead my Democratic friends in DC to back away from Biden’s big-government agenda.

But I think what happened in the state of Washington also indicates that voters don’t want big government, even when politicians tell them “the rich” will pick up the tab. Maybe, just maybe, ordinary people realize that they’ll be collateral damage if we make the United States more like Europe.

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The good news is that President Biden wants the United States to be at the top. The bad news is that he wants America to be at the top in bad ways.

  • The highest corporate income tax rate.
  • The highest capital gains tax rate.
  • The highest level of double taxation.

We can now add another category, based on the latest iteration of his budget plan.

According to the Tax Foundation, the United States would have the developed world’s most punitive personal income tax.

Worse than France and worse than Greece. How embarrassing.

In their report, Alex Durante and William McBride explain how the new plan will raise tax rates in a convoluted fashion.

High-income taxpayers would face a surcharge on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), defined as adjusted gross income less investment interest expense. The surcharge would equal 5 percent on MAGI in excess of $10 million plus 3 percent on MAGI above $25 million, for a total surcharge of 8 percent. The plan would also redefine the tax base to which the 3.8 percent net investment income tax (NIIT) applies to include the “active” part of pass-through income—all taxable income above $400,000 (single filer) or $500,000 (joint filer) would be subject to tax of 3.8 percent due to the combination of NIIT and Medicare taxes. Under current law, the top marginal tax rate on ordinary income is scheduled to increase from 37 percent to 39.6 percent starting in 2026. Overall, the top marginal tax rate on personal income at the federal level would rise to 51.4 percent. In addition to the top federal rate, individuals face taxes on personal income in most U.S. states. Considering the average top marginal state-local tax rate of 6.0 percent, the combined top tax rate on personal income would be 57.4 percent—higher than currently levied in any developed country.

Needless to say, this will make the tax code more complex.

Lawyers and accountants will win and the economy will lose.

I’m not sure why Biden and his big-spender allies have picked a complicated way to increase tax rates, but that doesn’t change that fact that people will have less incentive to engage in productive behavior.

What matters is the marginal tax rate on people who are thinking about earning more income.

And they’ll definitely choose to earn less if tax rates increase, particularly since well-to-do taxpayers have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

P.S. Based on what happened in the 1980s, we can safely assume that Biden’s class-warfare plan won’t raise much money.

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The Biden economic agenda can be summarized as follows: As much spending as possible, financed by as much taxation as possible, using lots of dishonest budget gimmicks to glue the pieces together.

But it turns out that higher taxes are not very popular, notwithstanding the delusions of Bernie Sanders, AOC, and the rest of the class-warfare crowd.

If the latest reports are accurate, the left has given up on imposing higher corporate tax rates, higher personal tax rates, and making the death tax more onerous.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that they’ve revived an awful idea to make capital gains taxes more onerous by taxing people on capital gains that only exist on paper.

In a column for the New York Times, Neil Irwin explains how the new scheme would work..

…congressional Democrats..are looking toward a change in the tax code that would reinvent how the government taxes investments… The Wyden plan would require the very wealthy — those with over $1 billion in assets or three straight years of income over $100 million — to pay taxes based on unrealized gains. …It could create some very large tax bills… If a family’s $10 billion net worth rose to $11 billion in a single year, a capital-gains rate of 20 percent would imply a $200 million tax bill.

In other words, families would be taxed on theoretical gains rather than real gains.

Some have said this scheme is similar to a wealth tax, though it’s more accurate to say it’s a tax on changes in wealth.

Similarly bad consequences, with similarly big problems with complexity, but using a different design.

Mr. Irwin’s column also acknowledges some other problems with this proposed levy.

The proposal raises conceptual questions about what counts as income. When Americans buy assets — shares of stock, a piece of real estate, a business — that become more valuable over time, they owe tax only on the appreciation when they sell the asset. …The rationale is that just because something has increased in value doesn’t mean the owner has the cash on hand to pay taxes. Moreover, for those with complex holdings, like interests in multiple privately held companies, it could be onerous to calculate the change in valuations every year, with ambiguous results. …having a cutoff at which the new capital gains system applies could create perverse incentives… “If you have a threshold, you’re giving people a really strong incentive to rearrange their affairs to keep their income and wealth below the threshold,” said Leonard Burman, institute fellow at the Tax Policy Center.

In other words, this plan would be great news for accountants, lawyers, and other people involved with tax planning.

I support the right of people to minimize their taxes, of course, but I wish we had a simple and fair tax system so that there was no need for an entire industry of tax planners.

But I’m digressing. Let’s continue with our analysis of this latest threat to good tax policy.

Henry Olson opines in the Washington Post that it’s a big mistake to impose taxes on unrealized gains.

The Biden administration’s idea to tax billionaires’ unrealized capital gains…would be an unworkable and arguably unconstitutional mess that could harm everyone. …Tesla founder Elon Musk’s net worth rose by $126 billion last year as his company’s stock price soared, but he surely paid almost no tax on that because he never sold the stock. Biden’s plan would tax all of that rise, netting the federal government about $30 billion. Do the same for all the nation’s billionaires, and the feds could pull in loads of cash… If that sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. …Privately held companies…are notoriously difficult to value. Rare but valuable items are even more difficult to fix an annual price. …Billionaires are precisely the people with the motive and the means to hire the best tax lawyers to fight the Internal Revenue Service at every step of the way, surely subjecting each tax return to excruciatingly long and expensive audits. …Expensive assets can go down in value, too, and billionaires would rightly insist that the IRS account for those reversals of fortune. …Would the IRS have to issue multi-billion dollar refund checks to return the billionaires’ quarterly estimated tax payments from earlier in the year?

These are all excellent points.

Henry also points out that the scheme may be unconstitutional.

The Constitution may not even permit taxation of unrealized gains. The 16th Amendment authorizes taxation of “income,”… Unrealized gains don’t fit under that rubric because the wealth is on paper, not in the hands of the owner to use as she wants.

And he closes with the all-important point that the current plan may target the richest of the rich, but sooner or later the rest of us would be in the crosshairs.

…it will only be a matter of time before lawmakers apply the tax to ordinary Americans. Anyone who owns a house or has a retirement account has unrealized capital gains. Billionaires get all the attention, but the real money is in the hands of the broader public, as the collective value of real estate and mutual funds dwarfs what the nation’s uber-wealthy hold. The government would love to get 25 percent of your 401(k)’s annual rise.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made in the past.

Simply stated, there are not enough rich people to finance European-sized government. Eventually we’ll all be treated like this unfortunate Spaniard.

I’ll close with a few wonky observations about tax policy.

P.S. Biden, et al, claim we need higher taxes on the rich because the current system is unfair, yet there’s never any recognition that the United States collects a greater share of revenue from the rich than any other developed nations (not because our tax rates on the rich are higher than average, but rather because our tax rates on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers are much lower than average).

P.P.S. The bottom line is that taxing unrealized capital gains is such a crazy idea that even nations such as France and Greece have never tried to impose such a levy.

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Let’s look today at the wonky issue of “book income” because it’s an opportunity to point out that there are three types of leftists.

  1. Honest leftists who understand economics and recognize tradeoffs (I think of them as “Okunites“).
  2. Dishonest leftists who understand economics but pretend that tradeoffs don’t exist (the “demagogues“).
  3. Leftists who have no idea what they’re saying or thinking (I think of them as, well, Joe Biden).

I’m being snarky about the President because of this recent tweet, which contains a couple of big, glaring mistakes.

What are the mistakes (I’m not calling them lies because I don’t think Biden has the slightest idea that he is wrong, much less why he’s wrong).

  • The first mistake is that corporations pay a lot of tax (payroll tax, property tax, etc) even if they are losing money and don’t owe any corporate income tax.
  • The second mistakes is that Biden is relying on a report about corporate income taxes that has been debunked because it relied on book income rather than taxable income.
  • The third mistake is that the President implies that his plan force all big companies to pay the corporate tax when that’s obviously not true.

Regarding that third mistake, Kyle Pomerleau of the American Enterprise Institute explains why there will still be companies paying zero corporate income tax.

While the Biden administration’s proposals would increase the tax burden on corporations by about $2 trillion over the next decade, they would not change the basic structure of the corporate income tax. The Democrats’ proposal would not end corporations paying zero federal income tax in certain years. Corporations will still be able to carryforward losses, and credits will still be available for corporations to offset their tax liability. The administration has proposed a minimum tax to address these headlines by tying federal tax liability to book income. The minimum tax would require corporations with net income over $2 billion to pay the greater of their ordinary corporate tax liability or 15 percent of their book or financial statement income. Corporations would still be able to offset the book minimum tax with losses and general business credits.

Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post tried to defend Biden’s tweet as part of his misnamed “Fact Checker.”

He had to acknowledge Biden was using a made-up number, but nonetheless concluded that the President’s assertion was “probably in the ballpark.”

This is one of Biden’s favorite statistics. …the president has used it in speeches or interviews 10 times since April. Normally he is careful to refer to “federal income taxes” so the tweet is little off by referring just to “taxes.” …Let’s dig into this statistic. It’s not necessarily wrong but there are some limitations. …The number comes from…the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). …Company tax returns generally are not made public, so ITEP’s numbers are the product of its own research and analysis of public filings. But it is an imperfect measure. …the information in the filings may not reflect what is in the tax returns. …Nevertheless, the notion that 10 to 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies do not pay federal income taxes is consistent with a 2020 report by the nonpartisan Joint Committee of Taxation. …This “55 corporations” number is probably in the ballpark.

For what it’s worth, I don’t care that Kessler gave Biden a pass for writing “taxes” instead of “federal income taxes.”

After all, that’s almost surely what he meant to write (just like Trump almost surely meant “highest corporate tax rate” when complaining about America being the “highest taxed nation”).

But I’m not in a forgiving mood about the rest of Biden’s tweet (or Kessler’s biased analysis) for the simple reason that there is zero recognition that companies occasionally don’t pay tax for the simple reason that they sometimes lose money.

I’ve made this point when writing about boring issues such as depreciation, carry forwards, and net operating losses.

At the risk of stating the obvious, companies shouldn’t pay any corporate income tax in years when they don’t have any corporate income.

P.S. I’m not mocking Biden’s tweet for partisan reasons. I was similarly critical of one of Trump’s tweets that was glaringly wrong on the issue of trade.

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A regular theme of these columns is that the economy is not a fixed pie. If Person A becomes rich, that doesn’t mean less income for Persons B and C.

Indeed, the evidence is very strong that successful entrepreneurs only capture a tiny fraction of the wealth they create.

And there’s also lots of data showing how average incomes can rise over time and how all segments of society tend to rise together.

My reason for revisiting this topic is a story in the Economist about the possibility of an “grossly uneven” recovery, as illustrated by this chart.

My knee-jerk reaction to this chart is that nobody should pay attention to economic forecasters for the simple reason that they have a terrible track record.

And IMF economists seems to be among the worst of the worst when they make predictions.

This may be because economists at the IMF have a mistaken Keynesian view of the economy.

Or it may simply reflect the fact that it’s basically impossible to make such predictions (if any economists actually had that ability, they would be billionaires).

But today’s topic isn’t the foibles of the economics profession.

Instead, I want to focus on this issue of whether rich countries should be blamed for being richer than poor countries.

Here’s some of what the Economist wrote.

Over the longer term, the economic recovery is projected to remain grossly uneven. That, the fund argues, reflects…variations in fiscal largesse. In 2020 rich and poor countries alike loosened the purse-strings to protect households and businesses from the impact of lockdowns. This year fiscal support in the rich world is projected to remain broadly as generous as it was last year, allowing time for the private sector to get back on its feet (and, some economists would argue, even leading to some overheating in America). Emerging markets, by contrast, have shrunk their budget deficits (adjusted for the economic cycle, and before interest payments). The result will be a two-speed global economy. Output in the rich world is expected to return to its pre-pandemic trend by next year, and then to rise slightly above it. For the rest of the world, however, gdp is expected to remain well below trend at least until 2025.

As you can see from the excerpt, the IMF is wedded to the Keynesian view that government spending supposedly is good for growth – notwithstanding all the real-world evidence to the contrary.

But I’m more interested in the two points that aren’t mentioned, both of which revolve around the strong link between economic liberty and national prosperity.

  • First, rich countries tend to be rich because they have (or had) good economic policy.
  • Second, poor countries fail to converge because they tend to have bad economic policy.

For what it’s worth, the IMF’s failure to grasp these two points may help to explain why the bureaucracy advises poor countries to make bad choices.

The bottom line is that the global economy is not a fixed pie. If there are “grossly uneven” growth rates in the world, the reason is that some nations don’t follow the prudent recipe for prosperity.

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There are lots of reasons (here are five of them) to dislike the version of the Biden tax hike that was approved by the tax-writing committee in the House of Representatives.

From an economic perspective, it is bad for prosperity to penalize work, saving, investment, and productivity.

So why, then, do politicians pursue such policies?

Part of the answer is spite, but I think the biggest reason is they simply want more money to spend.

And if the economy suffers, they don’t worry about that collateral damage so long as their primary objective – getting more money to buy more votes – is achieved.

But the rest of us should care, and a new report from the Tax Foundation offers a helpful way of showing why pro-tax politicians are misguided.

Here’s a table showing that the economy will lose almost $3 of output for every $1 that politicians can use for vote buying.

I added my commentary (in red) to the table.

My takeaway is that it is reprehensible for politicians to cause nearly $3 of foregone prosperity so that they can spend another $1.

Garrett Watson, author of the report, uses more sedate language to describes the findings.

Using Tax Foundation’s General Equilibrium Model, we estimate that the Ways and Means tax plan would reduce long-run GDP by 0.98 percent, which in today’s dollars amounts to about $332 billion of lost output annually. We estimate the plan would in the long run raise about $152 billion annually in new tax revenue, conventionally estimated in today’s dollars, meaning for every $1 in revenue raised, economic output would fall by $2.18. When the model accounts for the smaller economy, it estimates that the plan’s dynamic effects would reduce expected new tax collections to about $112 billion annually over the long run (also in today’s dollars), meaning for every $1 in revenue raised, economic output would fall by $2.96.

This is excellent analysis.

But I think it’s important to specify that political cost-benefit analysis (from the perspective of politicians) is not the same as economic cost-benefit analysis.

From an economic perspective, the foregone economic growth is a cost and the additional tax revenue for politicians also is a cost.

And I’ve augmented the table (again, in red) to show that the additional spending is yet another cost.

In other words, politicians are the main winners from Biden’s tax hike, and some of the interest groups getting additional handouts also might be winners (though I’ve previously pointed out that many of them wind up being losers as well in the long run).

P.S. The Tax Foundation model only measures the economic damage of higher taxes. If you also measure the harmful impact of more spending, the estimates of foregone economic output are much bigger.

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Biden wants lots of class-warfare tax increases to fund a big increase in the welfare state.

That would be bad news for the economy, but his acolytes claim that voters favor the president’s approach.

Maybe that’s true in the United States, but it’s definitely not the case in Switzerland. By a landslide margin, Swiss voters have rejected a plan to impose higher tax rates on capital.

It’s nice to see that every single canton rejected the class-warfare initiative.

In an article for Swissinfo.ch, Urs Geiser summarizes the results.

Voters in Switzerland have rejected a proposal to introduce a tax on gains from dividends, shares and rents. The left-wing people’s initiative targeted the wealthiest group in the country. Final results show 64.9% of voters and all of the country’s 26 cantons dismissing the proposed constitutional reform, in some cases with up to 77% of the vote. …The Young Socialists who had launched the proposal admitted defeat, accusing the political right and the business community of “scare mongering”… The Young Socialists, supported by the Social Democrats, the Greens and the trade unions had hoped to increase tax on capital revenue by a factor of 1.5 compared with regular income tax. …Opponents argued approval of the initiative would jeopardise Switzerland’s prosperity and damage the sector of small and medium-sized companies, often described as the backbone of the country’s economy.

For what it’s worth, I’m not surprised that the Swiss rejected the proposal. Though I was pleasantly surprised by the margin.

Though perhaps I should have been more confident. After all, the Swiss have a good track record when asked to vote on fiscal and economic topics.

Though not every referendum produces the correct result. In 2018, Swiss voters rejected an opportunity to get rid of most of the taxes imposed by the central government.

P.S. Professor Garett Jones wrote a book, 10% Less Democracy, that makes a persuasive case about limiting the powers of ordinary voters (given my anti-majoritarian biases, I was bound to be sympathetic).

This implies that direct democracy is a bad idea. And when you look at some of the initiatives approved in places such as California and Oregon, Garett’s thesis makes a lot of sense. But the Swiss seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

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When I discuss class-warfare tax policy, I want people to understand deadweight loss, which is the term for the economic output that is lost when high tax rates discourage work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

And I especially want them to understand that the economic damage grows exponentially as tax rates increase (in other words, going from a 30 percent tax rate to a 40 percent tax rate is a lot more damaging than going from a 10 percent tax rate to a 20 percent tax rate).

But all of this analysis requires a firm grasp of supply-and-demand curves. And most people never learned basic microeconomics, or they forgot the day after they took their exam for Economics 101.

So when I give speeches about the economics of tax policy, I generally forgo technical analysis and instead appeal to common sense.

Part of that often includes showing an image of a “philoso-raptor” pondering whether the principle that applies to tobacco taxation also applies to taxes on work.

Almost everyone gets the point, especially when I point out that politicians explicitly say they want higher taxes on cigarettes because they want less smoking.

And if you (correctly) believe that higher taxes on tobacco lead to less smoking, then you also should understand that higher taxes on work will discourage productive behavior.

Unfortunately, these common-sense observations don’t have much impact on politicians in Washington. Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are pushing a huge package of punitive tax increases.

Should they succeed, all taxpayers will suffer. But some will suffer more than others. In an article for CNBC, Robert Frank documents what Biden’s tax increase will mean for residents of high-tax states.

Top earners in New York City could face a combined city, state and federal income tax rate of 61.2%, according to plans being proposed by Democrats in the House of Representatives. The plans being proposed include a 3% surtax on taxpayers earning more than $5 million a year. The plans also call for raising the top marginal income tax rate to 39.6% from the current 37%. The plans preserve the 3.8% net investment income tax, and extend it to certain pass-through companies. The result is a top marginal federal income tax rate of 46.4%. …In New York City, the combined top marginal state and city tax rate is 14.8%. So New York City taxpayers…would face a combined city, state and federal marginal rate of 61.2% under the House plan. …the highest in nearly 40 years. Top earning Californians would face a combined marginal rate of 59.7%, while those in New Jersey would face a combined rate of 57.2%.

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed “supply-sider” to recognize that Biden’s tax plan will hurt prosperity.

After all, investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and other successful taxpayers will have much less incentive to earn and report income when they only get to keep about 40 cents out of every $1 they earn.

Folks on the left claim that punitive tax rates are necessary for “fairness,” yet the United States already has the developed world’s most “progressive” tax system.

I’ll close with the observation that the punitive tax rates being considered will generate less revenue than projected.

Why? Because households and businesses will have big incentives to use clever lawyers and accountants to protect their income.

Looking for loopholes is a waste of time when rates are low, but it’s a very profitable use of time and energy when rates are high.

P.S. Tax rates were dramatically lowered in the United States during the Reagan years, a policy that boosted the economy and led to more revenues from the rich. Biden now wants to run that experiment in reverse, so don’t expect positive results.

P.P.S. Though if folks on the left are primarily motivated by envy, then presumably they don’t care about real-world outcomes.

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Yesterday’s column cited new scholarly research about the negative economic impact of Biden’s plans to increase capital gains taxation.

In today’s column, let’s start with a refresher on why this tax shouldn’t exist.

But if you don’t want to spend a few minutes watching the video, here are the six reasons why the tax shouldn’t exist.

I highlighted the final reason – fairness – because this is not simply an economic argument.

Yes, it’s foolish to penalize jobs and investment, but I also think it’s morally wrong to impose discriminatory tax rates on people who are willing to defer consumption so that all of us can be richer in the long run.

By the way, I should have included “Less Common Sense” as a seventh reason. That’s because the capital gains tax will backfire on Biden and his class-warfare friends.

To be more specific, investors can choose not to sell assets if they think the tax rate is excessive, and this “lock-in effect” is a big reason why higher rates almost surely won’t produce higher revenues.

In a column earlier this year for the Wall Street Journal, former Federal Reserve Governor Lawrence Lindsey explained this “Laffer Curve” effect.

…43.4% is well above the rate that would generate the most revenue for the government. Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, which does the official scoring and is no den of supply siders, puts the revenue-maximizing rate at 28%. My work several decades ago puts it about 10 points lower than that. That means President Biden is willing to accept lower revenue as the price of higher tax rates. The implications for his administration’s economic thinking are mind-boggling. Even the revenue-maximizing rate is higher than would be optimal. As tax rates rise, the activity being taxed declines. The loss to the private side of society increases at a geometric rate (proportional to the square of the tax rate) as rates rise. … The Biden administration is blowing up one of the key concepts that has united the economics profession: maximizing social welfare. It now believes in taxation purely as a form of punishment and is even willing to sacrifice revenue to carry it out.

By the way, Biden’s not the first president with this spiteful mindset. Obama also said he wanted to raise the tax rate on capital gains even if the government didn’t get any more revenue.

Democrats used to be far more sensible on this issue. For instance, Bill Clinton signed into a law a cut in the tax rate on capital gains.

And, as noted in this Wall Street Journal editorial on the topic, another Democratic president also had very sensible views.

Even in the economically irrational 1970s the top capital-gains rate never broke 40%… A neutral revenue code would tax all income only once. But the U.S. also taxes business profits when they are earned, and President Biden wants to raise that tax rate by a third (to 28% from 21%). When a business distributes after-tax income in dividends, or an investor sells the shares that have risen in value due to higher earnings, the income is taxed a second time. …The most important reason to tax capital investment at low rates is to encourage saving and investment. …Tax something more and you get less of it. Tax capital income more, and you get less investment, which means less investment to improve worker productivity and thus smaller income gains over time. As a former U.S. President once put it: “The tax on capital gains directly affects investment decisions, the mobility and flow of risk capital from static to more dynamic situations, the ease or difficulty experienced by new ventures in obtaining capital, and thereby the strength and potential for growth of the economy.” That wasn’t Ronald Reagan. It was John F. Kennedy.

For what it’s worth, JFK wasn’t just sensible on capital gains taxation. He had a much better overall grasp of tax policy that many of his successors.

Especially the current occupant of the White House. The bottom line is that Biden’s agenda is bad news for American prosperity and American competitiveness.

P.S. If you’re skeptical about my competitiveness assertion, check out this data.

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Public finance theory teaches us that the capital gains tax should not exist. Such a levy exacerbates the bias against saving and investment, which reduces innovation, hinders economic growth, and lowers worker compensation.

All of which helps to explain why President Biden’s proposals to increase the tax burden on capital gains are so misguided.

Thanks to some new research from Professor John Diamond of Rice University, we can now quantify the likely damage if Biden’s proposals get enacted.

Here’s some of what he wrote in his new study.

We use a computable general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy to simulate the economic effects of these policy changes… The model is a dynamic, overlapping generations, computable general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy that focuses on the macroeconomic and transitional effects of tax reforms. …The simulation results in Table 1 show that GDP falls by roughly 0.1 percent 10 years after reform and 0.3 percent 50 years after reform, which implies per household income declines by roughly $310 after 10 years and $1,200 after 50 years. The long run decline in GDP is due to a decline in the capital stock of 1.0 percent and a decline in total hours worked of 0.1 percent. …this would be roughly equivalent to a loss of approximately 209,000 jobs in that year. Real wages decrease initially by 0.2 percent and by 0.6 percent in the long run.

Here is a summary of the probable economic consequences of Biden’s class-warfare scheme.

But the above analysis should probably be considered a best-case scenario.

Why? Because the capital gains tax is not indexed for inflation, which means investors can wind up paying much higher effective tax rates if prices are increasing.

And in a world of Keynesian monetary policy, that’s a very real threat.

So Prof. Diamond also analyzes the impact of inflation.

…capital gains are not adjusted for inflation and thus much of the taxable gains are not reflective of a real increase in wealth. Taxing nominal gains will reduce the after-tax rate of return and lead to less investment, especially in periods of higher inflation. …taxing the nominal value will reduce the real rate of return on investment, and may do so by enough to result in negative rates of return in periods of moderate to high inflation. Lower real rates of return reduce investment, the size of the capital stock, productivity, growth in wage rates, and labor supply. …Accounting for inflation in the model would exacerbate other existing distortions… An increase in the capital gains tax rate or repealing step up of basis will make investments in owner-occupied housing more attractive relative to other corporate and non-corporate investments.

Here’s what happens to the estimates of economic damage in a world with higher inflation?

Assuming the inflation rate is one percentage point higher on average (3.2 percent instead of 2.2 percent) implies that a rough estimate of the capital gains tax rate on nominal plus real returns would be 1.5 times higher than the real increase in the capital gains tax rate used in the standard model with no inflation. Table 2 shows the results of adjusting the capital gains tax rates by a factor of 1.5 to account for the effects of inflation. In this case, GDP falls by roughly 0.1 percent 10 years after reform and 0.4 percent 50 years after reform, which implies per household income declines by roughly $453 after 10 years and $1,700 after 50 years.

Here’s the table showing the additional economic damage. As you can see, the harm is much greater.

I’ll conclude with two comments.

P.S. If (already-taxed) corporate profits are distributed to shareholders, there’s a second layer of tax on those dividends. If the money is instead used to expand the business, it presumably will increase the value of shares (a capital gain) because of an expectation of higher future income (which will be double taxed when it occurs).

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I wrote last month about an encouraging wave of tax cuts at the state level.

I’m particularly impressed by the tax-cutting plan in Arizona, which cleverly reversed a class-warfare scheme designed to enrich teacher unions.

Indeed, I’m a big fan of federalism in large part because good fiscal policy is more likely when state and local governments are forced to compete for jobs and investment.

People can “vote with their feet” by moving from high-tax jurisdictions to low-tax jurisdictions, and politicians are less likely to misbehave when they realize taxpayers can escape.

But “less likely to misbehave” is not the same as “won’t misbehave.”

Notwithstanding the negative consequences, some jurisdictions are contemplating tax increases.

There’s also a plan for a class-warfare tax increase in Washington, DC.

I’m not referring to President Biden’s destructive tax plan (which you can read about here, here, here, and here). Instead, today’s column will focus on the tax increase being considered by the city’s local government.

Here are some excerpt from a report in the Washington Post.

An increasingly left-leaning D.C. Council voted…to raise income taxes on wealthy residents — a victory for advocates seeking tens of millions of dollars to spend…, but a puzzlement to others who saw no need for a tax increase in a year the city is flush with federal grant money. …the 2022 budget…includes generous spending on a long list of programs, mostly funded by the federal grants as well as other sources of local revenue. …The authors of the tax increase proposal…say that wealthy residents who were not financially hurt by the pandemic can afford to pay more.

To see which taxpayers are being penalized, here’s an excerpt from the Tax Foundation’s report on the proposed tax hike.

Interestingly, despite its left-leaning orientation, the Washington Post editorialized against the tax hike.

The council is now intent on ramming through a tax increase on wealthy residents that is driven more by ideology than any need for revenue or sound fiscal strategy. …as opponents of the tax increase pointed out, the District is flush with cash — about $3.2 billion in federal payments and grants, with next year’s local revenue projected to be $162 million more than pre-pandemic times. The proposed $17.5 billion budget already reflects a growth in spending of 3.9 percent over the historically high spending in the current year. …the council’s slapdash approach could have troubling consequences. The District’s tax rates on income and commercial property are already the highest in the region. …states such as Illinois should serve as a cautionary tale: Its high taxes have driven residents and businesses to other states. It’s not hard to imagine that someone making over $1 million — 0.7 percent of D.C. taxpayers, who pay 23.1 percent of the city’s income taxes — might find it more worthwhile to live in Arlington and pay one-third as much in taxes. What then happens…?

This is a remarkable editorial.

Indeed, it sounds like I could have been the author.

  • It highlights excessive growth of government.
  • It highlights how the rich pay the lion’s share of tax.
  • It highlights tax migration across borders.
  • It highlights jurisdictional tax competition.

The difference between me and the Washington Post, though, is that I’m intellectually consistent.

Unlike the editors of that newspaper, I apply the same arguments when analyzing national tax policy as well.

P.S. While the D.C. Council’s plan is very bad tax policy, part of me will be amused if it gets enacted. That’s because Washington is filled with lobbyists, bureaucrats, contractors, and other insiders who get undeserved riches because they have their snouts buried in the federal trough.

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What motivates the tax-and-spend crowd? Why do they want high tax rates and a big welfare state?

The most charitable answer is that they don’t want anyone to suffer from poverty and they mistakenly think big government can solve problems.

But there’s another answer that may be more accurate.

As Margaret Thatcher observed about three decades ago, it seems that many folks on the left are primarily motivated by jealousy and resentment against their successful neighbors.

I realize I’m making an ugly accusation. But in my defense, I’m simply reporting what they write. Or what they admit to pollsters.

And now we have another example. Christine Emba of the Washington Post opined earlier this year that politicians should somehow put a ceiling on how much wealth any American can create.

The most shocking thing about ProPublica’s extensive report on the leaked tax returns of the super-rich wasn’t what the report contained — it was the fact that we’re barely shocked anymore. …we, as a society, let them do it. …every billionaire is a policy failure. But more than that, every billionaire is a failure of our own moral imagination. …Should we tax capital gains at a higher rate? Raise the corporate tax rate? Create a wealth tax? (I’d vote yes to all three.) But these debates are small bore. …Instead of debating tweaks at the edges of our tax system, what we should be…focused less on what is “allowed”… Such a philosophy already exists. It’s called limitarianism. …Just as there is a poverty line under which we agree that no one should fall, limitarianism holds that one can construct a “wealth line” over which no one should rise, and that the world would be better off for it.

Ms. Emba doesn’t explain how her “limitarian” policy might be implemented.

But since she’s embraced a wealth tax, the simple way to achieve her goal would be adding a 100 percent rate to that levy for any taxpayers who create so much wealth for society that they wind up with assets of $1 billion.

In case you think I’m joking, here’s part of her conclusion.

…the prospect of having “only” $999 million dollars would not stop innovators in their tracks. And even if it did stop some, would the trade-off be so bad?

I’ll close this column by answering her rhetorical question.

The trade-off wouldn’t just be bad, it would be terrible. A wealth tax (or any other possible policy to achiever her “limitarian” utopia) necessarily would reduce saving and investment.

And that would mean less innovation, slower (or negative) productivity growth, and wage stagnation (or decline).

Which is a good excuse to recycle my Eighth Theorem of Government.

Simply stated, here’s little reason to think that the folks who hate their successful neighbors actually care about their poor neighbors.

P.S. The New York Times also has published a column embracing the resentment-fueled limitarian notion.

P.P.S. Plenty of folks on the left explicitly argue that government has first claim on income. And that you’re the beneficiary of a favor if you get to keep some of what you earn. Once again, I’m not joking.

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For most of the world, American citizenship is highly coveted. Indeed, foreigners have even been willing to invest a lot of money to increase the odds of getting to the United States.

But changing one’s nationality is a two-way street. Beginning with the Obama years, there’s been a big jump in the number of Americans willing to give up U.S. citizenship.

This is mostly because of bad tax policy (high rates, double taxation, FATCA, etc).

Simply stated, these successful households make a completely rational assessment that the benefits of being an American aren’t worth the fiscal costs.

Especially if they already live overseas and are being victimized by “worldwide taxation.”

Sadly, it’s quite likely that more Americans will be giving up their citizenship if Biden is able to push through his class-warfare tax agenda.

Jennifer Kingson explains in an article for Axios.

The number of Americans who renounced their citizenship in favor of a foreign country hit an all-time high in 2020: 6,707, a 237% increase over 2019. …While the numbers are down this year, that’s probably because many U.S. embassies and consulates remain closed for COVID-19, and taking this grave step requires taking an oath in front of a State Department officer. …The people who flee tend to be ultra-wealthy, and many of them are seeking to reduce their tax burden. New tax and estate measures proposed by the Biden administration could, if implemented, accelerate this trend. …The IRS publishes a quarterly list of the names of people who have renounced their citizenship or given up their green cards. The numbers started swelling in 2010, when Congress passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA, which increased reporting requirements and penalties for expats.

Here’s a chart from the article.

I speculated last year that the 2016-2019 drop was an indicator that Trump’s tax cut was having a positive impact.  But the spike in 2020 suggests I was being too optimistic.

Here’s some more analysis from the article.

As you can see, there’s a big backlog, so we only speculate how many Americans will be escaping the IRS in coming years.

David Lesperance, an international tax lawyer based…who specializes in helping people renounce U.S. citizenship, says that with coronavirus shutting down interviews for renunciation, the next lists will only contain relinquished green card holders, who can do it by mail. “There are probably 20,000 or 30,000 people who want to do this, but they can’t get the appointment,”…”It’s a year-and-a-half to get an appointment at a Canadian embassy,” he tells Axios. “Bern [Switzerland] alone has a backlog of over 300 cases.” …A lot of people who take this drastic step are tech zillionaires: Eric Schmidt, the former Alphabet CEO, has applied to become a citizen of Cyprus. …President Biden has proposed raising the top capital gains tax to 43.4%, and while it’s unclear whether that will pass, it did prompt a lot of calls to Lesperance from people wanting to find out which foreign countries might grant them citizenship.

By the way, this issue has macro consequences for the rest of us. Given the economic importance of innovatorsentrepreneurs, and inventors, it’s bad news for the United States when they move to low-tax nations such as Singapore.

P.S. Companies also move from one country to another so they can protect workers, consumers, and shareholders from bad tax policy.

P.P.S. One of the most odious parts of American tax law is the imposition of Soviet-style exit taxes on people who want to change citizenship.

P.P.P.S. Today’s column is about tax migration across national borders, but don’t forget there’s far more tax migration across state borders.

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I’ve written about some boring and arcane tax issues – most of which are only relevant because we don’t have a simple and fair flat tax.

But I always try to explain why these complicated tax issues are important – assuming we want a competitive tax system that doesn’t needlessly undermine growth.

Today, we’re going to add to our collection of nerdy tax topics by discussing the issue of “book income” vs “tax income.”

I’m motivated to address this topic because the oleaginous senior senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, indirectly addressed this issue in a recent column for the Washington Post.

Here’s some of what she wrote.

…scores of giant U.S. corporations pay zero. …In the three years following the 2017 Republican tax cuts, 39 megacorporations, including Amazon and FedEx, reported more than $122 billion in profits to their shareholders while using loopholes, deductions and exemptions to pay zero in federal income taxes. These companies boosted their stock prices and increased CEO pay by telling their shareholders they raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, while simultaneously telling the Internal Revenue Service that they don’t owe any taxes. …We would require any company that earns more than $100 million in profits to pay a 7 percent tax on every dollar earned above that amount.

To assess Warren’s proposal, here are a couple of things that you need to understand.

  1. What corporations report to their shareholders is “book income,” and that number is governed by a specific set of rules (“generally accepted accounting principles” or GAAP) determined by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The goal is to make sure investors and others have accurate information.
  2. What companies report to the Internal Revenue Service is “tax income” and that number is governed by a specific set of laws (the tax code) enacted over the past 100-plus years by politicians.

In other words, companies are not choosing to play games. They have no choice. They are following two separate sets of requirements that were set up for two separate reasons.

For purposes of public policy, the key thing to understand is that the tax code is based largely on cash flow (what was taxable income over the past 12 months, for instance).

That means it produces annual numbers that can be quite different than book income’s long-run data based on accrual accounting (the GAAP rules).

The Tax Foundation has a recent report, authored by Erica York and Alex Muresianu, that shows why it would be a major mistake to use book income for tax purposes.

Under corporate book income rules, companies spread out the cost of investments across roughly its useful life, also known as economic depreciation. The purpose of this rule is to match costs to the revenues they generate to best inform creditors and shareholders: deducting, say, the entire cost of a new factory the year it’s constructed could make it seem like a company is unprofitable to shareholders. While the economic depreciation approach makes some sense for accounting purposes, it’s a bad framework for tax policy. Spreading out the deductions over time creates a tax bias against investment. Deductions in future years are worth less than deductions in the current year, thanks to the time value of money and inflation. It also creates a bias against companies that rely heavily on physical capital (think energy production and high-tech manufacturing), and towards companies that mostly rely on labor (think financial services or fast food).

It’s unclear whether Senator Warren (or her staff) actually understand these technical details.

Not that it really matters. Her goal is to play class warfare. She’s engaging in demagoguery (a long-standing pattern) in hopes of enacting legislation that will give her a lot more money to spend.

If she’s successful, it will be very bad news for the economy, as Kyle Pomerleau explained in a 2019 report for the Tax Foundation.

According to the Tax Foundation General Equilibrium Model, this proposal would reduce economic output (GDP) by 1.9 percent in the long run. We also estimate that the capital stock would be 3.3 percent smaller and wages 1.5 percent lower, with about 454,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs. …We estimate that the service price would rise by 2.6 percent under this proposal. A higher service price means that capital investment would become less attractive, leading to reduced investment and, eventually, a smaller capital stock. The smaller capital stock would lead to lower output, lower worker productivity, and lower wages. …Taxpayers in the bottom four income quintiles…would see a reduction in after-tax income of between 1.64 percent and 1.95 percent.

And here’s a table from Kyle’s report with all the economic consequences.

P.S. In her column, Sen. Warren also reiterated her support for a destructive wealth tax and more funding to reward a corrupt IRS.

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There are divisions of the right between small-government conservatives, reform conservatives, common-good capitalists, nationalist conservatives, and compassionate conservatives.

There are also divisions on the left, as illustrated by this flowchart, which shows the Nordic Model (a pro-free market welfare state) on one end, and then different versions of hard-core leftism on the other end.

I’m showing these different strains on the left because it will help decipher the editorial position of the Washington Post.

I cited one of their editorials a couple of weeks ago that had some very sensible criticisms of a wealth tax. But it also embraced other class-warfare taxes (higher capital gains taxes and more onerous death taxes).

In other words, the Washington Post is on the left, but not as crazy as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Now we have another editorial from the Post that illustrates this distinction.

The bad news is that the editorial (once again) endorses class-warfare tax policy.

…inequality of wealth is a serious problem in the United States. …to an unhealthy degree, wealth in the United States is being gained through unproductive activity — “rent-seeking”… Well-designed government interventions can reduce inequality from the top down, through more aggressive taxation of capital gains and estates… …everyone, poor and rich, has a lot to gain from curbing wealth inequality. The policies that can achieve that goal are neither radical nor complicated.

The good news is that the Post understands that there are serious consequences of going too far.

What remains to be considered are the counterarguments. …could a more aggressive attack on wealth inequality undermine incentives and result in an economic pie that is smaller and, inevitably, more difficult to distribute? If too aggressive, of course, at the bottom of that slippery slope lies Venezuela’s bankrupt socialism.

I suppose I should be happy that the editorial acknowledges the danger of hard-core leftism.

But my concern is that going in the wrong direction at 60 miles per hour still gets a nation to the wrong destination.

Yes, going in the wrong direction at 90 miles per hour gets to Venezuela even sooner, so I’d rather delay a very bad outcome.

That being said, it would be nice if the Washington Post (or any other rational leftists) drew some lines in the sand about limiting the size and scope of government.

Both numbers are far too high, of course, but setting some sort of limit would at least show that there is some long-run difference between the rational left and the AOC crowd.

Let’s conclude with some extracts that show why I’m worried that the Post will always be on the wrong side. After acknowledging that there are risks of going too far to the left, the editorial tell us we shouldn’t worry about going that direction.

In fact, too much inequality can undermine growth, too. …the perpetuation of steep inequalities, over generations, can turn into a drag on output…by wasting the potential of those who might have acquired skills or started businesses if not consigned by poverty to society’s margins. …extreme inequality fosters demands for populist policies, which, in turn, damage growth.

To be fair, the Washington Post is at least semi-good on the issue of school choice, so I take somewhat seriously their concerns about not wasting potential.

And it’s also worth noting that the editorial understands that populist policies (which presumably includes lots of anti-market nonsense such as protectionism) would be misguided. Though I’d feel much better about that part if the editorial recognized the difference between moral and immoral inequality.

P.S. The core problem is that our friends on the left don’t appreciate that low-income people will be better off if the focus is on growth rather than inequality.

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It’s presumably not controversial to point out that the Washington Post (like much of the media) leans to the left. Indeed, the paper’s bias has given me plenty of material over the years.

As you can see, what really irks me is when the bias translates into sloppy, inaccurate, or misleading statements.

  • In 2011,the Post asserted that a plan to trim the budget by less than 2/10ths of 1 percent would “slash” spending.
  • Later that year, the Post claimed that the German government was “fiscally conservative.”
  • In 2013, the Post launched an inaccurate attack on the Heritage Foundation.
  • In 2017, the Post described a $71 budget increase as a $770 billion cut.
  • Later that year, the Post claimed a spending cut was a tax increase.
  • In 2018, the Post made the same type of mistake, asserting that a $500 billion increase was a $537 billion cut.
  • This year, the Post claimed Bush and Obama copied Reagan’s fiscal conservatism.
  • Also this year, the Post blamed smugglers for an energy crisis caused by Lebanese price controls.

But, to be fair, the Washington Post occasionally winds up on the right side of an issue.

It’s editorialized in favor of school choice, for instance, and also has opined in favor of privatizing the Postal Service.

And sometimes it has editorials that are both right and wrong. Which is a good description of the Post‘s new editorial on tax policy.

We’ll start with the good news. The Washington Post appears to understand that a wealth tax would be a bad idea, both because it can lead to very high effective tax rates and because it would be a nightmare to administer.

Ms. Warren’s version of the wealth tax, which calls for 2 percent annual levies on net wealth above $50 million, and 3 percent above $1 billion, very rich people would face large tax bills even when they had little or negative net income, forcing them to sell assets to pay their taxes. …huge chunks of private wealth tied up in real estate, rare art and closely held businesses are more difficult — sometimes impossible — to assess consistently. …Such problems help explain why national wealth taxes yielded only modest revenue in the 11 European countries that levied them as of 1995, and why most of those countries subsequently repealed them.

I’m disappointed that the Post overlooked the biggest argument, which is that wealth taxation would reduce saving and investment and thus lead to lower wages.

But I suppose I should be happy with modest steps on the road to economic literacy.

The Post‘s editorial also echoed my argument by pointing out that ProPublica was very dishonest in the way it presented data illegally obtained from the IRS.

ProPublica muddied a basic distinction, which, properly understood, actually fortifies the case against a wealth tax. The story likened on-paper asset price appreciation with actual cash income, then lamented that the two aren’t taxed at the same rate. …ProPublica’s logic implies that, when the stock market goes down, Elon Musk, whose billions are tied up in shares of Tesla, should get a tax cut.

Amen (this argument also applies to the left’s argument for taxing unrealized capital gains).

Now that I’ve presented the sensible portions of the Post‘s editorial, let’s shift to the bad parts.

First and foremost, the entire purpose of the editorial was to support more class-warfare taxation.

But instead of wealth taxes, the Post wants much-higher capital gains taxes – including Biden’s hybrid capital gains tax/death tax.

Fortunately, legitimate goals of a wealth tax can be achieved through other means… This would require undoing not only some of the 2017 GOP tax cuts, but much previous tax policy as well… The higher capital gains rate should be applied to a broader base of investment income… President Biden’s American Families Plan calls for reform of this so-called “stepped-up basis” loophole that would yield an estimated $322.5 billion over 10 years.

The editorial also calls for an expanded death tax, one that would raise six times as much money as the current approach.

…simply reverting to estate tax rules in place as recently as 2004 could yield $98 billion per year, far more than the $16 billion the government raised in 2020.

Last but not least, it argues for these tax increases because it wants us to believe that politicians will wisely use any additional revenue in ways that will increase economic opportunity.

The public sector could use new revenue from stiffer capital gains and estate taxes to expand opportunity.

This is the “fairy dust” or “magic beans” theory of economic development.

Proponents argue that if we give politicians more money, we’ll somehow get more prosperity.

At the risk of understatement, this theory isn’t based on empirical evidence.

Which is the message of a 2017 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. And it’s also the reason I repeatedly ask the never-answered question.

P.S. To make the argument that capital gains taxes and death taxes are better than wealth taxation, the Post editorial cites research from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Too bad the Post didn’t read the OECD study showing that class-warfare taxes reduce overall prosperity. Or the OECD study showing that more government spending reduces prosperity.

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Back in 2013, the Tax Foundation published a report that reviewed 26 academic studies on taxes and growth.

That scholarly research produced a very clear message: The overwhelming consensus was that higher tax rates were bad news for prosperity.

Especially soak-the-rich tax increases that reduced incentives for productive activities such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

That compilation of studies was very useful because then-President Obama was a relentless advocate of class-warfare tax policy.

And he partially succeeded with an agreement on how to deal with the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Well, as Yogi Berra might say, it’s “deju vu all over again.” Joe Biden is in the White House and he’s proposing a wide range of tax increases.

It’s unclear whether Biden will gain approval for his proposals, but I’ve already produced a four-part series on why they are very misguided.

  • In Part I, I showed that the tax code already is biased against upper-income taxpayers.
  • In Part II, I explained how the tax hike would have Laffer-Curve implications, meaning politicians would not get a windfall of tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I pointed out that the plan would saddle America with the developed world’s highest corporate tax burden.
  • In Part IV, I shared data on the negative economic impact of higher taxes on productive behavior.

The bottom line is that the United States should not copy France by penalizing entrepreneurs, innovators, investors, and business owners.

Particularly since the rest of us are usually collateral damage when politicians try to punish successful taxpayers.

So it’s serendipity that the Tax Foundation has just updated it’s list of research with a new report looking at seven new high-level academic studies.

Here’s some of what the report says about class-warfare tax policy.

With the Biden administration proposing a variety of new taxes, it is worth revisiting the literature on how taxes impact economic growth. …we review this new evidence, again confirming our original findings: Taxes, particularly on corporate and individual income, harm economic growth. …We investigate papers in top economics journals and National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working papers over the past few years, considering both U.S. and international evidence. This research covers a wide variety of taxes, including income, consumption, and corporate taxation.

And here’s the table summarizing the impact of lower tax rates on economic performance, so it’s easy to infer what will happen if tax rates are increased instead.

Some of these findings may not seem very significant, such as changes in key economic indicators of 0.2%, 0.78%, or 0.3%.

But remember that even small changes in economic growth can lead to big changes in national prosperity.

P.S. In an ideal world, Washington would be working to boost living standards by adopting a flat tax. In the real world, the best-case scenario is simply avoiding policies that will make America less competitive.

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The United States conducted an experiment in the 1980s. Reagan dramatically lowered the top tax rate on households, dropping it from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Folks on the left bitterly resisted Reagan’s “supply-side” agenda, arguing that “the rich won’t pay enough” and “the government will be starved of revenue.”

Fortunately, we can look at IRS data to see what happened to tax payments from those making more than $200,000 per year.

Lo and behold, it turns out that Reaganomics was a big success. Uncle Sam collected five times as much money when the rate was slashed.

As I’ve previously written, this was the Laffer Curve on steroids. Even when you consider other factors (population growth, inflation, other reforms, etc), there’s little doubt that we got a big “supply-side effect” from Reagan’s tax reforms.

Now Biden wants to run this experiment in reverse.

Based on basic economics, his approach won’t succeed. But let’s augment theory by examining what actually happened when Hoover and Roosevelt raised tax rates in the 1930s.

Alan Reynolds reviewed tax policy in the 1920s and 1930s, but let’s focus on what he wrote about the latter decade. He starts with some general observations.

Large increases in marginal tax rates on incomes above $50,000 in the 1930s were almost always matched by large reductions in the amount of high income reported and taxed… An earlier generation of economists found that raising tax rates on incomes, profits, and sales in the 1930s was inexcusably destructive. In 1956, MIT economist E. Cary Brown pointed to the “highly deflationary impact” of the Revenue Act of 1932, which pushed up rates virtually across the board, but notably on the lower‐​and middle‐​income groups.

He then gets to the all-important issue of higher tax rates leading to big reductions in taxable income.

In Figure 1, the average marginal tax rate is an unweighted average of statutory tax brackets applying to all income groups reporting more than $50,000 of income. After President Hoover’s June 1932 tax increase (retroactive to January) the number of tax brackets above $50,000 quadrupled from 8 to 32, ranging from 31 percent to 63 percent. The average of many marginal tax rates facing incomes higher than $50,000 increased from 21.5 percent in 1931 to 47 percent in 1932, and 61.9 percent in 1936. One of the most striking facts in Figure 1 is that the amount of reported income above $50,000 was almost cut in half in a single year—from $1.31 billion in 1931 to $776.7 million in 1932.

Here’s the aforementioned Figure 1. You can see that taxable income soared when tax rates were slashed in the 1920s.

But when tax rates were increased in the 1930s, taxable income collapsed and never recovered.

What’s the lesson from this chart? As Alan explained, the lesson is that high tax rates lead to rich people earning and declaring less taxable income (they still have that ability today).

In the eight years from 1932 to 1939, the economy was in cyclical contraction for only 28 months. Even in 1940, after two huge increases in income tax rates, individual income tax receipts remained lower ($1,014 million) than they had been in the 1930 slump ($1,045 million) when the top tax rate was 25 percent rather than 79 percent. Eight years of prolonged weakness in high incomes and personal tax revenue after tax rates were hugely increased in 1932 cannot be easily brushed away as merely cyclical, rather than a behavioral response to much higher tax rates on additional (marginal) income. Just as income (and tax revenue) from high‐​income taxpayers rose spectacularly after top tax rates fell from 1921 to 1928, high incomes and revenue fell just as spectacularly in 1932 when top tax rates rose.

One big takeaway is that Hoover and FDR were two peas in a pod.

Both imposed bad tax policy.

From 1930 to 1937, unlike 1923–25, virtually all federal and state tax rates on incomes and sales were repeatedly increased, and many new taxes were added, such as the Smoot‐​Hawley tariffs in 1930, taxes on alcoholic beverages in December 1933, and a Social Security payroll tax in 1937. Annual growth of per capita GDP from 1929 to 1939 was essentially zero. …To summarize: all the repeated increases in tax rates and reductions of exemptions enacted by presidents Hoover and Roosevelt in 1932–36 did not even manage to keep individual income tax collections as high in 1939–40 (in dollars or as a percent of GDP) as they had been in 1929–30. The experience of 1930 to 1940 decisively repudiated any pretense that doubling or tripling marginal tax rates on a much broader base proved to be a revenue‐​maximizing plan.

Alan closes with an observation that should raise alarm bells.

It turns out that the higher tax rates on the rich were simply the camel’s nose under the tent. The real agenda was extending the income tax to those with more modest incomes.

The most effective and sustained changes in personal taxes after 1931 were not the symbolic attempts to “soak the rich,” but rather the changes deliberately designed to convert the income tax from a class tax to a mass tax. The exemption for married couples was reduced from $3,500 to $2,500 in 1932, $2,000 in 1940, and $1,500 in 1941. Making more low incomes taxable quadrupled the number of tax returns from 3.7 million in 1930 to 14.7 million in 1940… The lowest tax rate was also raised from 1.1 percent to 4 percent in 1932, 4.4 percent in 1940, and 10 percent in 1941.

The same thing will happen today if Biden succeeds in raising taxes on the rich. Those tax hikes won’t collect much revenue, but politicians will increase spending anyhow. They’ll then use high deficits as an excuse for higher taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers (some of the options include financial taxes, carbon taxes, and value-added taxes).

Lather, rinse, repeat. Until the United States is Europe. And that will definitely be bad news for ordinary people.

P.S. Here’s what we can learn about tax policy in the 1920s. And the 1950s.

P.P.S. The 1920s and 1930s also can teach us an important lesson about growth and inequality.

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There are all sorts of long-running battles in the economics profession, perhaps most notably the never-ending dispute about Keynesian economics.

Another contentious issues is the degree to which society should accept less growth in order to achieve more equality, with Arthur Okun – author of Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff – being the most famous advocate for prioritizing equity.

I don’t agree with Okun, but I applaud him for honesty. Unlike many modern politicians, as well as most international bureaucracies (and even the occasional journalist), he didn’t pretend that big government was a free lunch.

Let’s take a closer look at this issue in today’s column.

We’ll start by perusing a working paper, published by Spain’s central bank, that explores the optimal tax rate for that nation. The author, Dario Serrano-Puente, concludes that society will be better off if tax rates are increased.

Many modern governments implement a redistributive fiscal policy, where personal income is taxed at an increasingly higher rate, while transfers tend to target the poorest households.In Spain there is an intense debate about…so-called “fiscal justice”, which is putting on the table a tax rate increase for the high-income earners… once the theoretical framework is defined, a bunch of potential progressivity reforms are assessed… Then a Benthamite social planner, who takes into account all households in the economy by putting the same weight on each of them, discerns the optimal progressivity reform. The findings suggest that aggregate social welfare is maximized when the level of progressivity of the Spanish personal income tax is increased to some extent. More precisely,in the optimally reformed scenario (setting the optimal level of progressivity), welfare gains are equivalent to an average increase of 3.08% of consumption.

I have a fundamental problem with the notion of government acting as a “Benthamite social planner,” but I don’t want to address that issue today.

Instead, I want to applaud Senor Serrano-Puente because he openly acknowledges that higher tax rates and more redistribution will lead to less growth.

Here’s some of what he wrote about that tradeoff.

For each reformed economy evaluated in the progressivity gridτ={0.00, …,0.50}, the main macroeconomic aggregates are calculated. …the evolution of these magnitudes on progressivity is depicted in Figure 4. Broadly speaking, it is clear that aggregate capital and output are decreasing in progressivity in a (almost) linear pathway, with the drop in capital being more pronounced than in output. …aggregate consumption and aggregate labor are also decreasing in progressivity.

Here’s a look at the aforementioned Figure 4, and it is easy to see that the economy suffers as progressivity increases.

Kudos, again, to the author for acknowledging the tradeoff between equity and efficiency. But applauding the author for honesty is not the same as applauding the author’s judgement.

Simply stated, he is trying to justify a policy that will hurt poor people in the long run. That’s because even small differences in growth can have a big effect over time.

Let’s illustrate how this works with a chart showing the life-time earnings of a hypothetical low-income Spaniard.

  • The orange line shows how much money the workers gets if he starts with an extra 3.08 percent of income thanks to higher taxes and additional redistribution, but the economy grows 2.0 percent per year.
  • The blue line shows income for the same worker, which starts at a lower level because tax rates have not been increased to fund additional redistribution, but the economy grows 2.2 percent per year..

As you can see, that low-income worker is a net beneficiary of bigger government for about 10 years. But as time goes on, the worker would be far better off with smaller government and faster growth.

Different assumptions will lead to different results, of course. My goal is simply to help readers understand two things.

P.S. To illustrate the high cost of big government, let’s shift from hypothetical examples to real-world data. Most relevant, OECD data shows that the average low-income person in the United States is better off than the average middle-class person in Spain.

P.P.S. The study cited above considers what happens if Spanish politicians raise taxes on the rich. That would be a mistake, as illustrated by the chart, but let’s not forget that Spanish politicians also over-tax low-income people.

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Because of the negative impact on competitiveness, productivity, and worker compensation, it’s a very bad idea to impose double taxation of saving and investment.

Which is why there should be no tax on capital gains, and a few nations sensibly take this approach.

But they’re outnumbered by countries that do impose this pernicious form of double taxation. For instance, the Tax Foundation has a new report about the level of capital gains taxation in Europe, which includes this very instructive map.

As you can see, some countries, such as Denmark (gee, what a surprise), have very punitive rates.

However, other nations (such as Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Luxembourg, and Slovenia) wisely don’t impose this form of double taxation.

If the United States was included, we would be in the middle of the pack. Actually, we would be a bit worse than average, especially when you include the Obamacare tax on capital gains.

But if Joe Biden succeeds, the United States soon will have the dubious honor of being the worst of the worst.

The Wall Street Journal opined this morning about the grim news.

Biden officials leaked that they will soon propose raising the federal tax on capital gains to 43.4% from a top rate of 23.8% today. …Mr. Biden will tax capital gains for taxpayers who earn more than $1 million at the personal income tax rate, which he also wants to raise to 39.6% from 37%. Add the 3.8% ObamaCare tax on investment, and you get to 43.4%. And that’s merely the federal rate. Add 13.3% in California and 11.85% in New York (plus 3.88% in New York City), which also tax capital gains as regular income, and you are heading toward the 60% rate range. Keep in mind this is on the sale of gains that are often inflated as assets are held for years without adjustment for inflation. Oh, and Mr. Biden also wants to eliminate the step-up in basis on capital gains that accrues at death.

Beating out Denmark for the highest capital gains tax rate is bad.

But it’s even worse when you realize that capital gains often occur because investors expect an asset to generate more future income. But that future income gets hit by the corporate income tax (as well as the tax on dividends) when it actually materializes.

So the most accurate way to assess the burden on new investment is to look at the combined rate of corporate taxation and capital gains (as as well as the combined rate of corporate taxation and dividend taxation).

By that measure, the United States already has one of the world’s most-punitive tax regimes, And Biden wants to increase all of those tax rates.

Sort of a class-warfare trifecta, and definitely not a recipe for good economic results.

For those interested in more details, here’s a video I narrated on the topic back in 2010.

And I also recommend these columns (here, here, and here) for additional information on why we should be eliminating the capital gains tax rather than increasing it.

P.S. Don’t forget that there’s no indexing to protect taxpayers from having to pay tax on gains that are due only to inflation.

P.P.S. And also keep in mind that some folks on the left want to impose tax on capital gains that only exist on paper.

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The International Monetary Fund’s dogmatic support for higher taxes and bigger government makes it “the dumpster fire of the global economy.”

Wherever IMF bureaucrats go, it seems they push for high-tax policies that will weaken growth.

Call me crazy, but I’m baffled that the IMF seems to think nations will grow faster and be more prosperous if politicians seize more money from the economy’s productive sector.

Unfortunately, the IMF has been especially active in recent months..

In a column for the U.K.-based Guardian, Larry Elliott writes about the IMF using the pandemic as an excuse to push for higher taxes.

…the IMF called for domestic and international tax changes that would boost the money available to expand public services, make welfare states more generous… “To help meet pandemic-related financing needs, policymakers could consider a temporary Covid-19 recovery contribution, levied on high incomes or wealth,” the fiscal monitor said. …Paolo Mauro, the deputy director of the IMF’s fiscal affairs department, said there had been an “erosion” of the taxes paid by those at the top of the income scale, with the pandemic offering a chance to claw some of the money back. “Governments could consider higher taxes on property, capital gains and inheritance,” he said. “One specific option would be a Covid-19 recovery contribution – a surcharge on personal tax or corporate income tax.”

Mr. Mauro, like most IMF bureaucrats, is at “the top of the income scale,” but he doesn’t have to worry that he’ll be adversely impact if politicians seek to “claw some of the money back.”

Why? Because IMF officials get tax-free salaries (just like their counterparts at other international bureaucracies).

Writing for the IMF’s blog, Mr. Mauro is joined by David Amaglobeli and Vitor Gaspar in supporting higher taxes on other people.

Breaking the cycle of inequality requires both predistributive and redistributive policies. …The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the vital importance of a good social safety net that can be quickly activated to provide lifelines to struggling families. …Enhancing access to basic public services will require additional resources, which can be mobilized, depending on country circumstances, by strengthening overall tax capacity. Many countries could rely more on property and inheritance taxes.  Countries could also raise tax progressivity as some governments have room to increase top marginal personal income tax rates… Moreover, governments could consider levying temporary COVID-19 recovery contributions as supplements to personal income taxes for high-income households.

Needless to say, the IMF is way off base in fixating on inequality instead of trying to reduce poverty.

Meanwhile, Brian Cheung reports for Yahoo Finance about the IMF’s cheerleading for a global tax cartel.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says it backs a U.S. proposal for a global minimum corporate tax. IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath said that the fund has been calling for international cooperation on tax policy “for a long time,” adding that different corporate tax rates around the world have fueled tax shifting and avoidance. “That reduces the revenues that governments collect to do the needed social and economic spending,” Gopinath told Yahoo Finance Tuesday. “We’re very much in support of having this kind of global minimum corporate tax.” …Gopinath also backed Yellen’s push forward on an aggressive infrastructure bill… As the IMF continues to encourage countries with fiscal room to continue spending through the recovery, its chief economist said investment into infrastructure is one way to boost economic activity.

Based on the above stories we can put together a list of the tax increases embraced by the IMF, all justified by what I call “fairy dust” economics.

  • Higher income tax rates.
  • Higher property taxes.
  • More double taxation of saving/investment.
  • Higher death taxes.
  • Wealth taxes.
  • Global tax cartel.
  • Higher consumption taxes.

And don’t forget the IMF is a long-time supporter of big energy taxes.

All supported by bureaucrats who are exempt from paying tax on their own very-comfortable salaries.

P.S. I feel sorry for two groups of people. First, I have great sympathy for taxpayers in nations that follow the IMF’s poisonous advice. Second, I feel sorry for the economists and other professionals at the IMF (who often produce highquality research). They must wince with embarrassment every time garbage recommendations are issued by the political types in charge of the bureaucracy.

P.P.S. But since they’re actually competent, they will easily find new work if we shut down the IMF to protect the world economy.

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