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Posts Tagged ‘Death Tax’

I despise the death tax. It should be abolished.

My main objection is that it is immoral. If a person earns money, pays tax on the money, and then responsibly saves and invests the money (which generally requires paying another layer of tax), it is reprehensible that politicians want to tax the money yet again simply because the person dies.

But I’m also an economist, so I don’t like the tax because it is the most pernicious form of double taxation. The levy not only drains capital from the private sector, it also discourages the building and creating of wealth in the first place, while also lining the pockets of accountants and tax lawyers.

None of that is good for those of us who will never have enough money to get hit by the tax.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that we get very interesting stories of what people are willing to do to escape this unfair and destructive levy.

Jeanne Calment’s apparent longevity turned her into a global celebrity before she died at the age of 122 years and 164 days in 1997. However, that age is being challenged… Yuri Deigin, a genealogist, claims that Mrs Calment actually died in 1934 and that her daughter, Yvonne, usurped her identity… The genealogist said that Mrs Calment, born in 1875, and Fernand, her husband, were the joint owners of a department store in Arles, in Provence. If Mrs Calment’s death had been registered, Mr Calment would have had to pay inheritance tax of up to 38 per cent on his wife’s half of the business. …Mr Deigin said that Mr Calment avoided the bill by telling officials that it was his daughter who had died. The daughter then passed herself off as her mother for the rest of her life.

Not everyone accepts Mr. Deigin’s analysis and it’s possible that will be genetic testing of Mrs. Calment’s remains.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing the story is accurate. We already have lots of evidence that people will take extraordinary steps to protect family funds from this additional layer of tax.

Sadly, I don’t have to worry about the death tax. But if I did, I would do everything in my power to make sure my kids got my money rather than the despicable people in Washington.

So I admire Mrs. Calment. Yes, she broke the law, but that doesn’t bother me when the law is unjust.

P.S. I’ll defend just about anybody who benefits from dodging the death tax, even if they are hypocrites or buffoons.

P.P.S. Sadly, the U.S. death tax is more punitive than the French death tax.

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There are three reasons why the right kind of tax reform can help the economy grow faster.

  1. Lower tax rates give people more incentive to earn income.
  2. Less double taxation boosts incentives to save and invest.
  3. Fewer loopholes improves incentives for economic efficiency.

Let’s focus on the third item. I don’t like special preferences in the tax code because it’s bad for growth when the tax code lures people into misallocating their labor and capital. Ethanol, for instance, shows how irrational decisions are subsidized by the IRS.

Moreover, I’d rather have smart and capable people in the private sector focusing how to create wealth instead of spending their time figuring out how to manipulate the internal revenue code.

That’s why, in my semi-dream world, I’d like to see a flat tax.* Not only would there be a low rate and no double taxation, but there also would be no distortions.

But in the real world, I’m happy to make partial progress.

That’s why I was happy that last year’s tax bill produced a $10,000 cap for the state and local tax deduction and reduced the value of other write-offs by increasing the standard deduction. Yes, I’d like to wipe out the deductions for home mortgage interest, charitable giving, and state and local taxes, but a limit is better than nothing.

And I’m also happy that lower tax rates are an indirect way of reducing the value of loopholes and other preferences.

To understand the indirect benefits of low tax rates, consider this new report from the Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, we’re discovering that a less onerous death tax means less demand for clever tax lawyers.

A single aging rich person would often hire more than a dozen people — accountants, estate administrators, insurance agents, bank attorneys, financial planners, stockbrokers — to make sure they paid as little as possible in taxes when they died. But David W. Klasing, an estate tax attorney in Orange County, Calif., said he’s seen a sharp drop in these kinds of cases. The steady erosion of the federal estate tax, shrunk again by the Republican tax law last fall, has dramatically reduced the number of Americans who have to worry about the estate tax — as well as work for those who get paid to worry about it for them, Klasing said. In 2002, about 100,000 Americans filed estate tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, according to the IRS. In 2018, only 5,000 taxpayers are expected to file these returns… “You had almost every single tax professional trying to grab as much of that pot as they could,” Klasing said. “Now almost everybody has had to find other work.”

Needless to say, I’m delighted that these people are having to “find other work.”

By the way, I’m not against these people. They were working to protect families from an odious form of double taxation, which was a noble endeavor.

I’m simply stating that I’m glad there’s less need for their services.

Charles “Skip” Fox, president of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, said he frequently hears of lawyers shifting their focus away from navigating the estate tax, and adds that there has been a downturn in the number of young attorneys going into the estate tax field. Jennifer Bird-Pollan, who teaches the estate tax to law students at the University of Kentucky, said that nearly a decade ago her classes were packed with dozens of students. Now, only a handful of students every so often may be interested in the subject or pursuing it as a career. “There’s about as much interest in [the class] law and literature,” Pollan said. “The very, very wealthy are still hiring estate tax lawyers, but basically people are no longer paying $1,000 an hour for advice about this stuff. They don’t need it.”

Though I am glad one lawyer is losing business.

Stacey Schlitz, a tax attorney in Nashville, said when she got out of law school about a decade ago roughly 80 percent of her clients were seeking help with their estate taxes. Now, less than 1 percent are, she said, adding that Tennessee’s state inheritance tax was eliminated by 2016. “It is disappointing that this area of my business dried up so that such a small segment of society could get even richer,” Schlitz said in an email.

I hope every rich person in Nashville sees this story and steers clear of Ms. Schlitz, who apparently wants her clients to be victimized by government.

Now let’s shift to the business side of the tax code and consider another example showing why lower tax rates produce more sensible behavior.

Now that the corporate tax rate has been reduced, American companies no longer have as much desire to invest in Ireland.

US investment in Ireland declined by €45bn ($51bn) in 2017, in another sign that sweeping tax reforms introduced by US president Donald Trump have impacted the decisions of American multinational companies. …Economists have been warning that…Trump’s overhaul of the US tax code, which aimed to reduce the use of foreign low-tax jurisdictions by US companies, would dent inward investment in Ireland. …In November 2017, Trump went so far as to single out Ireland, saying it was one of several countries that corporations used to offshore profits. “For too long our tax code has incentivised companies to leave our country in search of lower tax rates. It happens—many, many companies. They’re going to Ireland. They’re going all over,” he said.

Incidentally, I’m a qualified fan of Ireland’s low corporate rate. Indeed, I hope Irish lawmakers lower the rate in response to the change in American law.

And I’d like to see the US rate fall even further since it’s still too high compared to other nations.

Heck, it would be wonderful to see tax competition produce a virtuous cycle of rate reductions all over the world.

But that’s a topic I’ve addressed before.

Today’s lesson is simply that lower tax rates reduce incentives to engage in tax planning. I’ll close with simple thought experiment showing the difference between a punitive tax system and reasonable tax system.

  • 60 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you only get to keep 40 cents of every additional dollar you earn. But if you find some sort of deduction, exemption, or exclusion, you increase your take-home pay by an additional 60 cents. That’s a good deal even if the tax preference loses 30 cents of economic value.
  • 20 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you get to keep 80 cents of every dollar you earn. With that reasonable rate, you may not even care about seeking out deductions, exemptions, and exclusions. And if you do look for a tax preference, you certainly won’t pick one where you lose anything close to 20 cents of economic value.

The bottom line is that lower tax rates are a “two-fer.” They directly help economic growth by increasing incentives to earn income and they indirectly help economic growth by reducing incentives to engage in inefficient tax planning.

*My semi-dream world is a flat tax. My dream world is when the federal government is so small (as America’s Founders envisioned) that there’s no need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. It’s not the focus of today’s column, but since I talked about loopholes, it’s worth pointing out that they should be properly defined. Sadly, that simple task is too challenging for the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office (or even the Republican party).

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I’ve advocated for some of the President’s policies, but I’ve never defended Donald Trump when he’s personally attacked.

That’s partly because I’m a policy wonk rather than political pundit, but also because many of the attacks seem justified. Indeed, his boorish behavior is one of the reasons I thought he would lose the presidential race.

Today, though, I’m going to defend Trump. Albeit only because of my disdain for the death tax.

To be more specific, the New York Times published a major hit job last week that asserted the Trump family played all sorts of games – and perhaps even broke the law – to minimize gift taxes when Trump’s father was alive and to minimize death taxes when he passed away.

The president…received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s. President Trump participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud, that greatly increased the fortune he received from his parents… Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.

That meant less money went to Washington (hopefully helping to starve the beast).

The president’s parents, Fred and Mary Trump, transferred well over $1 billion in wealth to their children, which could have produced a tax bill of at least $550 million under the 55 percent tax rate then imposed on gifts and inheritances. The Trumps paid a total of $52.2 million, or about 5 percent, tax records show.

The article implies the Trump family broke the law, though both the IRS and state government accepted the tax return.

The line between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion is often murky, and it is constantly being stretched by inventive tax lawyers. There is no shortage of clever tax avoidance tricks that have been blessed by either the courts or the I.R.S. itself. The richest Americans almost never pay anything close to full freight. But tax experts briefed on The Times’s findings said the Trumps appeared to have done more than exploit legal loopholes. They said the conduct described here represented a pattern of deception and obfuscation, particularly about the value of Fred Trump’s real estate, that repeatedly prevented the I.R.S. from taxing large transfers of wealth to his children.

There’s not much ambiguity in my reaction to this report. I think the death tax is both immoral and economically misguided. It’s a terrible example of double taxation and it drains job-creating capital from the private economy.

The correct rate for the death tax is zero, so I’m glad the Trump family did everything possible to minimize the amount of money grabbed by Washington.

I’m embarrassed that death taxes are worse in the United States than they are in Venezuela.

Sadly, not everyone shares my perspective. Some folks are even using this NYT story as an excuse to make the death tax more onerous.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Hill.

Democrats are calling for changes to the estate tax following a bombshell news report detailing how the Trump family navigated the tax code to protect the family’s financial assets. …”We need to look at the estate tax and certainly the issue that is raised by this investigation about the undervaluation of assets and gifts and the use of the various devices,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (Texas), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Tax Policy, who called for hearings on the matter. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said it was time to reexamine the loopholes. …Democrats say their interest in closing the loopholes are not new.

The last sentence in that excerpt is true. Obama wanted to make the death tax worse. So did Hillary.

And I’m disgusted that there are people in the business of financial planning who support the death tax since it creates business for them.

This awful levy should be repealed. Yesterday, if possible.

P.S. I assume everyone will admit that death taxes impact incentives to build wealth, but how many people realize that death taxes change incentives on when people die?

P.P.S. Smart rich people opted to die in 2010 (admittedly an extreme form of tax avoidance). They also avoid certain states.

P.P.P.S. I’ll defend just about anybody who tries to escape the vicious and destructive death tax, including straight men who marry each other and gay men who arrange fake adoptions.

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Back in 2013, I wrote about a gay guy adopting his long-time lover in order to escape the evil and pernicious death tax. I speculated that this would cause confusion and angst in some circles.

  • Traditional leftists would want to applaud the adoption because of their support for gay rights, but they would be conflicted because of their support for the death tax.
  • Traditional conservatives, by contrast, would dislike the way adoption laws were being used, but presumably like the fact that the reach of the death tax was being curtailed.

Now we have a somewhat similar example of the death tax leading people to take an unusual step.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the Belfast Telegraph.

Two best friends in the Republic of Ireland who have decided to get married to avoid paying inheritance tax… Michael O’Sullivan, a father of three, is set to marry his friend Matt Murphy in January. …Friends for almost 30 years they have made the decision so that Michael will inherit Matt’s home in Stoneybatter, Dublin when he dies. …Neither man is gay and say they are like brothers.

Not only will this save them money, it will be beneficial for other taxpayers as well.

Both men say they are currently on a small pension and say their idea is “saving the State money”. Michael said: “We found out from a friend of mine that she is paying €1,760 a week to stay in a nursing home, okay I could put Matt in a nursing home and then people would be paying their tax to look after him in the nursing home. “I don’t have much money and Matt can’t pay me to look after him but we tried to find out how much it would cost for a 24-hour care, you’re talking about a couple of thousand a week. “We are saving the State money.”

By the way, this story also may be an indirect example of excessive regulation.

It seems the guys could have received a subsidy from the government so that Michael could take care of Matt, but that would have triggered so much hassle and red tape that it wasn’t worth it.

“We didn’t go for the Carer’s Allowance because Matt would have to be examined, the house would have to be looked at.

Amen. Nobody welcomes a bunch of nosy bureaucrats poking through their life.

Now let’s zoom out and consider some broader policy implications.

I like and defend Ireland’s policy of aggressively using low corporate taxes to attract jobs and investment, but that doesn’t mean other policies in the country are favorable for taxpayers.

Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that other taxes in that country are too high and it’s quite clear that the burden of government spending also is excessive.

The story doesn’t give details about the extent of the death tax, but it obviously must be punitive if two straight guys are marrying each other to dodge the levy.

In any event, it belongs in my collection of odd moments in international taxation.

It doesn’t really belong in this collection, but I think the oddest tax story I’ve ever read is that a bureaucrat from the tax-loving European Commission criticized France for excessive taxation.

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Since Republicans screwed up Obamacare repeal and haven’t even tried to impose spending restraint, I was rather pessimistic about tax reform earlier this year.

Given my dour attitude, I thought the best-possible outcome was nothing more than a reduction in the corporate tax rate.

But now I’m actually somewhat hopeful that we’ll get a lower corporate rate and repeal of the pernicious deduction for state and local income taxes.

And I’m even wondering whether I should allow myself to hope that the death tax can be repealed. The final outcome will depend on negotiations on Capitol Hill. The House bill gets rid of the tax (albeit only for people who can stay alive a few more years). The Senate bill isn’t as good since it only increases the exemption.

Is it possible the final deal will kill this destructive form of double taxation?

Folks on the left are afraid it may happen. The New York Times is predictably editorializing in favor of keeping the tax.

“Only morons pay the estate tax,” Gary Cohn, Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, told Senate Democrats, meaning, it was later explained, “rich people with really bad tax planning.” Many of the very wealthy use loopholes, like trusts, to avoid paying inheritance tax. …An estate tax repeal would provide a tax windfall of more than $3 million apiece for the top 0.2 percent of earners, and more than $20 million for the wealthiest Americans. It would cost $239 billion in revenue over a decade. It offers nothing for middle-class people, except more evidence of Mr. Trump’s and Republicans’ bad faith.

Frankly, I don’t care whether rich people benefit. I want the tax repealed because it penalizes saving and investment.

The actual victims of the tax (the “morons” who failed to hire clever lawyers and accountants) are forced to liquidate assets and turn the money over to government.

And potential victims of the tax engage in inefficient forms of tax planning to protect assets from the government.

Call me crazy, but I want capital to be allocated efficiently since that’s one of the keys for economic growth and rising wages.

The U.K.-based Economist has just published a defense of the death tax that begins by acknowledging that it’s not a popular levy.

Inheritance tax is routinely seen as the least fair by Britons and Americans. This hostility spans income brackets. …The estate of a dead adult American is 95% less likely to face tax now than in the 1960s. …For a time before the second world war, Britons were more likely to pay death duties than income tax; today less than 5% of estates catch the taxman’s eye. It is not just Anglo-Saxons. Revenue from these taxes in OECD countries, as a share of total government revenue, has fallen sharply since the 1960s. Many other countries have gone down the same path. In 2004 even the egalitarian Swedes decided that their inheritance tax should be abolished.

Notwithstanding the magazine’s name, the article shows very little understanding of economics.

…this trend towards trifling or zero estate taxes ought to give pause. Such levies pit two vital…principles against each other. One is that governments should leave people to dispose of their wealth as they see fit. The other is that a permanent, hereditary elite makes a society unhealthy and unfair. How to choose between them? …The positive argument for steep inheritance taxes is that they promote fairness and equality. …Unlike capital-gains taxes, heavier estate taxes do not seem to dissuade saving or investment.

I’m glad that the article pays lip service to the notion that people should be able to decide how to spend their own money, but then the article veers into pure class warfare.

What’s really remarkable, though, is that we’re supposed to believe that death taxes don’t have a negative impact on capital formation (i.e., saving and investment). Utter nonsense. Let’s think this through. Imagine a successful entrepreneur who earns income and gets hit with, say, a 40 percent personal income tax. That entrepreneur than invests some of the after-tax income, which then presumably triggers additional layers of tax (business taxes, capital gains taxes, dividend taxes), which easily can confiscate 30 percent of affected funds. And then there can be a death tax that may grab another 40 percent.

At the risk of plagiarizing the New York Times, only a “moron” is going to ignore the cumulative impact of all those taxes. There’s either going to be less quantity of saving and investment or less quality of saving and investment (because of inefficient tax planning).

Fortunately, governments in the real world increasingly understand that death taxes are very damaging. In another article, the Economist shares some specific details on how death taxes have become less popular around the world.

In OECD countries the proportion of total government revenues raised by such taxes has fallen by three-fifths since the 1960s, from over 1% to less than 0.5%. Over the same period Australia, Canada, Russia, India and Norway are among countries that have abolished death duties. More than 20 American states binned wealth-transfer taxes between 1976 and 2000… In 1976 roughly 8% of American estates filed a taxable return; that has since fallen to around 0.2%.

I actually think tax competition deserves a lot of the credit for the good reforms that have happened, but that’s an issue for another day.

Here’s a chart from the article, which is supposed to show how death taxes have become a smaller and smaller share of tax revenue. This seems like good news, but keep in mind that what it really shows is that personal income taxes, payroll taxes, and (in the U.K.) the value-added tax have grown enormously since the pre-World War II era. If the Economist wanted to be honest, it would have shown inflation-adjusted death tax revenue.

I can’t resist commenting on one other thing. The Economist wants people to think that the death tax is okay because compliance costs supposedly are modest.

A study published in 1999 suggests that the overall cost of estate-tax compliance is 7% of estate-tax revenues. Yet a chunk of those costs, such as selecting executors and drafting documents, would still be paid even in the absence of the tax. So it is hardly clear that the rich would be left with much extra time for more productive undertakings.

I’m skeptical of their compliance calculations, but let’s set that aside.

What the article overlooks (and what is far more important from an economic perspective) is that the death tax causes capital to be misallocated. Successful families make decisions about saving and investment based on potential tax implications rather than what is most productive. And really successful families create trusts and foundation to protect their wealth. Good for them (and good for their financial advisers), but not so good for everyone else since money won’t be used as efficiently.

And if you don’t think the death tax distorts incentives, consider that evidence from Australia indicates it even impacts when people die.

I’m not going to hold my breath, but it would be great news if congressional Republicans can kill the death tax.

P.S. Here’s a semi-amusing left-wing humor on Trump and the death tax.

Not as good as the video on Somalia as a libertarian paradise, but still worth sharing.

P.P.S. You won’t be surprised to know that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton actually wanted to make the death tax more punitive. Which is really remarkable since the current U.S. approach is even more punitive than Greece and Venezuela.

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Whenever I debate my left-wing friends on tax policy, they routinely assert that taxes don’t matter.

It’s unclear, though, whether they really believe their own rhetoric.

After all, if taxes don’t affect economic behavior, then why are folks on the left so terrified of tax havens? Why are they so opposed to tax competition?

And why are they so anxious to defend loopholes such as the deduction for state and local taxes.

Perhaps most revealing, why do leftists sometimes cut taxes when they hold power? A story in the Wall Street Journal notes that there’s been a little-noticed wave of state tax cuts. Specifically reductions and/or eliminations of state death taxes. And many of these supply-side reforms are happening in left-wing states!

In the past three years, nine states have eliminated or lowered their estate taxes, mostly by raising exemptions. And more reductions are coming. Minnesota lawmakers recently raised the state’s estate-tax exemption to $2.1 million retroactive to January, and the exemption will rise to $2.4 million next year. Maryland will raise its $3 million exemption to $4 million next year. New Jersey’s exemption, which used to rank last at $675,000 a person, rose to $2 million a person this year. Next year, New Jersey is scheduled to eliminate its estate tax altogether, joining about a half-dozen others that have ended their estate taxes over the past decade.

This is good news for affected taxpayers, but it’s also good news for the economy.

Death taxes are not only a punitive tax on capital, but they also discourage investors, entrepreneurs, and other high-income people from earning income once they have accumulated a certain level of savings.

But let’s focus on politics rather than economics. Why are governors and state legislators finally doing something sensible? Why are they lowering tax burdens on “rich” taxpayers instead of playing their usual game of class warfare?

I’d like to claim that they’re reading Cato Institute research, or perhaps studies from other market-oriented organizations and scholars.

But it appears that tax competition deserves most of the credit.

This tax-cutting trend has been fueled by competition between the states for affluent and wealthy taxpayers. Such residents owe income taxes every year, but some are willing to move out of state to avoid death duties that come only once. Since the federal estate-and-gift tax exemption jumped to $5 million in 2011, adjusted for inflation, state death duties have stood out.

I don’t fully agree with the above excerpt because there’s plenty of evidence that income taxes cause migration from high-tax states to zero-income-tax states.

But I agree that a state death tax can have a very large impact, particularly once a successful person has retired and has more flexibility.

Courtesy of the Tax Foundation, here are the states that still impose this destructive levy.

Though this map may soon have one less yellow state. As reported by the WSJ, politicians in the Bay State may be waking up.

In Massachusetts, some lawmakers are worried about losing residents to other states because of its estate tax, which brought in $400 million last year. They hope to raise the exemption to half the federal level and perhaps exclude the value of a residence as well. These measures stand a good chance of passage even as lawmakers are considering raising income taxes on millionaires, says Kenneth Brier, an estate lawyer with Brier & Ganz LLP in Needham, Mass., who tracks the issue for the Massachusetts Bar Association. State officials “are worried about a silent leak of people down to Florida, or even New Hampshire,” he adds.

I’m not sure the leak has been silent. There’s lots of data on the migration of productive people to lower-tax states.

But what matters is that tax competition is forcing the state legislature (which is overwhelmingly Democrat) to do the right thing, even though their normal instincts would be to squeeze upper-income taxpayers for more money.

As I’ve repeatedly written, tax competition also has a liberalizing impact on national tax policy.

Following the Reagan tax cuts and Thatcher tax cuts, politicians all over the world felt pressure to lower their tax rates on personal income. The same thing has happened with corporate tax rates, though Ireland deserves most of the credit for getting that process started.

I’ll close by recycling my video on tax competition. It focuses primarily on fiscal rivalry between nations, but the lessons equally apply to states.

P.S. For what it’s worth, South Dakota arguably is the state with the best tax policy. It’s more difficult to identify the state with the worst policy, though New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, and Connecticut can all make a strong claim to be at the bottom.

P.P.S. Notwithstanding my snarky title, I don’t particularly care whether there are tax cuts for rich people. But I care a lot about not having tax policies that penalize the behaviors (work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship) that produce income, jobs, and opportunity for poor and middle-income people. And if that means reforms that allow upper-income people to keep more of their money, I’m okay with that since I’m not an envious person.

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In the Dirty Harry movies, one of Clint Eastwood’s famous lines is “Go ahead, make my day.”

I’m tempted to say the same thing when I read about politicians proposing economically destructive policies. Indeed, I sometimes even relish the opportunity. I endorsed Francois Hollande back in 2012, for instance, because I was confident he would make the awful French tax system even worse, thus giving me lots of additional evidence against class-warfare policies.

Mission accomplished!

Now we have another example. Politicians in California, unfazed by the disaster of Obamacare (or the nightmare of the British system), want to create a “single-payer” healthcare scheme for the Golden State.

Here’s a description of the proposal from Sacramento Bee.

It would cost $400 billion to remake California’s health insurance marketplace and create a publicly funded universal health care system, according to a state financial analysis released Monday. California would have to find an additional $200 billion per year, including in new tax revenues, to create a so-called “single-payer” system, the analysis by the Senate Appropriations Committee found. …Steep projected costs have derailed efforts over the past two decades to establish such a health care system in California. The cost is higher than the $180 billion in proposed general fund and special fund spending for the budget year beginning July 1. …Lara and Atkins say they are driven by the belief that health care is a human right and should be guaranteed to everyone, similar to public services like safe roads and clean drinking water. …Business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, have deemed the bill a “job-killer.” …“It will cost employers and taxpayers billions of dollars and result in significant loss of jobs in the state,” the Chamber of Commerce said in its opposition letter.

Yes, you read correctly. In one fell swoop, California politicians would more than double the fiscal burden of government. Without doubt, the state would take over the bottom spot in fiscal rankings (it’s already close anyhow).

Part of me hopes they do it. The economic consequences would be so catastrophic that it would serve as a powerful warning about the downside of statism.

The Wall Street Journal opines that this is a crazy idea, and wonders if California Democrats are crazy enough to enact it.

…it’s instructive, if not surprising, that Golden State Democrats are responding to the failure of ObamaCare by embracing single-payer health care. This proves the truism that the liberal solution to every government failure is always more government. …California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the frontrunner to succeed Jerry Brown as Governor next year, is running on single-payer, which shows the idea is going mainstream. At the state Democratic convention last weekend, protesters shouted down speakers who dared to ask about paying for it. The state Senate Appropriations Committee passed a single-payer bill this week, and it has a fair chance of getting to Mr. Brown’s desk.

I semi-joked that California was committing slow-motion suicide when the top income tax rate was increased to 13.3 percent.

As the editorial implies, the state’s death will come much faster if this legislation is adopted.

A $200 billion tax hike would be equivalent to a 15% payroll tax, which would come on top of the current 15.3% federal payroll tax. …The report dryly concludes that “the state-wide economic impacts of such an overall tax increase on employment is beyond the scope of this analysis.”

California’s forecasting bureaucrats may not be willing to predict the economic fallout from this scheme, but it’s not beyond the scope of my analysis.

If this legislation is adopted, the migration of taxpayers out of California will accelerate, the costs will be higher than advertised, and I’ll have a powerful new example of why big government is a disaster.

Ed Morrissey, in a column for The Week, explains why this proposal is bad news. He starts by observing that other states have toyed with the idea and wisely backed away.

Vermont had to abandon its attempts to impose a single-payer health-care system when its greatest champion, Gov. Peter Shumlin, discovered that it would cost far more than he had anticipated. Similarly, last year Colorado voters resoundingly rejected ColoradoCare when a study discovered that even tripling taxes wouldn’t be enough to keep up with the costs.

So what happens if single payer is enacted by a state and costs are higher than projected and revenues are lower than projected (both very safe assumptions)?

The solutions for…fiscal meltdown in a single-payer system…all unpleasant. One option would be to cut benefits of the universal coverage, and hiking co-pays to provide disincentives for using health care. …The state could raise taxes for the health-care system as deficits increased, which would amount to ironic premium hikes from a system designed to be a response to premium hikes from insurers. Another option: Reduce the payments provided to doctors, clinics, and hospitals for their services, which would almost certainly drive providers to either reduce their access or leave the state for greener pastures.

By the way, I previously wrote about how Vermont’s leftists wisely backed off single-payer and explained that this was a great example of why federalism is a good idea.

Simply stated, even left-wing politicians understand that it’s easy to move across state lines to escape extortionary fiscal policy. And that puts pressure on them to be less greedy.

This is one of the main reasons I want to eliminate DC-based redistribution and let states be in charge of social welfare policy.

Using the same reasoning, I’ve also explained why it would be good news if California seceded. People tend to be a bit more rational when it’s more obvious that they’re voting to spend their own money.

Though maybe there’s no hope for California. Let’s close by noting that some Democrat politicians in the state want to compensate for the possible repeal of the federal death tax by imposing a huge state death tax.

In a column for Forbes, Robert Wood has some of the sordid details.

California…sure does like tax increases. …The latest is a move by the Golden State to tax estates, even if the feds do not. …A bill was introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), asking voters to keep the estate tax after all. …if the feds repeal it, and California enacts its own estate tax replacement, will all the billionaires remain, or will high California taxes spark an exodus? It isn’t a silly question.

Of course billionaires will leave the state. And so will many millionaires. Yes, the weather and scenery are nice, but at some point rich people will do a cost-benefit analysis and decide it’s time to move.

And lots of middle-class jobs will move as well. That’s the inevitable consequence of class-warfare policy. Politicians say they’re targeting the rich, but the rest of us are the ones who suffer.

Will California politicians actually move forward with this crazy idea? Again, just as part of me hopes the state adopts single-payer, part of me hopes California imposes a confiscatory death tax. It’s useful to have examples of what not to do.

The Golden State already is in trouble. If it becomes an American version of Greece or Venezuela, bad news will become horrible news and I’ll have lots of material for future columns.

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As part of her collection of class-warfare tax proposals, Hillary Clinton wants a big increase in the death tax.

This is very bad tax policy. In a good system, there shouldn’t be any double taxation of income that is saved and invested, especially since that approach means a smaller capital stock (i.e., less machinery, technology, equipment, tools, etc). And every single economic school of thought – even Marxism and socialism – agrees that this means lower productivity for workers and therefore lower wages.

In a must-read column for the Wall Street Journal, Steven Entin of the Tax Foundation elaborates on why the death tax is pointlessly destructive. He starts by explaining that the tax is unfair.

…estate taxes are always double taxation. Estates are built with savings that have already been taxed as income, or soon will be. …The superrich can afford to give away assets during their lives or hire estate planners to help minimize the tax. …The main victims of the death tax are middle-income savers and small-business owners who die before transferring ownership to their children.

And because the tax reduces investment and wages, the revenue gained from imposing the tax is largely offset by lower income tax and payroll tax receipts.

The estate tax…produces so little revenue, only $19 billion last year. But because the tax has recoil effects, even this revenue is illusory. Because the tax reduces the stock of capital, it lowers the productivity of labor and reduces wages and employment. Much of the burden of the tax is shifted to working people. Research suggests that the estate tax depresses wages and employment enough to actually lower total federal revenue over time.

He then reports on some of the Tax Foundation’s analysis of the good things that happen if the tax is repealed.

…to eliminate the estate tax…would raise GDP by 0.7% over 10 years and create 142,000 full-time equivalent jobs. After-tax incomes for the bottom four-fifths of Americans would rise by 0.6% to 0.7%, mainly due to wage growth. …Revenue losses in the first six years would be almost entirely offset by gains later in the decade, with more gains thereafter. Both the public and the government would be net winners.

But he also warns of the bad things that will happen if Hillary’s class-warfare scheme is enacted.

Mrs. Clinton plans to lower the exempt amount to $3.5 million for estates and $1 million for gifts. She would raise the top rate to 45% for assets over $3.5 million, with further increases up to 65% for individual estates above $500 million. …Mrs. Clinton’s plan would lower GDP by 1% over 10 years and cost 194,000 full-time equivalent jobs. After-tax incomes for the bottom four-fifths of Americans would fall by 0.9% to 1%, due to slower wage growth. …the public and the government would be net losers.

So what’s the bottom line?

The revenue numbers cited here also do not take into account increased efforts to avoid the tax. If these imaginative and highly productive people plan ahead to direct their assets to causes they deem worthy, rather than cede their wealth by default to the government, Washington will not see a dime from an estate-tax increase. …Mrs. Clinton’s plan would not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it. Everyone would lose except estate lawyers and life insurers.

Over the years, I’ve shared other research on the death tax, including a recent column on Hillary’s grave-robber plan, as well as my own modest efforts to impact the overall debate in print and on TV.

But my favorite bit of research on the death tax comes from Australia, where repeal of the tax created a natural experiment and scholars found that death rates were affected as successful people lived longer so they could protect family money from the tax collector.

Now there’s research from another natural experiment.

An economist from the University of Chicago produced a study examining a policy change in Greece to determine what happens when taxes are reduced on the transfer of assets. Here’s a bit about her methodology.

I exploit a 2002 tax reform in Greece that reduced succession tax rates for transfers of limited liability companies to family members from 20% to less than 2.4%. …In the quasi-experimental setting made possible by the tax policy change, I employ two different methodologies to measure the effect of this policy change on investment. …by comparing the two groups before and after the tax reform, the analysis disentangles the effect of the identity of the new owner (family or unrelated) from the effect of the succession tax.

And here are her results. As you can see, there’s a notable negative impact on investment.

…estimates reveal a negative effect of transfer taxes on post-succession investment for firms that are transferred within the family. In the presence of higher succession taxes, investment drops from 17.6% of property, plant, and equipment (PPE) the three years before succession to 9.7% of PPE the two years after. This impact of succession taxes on investment is economically large: the implied fall in the investment ratio (0.079) is approximately 40% of the pre-transition level of investment. For those firms, successions are also associated with a depletion of cash reserves, a decline in profitability, and slow sales growth. Note that to the extent that entrepreneurs can plan ahead for the succession and the related tax liability, the estimates I report in the paper provide an underestimate of the true effect of succession taxes.

Even academics who seem to support the death tax for ideological reasons admit that it undermines economic performance, as seen in this study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

…aggregate capital and income go up as the estate tax is lowered. When the labor income tax is used to balance the government budget constraints, for given prices, reducing estate taxation does not reduce the rate of return to savings for anyone in the population and still increases the return to leaving a bequest… As a result, aggregate capital goes up a bit more…and so does aggregate output.

By the way, the economists who produced this study constrained their analysis by assuming other taxes would have to be increased to compensate for any reduction in the death tax. To my knowledge, there’s not a single lawmaker who wants to raise other taxes while reducing or eliminating the tax. As such, the results in the above study almost certainly understate the economic benefits of reform.

If you don’t like reading academic studies and dealing with equations and jargon, here’s what you really need to know.

  • Rich people aren’t idiots, or at least the tax advisors they have aren’t idiots.
  • Those upper-income taxpayers have tremendous ability to manage their finance.
  • Rich people (and their smart advisors) figure out how to protect themselves from tax.
  • The death tax is a voluntary tax it can be avoided by people with substantial assets.
  • But the various means of avoidance all tend to result in a less dynamic economy.

In other words, when politicians shoot at rich taxpayers, the rich taxpayers manage to dodge much of the incoming fire, but ordinary people like you and me suffer collateral damage.

Let’s close by shifting from economics to morality.

The death tax is odious in part because it is a pure (in a bad sense) form of double taxation, but it also is bad because the government shouldn’t be imposing double taxation simply because someone dies.

Actually, let’s add one more wrinkle to the discussion. If it’s immoral to impose tax simply because of a death, then it’s doubly immoral to impose such taxes while simultaneously (and hypocritically) taking steps to dodge the tax.

Which is a good description of Hillary’s behavior, as reported by the Washington Examiner.

Bill and Hillary, like most millionaires whose wealth is mostly in housing and liquid assets, have engaged in sophisticated estate planning to avoid the death tax. …the Clintons placed their Chappaqua home — the one that housed the secret servers Hillary used to evade transparency laws — into two separate trusts. For complex reasons, this protects Chelsea from having to pay the estate tax when she inherits the house. …The Clintons also hold five life insurance policies, worth somewhere around $2 million. This is “designed to transfer assets outside of the estate,” one estate planner told Time. Life insurance payouts are generally exempt from death taxes.

Oh, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Hillary has close ties to the special interest cronyists who profit from the death tax.

The death tax brings in a paltry sum for Uncle Sam, but it provides a windfall for a couple of tiny segments of the economy: estate planners, and well-funded investors who buy out the family businesses threatened by the death tax. Jeff Ricchetti is a longtime Clinton confidant, a revolving-door corporate lobbyist on K Street, and a donor to all of Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. …Jeff has spent two decades lobbying to preserve and expand the death tax. In 1999, When Jeff cashed out of the Clinton administration, he joined the Podesta Group, co-founded by Clinton’s current campaign manager John Podesta. One client there: the American Council of Life Insurers, where Ricchetti lobbied in favor of taxing inheritances. …Life insurers, such as the members of ACLI and AALU, sell estate-planning products that could become worthless — or at least worth less — if parents were simply able to hand the fruits of their life’s work to their children. That’s why in April, TheTrustAdvisor.com ran a piece headlined “Estate Tax Repeal: Has Hillary Become the Estate Planner’s Best Friend?”

I’m shocked, shocked.

By the way, one of the main practitioners of cronyism is Hillary’s political ally, Warren Buffett.

Buffett advocates the death tax because it has been so very good to him over the years. To fully understand the depth of Buffett’s cynicism and self-interest, let’s take a look at how one might avoid paying the death tax. If you’re a wealthy person and want to steer clear of this tax, you have three options: Set up complicated trust arrangements, which mostly serve to enrich lawyers and merely delay and shift a tax that must eventually be paid; arrange for your estate to make tax-deductible contributions to charitable organizations; or plow your wealth into life insurance before you die. By law, when your heirs are paid the life-insurance disbursement, it’s tax-free. It doesn’t take a genius to see how certain industries could make a tidy profit off these death-tax escape hatches. In fact, some of the most ardent opponents of permanent death-tax repeal are (surprise, surprise) estate lawyers (who set up the trusts), charities (who fear their spigots of money turning off), and the life-insurance lobby (which does all it can to preserve its tax loopholes). Buffett has major investments in companies that sell life insurance. The death tax has helped make him rich while it has made other families poor. What’s sad and ironic is that it takes families with the resources of the Buffetts (and the Hiltons and the Kardashians) to set up the trusts and life-insurance schemes that are necessary to avoid paying the death tax.

Once again, I’m shocked, shocked.

P.S. Our death tax is even more punitive that the ones imposed by left-wing hell-holes such as Greece and Venezuela.

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What’s the worst possible tax hike, the one that would do the most economic damage?

Raising income tax rates is never a good idea, and there’s powerful evidence from the 1980s about how upper-income taxpayers have considerable ability to change their behavior in response to changes in incentives.

But if you want to know the tax hikes that do the most damage, on a per-dollar raised basis, it’s probably best to focus on levies that boost double taxation of saving and investment.

The Tax Foundation ran some estimates on five different tax increases, for instance, and found that worsening depreciation rules (an arcane part of the tax code dealing with the degree to which new investment is taxed) would do the most damage, followed by a higher corporate tax rate, and then higher individual income tax rates.

But I wonder what they would have found if they also modeled the impact of a higher death tax. That levy is particularly destructive because it directly requires the liquidation of capital. The assets of investors, entrepreneurs, farmers, small business owners, and other victims take a big hit as politicians grab as much as 40 percent of what they’ve worked for during their lives.

This is bad for the economy because it directly reduces the capital stock. Sort of like harvesting apples by cutting down 40 percent of the trees in an orchard. The net result is that the economy’s ability to generate future income is undermined.

But it’s also bad for the economy because it reduces incentives for successful taxpayers to both earn and invest while they’re alive. Why bust your rear end when the government immediately will take at least 39.6 percent (actually more when you consider Medicare taxes, state taxes, and double taxation of interest, dividends, and capital gains) of your income, and then another 40 percent of what you’ve saved and invested when you kick the bucket?

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton doesn’t seem to care about such matters. She actually just decided to double down on her destructive tax agenda by endorsing an even bigger increase in the death tax.

I’m not joking.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is not exactly impressed by Hillary’s class-warfare poison.

On Thursday she decided that her proposal to raise the death tax to 45% from 40% isn’t enough and endorsed even higher levies that would apply to thousands of estates. Though she defeated Bernie Sanders in the primary, she is adopting the socialist’s death-tax rate structure. She’d tax all estates over $10 million at 50%, apply a 55% rate on estates over $50 million, and go to 65% on assets above $500 million. The 65% rate would be the highest since 1981 and is another example of how she is repudiating the more moderate policies of her husband and the Democrats of the 1990s. …the Sanders plan that Mrs. Clinton is copying did not index exemption levels for inflation. …Mrs. Clinton would also end the “step-up in basis” on stock valuations for many filers, triggering big capital gains taxes for a much broader population.

Wow, this is class warfare on steroids. And the part about this being more like Bernie Sanders than Bill Clinton hits the mark. Economic freedom actually increased in America between 1992 and 2000.

Hillary, by contrast, is a doctrinaire and reflexive statist. I’m not aware of a single position she’s taken that would reduce the burden of government.

By the way, here’s a bit of information that won’t shock anyone familiar with the greed and hypocrisy of the political class.

Hillary and her friends will largely dodge the tax, which mostly will fall on small business owners who lack the ability to create clever structures.

…most of her rich friends will set up foundations, as she and Bill Clinton have, to shelter most of their riches from the estate tax. …In any case, Mrs. Clinton is now promising total tax hikes of $1.5 trillion over a decade if elected President.

Gee, knock me over with a feather.

The Tax Foundation may not have included the death tax when it compared the harm of different tax hikes, but it has looked at how the death tax hurts the economy by discouraging capital formation and capital accumulation.

…an estate tax increase would cause economic production to be allocated away from business equipment, reducing the quantity of business equipment in the economy. …Many of the assets that fall under the estate tax, such as residential structures, commercial structures, and business equipment, enhance productivity, or gross domestic product (GDP) per hour worked. …The relationship between these assets and productivity is the focus of one of the most common models in economics, an equation called the Cobb-Douglas production function, which describes how workers and capital goods together produce economic output. Under this model, more capital increases output or income, even as the number of workers is held constant. It therefore increases GDP per hour worked, making people richer. Under such a model, reallocating economic production away from the capital goods that enhance output would reduce GDP in the long run. This is an effect that one might expect to see in a macroeconomic analysis of the estate tax.

Amen. If you want more output and higher living standards, you need to boost worker pay by increasing the quality and quantity of capital in the economy.

But politicians like Hillary

Here are the estimates of what happens to the economy with a 65 percent death tax.

So what would happen if lawmakers instead did the right thing and abolished this wretched example of double taxation?

The Tax Foundation has crunched the numbers. Here’s the impact on the overall economy.

And here’s what happens to federal revenue over the same period.

By the way, the Wall Street Journal editorial cited above did contain a bit of good news.

Congress is starting to push back against President Obama’s stealth death tax increase. Rep. Warren Davidson (R., Ohio) read our recent editorial about Treasury plans to raise taxes on minority stakes in family businesses by artificially inflating their value, and he’s drafted a bill to stop Treasury’s tax grab as a violation of the separation of powers. …A former owner of several businesses, Mr. Davidson says the U.S. economy needs owners focused on “growing assets, not structuring them for life events.” He explains that many farms in particular may carry high values but hold little cash, and so the death tax triggers land sales to pay the IRS. “The whole concept of a death tax is immoral,” Mr. Davidson says, and he’s right. The tax confiscates assets that have already been taxed once or more when first earned, and it punishes a lifetime of investment and thrift.

I wrote about this issue the other day, so I’m glad to see that there’s pushback against this Obama Administration scheme to unilaterally boost the burden of the death tax.

P.S. Politicians are not the only beneficiaries of the death tax.

 

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I’m in Geneva, Switzerland, where I just gave a speech about how international bureaucracies such as the OECD are seeking to undermine tax competition in hopes that the welfare state can be propped up for a few more years with ever-higher taxes.

But regular readers already know my views on these issues, so instead I want to focus today on a referendum that just took place a couple of days ago in this Alpine nation.

That referendum has convinced me that I was wrong when I wrote a few years ago that there were five reasons (government-constraining federalism, pro-gun culture, etc) to put Switzerland above the United States.

I’m not convinced there’s a 6th reason. Simply stated, the Swiss have to be the most sensible people in the world.

Here are some excerpts from an English-language report published by Swiss Info.

An attempt to federalise Switzerland’s inheritance tax system and redistribute wealth by taxing legacies worth more than CHF2 million ($2.15 million) has been rejected by Swiss voters… On Sunday, 71% of voters and all 26 Swiss cantons rejected the proposal. …Two-thirds of the revenue from this new tax, projected at CHF3 billion a year, would have been credited to the nation’s old age pension fund.

Yes, you read correctly. The Swiss left thought they could lure voters into supporting a tax hike based on a discriminatory tax on a tiny segment of the population.

But an overwhelming share of Swiss voters rejected this class-warfare scheme. Here’s a map of the results. But instead of liberal blue states and conservative red states that are found in the United States, Switzerland has nothing but conservative brown cantons.

The German-speaking cantons voted no. The French-speaking cantons voted no. And the Italian-speaking canton voted no.

It’s almost enough to make one feel sorry for Swiss statists.

…the political left has continued its losing streak at the ballot box. In the past two years voters have rejected pay caps within companies, the introduction of a nationwide minimum wage and a plan to scrap lump sum taxation for rich foreigners. …Supporters of the plan countered that the overall tax burden in Switzerland is still one of the lowest in Europe.

Though I have to wonder if Swiss leftists are extraordinarily stupid.

Did they really think that complaining about low taxes was the way to win an election?!?

I can just imagine what went through the minds of ordinary Swiss voters: “hmm…we’re richer than our high-tax neighbors and we’re growing faster than our high-tax neighbors…should we copy them or maintain the policies that have worked?”

Opponents had a more compelling argument.

Several politicians and media described the tax as a “KMU Killer”, referring to the German abbreviation for small and medium-sized businesses, which employ more than three-quarters of the Swiss workforce. Businesses said it would have been an effective double tax on income since firms already pay tax on earnings. …Switzerland’s cabinet, both houses of parliament and all 26 cantons had recommended voters reject the proposal, as did the main business lobbies.

Needless to say, I appreciate the argument about double taxation. That’s the obvious economic argument against the death tax.

But what makes Switzerland remarkable is the last part of the excerpt. It appears that the entire Swiss political establishment, as well as the entire business community, understand that it would be crazy to kill the low-tax goose that lays the golden economic eggs.

But ultimately, you have to give credit to the Swiss people. As mentioned in the article, they keep rejected statist proposals.

Here are a few I’ve written about.

Needless to say, my favorite Swiss referendum took place back in 2001, when 85 percent of voters imposed a spending cap on the central government. As explained in this video, this system has been remarkably effective at limiting the growth of government.

P.S. Oregon voters and California voters, by contrast, are far less discerning than their Swiss counterparts.

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Who benefits most from the death tax?

There are two obvious answers.

First, politicians presumably benefit since they get more money to spend. Yes, it’s true that the tax discourages capital formation and may actually lose revenue in the long run, but politicians aren’t exactly famous for thinking past the next election cycle.

Second, there are some statists who are motivated by envy and resentment. These are the folks who make class-warfare arguments about the death tax being necessary to prevent the “rich” from accumulating more wealth, even though evidence shows large family fortunes dissipate over time.

Both of those answers are correct, but they don’t fully explain why this pernicious levy still exists.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a must-read piece for the American Enterprise Institute. He reveals the groups that actually are spending time and money to defend this odious version of double taxation.

…about two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters that they oppose the death tax. …But some segments of the population feel differently — most notably, the estate-planning industry. A survey by an industry magazine in 2011 found that 63 percent of estate-planning attorneys opposed repeal of the estate tax. That’s fitting. The death tax forces people to engage in complex and expensive estate planning. Lobbying disclosure forms show that the insurance industry is lobbying on the issue these days. The Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, which represents companies that sell estate-planning products, lobbied on the issue last year, as it has for years. Last decade, AALU funded a group called the Coalition for America’s Priorities, which attacked estate tax repeal as a tax break for Paris Hilton. …When the estate tax was last before Congress, the life insurance industry revved up the troops, spending $10 million a month on lobbying in the first half of 2010. In that stretch, only three industries spent more, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

I concur with Tim.

Indeed, I remember giving a speech back in the 1990s to a group of estate-planning professionals. In my youthful naiveté, I expected that these folks would very much appreciate my arguments against the death tax.

Instead, the reception was somewhat frosty.

Though not nearly as hostile, I must confess, as the treatment I got when speaking about the flat tax to a group of tax lobbyists for big corporations.

In both cases, I was surprised because I mistakenly assumed that my audiences actually cared about the best interests of their clients or employers.

In reality, they cared about what made them rich instead (economists and other social scientists call this the principal-agent problem).

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at more of Tim’s article. He cites the Clintons to make a key point about rich people being able to avoid the tax so long as they cough up enough money to the estate-planning industry.

Those same techniques, however, often are not available to farmers, small business owners, and others who are victimized by the levy.

The Clintons may be stupid-rich, but they aren’t stupid — they’re using estate-planning techniques to avoid the estate tax. Bloomberg News reported in 2014 that the Clinton family home has been divided, for tax purposes, into two shares, and those shares have been placed in a special trust that will shield Chelsea from having to pay the estate tax on the full value of the home when she inherits it. Also, the Clintons have created a life insurance trust — a common tool wealthy people use to provide liquidity for heirs to pay the estate tax. The Clintons’ games, and the estate-planning industry’s interest in the tax, highlights how the tax fails at its stated aims of preventing the inheritance of wealth and privilege. Instead, the estate tax forces the wealthy to play games in order to pass on their wealth. These games don’t add anything to the economy, they just enrich the estate-planning industry. Those whose wealth is tied up in a small or medium-sized business, on the other hand, aren’t always capable of playing the estate planning games. They’re the victims.

The bottom line is that the tax should be abolished for reasons of growth.

But it also should be repealed because it’s unfair to newly successful entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners, all of whom generally lack access to the clever tax-planning tools of those with established wealth.

And it should be repealed simply because it would be morally satisfying to reduce the income of those who benefit from – and lobby for – bad government policy.

P.S. The U.S. death tax is more punitive than the ones imposed by even France and Venezuela.

P.P.S. It’s particularly hypocritical for the Clintons to support the death tax on others while taking steps to make sure it doesn’t apply to them.

P.P.P.S. In a truly repugnant development, there are efforts in the U.K. to apply the death tax while people are still alive.

P.P.P.P.S. On a more positive note, a gay “adoption” in Pennsylvania helped one couple reduce exposure to that state’s death tax.

P.P.P.P.P.S. If you live in New Jersey, by contrast, the best choice is to move before you die.

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The President today released his budget for fiscal year 2016, a document that also shows what will happen to taxes, spending, and red ink over the next 10 years if the White House’s budget is adopted.

Here are the four things that deserve critical attention.

1. Obama proposes to have spending grow by an average of about 5.4 percent per year over the next five years and more than 5 percent annually over the next 10 years, well more than twice as fast as projected inflation.

Though it oftentimes doesn’t get sufficient attention, the change in government spending is the most important number (or set of numbers) in any budget. If the burden of spending is rising, regardless of whether that increase is financed by taxes or borrowing, more resources will be diverted from the economy’s productive sector.

In President Obama’s budget, he wants government spending in FY 2016 to be $3,999.5 billion, an astounding increase of 9.4 percent over the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of $3,656 billion of spending in the current fiscal year (the President is proposing additional spending for FY 2015, so the annual increase between 2015-2016 in his budget is “only” 6.4 percent).

Even more troubling, he wants government spending to climb by more than twice as fast as inflation in future years. And most worrisome of all, he wants government to grow faster than the private sector, which means that the burden of government spending will climb as a share of GDP, both over the next five years and the next 10 years.

The challenge for the GOP: In part because spending rose so much in 2009, but also in part because Congress waged important fiscal battles over debt limits, shutdowns, and sequestration, there was a de facto spending freeze between 2009 and 2014. Unfortunately, spending is climbing by at least twice the rate of inflation in 2015, and Obama wants additional big increases in the future. It will be very revealing to see whether Republican control of both the House and Senate means policy moves back in the direction of spending restraint.

2. The President wants to renege on the 2011 debt limit agreement by busting the spending caps.

With great fanfare in 2011, the White House and Congress agreed to boost the debt limit, but only because both parties agreed on some modest caps to control the growth rate of discretionary spending.

But these spending caps don’t allow outlays to rise as fast as the President would prefer, so he is explicitly seeking to eviscerate the caps and allow bigger increases. These spending hikes would enable for defense spending and more domestic spending.

The challenge for the GOP: The spending caps and sequestration represent President Obama’s most stinging defeat on fiscal policy, so it’s hardly a surprise that he wants to gut any restraint on his ability to spend. This presumably should be a slam-dunk victory for Republicans since they can simply refuse to change the law. But there are some GOPers who want more defense spending, and even some who want more domestic spending. Indeed, the pro-spending caucus in the Republican Party was one of the reasons why the spending caps were already weakened two years ago.

3. The White House’s new budget wants a new tax on American companies competing in world markets.

The good news is that the President no longer is proposing to get rid of “deferral,” a policy from past budgets that would have resulted in a 35 percent tax on profits earned by American multinationals in other nations (and already subject to tax by the governments of those other nations). The bad news is that he instead wants to tax all previously accumulated foreign-source income at 14 percent and then tax all future foreign-source income at 19 percent.

To make matters worse, he wants to use this new pot of money to finance expanded federal involvement and interference in transportation and infrastructure.

The challenge for the GOP: Some Republicans favor more transportation spending from Washington and some companies may be tempted to acquiesce to some sort of deal, particularly if it only applies to accumulations of prior-year foreign-source income. Advocates of good policy in Congress should not enable a bigger federal role in transportation. Indeed, the only good policy is to phase out federal involvement and eliminate the federal gas tax.

4. President Obama wants class-warfare based increases in the death tax and the capital gains tax.

In addition to many other tax hikes in his budget, the President wants to boost the capital gains tax rate to 28 percent and he also wants to expand the impact of the death tax by eliminating a policy that acknowledges the actual value of assets when they are received by children and other heirs.

Since there shouldn’t be any double taxation of income that is saved and invested, both the death tax and capital gains tax should be abolished. Needless to say, increasing either tax would have a negative impact on the American economy.

The challenge for the GOP: Hopefully this policy will be deemed “dead on arrival.” Republicans presumably should be united in their opposition to class-warfare tax increases.

P.S. This Steve Breen cartoon is a pretty apt summary of the Obama budget (and one that will be added to my bloated government collection).

Particularly when augmented by this Jerry Holbert gem.

P.P.S. Here’s the fiscal policy we should emulate.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the fiscal policy mistake we should avoid.

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The polling data I shared last month about confused young people was a bit of a downer, so let’s look at three different polls that are a bit more encouraging.

First, I’m glad to see that many Americans feel that government and politicians are their leading cause of daily stress.

Here’s some of what the Washington Post reported on this poll.

…much of that emotional response is completely justified. As if it weren’t enough that our politicians are actively working to harm the global economy and otherwise failing to do their jobs or even show up for work in general, they’re also stressing everyone out with the astonishing breadth and depth of their incompetence. And since high stress is linked to shorter life expectancy, they are also literally killing us with their incompetence. In other words, thanks, Obama (and everyone in Congress too).

My job is to connect the dots so that people understand that the only way to reduce stress is to make government smaller.

And, for what it’s worth, that’s the best way to make government at least semi-competent.

Our second batch of polling numbers come from Rasmussen. I’ve shared research and data on the negative impact of redistribution spending (as illustrated by this powerful chart), but I figured most Americans didn’t understand that such programs trap people in dependency.

I’m glad to read that I’m wrong. In an article entitled, “49% Believe Government Programs Increase Poverty in America,” Rasmussen reports the following.

Most Americans still believe current government anti-poverty programs have no impact on poverty in this country or actually increase it. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that a plurality (44%) of American Adults still think the government spends too much on poverty programs.

The Rasmussen folks also have this encouraging bit of public opinion research.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 67% of American Adults think there are too many in this country who are dependent on the government for financial aid, up slightly from 64% in September of last year.

Our third set of polling numbers come from the periodic Reason-Rupe poll.

I’ll share several pieces of data, but here are the numbers I find most encouraging. Apparently most people realize that pro-growth policy is the right approach, not class warfare and redistribution.

In terms of economic policies, 74 percent of Americans would like Congress to focus on policies to promote economic growth, while 20 percent favor policies to reduce income inequality.

I guess I’m also happy about these results, though I can’t help but think that there are some very confused folks in the Tea Party.

Fifty-five percent of Americans tell Reason-Rupe they have a favorable opinion of capitalism. Meanwhile, 36 percent of those surveyed, including 33 percent of independents and 26 percent of self-described Tea Party supporters, have a favorable opinion of socialism.

I don’t even think Obama’s a socialist, so these ostensibly anti-Obama folks apparently favor even more government than our statist President. Go figure.

Last but not least, I should like this result, but I’m actually disturbed since the margin is much smaller than it should be.

When asked about the size of government, 54 percent of Americans favor a smaller government providing fewer services. Forty-two percent favor a larger government providing more services.

P.S. Remember when I warned that the one downside to personal retirement accounts is that future politicians might steal the money?

Well, it’s happened again according to Reuters, this time in Russia.

Russia’s government has approved a plan to use contributions to employees’ privately-managed pension funds to plug budget holes for a second year running. The move was confirmed by Labour Minister Maxim Topilin on Tuesday in comments published on the ministry’s website. It has been heavily criticised by some officials and analysts, who say it will hurt the pensions industry and financial markets.

P.P.S. I was beginning to feel a bit more positive about the Tory-led government in the United Kingdom, particularly after reading about some well-designed welfare reform, significant corporate tax cuts, and postal service privatization.

Then I read something awful. And what could be worse than imposing a death tax on people who are still alive.

Savers could be forced to pay inheritance tax while they are still alive, under a new drive against tax avoidance planned by the Government. …Under plans put out for consultation, HM Revenue & Customs would have powers to subject people minimising inheritance tax to “accelerated payment” laws, meaning they would be forced to pay up front if officials suspect them of using new schemes to avoid tax. Experts have warned that under the rules, taxpayers will be treated as “guilty until proven innocent”. …there will be concerns that innocent people could be investigated and made to pay large sums before they are able to defend themselves. …Economists, tax experts and Tory MPs have called for reform of the tax, warning that it predominantly hits middle-class families.

Shame on David Cameron for allowing this to happen. But I’m not surprised given the government’s track record.

And what else would you expect from a government that brainwashes children to rat out their parents and also puts despicable Orwellian ads on subways and trains?

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As a fiscal policy economist, one of my responsibilities is to educate policy makers about the impact of taxation.

Simply stated, I try to help them understand that taxes alter behavior. If you tax something at a higher rate, you get less of whatever is being taxed.

Politicians actually understand this basic lesson when it suits their purposes. Many of them will pontificate that we need higher tobacco taxes to discourage smoking.

I don’t think it’s government’s job to dictate our private lives, so I don’t agree with the policy, but I give them an A+ for economics. Higher taxes on tobacco will lead to less tobacco consumption.

My frustration is that politicians conveniently forget this elementary analysis when the discussion shifts to taxes on productive activities such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

And they also fail to realize that the higher taxes on tobacco will lead to more illegal smuggling and other actions that result in far less revenue than politicians think they’ll collect.

But let’s set that aside and look at some truly remarkable examples of how taxes influence things that – at first glance – seem completely impervious to fiscal policy.

Would anyone think, for instance, that taxes could impact the day people are born? Well, here’s some new research, as summarized by Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post.

…where there are humans making choices, there are public finance economists asking how tax incentives influence them. …Williams’s Sara LaLumia, the University of Chicago’s James Sallee and the Treasury Department’s Nicholas Turner took it upon themselves to figure out if policies like the Child Tax Credit (CTC), the dependent exemption and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC, which is more generous for families with more children) are pushing mothers with due dates in January to move their children’s births forward, so as to reap another year of tax benefits. …What they find is that, after controlling for other factors that could affect birth timing, an additional $1,000 in per-child tax benefits is associated with a 1 percent increase in the probability of a birth occurring in December rather than January.

This study isn’t an outlier. Other research has reached similar conclusions. Indeed, in some case the impact of taxation is found to be much larger.

They actually aren’t the first ones to tackle this question. They cite at least four previous studies that found that parents alter birth timing to maximize tax and other public benefits. …Syracuse’s Stacy Dickert-Conlin and Harvard’s Amitabh Chandra found a 29.6 percent increase in December births resulting from a $500 increase in tax benefits.

Notice, by the way, that the research is also saying that government handout influence behavior, a point that I’ve repeatedly made when analyzing the harmful impact of redistribution programs on work incentives.

Let’s close by recycling some research that shows how taxes even influence when people die.

When Australia repealed the death tax back in the 1970s, researchers found that people lived longer in order to protect family assets.

And don’t forget that the U.S. death tax was repealed for one year back in 2010. I imagine we’ll see some fascinating and illuminating research on this period once economists have a chance to collect and crunch the data.

Though there’s already strong anecdotal evidence that death rates may have been impacted.

At least the statists can be happy that the death tax is now back in place – and that it’s even more onerous than the death tax policies in places such as France, Venezuela, and Greece.

But the main lesson of this post isn’t to complain that we have some very bad features to our tax code.

Instead, the goal is to simply get more people to realize that government policies have real-world effects and specifically that higher taxes will influence behavior.

In the grand scheme of things, it presumably doesn’t make much difference what days people are born and when they die. But when we apply these lessons to the broader economy, it turns out that taxation has a huge impact on economic opportunity and prosperity.

P.S. Heck, taxes even cause gay people to adopt their partners.

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I generally believe that social conservatives and libertarians are natural allies. As I wrote last year, this is “because there is wide and deep agreement on the principle of individual responsibility. They may focus on different ill effects, but both camps understand that big government is a threat to a virtuous and productive citizenry.”

I even promoted a “Fusionist” principle based on a very good column by Tim Carney, and I suspect a large majority of libertarians and social conservatives would agree with the statement.

But that doesn’t mean social conservatives and libertarians are the same. There’s some fascinating research on the underlying differences between people of different ideologies, and I suspect the following story might be an example of where the two camps might diverge.

But notice I wrote “might” rather than “will.” I’ll be very curious to see how various readers react to this story about a gay couple that is taking an unusual step to minimize an unfair and punitive tax imposed by the government of Pennsylvania.

John met Gregory at a gay bar in Pittsburgh nearly 45 years ago and immediately fell in love. …Now, as lifelong partners facing the financial and emotional insecurities of old age, they have legally changed their relationship and are father and son — John, 65, has adopted Gregory, 73. The couple was worried about Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax. “If we just live together and Gregory willed me his assets and property and anything else, I would be liable for a 15 percent tax on the value of the estate,” said John. “By adoption, that decreases to 4 percent. It’s a huge difference.” …the couple had considered marrying in another state, but because their primary residence was in Pennsylvania, which does not recognize same-sex marriage, they would still be subjected to the inheritance law.

The Judge who approved the adoption obviously wasn’t too troubled by this unusual method of tax avoidance.

The judge did turn to John and said, “I am really curious, why are you adopting [Gregory]?” “I said, ‘Because it’s our only legal option to protect ourselves from Pennsylvania’s inheritance taxes,'” said John. “He got it immediately.” The judge agreed to sign the adoption papers on the spot and handed it to the clerk. Then he turned and looked at John, “Congratulations, it’s a boy.”

So what’s your take on this issue? For some groups, it’s easy to predict how they’ll react to this story.

1. If you have the statist mindset of England’s political elite or if you work at a bureaucracy such as the OECD, you’ll think this is morally wrong. Not because you object to homosexuality, but because you think tax avoidance is very bad and you believe the state should have more money.

2. If you’re a libertarian, you’re cheering for John and Gregory. Even if you don’t personally approve of homosexuality, you don’t think the state should interfere with the private actions of consenting adults and you like the idea of people keeping more of the money they earn.

3. If you’re a public finance economist, you think any form of death tax is a very perverse form of double taxation and you like just about anything that reduces this onerous penalty on saving and investment.

But there are some groups that will be conflicted.

Social Conservative Quandary1. Social conservatives don’t like big government and bad tax policy, but they also don’t approve of homosexuality. And, in this case, it’s now technically incestuous homosexuality! If I had to guess, most social conservatives will argue that the court should not have granted the adoption. We’ll see if there are some good comments on this post.

Leftist Quandary2. Leftists also will be conflicted. They like the death tax and they want the government to have more money, but they also believe in identity politics and wouldn’t want to offend one of their constituent groups.  I’m guessing identity politics would trump greed, but I suspect their ideal approach would be to tax all inheritances at 15 percent.

In my fantasy world, needless to say, there’s no death tax and the entire issue disappears.

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Just before the end of the year, I shared some fascinating research about people dying quicker or living longer when there are changes in the death tax. Sort of the ultimate Laffer Curve response, particularly if it’s the former.

But the more serious point is that the death tax shouldn’t exist at all, as I’ve explained for USA Today. And in this CNBC debate, I argue that it is an immoral form of double taxation.

You’ll see that Jared sneakily tries to include wealth taxes and death taxes together in order to accuse me of an inaccuracy, but the chart (click to enlarge) clearly shows that there are many jurisdictions that wisely avoid this anti-competitive levy.

The data is a few years old, but it’s clear that the United states has one of the most punitive death tax systems in the world.

Unfortunately, this is a good description of many parts of our tax system. We also have the world’s highest corporate tax rate and we also have very high tax burdens on dividends and capital gains (and the tax rates on both just got worse thanks to the fiscal cliff legislation).

But probably the key difference between us is that Jared genuinely thinks government should be bigger and that the tax burden should be much higher.

Though I will give him credit. Not only does he want class-warfare tax hikes, such as a higher death tax, but he openly admits he wants to rape and pillage the middle class as well.

Not surprisingly, I argue that more revenue in Washington will exacerbate the real problem of a federal government that is too big and spending too much.

P.S. Here’s a cartoon that is only funny if you don’t think too deeply about what it means.

P.P.S. You’ll notice that the video in this post has good quality, unlike the fuzzy resolution and discontinuous footage in clips I’ve recently shared. That’s because Cato’s expert on such things is back in the office and we’re no longer relying on my sub-par technical knowledge.

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In some ways, it would be fun to be a leftist.

No, I’m not talking about living a life of idleness and letting others pay my bills, though I suppose that’s tempting to some people.

And I’m not talking about becoming a Washington insider and using corrupt connections to obtain unearned wealth, though I confess I’m actually friends with some of those people.

Instead, I’m talking about what it must be like to engage in reckless demagoguery and personal smears.

Remember during the presidential campaign when Mitt Romney was – for all intents and purposes – accused of causing a woman’s death because of his actions at Bain Capital?

The pro-Obama Super-PAC that produced that ad relied on indirect connections and overlooked some very salient facts that completely disproved even the indirect connections.

But even though the ad was exposed as maliciously false, the folks who put it together probably laughed all the way to the bank.

With this in mind, maybe it’s time to publicly ask why President Obama wants to kill old people.

“Time for your death panel appointment”

This isn’t a blog post about Obamacare, though there certainly are enough horror stories from the United Kingdom to make us fearful of government-run healthcare.

I’m referring instead to what might happen because of Obama’s proposal for a much more onerous death tax, which is part of his class-warfare agenda and would take effect in just a couple of days.

It seems that there’s good evidence this may lead to some premature deaths. CNBC reports.

Many families are faced with a stark proposition. If the life of an elderly wealthy family member extends into 2013, the tax bills will be substantially higher. An estate that could bequest $3 million this year will leave just $1.9 million after taxes next year. Shifting a death from January to December could produce $1.1 million in tax savings. It may seem incredible to contemplate pulling the plug on grandma to save tax dollars. While we know that investors will sell stocks to avoid rising capital gains taxes, accelerating the death of a loved one seems at least a bit morbid—perhaps even evil. Will people really make life and death decisions based on taxes? Do we don our green eye shades when it comes to something this serious? There is good evidence that there is some “elasticity” in the timing of important decisions about life and death.

And what does that mean? Well, according to some of the academic research, the President is going to have proverbial blood on his hands.

Gans and Leigh looked into another natural experiment. In 1979, Australia abolished its federal inheritance taxes. Official records show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. “Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate,” Gans and Leigh write. This isn’t just something peculiar to Australia. Economists Wojciech Kopczuk of Columbia University and Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan studied how mortality rates in the United States were changed by falling or rising estate taxes. They note that while the evidence of “death elasticity” is “not overwhelming,” every $10,000 in available tax savings increases the chance of dying in the low-tax period by 1.6 percent. This is true both when taxes are falling, so that people are surviving longer to achieve the tax savings, and when they are rising, so that people are dying earlier, according to Kopczuk and Slemrod. “Death elasticity” does not necessarily mean that greedy relatives are pulling the plug on the dying or forcing the sickly to extend their lives into a lower taxed period. According to a 2008 paper from University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Doctor G. Stuart Mendenhall, while tax increases give potential heirs large economic incentives to limit care that would prolong life, distressed patients may “voluntarily trade prolongation of their life past the end [a low tax period] for large financial implications for their kin.

I’ve previously cited the research from Australia, and also wrote a post about incentives to die in 2010, when the death tax temporarily was abolished, so this research makes sense.

What’s the bottom line?

…based on past reactions to changes in taxes, it at least seems likely that some deaths that might otherwise have occurred shortly after January 1 will occur shortly before. Death may slip in ahead of the tax man for some with estates worth over $1 million.

In the grand scheme of things, I have a hard time feeling anguish about some elderly rich guy dying today rather than one week from now. But there is real data to suggest that Obama’s policies will cause premature deaths.

And these premature deaths will only occur because the President is greedy for more revenue from a tax that shouldn’t even exist. Indeed, it’s worth noting that every pro-growth tax reform plan – such as the flat tax or national sales tax – eliminates this pernicious form of double taxation.

Since I’m an economist, I can’t resist a final comment about this tax having a terrible impact on capital formation. This is bad for workers, since it translates into lower wages.

And it’s definitely not good for U.S. competitiveness.

P.S. Whatever you do, don’t die in New Jersey.

P.P.S. It’s a morbid topic, but there is such a thing as death tax humor.

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I’ve previously shared the famous parable that uses beer drinking to explain the tax system and here’s a funny video of a comedian talking about taxes and Halloween.

I also found this bit of tax humor from England, though it’s really more about redistribution than taxes, and I think this cartoon about class-warfare taxation and the economy hits the nail on the head.

But in all my years of blogging, I’ve never found a worthwhile cartoon on the death tax.

So I was very pleased when a professor of tax law gave a presentation in the Cayman Islands earlier this week and showed this clever cartoon about the death tax. He was kind enough to share it with me so I could share it with you.

If you want a serious but concise explanation of why the death tax is very bad policy, check out my column from USA Today. And here’s some very depressing data on how the death tax undermines American competitiveness.

P.S. One final serious point about the death tax. If you have a nest egg for your kids, it’s better to die in Australia than New Jersey.

P.P.S. There are a lot of jokes targeting the IRS, which isn’t really the same as tax policy humor. But many of them are worth sharing, including a new Obama 1040 form, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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Considering that every economic theory agrees that living standards and worker compensation are closely correlated with the amount of capital in an economy (this picture is a compelling illustration of the relationship), one would think that politicians – particularly those who say they want to improve wages – would be very anxious not to create tax penalties on saving and investment.

Yet the United States imposes very harsh tax burdens on capital formation, largely thanks to multiple layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

But we compound the damage with very high tax rates, including the highest corporate tax burden in the developed world.

And the double taxation of dividends and capital gains is nearly the worst in the world (and will get even worse if Obama’s class-warfare proposals are approved).

To make matters worse, the United States also has one of the most onerous death taxes in the world. As you can see from this chart prepared by the Joint Economic Committee, it is more punitive than places such as Greece, France, and Venezuela.

Who would have ever thought that Russia would have the correct death tax rate, while the United States would have one of the world’s worst systems?

Fortunately, not all U.S. tax policies are this bad. Our taxation of labor income is generally not as bad as other industrialized nations. And the burden of government spending in the United States tends to be lower than European nations (though both Bush and Obama have undermined that advantage).

And if you look at broad measures of economic freedom, America tends to be in – or near – the top 10 (though that’s more a reflection of how bad other nations are).

But these mitigating factors don’t change the fact that the U.S. needlessly punishes saving and investment, and workers are the biggest victims. So let’s junk the internal revenue code and adopt a simple and fair flat tax.

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Governor Rick Perry of Texas has announced a plan, which he outlines in today’s Wall Street Journal, to replace the corrupt and inefficient internal revenue code with a flat tax. Let’s review his proposal, using the principles of good tax policy as a benchmark.

1. Does the plan have a low, flat rate to minimize penalties on productive behavior?

Governor Perry is proposing an optional 20 percent tax rate. Combined with a very generous allowance (it appears that a family of four would not pay tax on the first $50,000 of income), this means the income tax will be only a modest burden for households. Most important, at least from an economic perspective, the 20-percent marginal tax rate will be much more conducive to entrepreneurship and hard work, giving people more incentive to create jobs and wealth.

2. Does the plan eliminate double taxation so there is no longer a tax bias against saving and investment?

The Perry flat tax gets rid of the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the double tax on dividends. This would significantly reduce the discriminatory and punitive treatment of income that is saved and invested (see this chart to understand why this is a serious problem in the current tax code). Since all economic theories – even socialism and Marxism – agree that capital formation is key for long-run growth and higher living standards, addressing the tax bias against saving and investment is one of the best features of Perry’s plan.

3. Does the plan get rid of deductions, preferences, exemptions, preferences, deductions, loopholes, credits, shelters, and other provisions that distort economic behavior?

A pure flat tax does not include any preferences or penalties. The goal is to leave people alone so they make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than what reduces their tax liability. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Perry flat tax falls a bit short. His plan gets rid of lots of special favors in the tax code, but it would retain deductions (for those earning less than $500,000 yearly) for charitable contributions, home mortgage interest, and state and local taxes.

As a long-time advocate of a pure flat tax, I’m not happy that Perry has deviated from the ideal approach. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the very good. If implemented, his plan would dramatically boost economic performance and improve competitiveness.

That being said, there are some questions that need to be answered before giving a final grade to the plan. Based on Perry’s Wall Street Journal column and material from the campaign, here are some unknowns.

1. Is the double tax on interest eliminated?

A flat tax should get rid of all forms of double taxation. For all intents and purposes, a pure flat tax includes an unlimited and unrestricted IRA. You pay tax when you first earn your income, but the IRS shouldn’t get another bite of the apple simply because you save and invest your after-tax income. It’s not clear, though, whether the Perry plan eliminates the double tax on interest. Also, the Perry plan eliminates the double taxation of “qualified dividends,” but it’s not clear what that means.

2. Is the special tax preference for fringe benefits eliminated?

One of the best features of the flat tax is that it gets rid of the business deduction for fringe benefits such as health insurance. This special tax break has helped create a very inefficient healthcare system and a third-party payer crisis. It is unclear, though, whether this pernicious tax distortion is eliminated with the Perry flat tax.

3. How will the optional flat tax operate?

The Perry plan copies the Hong Kong system in that it allows people to choose whether to participate in the flat tax. This is attractive since it ensures that nobody can be disadvantaged, but how will it work? Can people switch back and forth every year? Is the optional system also available to all the small businesses that use the 1040 individual tax system to file their returns?

4. Will businesses be allowed to “expense” investment expenditures?

The current tax code penalizes new business investment by forcing companies to pretend that a substantial share of current-year investment outlays take place in the future. The government imposes this perverse policy in order to get more short-run revenue since companies are forced to artificially overstate current-year profits. A pure flat tax allows a business to “expense” the cost of business investments (just as they “expense” workers wages) for the simple reason that taxable income should be defined as total revenue minus total costs.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the grade for Perry’s flat tax could be as high as A- or as low as B. Regardless, it will be a radical improvement compared to the current tax system, which gets a D- (and that’s a very kind grade).

Here’s a brief video for those who want more information about the flat tax.

Last but not least, I’ve already receive several requests to comment on how Perry’s flat tax compares to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

At a conceptual level, the plans are quite similar. They both replace the discriminatory rate structure of the current system with a low rate. They both get rid of double taxation. And they both dramatically reduce corrupt loopholes and distortions when compared to the current tax code.

All things considered, though, I prefer the flat tax. The 9-9-9 plan combines a 9 percent flat tax with a 9 percent VAT and a 9 percent national sales tax, and I don’t trust that politicians will keep the rates at 9 percent.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax is that we degenerate back to the current system. The worst thing that happens with the 9-9-9 plan, as I explain in this video, is that politicians pull a bait-and-switch and America becomes Greece or France.

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March 14, 2018 Addendum: Because of various changes in tax law, an updated version of the flowchart is attached at the end of this column.

Whether I’m criticizing Warren Buffett’s innumeracy or explaining how to identify illegitimate loopholes, I frequently write about the perverse impact of double taxation.

By this, I mean the tendency of politicians to impose multiple layers of taxation on income that is saved and invested. Examples of this self-destructive practice include the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the second layer of tax of dividends.

Double taxation is particularly foolish since every economic theory – including socialism and Marxism – agrees that capital formation is necessary for long-run growth and higher living standards.

Yet even though this is a critically important issue, I’ve never been satisfied with the way I explain the topic. But perhaps this flowchart makes everything easier to understand (click it for better resolution).

There are a lot of boxes, so it’s not a simple flowchart, but the underlying message hopefully is very clear.

1. We earn income.

2. We then pay tax on that income.

3. We then either consume our after-tax income, or we save and invest it.

4. If we consume our after-tax income, the government largely leaves us alone.

5. If we save and invest our after-tax income, the government penalizes us with as many as four layers of taxation.

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed supply-side economist to conclude that this heavy bias against saving and investment is not a good idea for America’s long-run prosperity.

By the way, Hong Kong’s simple and fair flat tax eliminate all those extra layers of taxation.

That’s the benefit of real tax reform such as a flat tax. You get a low tax rate, but you also get rid of double taxation so that the IRS only gets one bit at the apple.

March 14, 2018 version of chart:

For a more detailed analysis of double taxation, click here.

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New Jersey gets abused by comedians as being some sort of dump, but there are some scenic parts of the state.

So it actually can be a nice place to live. That being said, it’s not a good place to die. Here’s a chart from the American Family Business Foundation that was featured in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial.

As you can see, New Jersey has the nation’s most punitive death tax. Most of the blame belongs to the 35 percent federal tax, but successful residents of the Garden State lose an additional 19 percent of their assets when they die. As the WSJ opined:

Here’s some free financial advice: Don’t die in New Jersey any time soon. If you have more than $675,000 to your name and you die in the Garden State, about 54% may go to the IRS and the tax collectors in Trenton. Better not take your last breath in Maryland either. The tax penalty for dying there is half of a lifetime’s savings. That’s the combined tab from the new federal estate tax rate of 35% and Maryland’s inheritance and death taxes. Maybe they should rename it the Not-So-Free State. …Family business owners, ranchers, farmers and wealthy retirees can avoid that tax by relocating to Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, South Carolina and other states that don’t impose inheritance taxes. There are plenty of attractive places to go. New research indicates that high state death taxes may be financially self-defeating. A 2011 study by the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Rhode Island, examined Census Bureau migration data and discovered that “from 1995 to 2007 Rhode Island collected $341.3 million from the estate tax while it lost $540 million in other taxes due to out-migration.” Not all of those people left because of taxes, but the study found evidence that “the most significant driver of out-migration is the estate tax.” After Florida eliminated its estate tax in 2004, there was a significant acceleration of exiles from Rhode Island to Florida.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the correct death tax rate is zero, as I’ve explained for USA Today. Indeed, I also cited evidence from Australia and the United States about how people will take extraordinary steps to avoid this wretched form of double taxation.

New Jersey has lots of problems. All of those problems will be easier to fix if successful people don’t leave the state. Sounds like another issue for Governor Christie to address.

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You readers have been presented with a series of challenging quizzes on topics such as Sharia law, healthcareincest, and vigilante justice.

Let’s now shift to the world of taxation.

We all know governments routinely make life hard for taxpayers. The IRS, for example, is a rather brutal bureaucracy, as explained in this video. But I’m not sure the IRS can match either of these two examples of reprehensible taxation. And I’m not sure which one is worse.

Our first story comes from Switzerland, which normally gets high marks for modest taxation and respecting individual rights. But the municipality of Reconvilier is going to extraordinary lengths to pick the pockets of local dog owners. Her’s an excerpt from an AP report.

Reconvilier — population 2,245 humans, 280 dogs — plans to put Fido on notice if its owner doesn’t pay the annual $50 tax. Local official Pierre-Alain Nemitz says the move is part of an effort to reclaim hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes. He says a law from 1904 allows the village to kill dogs if its owner does not pay the canine charge. Nemitz told the AP on Monday that authorities have received death threats since news of the plan got out.

But if you think threatening to kill Rover and Fido is brutal, brace yourself for the next story. The government in King County, Washington, is taxing a family for an infant that passed away shortly after birth. Here’s part of the report from a local TV station.

Olivia Clark lived for only one hour. Doctors didn’t even expect her to survive birth.  Now her family has a hard time understanding why the King County Medical Examiner has to review her death and charge $50. …Although her parents were from Yakima, they came to the University of Washington Medical Center for her delivery. As a result, Olivia died in King county. Her family soon learned the impact that would have when they received the funeral bill. “There was a little line on there near the bottom of the bill that said ‘King county death tax: $50.’ And we looked at that, and looked at that and looked at each other and said ‘what is that?’ Couldn’t believe that a little girl that lived for an hour has to pay a $50 tax,” said Larry. …The medical examiner instituted the $50 fee for cremations three years ago. This year, it included the fee for burials as well.

To be fair, the government didn’t impose a tax on the family because their child died. It’s a fee imposed on all funerals in the county. But it still is a bit macabre for the government to impose such a levy.

And we shouldn’t forget that the IRS has a 35 percent death tax for people who make the mistake of saving and investing too much money before they die, so grave-robbing by governments is not an unknown phenomenon.

So which example is worse? Normally, taxing a dead baby would trump everything, but the tax – while horrible – doesn’t actually target infants. The bureaucrats in Reconvilier, by contrast, are dusting off a 1904 law and threatening to kill people’s pets.

How do you vote?

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Appearing on Bloomberg TV, I pontificate about the good, the bad, and the ugly in the recent tax deal. I also make what I hope are good points about the Laffer Curve and the meaning of deficits.

The video won’t embed, but just click below and you can watch it on youtube. As always, feedback is welcome.

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I debated a couple of pro-tax increase folks on the Diane Rehm show Monday.

If you have a spare 51 minutes and want to hear me spar with Alice Rivlin and David Walker on National Public Radio, you can listen to the discussion by clicking this link.

Feedback actually is much appreciated. Let me know what issues you think I addressed effectively, but especially let me know if you think some of my points were inadequate.

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The death tax is a punitive levy that discourages saving and investment and causes substantial economic inefficiency. But it’s also an immoral tax that seizes assets from grieving families solely because someone dies. The good news is that this odious tax no longer exists. It disappeared on January 1, 2010, thanks to the 2001 tax cut legislation. The bad news is that the death tax comes back with a vengeance on January 1, 2011, ready to confiscate as much as 55 percent of the assets of unfortunate families.

I’ve criticized the death tax on many occasions, including one column in USA Today explaining the economic damage caused by this perverse form of double taxation, and I highlighted a few of the nations around the world that have eliminated this odious tax in another column for the same paper.

Politicians don’t seem persuaded by these arguments, in part because they feel class warfare is a winning political formula. President Obama, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus have been successful in thwarting efforts to permanently kill the death tax. But I wonder what they’ll say if their obstinate approach results in death?

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming is getting a bit of attention (including a link on the Drudge Report) for her recent comments that some people may choose to die in the next two months in order to protect family assets from the death tax. For successful entrepreneurs, investors, and small business owners who might already be old (especially if they have a serious illness), there is a perverse incentive to die quickly. 

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis says some of her Wyoming constituents are so worried about the reinstatement of federal estate taxes that they plan to discontinue dialysis and other life-extending medical treatments so they can die before Dec. 31. Lummis…said many ranchers and farmers in the state would rather pass along their businesses — “their life’s work” — to their children and grandchildren than see the federal government take a large chunk. “If you have spent your whole life building a ranch, and you wanted to pass your estate on to your children, and you were 88 years old and on dialysis, and the only thing that was keeping you alive was that dialysis, you might make that same decision,” Lummis told reporters.

The class-warfare crowd doubtlessly will dismiss these concerns, but they should set aside their ideology and do some research. Four years ago, two Australian scholars published an article on this issue in Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, which is published by the Berkeley Electronic Press. Entitled “Did the Death of Australian Inheritance Taxes Affect Deaths?”, their paper looked at the roles of tax, incentives, and death rates. The abstract has an excellent summary.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. …our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

And here’s a graph from the article, which shows how many affected taxpayers managed to delay death until the tax went away.

Obama and other class-warfare politicians now want to run this experiment in reverse. I already noted in another blog post that there are Americans who are acutely aware of the hugely beneficial tax implications if they die in 2010. In other words, Congresswoman Lummis almost certainly is right.

I don’t actually think that Obama, Rangel, Baucus and the rest of the big-government crowd should be blamed for any premature deaths that occur. But I definitely think that they should be asked if they feel any sense of guilt, remorse, and/or indirect responsibility.

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Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.
In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

It looks like this experiment will be repeated in the United States, but in the other direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.

Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. …The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.
The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don’t want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.
“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year. …Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says. In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says. …Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.
The obvious question, of course, is whether politicians will allow the tax to be reinstated. The answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s also going to be interesting to see if they try to impose the tax retroactively on people who died this year.
So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan. …”Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.
It should go without saying, by the way, that the correct rate for the death tax is zero. It’s also worth noting that this is an issue that shows that incentives do matter.

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Good news for entrepreneurs and investors, at least the ones who are very sick. As of today, the death tax is repealed. But this silver cloud has a couple of dark linings. First, the tax springs back to life next January 1, so healthy taxpayers are out of luck. Second, the grave-robber politicians may try to reinstate the tax – and even make it retroactive. But as this Wall Street Journal article notes, it is unclear whether such an odious step would survive a legal challenge:

Starting Jan. 1, the estate tax — which can erase nearly half of a wealthy person’s estate — goes away for a year. For families facing end-of-life decisions in the immediate future, the change is making one of life’s most trying episodes only more complex. “I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days,” says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. …The macabre situation stems from 2001, when Congress raised estate-tax exemptions, culminating with the tax’s disappearance next year. However, due to budget constraints, lawmakers didn’t make the change permanent. So the estate tax is due to come back to life in 2011 — at a higher rate and lower exemption. To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. …Of course, plenty of taxpayers themselves are eager to live to see the new year. One wealthy, terminally ill real-estate entrepreneur has told his doctors he is determined to live until the law changes. “Whenever he wakes up,” says his lawyer, “He says: ‘What day is it? Is it Jan. 1 yet?'” …Congress could pass an estate tax next year and make it retroactive to Jan. 1. Whether that would withstand a court challenge is a subject of debate in the estate-planning world. …In addition, the composition of the Supreme Court has changed, and some financial advisers believe the court might not again bless a retroactive law. …The situation is causing at least one person to add the prospect of euthanasia to his estate-planning mix, according to Mr. Katzenstein of Proskauer Rose. An elderly, infirm client of his recently asked whether undergoing euthanasia next year in Holland, where it’s legal, might allow his estate to dodge the tax. His answer: Yes.

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I like USA Today for the sports section, but today’s editorial page has a piece by yours truly arguing (contrary to the statist position of USA Today) that the death tax shold be completely reprealed. While this tax is grossly immoral, my main points were about 1) the damage to economic growth because of reduced saving and investment, and 2) the loss of national competitiveness since other nation’s are getting rid of this absurd levy:

The politicians in Washington impose double taxation on interest, dividends and capital gains, but the “death tax” wins the prize for being the most self-destructive part of the internal revenue code. Adding an extra layer of tax when someone dies is an unsavory combination of bad economics and immoral grave robbing. …Economists warn that the death tax reduces the capital stock. That sounds like jargon, but it means all of us have lower living standards because of less investment, fewer machines, less technology and diminished innovation. Ironically, other nations have figured out that the death tax does a lot of damage in a competitive global economy. Many people will not be surprised to know that a free-market paradise such as Hong Kong has eliminated its death tax, but it is certainly newsworthy that European welfare states such as Austria and Sweden also have repealed this unfair tax. Australia, Russia and New Zealand are among the other nations that have figured out how senseless it is to penalize wealth creation.

But I also noted that we are going to conduct an interesting social-science experiment in 2010. How many investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners are willing to hasten their own death to protect their assets from the IRS grave robbers?

There may be a bit of good news on the horizon. Assuming Congress does not change the law, the death tax disappears in 2010. But since the death tax comes roaring back to life in 2011 (with an even higher tax rate of 55%), this creates a bit of a quandary. I’m sure the successful people affected by the death tax love their children, but how many of them are willing to jump off a bridge before the end of next year to keep the IRS from seizing the lion’s share of their wealth?

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I wax poetic in a podcast discussion with the folks at Investor’s Business Daily. We talk about tax competition, the Laffer Curve, American competitiveness, and the dangers of Obama’s class-warfare tax policy.

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