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Posts Tagged ‘Double Taxation’

Why would the economy grow faster if we got fundamental reform such as the flat tax?

In part, because there would be one low tax rate instead of the discriminatory and punitive “progressive” system that exists today. As such, the penalty on productive behavior would be reduced.

In part, because there would be no distorting tax breaks that lure people into making decisions based on tax considerations rather than economic merit.

But we’d also enjoy more growth because there would be no more double taxation. Under a flat tax, the death tax is abolished, the capital gains tax is abolished, there’s no double taxation on savings, the second layer of tax on dividends is eliminated, and depreciation is replaced by expensing.

In the wonky jargon of public finance economists, this means we would have a “consumption-based” system, which is just another way of saying that income  would be taxed only one time. No longer would the internal revenue code discourage capital formation by imposing a higher effective tax rate on income that is saved and invested (compared to the tax rate on income that is consumed).

Indeed, this is the feature of tax reform that probably generates the most growth. As I explain in this video on capital gains taxation, all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a key to long-run prosperity.

The good news is that reducing double taxation is a goal of most major tax plans in Washington. Trump’s campaign plan reduced double taxation, and the House Better Way Plan reduces double taxation.

But that doesn’t mean there’s an easy path for reform. The Hill reports on some of the conflicts that may sabotage legislation this year.

The fight over a border-adjustment tax isn’t the only challenge for Republicans in their push for tax reform. …Notably, some business groups have criticized the proposal to do away with the deduction for businesses’ net interest expenses. …the blueprint does not specifically discuss how the carried interest that fund managers receive would be taxed. Under current law, carried interest is taxed as capital gains, rather than at the higher rates for ordinary income. During the presidential race, Trump repeatedly said he wanted to eliminate the carried interest tax break, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told CNN on Sunday that Trump still plans to do this. Many Democrats also want carried interest to be taxed as ordinary income.

The border-adjustment tax is probably the biggest threat to tax reform, but the debate over “carried interest” also could be a problem since Trump endorsed a higher tax burden on this type of capital gain during the campaign.

Here are some excerpts from a recent news report.

Donald Trump vowed to stick up for Main Street over Wall Street — that line helped get him elected. But the new president has already hit a roadblock, with fellow Republicans who control Congress balking at Trump’s pledge to close a loophole that allows hedge fund and private equity managers to pay lower taxes on investment management fees. …The White House declined to comment on the status of negotiations between Trump and congressional Republicans over the carried-interest provision. …U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a House Financial Services Committee member and former Goldman Sachs executive, said there is chaos on the tax reform front. “That’s on the list of dozens of things where there is disagreement between the president and the Republican majority in Congress,” Himes said.

Regarding the specific debate over carried interest, I’ve already explained why I prefer current law over Trump’s proposal.

Today I want to focus on the “story behind the story.” One of my main concerns is that the fight over the tax treatment of carried interest is merely a proxy for a larger campaign to increase the tax burden on all capital gains.

For instance, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee openly uses the issue of carried interest as a wedge to advocate a huge increase in the overall tax rate on capital gains.

Of course, when you talk about the carried interest loophole, you’re talking about capital gains. And when you talk about capital gains, you’re talking about the biggest tax shelter of all – the one hiding in plain sight. Today the capital gains tax rate is 23.8 percent. …treat[ing] income from wages and wealth the same way. In my view, that’s a formula that ought to be repeated.

The statists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also advocate higher taxes on carried interest as part of a broader campaign for higher capital gains taxes.

Taxing as ordinary income all remuneration, including fringe benefits, carried interest arrangements, and stock options… Examining ways to tax capital income at the personal level at slightly progressive rates, and align top capital and labour income tax rates.

It would be an overstatement to say that everyone who wants higher taxes on carried interest wants higher taxes on all forms of capital gains. But it is accurate to assert that every advocate of higher taxes on capital gains wants higher taxes on carried interest.

If they succeed, that would be a very bad result for American workers and for American competitiveness.

For those wanting more information, here’s the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s video on carried interest.

Last but not least, wonky readers may be interested in learning that carried interest partnerships can be traced all the way back to medieval Venice.

Start-up merchants needed investors, and investors needed some incentive to finance the merchants. For the investor, there was the risk of their investment literally sailing out of the harbor never to be seen again. The Venetian government solved this problem by creating one of the first examples of a joint stock company, the “colleganza.” The colleganza was a contract between the investor and the merchant willing to do the travel. The investor put up the money to buy the goods and hire the ship, and the merchant made the trip to sell the goods and then buy new foreign goods that could then be brought back and sold to Venetians. Profits were then split between the merchant and investor according to the agreements in the contract.

Fortunately for the merchants and investors of that era, neither income taxes nor capital gains taxes existed.

P.S. Italy didn’t have any sort of permanent income tax until 1864. Indeed, most modern nations didn’t impose these punitive levies until the late 1800s and early 1900s. The United States managed to hold out until that awful dreary day in 1913. It’s worth noting that the U.S. and other nations managed to become rich and prosperous prior to the adoption of those income taxes. And it’s also worth noting that the rapid growth of the 18th century occurred when the burden of government spending was very modest and there was almost no redistribution spending.

P.P.S. Now that we have income taxes (and the bigger governments enabled by those levies), the only silver lining is that governments have compensated for bad fiscal policy with better policy in other areas.

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

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

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

And these investment decisions help drive financial markets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he doesn’t hold Trump in high regard.

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

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

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

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

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

I agree.

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

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

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

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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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My buddy from grad school, Steve Horwitz, has a column for CapX that looks at the argument over “trickle-down economics.” As he points out (and as captured by the semi-clever nearby image), this is mostly a term used by leftists to imply that supporters of economic liberty want tax cuts for the “rich” based on a theory that some of those tax cuts eventually will trickle down to the less fortunate.

People who argue for tax cuts, less government spending, and more freedom for people to produce and trade what they think is valuable are often accused of supporting something called “trickle-down economics.” It’s hard to pin down exactly what that term means, but it seems to be something like the following: “those free market folks believe that if you give tax cuts or subsidies to rich people, the wealth they acquire will (somehow) ‘trickle down’ to the poor.”

But Steve points out that no economist actually uses this argument.

The problem with this term is that, as far as I know, no economist has ever used that term to describe their own views. …There’s no economic argument that claims that policies that themselves only benefit the wealthy directly will somehow “trickle down” to the poor.

So why, then, do leftists characterize tax cuts as “trickle-down economics” when no actual advocate uses that term or that argument?

There are a couple of possible answers, one of which is malicious and one of which is mistaken.

  • First, they’ve latched on to a politically effective way of characterizing tax cuts, so it’s understandable that they want to continue with that approach.
  • Second, their argument for Keynesian economics actually is a version of trickle-down economics since the people who get money from so-called stimulus programs spend the money, which means it gradually trickles to other people (that part is true, but Keynesians fail to understand that government can’t inject money into the economy in this fashion without first taking money out of the economy by borrowing from private capital markets). And since they believe the economy is driven by people spending money (rather than people earning money) and having it trickle to other people, maybe they assume that advocates of tax cuts believe the same thing.

In reality, of course, proponents of lower tax rates are motivated by a desire to improve incentives for people to earn additional income with more work, more saving, and more investment. That’s the basic insight of supply-side economics. It has nothing to do with how they spend (or don’t spend) their income.

With that out of the way, I want to address the part of Steve’s column where he suggested that policies which benefit one group are never helpful to other groups.

I don’t think that’s worded very well. If we lower the capital gains tax on people making more than $10 million annually, that is a policy that obviously benefits only the rich, at least when looking at direct or first-order effects.

But the impact of less double taxation should boost economic performance, even if only by a modest amount, and that will benefit everyone in society.

By the way, this works both ways. If we do something that is particularly beneficial for the poor, such as cutting back on occupational licensing requirements, that presumably doesn’t generate any direct benefit for rich people. But they will gain (as will middle-class people) as the economy becomes more productive and efficient.

Steve understands this. He closes his column by making a very similar argument about the economy-wide benefits of more economic liberty.

…allowing everyone to pursue all the opportunities they can in the marketplace, with the minimal level of taxation and regulation, will create generalized prosperity. The value of cutting taxes is not just cutting them for higher income groups, but for everyone. Letting everyone keep more of the value they create through exchange means that everyone has more incentive to create such value in the first place, whether it’s through the ownership of capital or finding new uses for one’s labor.

Now that we’ve dispensed with the silly left-wing caricature of trickle-down economics, let’s discuss how there actually is a sensible way to think about the issue.

Way back in 1996, I gave a speech in Sweden about the impact of fiscal policy on economic growth (later reprinted as a Heritage Foundation publication).

As part of my comments, I spoke about the damaging impact of the tax code’s bias against saving and investment and explained that this lowered wages because of the link between the capital stock (machinery, technology, etc) and employee compensation.

I also quoted John Shoven, a professor at Stanford University who wrote a paper back in 1990 about this topic for the American Council for Capital Formation. And here we actually have an example of an economist using “trickle-down economics” in the proper sense.

The mechanism of raising real wages by stimulating investment is sometimes derisively referred to as “trickle-down” economics. But regardless of the label used, no one doubts that the primary mechanism for raising the return to work is providing each worker with better and more numerous tools. One can wonder about the length of time it takes for such a policy of increasing saving and investments to have a pronounced effect on wages, but I know of no one who doubts the correctness of the underlying mechanism. In fact, most economists would state the only way to increase real wages in the long run is through extra investments per worker.

Amen. Capital and labor are complementary goods, which means that more of one helps make the other more valuable.

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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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While Switzerland is one of the world’s most market-oriented nations, ranked #4 by Economic Freedom of the World, it’s not libertarian Nirvana.

Government spending, for instance, consumes about one-third of economic output. That may be the second-lowest level among all OECD nations (fast-growing South Korea wins the prize for the smallest public sector relative to GDP), but it’s still far too high when compared to Hong Kong and Singapore.*

Moreover, while the Swiss tax code is benign compared to what exists in other European nations, it also is not perfect. One of the warts is a wealth tax, which is a very pernicious levy that drains capital from the private sector.

Let’s look at some excerpts from a report in the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the Swiss system.

Switzerland has taxed wealth since the late 18th century. Its 26 cantons in 2014 levied taxes on net wealth with rates varying from 0.13% in the lighter taxing German-speaking parts to 1% in French-speaking Geneva. Swiss wealth taxes are also special because they apply from wealth as low as 25,000 Swiss francs, ensuring large swaths of the middle class incur them. Typical taxpayers pay a rate of just over 0.5%.

Here are the wealth tax rates in the various cantons, based on a recent study of the system.

As noted in the WSJ story, that study contains strong evidence that the tax is hurting Switzerland.

…according to a new paper, …taxing wealth leads declared wealth to disappear. Based on experience in Switzerland, which uses wealth taxes the most, reported wealth falls around 20 times as much in response to an increase in a wealth tax as it does to an equivalent increase in a tax on capital income, such as dividends or capital gains. …Economists at the University of Lausanne and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a 0.1 percentage point increase in Swiss wealth taxes caused a 3.5% reduction in reported wealth. That’s equivalent to 100,000 Swiss francs going missing for a person worth 3 million francs. …they conclude in a study investigating changes in wealth tax rates on Swiss taxpayers’ reported wealth from 2001 to 2012.

Why is there such a big response?

For the same reason that class-warfare taxes don’t work very well in the United States. Simply stated, taxpayers have considerable ability to rearrange their financial affairs when governments try to tax capital (or capital income). And that ability is especially pronounced for those with higher levels of income and wealth.

Individuals have greater control over their reported wealth–especially financial wealth such as bank deposits, stock and bonds–than their reported income.

By the way, the story also included this nugget of good news.

Thanks primarily to tax competition, many nations have eliminated wealth taxes over the past 20 years.

…only five members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still levy annual taxes on individuals’ total financial and non-financial wealth… That is down from 14 nations two decades ago.

And if you want more good news, the Swiss cantons also are lowering their tax rates on wealth.

Here’s another map from the study. It shows that a couple of French-speaking cantons have imposed very small increases in the tax since 2003, while the vast majority of cantons have moved in the other direction, in some cases slashing their wealth tax rates by substantial amounts.

Since I’m a big fan of Switzerland, let’s close with some more good news about the Swiss tax system. Not only are tax rates on wealth dropping, but there’s no capital gains tax. And there are no taxes on interest.

So while there is a wealth tax, which is a very unfortunate and destructive imposition, the Swiss avoid many other forms of double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

*The burden of government spending also is excessive in Hong Kong and Singapore. Based on historical data, economic performance will be maximized if total government spending is less than 10 percent of GDP.

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I’ve been advocating for good tax reform for more than two decades, specifically agitating for a simple and fair flat tax.

I get excited when politicians make bold proposals, such as many of the plans GOP presidential candidates proposed over the past year or so.

But sometimes I wind up feeling deflated when there’s a lot of discussion about tax reform and the final result is a milquetoast plan that simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic. For instance, back in 2014, the then-Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled a proposal that – at best – was underwhelming. Shifts in the right direction in some parts of the plan were largely offset by shifts in the wrong direction in other parts of the plan. What really doomed the plan was a political decision that the tax code had to raise just as much money (on a static basis) as the current system and that there couldn’t be any reduction in the amount of class warfare embedded in the current system (i.e., the “distribution” of the tax burden couldn’t change).

Well, we have some good news. Led by the new Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Kevin Brady, House Republicans have unveiled a new plan that it far, far better. Instead of being hemmed in by self-imposed constraints of static revenue and distributional neutrality, their two guidelines were dynamic revenue neutrality and no tax increase for any income group.

With those far more sensible constraints, they were able to put together a plan that was almost entirely positive. Let’s look at the key features, keeping in mind these theoretical principles that should guide tax reform.

  1. The lowest possible tax rate – High tax rates on work and entrepreneurship make no sense if the goal is faster growth and more competitiveness.
  2. No double taxation – It is foolish to penalize capital formation (and thereby wages) by imposing extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.
  3. No loopholes or special preferences – The tax code shouldn’t be riddled with corrupt deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits, and other goodies.

What’s Great

Here are the features that send a tingle up my leg (apologies to Chris Matthews).

No value-added tax – One worrisome development is that Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz included value-added taxes in their otherwise good tax plans. This was a horrible mistake. A value-added tax may be fine in theory, but giving politicians another source of revenue without permanently abolishing the income tax would be a tragic mistake. So when I heard that House Republicans were putting together a tax plan, I understandably was worried about the possibility of a similar mistake. I can now put my mind at rest. There’s no VAT in the plan.

Death tax repeal – Perhaps the most pure (and therefore destructive) form of double taxation is the death tax, which also is immoral since it imposes another layer of tax simply because someone dies. This egregious tax is fully repealed.

No state and local tax deduction – If it’s wrong to subsidize particular activities with special tax breaks, it’s criminally insane to use the tax code to encourage higher tax rates in states such as New York and California. So it’s excellent news that House GOPers are getting rid of the deduction for state and local taxes.

No tax bias against new investment – Another very foolish provision of the tax code is depreciation, which forces companies to pretend some of their current investment costs take place in the future. This misguided approach is replaced with expensing, which allows companies to deduct investments when they occur.

What’s Really Good

Here are the features that give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

A 20 percent corporate tax rate – America’s corporate tax system arguably is the worst in the developed world, with a very high rate and onerous rules that make it difficult to compete in world markets. A 20 percent rate is a significant step in the right direction.

A 25 percent small business tax rate – Most businesses are not traditional corporations. Instead, they file using the individual portion of the tax code (using forms such as “Schedule C”). Lowering the tax rate on business income to 25 percent will help these Subchapter-S corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships.

Territorial taxation – For a wide range of reasons, including sovereignty, simplicity, and competitiveness, nations should only tax economic activity within their borders. The House GOP plan does that for business income, but apparently does not extend that proper treatment to individual capital income or individual labor income.

By shifting to this more sensibly designed system of business taxation, the Republican plan will eliminate any incentive for corporate inversions and make America a much more attractive place for multinational firms.

What’s Decent but Uninspiring

Here are the features that I like but don’t go far enough.

Slight reduction in top tax rate on work and entrepreneurship – The top tax rate is reduced to 33 percent. That’s better than the current top rate of 39.6 percent, but still significantly higher than the 28 percent top rate when Reagan left office.

Less double taxation of savings – The plan provides a 50-percent exclusion for individual capital income, which basically means that there’s double taxation of interest, dividends, and capital gains, but at only half the normal rate of tax. There’s also some expansion of tax-neutral savings accounts, which would allow some saving and investment fully protected from double taxation.

Simplification – House GOPers assert that all their proposed reforms, if enacted, would create a much simpler tax system. It wouldn’t result in a pure Hall-Rabushka-style flat tax, with a 10-line postcard for a tax return, but it would be very close. Here’s their tax return with 14 lines.

In an ideal world, there should be no double taxation of income that is saved and invested, so line 2 could disappear (in Hall-Rabushka flat tax, investment income/capital income is taxed once and only once at the business level). All savings receives back-ended IRA (Roth IRA) treatment in a pure flat tax, so there’s no need for line 3. There is a family-based allowance in a flat tax, which is akin to lines 4 and 9, but there are no deductions, so line 5 and line 6 could disappear. Likewise, there would be no redistribution laundered through the tax code, so line 10 would vanish. As would line 11 since there are no special preferences for higher education.

But I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good. The postcard shown above may have four more lines than I would like, but it’s obviously far better than the current system.

What’s Bad but acceptable

Increase in the double taxation of interest – Under current law, companies can deduct the interest they pay and recipients of interest income must pay tax on those funds. This actually is correct treatment, particularly when compared to dividends, which are not deductible to companies (meaning they pay tax on those funds) while also being taxable for recipients. The House GOP plan gets rid of the deduction for interest paid. Combined with the 50 percent exclusion for individual capital income, that basically means the income is getting taxed 1-1/2 times. But that rule would apply equally for shareholders and bondholders, so that pro-debt bias in the tax code would be eliminated. And the revenue generated by disallowing any deduction for interest would be used for pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate.

What’s Troublesome

No tax on income generated by exports and no deduction for cost of imported inputs for companies – The House GOP proposal is designed to be “border adjustable,” which basically means the goal is to have no tax on exports while levying taxes on imports. I’ve never understood why politicians think it’s a good idea to have higher taxes on what Americans consume and lower taxes on what foreigners consume. Moreover, border adjustability normally is a feature of a “destination-based” value-added tax (which, thankfully, is not part of the GOP plan), so it’s not completely clear how the tax-on-imports  portion would be achieved. If I understand correctly, there would be no deduction for the cost of foreign purchases by American firms. That’s borderline protectionist, if not over-the-line protectionist. And it’s unclear whether this approach would pass muster with the World Trade Organization.

To conclude, the GOP plan isn’t perfect, but it’s very good considering the self-imposed boundaries of dynamic revenue neutrality and favorable outcomes for all income groups.

And since those self-imposed constraints make the plan politically viable (unlike, say, the Trump plan, which is a huge tax cut but unrealistic in the absence of concomitant savings from the spending side of the budget), it’s actually possible to envision it becoming law.

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