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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

Bernie Sanders is yesterday’s news.

Yes, he’s still lovable ol’ Crazy Bernie, but he’s now being overshadowed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another out-of-the-closet socialist who somehow thinks America should be more like Greece or Venezuela.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute opines in National Review about AOC’s proposed tax hike on the rich. He starts with a very appropriate economic observation.

A 70 percent tax bracket would raise very little (if any) revenue, while damaging the economy and sending income and jobs overseas.

He then points out that we should look at both sides of the fiscal ledger.

And the spending side of the left’s ledger is very crowded and very heavy.

…when assessing the needed tax revenues, a green-energy initiative costing $7–$10 trillion over the decade should be examined in the context of $42 trillion in additional Democratic-socialist proposals that include single-payer health care ($32 trillion), a federal jobs guarantee ($6.8 trillion), student-loan forgiveness ($1.4 trillion), free public college ($800 billion), infrastructure ($1 trillion), family leave ($270 billion), and Social Security expansion ($188 billion). …These spending promises are so stratospheric as to be incomprehensible — except to the far Left, which clings to the myth that simply taxing millionaires can finance a level of socialism that would make the Swedes start a tea-party movement.

Here’s the key part of Brian’s column.

He points out that there’s no way to finance the agenda of Democratic Socialists with class-warfare taxes. Even if the AOC tax plan is dramatically expanded.

…a 100 percent tax rate on all income over $1 million…would raise 3.8 percent of GDP — not even enough to balance the current budget, much less finance a Green New Deal. And even that figure implausibly assumes that people continue working and investing. Slightly more realistically, doubling the top 35 percent and 37 percent tax brackets, to 70 percent and 74 percent for singles earning more than $200,000 and couples earning at least $400,000, would raise roughly 1.6 percent of GDP. That figure also ignores all revenues lost to the economic effects of 85 percent marginal tax rates (when including state and payroll taxes) as well as tax avoidance and evasion. …limiting the 70 percent tax bracket to incomes over $10 million…would raise only 0.25 percent of GDP — about $50 billion annually. …$50 billion is surely too high of an estimate, because the kind of people with incomes over $10 million also have teams of accountants and tax lawyers finding every conceivable tax loophole and overseas income shift.

Everything we know about the real-world impact of tax policy tells us that these soak-the-rich taxes won’t raise much – if any – revenue for the simple reason that upper-income taxpayers will alter the timing, level, and composition of their income.

But, as Brian noted, these taxes wouldn’t come close to financing the leftist wish list even if one makes absurd assumptions that behavior doesn’t change and the economy is unaffected.

So how do European nations finance their large welfare states?

Europe finances its generous welfare states through steep value-added taxes that hit the entire population. …Increasing federal spending by 21 percent of GDP to fund Democratic socialism — even after slashing defense — would require either a 55 percent payroll tax increase, or 115 percent value-added tax, according to CBO data. Acknowledging this brutal middle-class burden would immediately end any public flirtation with “free-lunch socialism.”

This is the most important takeaway from the column.

And it’s something that I’ve noted as well. On more than one occasion.

If you want European-type handouts, you better be prepared to cough up a lot of money.

  • Onerous value-added taxes.
  • Punitive payroll taxes.
  • And income taxes that impose high rates on modest incomes.

Simply stated, there is no way to finance a European-sized welfare state without pillaging middle-class and lower-income taxpayers.

Which helps to explain why European living standards are significantly below American levels.

By the way, there one final point from Brian’s column that is worth sharing.

He explains that high tax rates in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s didn’t generate much revenue. Even from the rich.

A common liberal retort is that the economy survived 91 percent income-tax rates under President Eisenhower and 70 percent tax rates through the 1970s. That does not mean those policies raised much revenue. Tax exclusions and high income thresholds shielded nearly everyone from these tax rates — to the degree that the richest 1 percent of earners paid lower effective income-tax rates in the 1950s than today. In 1960, only eight taxpayers paid the 91 percent rate. Overall, today’s 8.2 percent of GDP in federal income-tax revenues exceeds that of the 1950s (7.2 percent), 1960s (7.6 percent), and 1970s (7.9 percent). Those earlier decades were not a tax-the-rich utopia.

Amen.

I made similar points back in 2017.

The bottom line is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s economic agenda cannot be justified when looking at economic data, fiscal data, and historical data.

But we can say with great confidence that ordinary people ultimately will pay the heaviest price if her proposals get enacted since her class-warfare tax hikes will be a precursor for huge tax increases on the rest of us.

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I wrote yesterday about a handful of strange legal developments in Canada.

In a display of balance, however, I noted in my conclusion that Canada in recent decades has been “very sensible” with regard to economic issues (spending restraintwelfare reformcorporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of savingschool choice, and privatization of air traffic control).

But “very sensible” is not the same as “totally sensible.” Especially not if you count recent years.

The nation’s current top politician, Justin Trudeau (a.k.a., Prime Minister Zoolander), increased the top tax rate from 29 percent to 33 percent after taking office in late 2015.

It appears, though, that he wasn’t aware of a concept known as the Laffer Curve (or, like some folks on the left, maybe he simply didn’t care).

In the real world, however, it turns out that increasing tax rates is not the same as increasing tax revenue.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Globe and Mail.

The Liberal government’s tax on Canada’s top 1 per cent failed to produce the promised billions in new revenue in its first year, as high-income earners actually paid $4.6-billion less in federal taxes. …The latest available tax records show that revenue from Canadians earning about $140,000 or more – which had previously been the fourth and highest tax bracket – dropped by $4.6-billion in 2016, the first full year that the Liberal tax changes were in effect. Further, 30,340 fewer Canadians reported incomes in that range for 2016 compared with the year before. …The new top bracket with a 33-per-cent tax rate was predicted to raise about $3-billion a year in new revenue… Critics of the Liberal plan say the CRA’s 2016 numbers justify their concern that a new top tax bracket hurts Canadian efforts to boost competitiveness and attract top talent.

It’s quite possible, as noted in the article, that some of the foregone revenue might be the result of one-time changes, such as upper-income taxpayers shifting income from 2016 to 2015 (rich people do have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income).

A report from Global News reviews a report about the degree to which revenues dropped for transitory reasons.

The Liberal government’s 2016 tax hike on Canada’s top one per cent not only failed to yield the promised billions, but resulted in a net revenue loss for government coffers… After adjusting for economic changes and one-time factors, the paper estimates, based on 2016 tax data, that the Liberals’ new tax bracket for top earners creates $1.2 billion in new revenue for the federal government but a $1.3 billion loss for provincial governments. …Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office, however, has maintained that the revenue drop for 2016 was a one-off event. …But an analysis of the data that adjusts for the impact of the dividends maneuver and economic factors still shows that the tax hike would have fallen far short of the hype… Studies have shown that top earners are more likely than lower-income taxpayers to react to tax increases by reducing their taxable income. This may be because the wealthy have access to more sophisticated tax advice, are more easily able to shift assets to lower-tax jurisdictions or can afford to simply decide to work less given that they get to keep less of their money.

Much of the data in this story came from an analysis by the C.D. Howe Institute.

Here’s the key chart from that study, which disentangles the one-off changes and permanent changes caused by the higher tax rate.

The bottom line is that the experts at the C.D. Howe Institute believe that the central government eventually will collect more revenue from the higher tax rate, but:

  1. The revenue will be less than projected by static revenue estimates because of permanently lower levels of taxable income.
  2. The added revenue for the central government is more than offset by lower tax receipts for subnational levels of government.

In other words, Trudeau’s tax hike was a big mistake. The only tangible results are that the private sector is now smaller and the country is less competitive.

For what it’s worth, I view the lack of additional tax revenue as a silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud. Maybe, just maybe, this will put a damper on some of Trudeau’s irresponsible plans for more spending.

P.S. For those interested in Canadian fiscal policy, I shared some research last year about the implications of provincial changes in tax policy.

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I’ve previously explained why I don’t have a dog in the current shutdown fight in Washington.

Simply stated, Trump isn’t fighting to make government smaller. Instead he wants more spending for a wall and isn’t even proposing some offsetting reductions to keep the overall burden of government from expanding.

That being said, I get annoyed when defenders of the status quo act as if the economy is in danger simply because a small handful of non-essential bureaucracies and departments are temporarily shuttered.

In addition to the interview with Fox Business, I also pontificated on the same topic for Cheddar, which is a new network covering financial and economic issues.

So why are TV networks bothering to cover this non-story?

Because some people think the partial shutdown does matter. Here are some excerpts from a report by USA Today.

Economists are starting to weigh the potential damage of the ongoing federal government shutdown…if the impasse drags into late January or beyond, it could take a noticeable toll by dampening federal workers’ productivity, temporarily halting their paychecks… The biggest damage could be inflicted on consumer and business confidence that’s already been dented by the recent stock market selloff. …Economist Jesse Edgerton of JPMorgan Chase predicts it could trim growth by a half a percentage point. That’s about how much the 16-day partial government shutdown reduced growth in late 2013.

Sigh.

The people who made up numbers about the alleged harm of the 2013 shutdown are basically the same people who said the sequester would hurt growth. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.

You use a crummy Keynesian model (which presupposes that government spending is good for the economy) and you get predictably nonsensical Keynesian results.

Writing for the American Spectator, Christopher Buskirk has a more sober perspective.

The DC media complex is not happy with the partial shutdown of the federal government. The government shutdown drags into the New Year, they tell us! …Yet for all of the breathless commentary from Beltway media, the reality is that the federal government can’t even shut itself down properly. Only about 25 percent of the federal government is affected. The military is fully funded and on duty, as are Social Security and Medicare. The US Postal Services continues delivering unwanted flyers and coupons, the TSA is fully funded and patting people down, and the Veterans Administration is still providing substandard care to our veterans. …when I turn on the faucet, water still comes out. When I drive to the store, the street lights are still on. In fact, I passed a police officer on the way to get a coffee this morning, so our neighborhood remains safe. So what am I missing? Not much it turns out. And neither is almost anyone else. …what we learned from the shutdown is that…the federal government is mostly non-essential.

Amen.

This is one of the reasons I don’t get agitated about shutdown (at least the ones that occur because someone is fighting for good policy). If we kept parts of the government shut down for a long period of time, maybe people would notice that nothing bad happened and then conclude that it would be a good idea to never let those departments and agencies reopen.

In any event, the focus of fiscal policy should be on shrinking the federal government, not merely a temporary partial shutdown (which doesn’t even save money since bureaucrats eventually get full pay for the days they weren’t in their offices).

Let’s close with a bit of humor I received in my inbox.

You can see other examples of shutdown satire by clicking here.

P.S. As I noted in my interview, the current shakiness of financial markets should be blamed on Trump’s protectionism and the hangover from Keynesian monetary policy.

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One of my annual traditions is to share the “best and worst news” for each year. I started in 2013, and continued in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Looking back, 2016 clearly was the best year, though entirely because of things that happened overseas (the Brits vote for Brexit, Brazil adopting spending caps, abolition of the income tax in Antigua, and Switzerland’s rejection of a basic income).

What about this year?

Sadly, there’s not much to cheer about. Here’s the meager list.

Amendment 73 rejected in Colorado – As part of a plan to expand the burden of government (for the children!), the left wanted to gut the state’s flat tax and replace it with a so-called progressive tax. Fortunately, voters realized that giving politicians the power to tax the rich at higher rates would also mean giving them the power to tax everyone at higher rates. The proposal was defeated by 11 percentage points.

Deregulation – The Administration’s record is certainly far from perfect on regulatory issues. But big-picture measures of the regulatory burden indicate that the overall trend is positive. Easing dangerous Obama-era car mileage rules may be the best step that’s been taken.

Positive trends – I’m having to scrape the bottom of the barrel, but I suppose a drop in support for bad ideas has to count as good news, right? On that basis, I’m encouraged that the notion of universal government handouts became less popular in 2018. Likewise, I’m glad that there’s so much opposition to the carbon tax that some supporters of that new levy are willing to throw in the towel.

Now let’s look at the bad news.

Here are the worst developments of 2018.

Aggressive protectionism – It’s no secret that Trump is a protectionist, but he was mostly noise and bluster in 2017. Sadly, bad rhetoric became bad policy in 2018. And, just as many predicted, Trump’s trade taxes on American consumers are leading other nations to impose taxes on American exporters.

The Zimbabwe-ization of South Africa – My trip to South Africa was organized to help educate people about the danger of Zimbabwe-style land confiscation. Sadly, lawmakers in that country ignore me just as much as politicians in the United States ignore me. The government is moving forward with uncompensated land seizures, a policy that will lead to very grim results for all South Africans.

More government spending – Ever since the brief period of fiscal discipline that occurred when the Tea Party had some influence, the budget news has been bad. Trump is totally unserious about controlling the burden of government spending and even routinely rolls over for new increases on top of all the previously legislated increases.

The good news is that this bad news is not as bad as it was in 2015 when we got a bunch of bad policies, including resuscitation of the corrupt Export-Import Bank, another Supreme Court Obamacare farce, expanded IMF bailout authority, and busted spending caps.

I’ll close by sharing my most-read (or, to be technically accurate, most-clicked on) columns of 2018.

  1. In first place is my piece explaining why restricting the state and local tax deduction was an important victory.
  2. Second place is my column (and accompanying poll) asking which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse.
  3. And the third place article is my analysis of how rich nations can become poor nations with bad policy.
For what it’s worth, my fourth-most read column in 2018 was a piece from 2015 about political and philosophical quizzes. And the fifth-most read article was some 2012 satire about using two cows to describe systems of government.

I guess those two pieces are oldies but goodies.

Now for the columns that didn’t generate many clicks.

  1. My worst-performing column was about how DC insiders manipulate so-called tax extenders to line their own pockets.
  2. Next on the least-popular list was a piece that looked at proposals to make taxpayers subsidize wages.
  3. And the next-to-next-to-last article explained how expanding the IMF would increase the risk of bailouts and bad policy.

I’m chagrined to admit that none of these columns reached 1,000 views.  Though I try to salve my ego by assuming that many (some? most?) of the 4,000-plus subscribers eagerly devoured those pieces.

The other noteworthy thing about 2018 is that I posted my 5,000th column back in July.

And I also shared data indicating that I’m relatively popular (or, to be more accurate, I get a lot of clicks) in places like the Cayman Islands, the Vatican, Monaco, Bermuda, Jersey, and Anguilla.

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I’ve written many times about people and businesses escaping high-tax states and moving to low-tax states.

This tax-driven migration rewards states with good policy and punishes those with bad policy.

And now we have some new data.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on the updated numbers.

…some states are booming while others are suffering a European-style sclerosis of population loss and slow economic growth. …The eight fastest-growing states by population last year…also experienced rapid employment and GDP growth spurred by low tax rates and policies generally friendly to business and job creation. Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Washington, Utah, Florida and Colorado ranked among the eight states with the fastest job growth this past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nevada, Texas, Washington and Florida have no income tax. …Then there’s California. Despite its balmy weather and thriving tech industry, the Golden State last year lost more people to other states than it gained from foreign immigration. Since 2010, a net 710,000 people have left California for other states. …New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently blamed cold weather for the state’s population exodus, but last year frigid New Hampshire with no income tax attracted 3,900 newcomers from other states. …Illinois’s population has declined by 157,000 over the past five years… Cold weather? While Illinois’s population has declined by 0.8% since 2010, Indiana’s has grown 3.1% and Wisconsin’s by 2.2%.

Here’s my favorite part of the editorial.

America as a whole can thank the Founders for creating a federalist system that allows the economic and political safety valve of interstate policy competition.

Amen. Federalism is great for a wide range of reasons, but I especially like that people have the freedom to escape when policy is decentralized.

Companies escape high taxes.

Honeywell International Inc. is snubbing New Jersey and heading south. …Honeywell’s move follows other companies that have moved corporate offices out of states with elevated costs of living and high taxes, including General Electric Co.’s relocation of its headquarter to Boston from Connecticut. Those costs were exacerbated by a new law last year that removed state income-tax deductions on federal taxes. North Carolina has a lower state income tax than New Jersey for higher-paid employees.

Former governors escape high taxes.

Gov. Paul LePage said Monday that he plans to move to Florida for tax reasons… LePage and his wife, Ann, already own a house in Florida and often vacation there. He said he would be in Maine from April to September. Asked where he would maintain his legal residency, LePage replied Florida. …”I have a house in Florida. I will pay no income tax and the house in Florida’s property taxes are $2,000 less than we were paying in Boothbay. … At my age, why wouldn’t you conserve your resources and spend it on your family instead of on taxes?” …LePage often has cited Maine’s income tax – currently topping out at 7.15 percent, down from a high of 8.5 percent when he took office – as an impediment to economic growth and attracting/retaining residents.

Even sports stars avoid class-warfare tax regimes.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado…will “take home” significantly higher or lower pay depending on which teams sign them and the applicable income tax rates in the states where those teams are based. This impact could be worth tens of millions of dollars. …For example, assume the Cubs and Dodgers offer identical eight-year, $300 million contracts to Machado. Lozano would warn the Dodgers that their offer is decidedly inferior. As a Dodger, Machado’s million-dollar wages would be subject to the top bracket of California’s state income tax rate. At 13.3%, it is the highest rate in the land. In contrast, as a Cub, Machado would be subject to the comparatively modest 4.95% Illinois income tax rate. …the difference in after-tax value of these two $300 million contracts would be $14 million.

Though Lozano needs to warn Machado that the recent election results significantly increase the danger that Illinois politicians will finally achieve their long-held goal of changing the state constitution and replacing the flat tax with a class-warfare system.

Since we’re talking about the Land of Lincoln, it’s worth noting that the editors at the Chicago Tribune understand the issue.

Every time a worker departs, the tax burden on those of us who remain grows. The release on Wednesday of new census data about Illinois was alarming: Not only has the flight of citizens continued for a fifth straight year, but the population loss is intensifying. This year’s estimated net reduction of 45,116 residents is the worst of these five losing years. …Residents fed up with the economic climate here are heading for less taxaholic, jobs-friendlier states. …Many of them left because they believed Illinois is headed in the wrong direction. Because Illinois politicians have raised taxes, milked employers and created enormous public indebtedness that the pols want to address with … still more taxation. …How bad does the Illinois Exodus have to get before its dominant politicians understand that their debt-be-damned, tax-and-spend policies are ravaging this state?

Wow, no wonder Illinois is perceived to be the first state to suffer a fiscal collapse.

Let’s now zoom out and consider some national implications.

Chris Edwards took a close look at the data and crunched some numbers.

The new Census data confirms that people are moving from tax-punishing places such as California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey to tax-friendly places such as Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Tennessee, and South Carolina. In the chart, each blue dot is a state. The vertical axis shows the one-year Census net interstate migration figure as a percentage of 2017 state population. The horizontal axis shows state and local household taxes as a percentage of personal income in 2015. …On the right, most of the high-tax states have net out-migration. …On the left, nearly all the net in-migration states have tax loads of less than 8.5 percent. …The red line is fitted from a simple regression that was highly statistically significant.

Here’s the chart.

Professor Glenn Reynolds wrote a column on tax migration for USA Today.

He starts by warning states that it’s a very bad recipe to repel taxpayers and attract tax consumers.

IRS data show that taxpayers are migrating from high-tax states like New York, Illinois, and California to low-tax states like Texas and Florida. …In time, if taxpayers tend to migrate from high-tax states to low-tax states, and if people receiving government benefits tend to stay in place or migrate from lower-benefit states to higher-benefit states, then over time lower-tax states will tend to accumulate more people with high earnings, while higher-benefit states will tend to accumulate more people who live on the dole. …if high-benefits states are also high-tax states (as is often the case) since then states with high benefits will accumulate more people who draw on them, while shedding the taxpayers they need to support them. The problem is that the result isn’t stable: High-tax, high-benefit states will eventually go bankrupt because they won’t retain enough taxpayers to support their welfare spending.

He then makes a very interesting observation about the risk that people who leave states such as New York, Illinois, California, and New Jersey may bring their bad voting habits to their new states.

…migrants from high tax states might bring their political attitudes with them, moving to new, low-tax states for the economic opportunity but then supporting the same policies that ruined the states they left. This seems quite plausible, alas, and I’ve heard Coloradans lament that the flow of Californians to their state involved a lot of people doing just that. …If I were one of those conservative billionaires…I might try spending some of the money on some…sort of welcome wagon for blue state migrants to red states. Something that would explain to them why the place they’re moving to is doing better than the place they left, and suggesting that they might not want to vote for the same policies that are driving their old home states into bankruptcy.

Glenn makes a very good point.

As part of my work on defending TABOR in Colorado, I often run into people who fret that the state has moved in the wrong direction because of migration from left-leaning states.

Though Chuck DeVore shared some data on how migrants to Texas are more conservative than people born in the state.

I’ll close today’s column with a helpful map from the Tax Foundation.

All you really need to know is that you should move if you live in a blue state and you should erect a no-leftists-allowed sign if you live in a gray state.

P.S. Everything I wrote about the benefits of tax migration between states also applies to tax migration between nations.

I will never stop defending the right of labor and capital to escape high-tax regimes. I especially enjoy the hysterical reactions of folks on the left, who think that my support of fiscal sovereignty means that I’m “trading with the enemy,” being disloyal to my government, or that I should be tossed in jail.

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I periodically try to remind people that you can’t explain or understand economic performance by looking at just one policy.

I’ve argued, for instance, good tax policy isn’t a panacea if there are many other policies that expand the burden of government. Likewise, bad fiscal policy isn’t a death knell if there’s a pro-market approach on issues such as trade, regulation, and monetary policy.

Which was the point I made, in this short excerpt from a recent interview, when asked about the Trump tax cut.

This obviously has implications for Trump. He wants the economy to grow faster, but he is sabotaging his good tax reform with bad protectionism.

Which is why I’ve also explained that Trump’s overall “grade point average” for economic policy isn’t very good.

And here are two other examples, but showing that tax policy – by itself – does not drive the economy.

  • The economy enjoyed good performance during the Clinton years because his one bad policy (the 1993 tax hike) was more than offset by many good policies.
  • Similarly, the economy didn’t get strong growth during the Bush years because his one good policy (the 2003 tax cut) was more than offset by many bad policies.

The same is true for policy in other nations. That’s why I always check the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World before writing about another country. I want a dispassionate source of data that covers all the major types of public policy.

And that generates counter-intuitive results, at least for people who focus on fiscal policy.

  • I’ve crunched the data to show that nations such as Denmark and the Netherlands remain relatively rich because they have pro-market policies that offset onerous fiscal burdens.
  • Likewise, some nations in Eastern Europe continue to lag economically because the pro-growth effect of their flat taxes are offset by weak scores in other areas, especially quality of governance.

There are a couple of takeaways from this type of nuanced analysis.

First, don’t pay excessive attention to partisan affiliations. Yes, sometimes a Republican such as Reagan reduces the burden of government, but plenty of GOPers (Hoover, the first Bush, Nixon) impose lots of statism.

The same is true in other nations. Many of the pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand were initiated by Labour governments.

Second, let’s close by explaining why this matters. When people fixate on partisan labels rather than policy changes, it can lead them to very erroneous conclusions.

  • For instance, even though the Great Depression was mostly the result of government intervention, many people think it was caused by capitalism simply because a Republican president was in office when it started.
  • Similarly, even though the recent financial crisis was caused by government intervention, many people want to blame free markets merely because a Republican president was in office when it started.

P.S. In the interview, I said monetary policy might deserve some of the blame if the economy turns south. I want to stress, however, that I’m not blaming the Fed for trying to “normalize” today. Instead, the problem is all the easy-money policy earlier this decade.

As scholars from the Austrian School have explained, artificially low interest rates and other types of Keynesian monetary policy create the conditions for subsequent suffering.

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I have a series of columns where I explore tactical disagreements with folks who generally favor free markets and less government.

  • In Part I, I defended the flat tax, which had been criticized by Reihan Salam
  • In Part II, I explained why I thought a comprehensive fiscal package from the American Enterprise Institute was too timid.
  • In Part III, I disagreed with Jerry Taylor’s argument for a carbon tax.
  • In Part IV, I highlighted reasons why conservatives should reject a federal program for paid parental leave.

Today, we’re going to revisit the carbon tax because Josiah Neeley and William Murray of the R Street Institute have a column in the Hill that claims that levy would not finance bigger government.

…There have been numerous tax rate changes in the past 70 years, with the marginal income tax rate falling from a high of over 90 percent in the 1950s to as low as 28 percent in the late 1980s. Yet during this entire time period, federal tax revenue has stayed in a fairly narrow band when measured as a percentage of gross domestic product, never rising above 20 percent or falling much below 15 percent between 1950 and 2018. This phenomenon, which keeps federal revenues within a relatively narrow band, is known as Hauser’s law…the belief that any kind of new taxation introduces even greater government spending is based on very little actual evidence. Instead, Hauser’s law provides evidence that certain kinds of tax swaps, such as exchanging an income tax for a carbon tax, may actually increase the rate of economic growth without increasing the tax share of the overall economy.

They also claim that higher taxes don’t lead to more spending.

…demand for government spending drives tax policy, not the other way around. This conclusion has important implications for the carbon tax debate. …The relative imperviousness of the gross domestic product tax percent equilibrium since the late 1940s suggests that spending pressures drive taxes and not the other way around.

I have two responses to this analysis.

First, I very much want Hauser’s Law to be true. It would be very comforting if politicians in Washington could never seize more than 20 percent of the private sector’s output.

Sadly, that’s simply not the case. Just look at Europe, where central governments routinely extract far more than 40 percent of economic output.

All that’s required is taxes that target lower- and middle-income taxpayers. That’s happened in Europe because of harsh value-added taxes, punitive payroll taxes, onerous energy taxes, and income taxes that impose very high rates on ordinary people.

Needless to say, a carbon tax would be a step in that direction.

Second, the authors offer zero evidence that “government spending drives tax policy, not the other way around.”

By contrast, there is some persuasive data for the “starve the beast” hypothesis, which is based on the notion that higher taxes will encourage more spending.

In other words, Milton Friedman was right when he warned that “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

Though I actually don’t think this causality debate is very important. The bottom line is that higher taxes are a bad idea if they trigger higher spending, and higher taxes also are a bad idea if they merely enable higher spending.

The column in the Hill is a spin-off from a recent study published by the R Street Institute.

Let’s look at that publication to further explore this issue. It starts with the basic hypothesis that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be desirable.

…a carbon tax…provides a source of revenue that can be put to beneficial purposes, such as funding cuts to other existing taxes. By using the revenue from a carbon tax to replace existing ones, such a revenue neutral “tax swap” would greatly reduce or eliminate the economic costs of the tax. Indeed, in some cases, even if benefits from reduced emissions are not considered, a tax swap could be a net positive for the economy. …many critics of a carbon tax are skeptical as to whether a revenue-neutral carbon tax could be enacted. Some critics go further, arguing that even if a carbon tax started out as revenue neutral, it would not remain so. …While there are no guarantees, the existing evidence suggests that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would not lead to larger government over the long term and could even shrink it.

I don’t object to the notion that a carbon tax would be theoretically desirable if it replaced a tax that did more damage per dollar collected, such as the corporate income tax.

My concern has always been such a swap is highly unlikely. Indeed, many proponents of the carbon tax are very explicit about wanting to use the revenues to create a new entitlement. That would be the worst outcome, assuming we want more growth.

And, as noted above, I don’t think Hauser’s Law would save us from higher overall taxes and a larger burden of government spending.

Interestingly, the study basically acknowledges the same thing.

…given that Hauser’s Law is not an iron law of economics, it would be imprudent to put too much weight on it when considering the effects of a tax swap.

There are a couple of other parts of the study that deserve attention, including the assertion that politicians would have a hard time using the carbon tax as a money machine.

…a carbon tax has natural limitations that preclude it from being used to generate ever-increasing amounts of tax revenue. This is because higher carbon-tax rates induce a more rapid fall in greenhouse gas emissions. This, in turn, limits the overall revenue collected from the tax. In fact, unlike revenue from income, sales or property taxes, which tends to increase over time even at a constant tax rate, revenue from a carbon tax is likely to remain stable or fall gradually as emissions decline.

Since I’m a fan of the Laffer Curve, I think this argument is very reasonable in theory.

In effect, the R Street Institute is making the same argument – excessive tax rates can reduce revenue – that Alexander Hamilton used when endorsing tariffs.

But where is the point where carbon taxes become excessive? I don’t know the answer, but I’m very worried that there would be ample leeway to collect a lot of tax revenue before getting close to the revenue-maximizing point (the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a $25-per-ton carbon tax would generate more than $1 trillion in the first ten years).

The bottom line is that I worry that a carbon tax likely would be akin to a value-added tax. Yes, there are negative feedback effects from a VAT, as I noted at the end of yesterday’s column. But that doesn’t change the fact that the revenue-generating capacity of the VAT helps to explain Europe’s bloated welfare states.

I understand how a carbon tax, in theory, might not enable bigger government. But I see no way, in reality, that politicians wouldn’t use this new levy to finance even more spending.

P.S. If you’re not already convinced that a carbon tax will mean bigger government, then all you need to know is that both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development support higher energy taxes for the United States.

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