Posts Tagged ‘Income tax’

During last night’s Democratic debate, Senator Bernie Sanders said he would not raise tax rates as high as they were in the 1950s. And if Twitter data is accurate, his comment about being “not that much of a socialist compared to [President] Eisenhower” was one of the evening’s most memorable moments.

But a clever line is not the same as smart policy. Promising not to raise top tax rates to 90 percent or above is hardly a sign of moderation from the Vermont politician.

Fortunately, not all Democrats are infatuated with punitive tax rates.

Or at least they didn’t used to be. When President John F. Kennedy took office, he understood that the Eisenhower tax rates (in fairness to Ike, he’s merely guilty of not trying to reduce confiscatory tax rates imposed by FDR) were harming the economy and JFK argued for across-the-board tax rate reductions.

…an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits. Surely the lesson of the last decade is that budget deficits are not caused by wild-eyed spenders but by slow economic growth and periodic recessions and any new recession would break all deficit records. In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.

Here’s a video featuring some of President Kennedy’s wisdom on lower tax rates.

If that wasn’t enough, here’s another video featuring JFK’s wisdom on taxation.

By the way, if Senator Sanders really wants the rich to pay more, one of the lessons reasonable people learned from the Kennedy tax cuts is that upper-income taxpayers respond to lower tax rates by earning and reporting more income. Here’s a chart from a study I wrote almost 20 years ago.

Last but not least, let’s preemptively address a likely argument from Senator Sanders. He might be tempted to say that he doesn’t want the 90-percent tax rate of the Eisenhower years, but that he’s perfectly content with the 70-percent top tax rate that existed after the Kennedy tax cuts.

But if that’s the case, instead of teaching Sanders a lesson from JFK, then he needs to learn a lesson from Ronald Reagan.

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I’m happy that many of the presidential candidates are proposing big tax cuts.

Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump have large tax cuts, and Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio are proposing smaller – but still significant – reductions in the federal tax burden.

All of these plans, to be credible, should be accompanied by proposals for a sustained reduction in the burden of government spending (with real enforcement mechanisms).

But there’s something else that needs to be part of the discussion. Yes, we need tax cuts and smaller government, but we also need radical tax simplification.

Consider this depressing chart showing the number of pages in the instruction manual for the IRS’s 1040 tax form.

Or the number of sections in the tax law, which has skyrocketed in the past four decades.

I think it’s fair to say that complexity is a proxy for corruption (and even the World Bank agrees with me). Our tax code is a Byzantine mess because interest groups and lobbyists conspire with politicians to swap loopholes for campaign cash.

Some say that this problem could be solved by restricting the First Amendment and limiting people’s ability to participate in the political process. But that’s naive. So long as we have a convoluted tax code, insiders will figure out how to curry favor with the political elite and manipulate the system to their advantage.

Rather than trashing the Constitution, we should be trashing the internal revenue code.

I have lots of economic arguments for fundamental tax reform and I can wax poetic about the harm of high tax rates and double taxation of saving and investment.

But this new chart from the Tax Foundation, showing the ever-growing number of words in the tax code, is probably the single most compelling argument for a simple and fair flat tax.

Wow. It doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power. It doesn’t seem to matter who controls the White House or who controls Congress. Just as the number of pages in the tax code keeps expanding, so does the number of words.

And I think all of us know that this relentless growth in complexity is not good for ordinary taxpayers.

The only winners are the cronyists, politicians, and other insiders who get rich by using the coercive power of government.

And don’t forget that a complicated tax code means a very powerful IRS, and we’ve seen how that leads to venal corruption.

Now let’s circle back to where we started. I mentioned that many presidential candidates have proposed big tax plans that reduce the amount of money flowing to Washington. Many of those plans also include partial reforms of the tax code.

All of these components are desirable in that they both reduce the tax burden and simplify the tax system. And I could list other attractive partial reforms that are in the various tax plans.

But I can’t help but wonder why no candidate has explicitly embraced the gold standard of tax reform.

By the way, I’m ecumenical on a replacement system. There are other plans that satisfy the goals of real reform.

My only caveat, for those who advocate a national sales tax or value-added tax, is that we first need to repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that politicians could never do a bait and switch and saddle the American people with both an income tax and a consumption tax.

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Every so often, I get asked why I’m so rigidly opposed to tax hikes in general and so vociferously against the imposition of new taxes in particular.

In part, my hostility is an ideological reflex When pressed, though, I’ll confess that there are situations – in theory – where more taxes might be acceptable.

But there’s a giant gap between theory and reality. In the real world, I can’t think of a single instance in which higher taxes led to a fiscally responsible outcome.

That’s true on the national level. And it’s also true at the state level.

Speaking of which, the Wall Street Journal is – to put it mildly – not very happy at the tax-aholic behavior of Connecticut politicians. Here’s some of what was in a recent editorial.

The Census Bureau says Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of Nutmeg Staters would migrate if they could. Now the Democrats who run the state want to drive the other half out too. That’s the best way to explain the frenzy by Governor Dannel Malloy and the legislature to raise taxes again… Mr. Malloy promised last year during his re-election campaign that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s what he also said in 2010. In 2011 he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike promising that it would eliminate a budget deficit. Having won re-election he’s now back seeking another $650 million in tax hikes. But that’s not enough for the legislature, which has floated $1.5 billion in tax increases. Add a state-wide municipal sales tax that some lawmakers want, and the total could hit $2.1 billion over two years.

In other words, higher taxes in recent years have been used to fund more spending.

And now the politicians are hoping to play the same trick another time.

Apparently they don’t care that they’ve turned the Nutmeg State into a New England version of Illinois.

…the state grew a scant 0.9% in 2013, the last year state data are available. That was tied for tenth worst in the U.S. The state’s average compounded annual growth for the last four years is 0.42%. Slow growth means less tax revenue but spending never slows down. Some “40% of the state budget goes to government employee compensation and benefits, including payroll, state pensions, teacher pensions and current and retiree health care,” says Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute. …The Tax Foundation ranks Connecticut as one of the 10 worst states to do business. The state finished last in Gallup’s Job Creation Index in 2014 and now ties with Rhode Island for the worst job creation in the index since 2008.

What’s particularly discouraging is that Connecticut didn’t even have an income tax twenty-five years ago. But once the politicians got a new source of revenue, it’s been one tax hike after another.

Not too many years ago Connecticut was a tax refuge for New York City workers, but since it imposed an income tax in 1991 the rate has kept climbing, as it always does.

There are a couple of lessons from the disaster in Connecticut.

First and foremost, never give politicians a new source of revenue, which has very important implications for the debate in Washington, DC, about a value-added tax.

Unless, of course, you want to enable a bigger burden of government.

And for the states that don’t already have an income tax, the lesson is very clear. Under no circumstances should you allow your politicians to follow Connecticut on the path to fiscal perfidy.

Yet that’s exactly what may be happening in America’s northwest corner. As reported by the Seattle Times, there’s a plan percolating to create an income tax in the state of Washington. It’s being sold as a revenue swap.

State Treasurer Jim McIntire has a “grand bargain” in mind on tax reform and he wants to bend your ear. …the McIntire plan would institute a 5 percent personal-income tax with some exemptions, eliminate the state property tax and reduce business taxes. The plan would raise billions of dollars… The proposal also would lower the state sales tax to 5.5 percent from 6.5 percent.

But taxpayers should be very suspicious, particularly since politicians are talking about the need for more “investment,” which is a common rhetorical trick used by politicians who want to squander more money.

“It is mathematically impossible for us to sustain an adequate investment in education on a shrinking tax base,” he said.

And when you read the fine print, it turns out that the politicians (and the interest groups in the government bureaucracy) want a lot more additional money from taxpayers.

…the plan would raise $7 billion in state revenue but would lower local levies by $3 billion, for an overall increase of about $4 billion.

Advocates of the new tax would prefer to avoid any discussion of big-picture principles.

“We need to have less of an ideological conversation about this,” he said in a news conference.

And their desire to avoid a philosophical discussion is understandable. After all, the big spenders didn’t fare so well the last time voters had a chance to vote on whether the state should impose an income tax.

Voters may not welcome McIntire’s argument, either. In 2010, a proposed income tax on high earners failed by a nearly 30-point margin.

The voters in Washington were very wise back in 2010, so let’s hope they haven’t lost their skepticism about the revenue plans of politicians over the past few years.

There’s every reason to suspect, after all, that the adoption of an income tax would be just as disastrous for the Evergreen State as it was for the Nutmeg State.

To close, I want to share some great advice that was presented by the always sound Professor Richard Vedder. I was at a conference a few years ago where he was also one of the speakers. Asked to comment on whether the Lone Star State should have an income tax, he threw his hands in the air and cried out with passion that, “Texas should give the Alamo to Osama bin Laden before allowing an income tax.”

So if I’m ever asked to speak in Seattle on fiscal policy, I’m going to steal Richard’s approach and and warn that “The state of Washington should give the Space Needle to North Korea before allowing an income tax.”

I doubt I’ll capture Professor Vedder’s rhetorical flair, but there won’t be any doubt that I’ll be 100-percent serious about the dangers of a state income tax.

And what about my home state of Connecticut?

Well, I don’t know of any big landmarks that they could have traded to avoid an income tax. About the only “good” thing to say is that New York’s tax system is probably even worse.

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In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I explained that the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior.

2. Pervasive double taxation that discourages saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that bribe people to make less productive choices.

These problems all need to be addressed, but I also acknowledged additional concerns with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms an civil liberties.

In a perfect world, we would shrink government to such a small size that there was no need for any sort of broad-based tax (remember, the United States prospered greatly for most of our history when there was no income tax).

In a good world, we could at least replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

In today’s Washington, the best we can hope for is incremental reform.

But some incremental reforms can be very positive, and that’s the best way of describing the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan” unveiled today by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

The two GOP senators have a column in today’s Wall Street Journal, and you can read a more detailed description of their plan by clicking here.

But here are the relevant details.

What’s wrong with Rubio-Lee

In the interest of fairness, I’ll start with the most disappointing feature of the plan. The top tax rate will be 35 percent, only a few percentage points lower than the 39.6 percent top rate that Obama imposed as a result of the fiscal cliff.

Even more troubling, that 35 percent top tax rate will be imposed on any taxable income above $75,000 for single taxpayers and $150,000 for married taxpayers.

Since the 35 percent and 39.6 percent tax rates currently apply only when income climbs above $400,000, that means a significant number of taxpayers will face higher marginal tax rates.

That’s a very disappointing feature in any tax plan, but it’s especially unfortunate in a proposal put forth my lawmakers who wrote in their WSJ column that they want to “lower rates for families and individuals.”

What’s right with Rubio-Lee

This will be a much longer section because there are several very attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan.

Some households, for instance, will enjoy lower marginal tax rates under the new bracket structure, particularly if those households have lots of children (there’s a very big child tax credit).

But the really attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan are those that deal with business taxation, double taxation, and international competitiveness.

Here’s a list of the most pro-growth elements of the plan.

A 25 percent tax rate on all business income – This means that the corporate tax rate is being reduced from 35 percent (the highest in the world), but also that there will be a 25 percent maximum rate on all small businesses that file using Schedule C as part of a 1040 tax return.

Sweeping reductions in double taxation – The Rubio-Lee plans eliminates the capital gains tax, the double tax on dividends, and the second layer of tax on interest.

Full expensing of business investment – The proposal gets rid of punitive “depreciation” rules that force businesses to overstate their income in ways that discourage new business investment.

Territorial taxation – Businesses no longer will have to pay a second layer of tax on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other nations.

No death tax – Income should not be subject to yet another layer of tax simply because someone dies. The Rubio-Lee plan eliminates this morally offensive form of double taxation.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the Rubio-Lee plan eliminate the state and local tax deduction, which is a perverse part of the tax code that enables higher taxes in states like New York and California.

Many years ago, while working at the Heritage Foundation, I created a matrix to grade competing tax reform plans. I updated that matrix last year to assess the proposal put forth by Congressman Dave Camp, the former Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

Here’s another version of that matrix, this time including the Rubio-Lee plan.

As you can see, the Rubio-Lee plan gets top scores for “saving and investment” and “international competitiveness.”

And since these components have big implications for growth, the proposal would – if enacted – generate big benefits. The economy would grow faster, more jobs would be created, workers would enjoy higher wages, and American companies would be far more competitive.

By the way, if there was (and there probably should be) a “tax burden” grade in my matrix, the Rubio-Lee plan almost surely would get an “A+” score because the overall proposal is a substantial tax cut based on static scoring.

And even with dynamic scoring, this plan will reduce the amount of money going to Washington in the near future.

Of course, faster future growth will lead to more taxable income, so there will be revenue feedback. So the size of the tax cut will shrink over time, but even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t get that upset if politicians get more revenue because more Americans are working and earning higher wages.

That simply means another opportunity to push for more tax relief!

What’s missing in Rubio-Lee

There are a few features of the tax code that aren’t addressed in the plan.

The health care exclusion is left untouched, largely because the two lawmakers understand that phasing out that preference is best handled as part of a combined tax reform/health reform proposal.

Some itemized deductions are left untouched, or simply tweaked.

And I’m not aware of any changes that would strengthen the legal rights of taxpayers when dealing with the IRS.

Let’s close with a reminder of what very good tax policy looks like.

To their credit, Rubio and Lee would move the tax code in the direction of a flat tax, though sometimes in a haphazard fashion.

P.S. There is a big debate on the degree to which the tax code should provide large child credits. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, I much prefer lower tax rates since faster growth is the most effective long-run way to bolster the economic status of families.

But even the flat tax has a generous family-based allowance, so it’s largely a political judgement on how much tax relief should be dedicated to kids and how much should be used to lower tax rates.

That being said, I think the so-called reform conservatives undermine their case when they argue child-oriented tax relief is good because it might subsidize the creation of future taxpayers to prop up entitlement programs. We need to reform those programs, not give them more money.

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On the issue of so-called progressive taxation, our left-wing friends have conflicting goals. Some of them want to maximize tax revenue in order to finance ever-bigger government.

But others are much more motivated by a desire to punish success. They want high tax rates on the “rich” even if the government collects less revenue.

Some of them simply pretend there isn’t a conflict, as you might imagine. They childishly assert that the Laffer Curve doesn’t exist and that upper-income taxpayers are fiscal pinatas, capable of generating never-ending amounts of tax revenue.

But more rational leftists admit that the Laffer Curve is real. They may argue that the revenue-maximizing rate is up around 70 percent, which is grossly inconsistent with the evidence from the 1980s, but at least they understand that successful taxpayers can and do respond when tax rates increase.

So the question for grown-up leftists is simple: What’s the answer if they have to choose between collecting more revenue and punishing the rich with class-warfare taxation?

And here’s some new research looking at this tradeoff. Authored by economists from the University of Oslo in Norway, École polytechnique de Lausanne in France, and the University of Pennsylvania, they look at “Tax progressivity and the government’s ability to collect additional tax revenue.”

The recent massive expansion of public debt around the world during the Great Recession raises the question how much debt a government can maximally service by raising the level of taxes. Or, to phrase this classic public finance question differently, how much additional tax revenue can the government generate by increasing income taxes?

And since they’re part of the real world (unlike, say, the Joint Committee on Taxation or the Obama Administration), they recognize that higher tax rates impose costs on the economy that lead to feedback effects on tax revenue.

Our research (Holter et al. 2014) investigates how tax progressivity and household heterogeneity impacts the Laffer curve. We argue that a more progressive labour income tax schedule significantly reduces the maximal amount of tax revenues a government can raise…under progressive taxes heterogeneous workers will face different average and marginal tax rates. …the answer to our question is closely connected to the individual (and then properly aggregated) response of labour supply to taxes. The microeconometric literature, as surveyed e.g. by Keane (2011), has found that both the intensive and extensive margins of labour supply (the latter especially for women), life-cycle considerations, and human capital accumulation are important determinants of these individual responses. …households make a consumption–savings choice and decide on whether or not to participate in the labour market (the extensive margin), how many hours to work conditional on participation (the intensive margin), and thus how much labour market experience to accumulate (which in turn partially determines future earnings capacities).

The above passage has a bit of economic jargon, but it’s simply saying that taxpayers respond to incentives.

They also provide estimates of tax progressivity for various developed nations. They’re only looking at the personal income tax, so these numbers don’t include, for instance, the heavy burden of the value-added tax on low-income people in Europe.

The good news (at least relatively speaking) is that the American income tax is not as punitive as it is in many other nations.

But the key thing to consider, at least in the context of this new research, is the degree to which so-called progressivity comes with a high price.

Here is some additional analysis from their research.

Why does the degree of tax progressivity matter for the government’s ability to generate labour income tax revenues…? changes in tax progressivity typically affects hours worked…increasing tax progressivity induces differential income and substitution effects on the workers in different parts of the earnings distribution. …a more progressive tax system may disproportionately reduce labour supply for high earners and lead to a reduction in tax revenue. …more progressive taxes will reduce the incentives for young agents to accumulate labour market experience and become high (and thus more highly taxed) earners.

Now let’s look at some of the results.

Remarkably, they find that the best way of maximizing revenue is to minimize the economic damage of the tax system. And that means…drum roll, please…a flat tax.

For its current choice of progressivity (the green line), the US can sustain a debt burden of about 330% of its benchmark GDP, by increasing the average tax rate to about 42%. Thus, according to our findings the US is currently still nowhere close to its maximally sustainable debt levels…we also observe that larger public debt can be sustained with a less progressive tax system. Converting to a flat tax system (the black line) increases the maximum sustainable debt to more than 350% of benchmark GDP, whereas adopting Danish tax progressivity lowers it to less than 250% of benchmark GDP.

Here are a couple of charts from their study, both of which underscore that punitive tax rates are very counterproductive, assuming the goal is to either maximize revenue or to sustain a larger public sector.

Notice that if you want to punish “the rich” and impose Danish-type levels of progressivity (the dashed line), you’ll get less revenue and won’t be able to sustain as much debt.

Now let’s shift from discussing intellectual quandaries for the left and talk about challenges for believers in limited government.

We like a flat tax because it treats people equally and it raises revenue in a relatively non-destructive manner.

But because it is an “efficient” form of taxation, it’s also an “efficient” way to generate revenues to finance bigger government.

Indeed, this was one of the findings in a 1998 study by Professors Gary Becker and Casey Mulligan.

So does this mean that instead of supporting a flat tax, we should a loophole-riddled system based on high tax rates solely because that system will be so inefficient that it won’t generate revenue?

Of course not. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is why my work on fundamental tax reform is intertwined with my work on constitutional and legal mechanisms to limit the size and scope of government.

And it’s also why Obama’s class-warfare approach is so perversely destructive. If you think I’m exaggerating, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

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I’ve shared some interested rankings on tax policy, including a map from the Tax Foundation showing which states have the earliest and latest Tax Freedom Days.

There’s also a depressing table showing that the United States “earns” a lowly 94th place in a ranking of business-friendly tax system.

Heck, there’s even a map showing the states with the highest wine taxes, as well as a map showing which states have the lightest and heaviest tax burdens compared to income.

So I was very interested to see this table from the Tax Foundation revealing which countries have the most punitive regimes for penalizing success.

Portugal has the dubious honor of having the most progressive (i.e., discriminatory) tax system in the developed world.

I don’t think anyone is surprised to see France in second place, though I confess that I was not expecting to see pro-reform success stories such as Chile and Canada in the top five.

And I’m totally embarrassed that the United States is #8, worse than such garden spots as Greece, Mexico, and Belgium.

Though it’s important to understand that the Tax Foundation is relying on a narrow definition of progressivity.

One way to measure and compare the progressivity of income tax codes across countries is to express the level of income at which each country’s top tax bracket applies as a multiple of that country’s average income.

That’s a useful bit of information and it shows one aspect of progressivity, but it’s also a bit misleading since it implies that the Swedish tax system (with a top tax rate of 56.7 percent) is less progressive than the Slovakian tax system (with a top tax rate of 21.7 percent).

You won’t be surprised that I think a ranking that purports to show the burden of “progressive” taxation should include the top tax rate.

Speaking of which, this is why I like the Tax Foundation’s measure of progressivity on the state level.

The…table also shows the gap between the top marginal tax rate and the marginal tax rate on $25,000 of taxable income. …Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have progressive rate structures that rise after $25,000. California, New Jersey, and Vermont have the most progressive rate structures by a wide margin.

Who could have guessed that California would be the worst state, though I’m not surprised to see New Jersey (the worst place to die) and Vermont (worst place for self reliance) have such poor ratings as well.

And is anyone even remotely shocked to see that states with no income taxes manage to avoid any problems with ‘so-called” progressivity? Not surprisingly, they also grow faster and create more jobs.

The moral of the story, at the very least, is that America needs a simple and fair flat tax.

And not the Obama or Hollande version.

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The Tax Foundation in Washington does some great work on fiscal issues, but I also admire their use of maps when they want to show how various states perform on key indicators.

They’re best known for “Tax Freedom Day,” which measures how long people have to work each year before they’ve earned enough to satisfy the tax demands of federal, state, and local government. And they have a map so you can easily see how your state ranks.

But my favorite map from the Tax Foundation is the one showing that the geese with the golden eggs are moving from high-tax states to low-tax states. That’s tax competition in action!

I also like their map showing which states have done the best and worst jobs of controlling the burden of government spending, as well as their map showing which states steal the biggest share of economic output from taxpayers.

So it should go without saying that I’m going to share their new State Business Tax Climate Index. And the accompanying map.

Tax Foundation State Tax Ranking

What are some important takeaways from this ranking? Five things caught my eye.

1. It’s a very good idea for a state to not impose an income tax. The top six states all avoid this punitive levy and every no-income tax state is in the top 15. And you won’t be surprised to learn that these states grow faster and create more jobs.

2. It’s just a matter of time before states such as New York and California are beset by fiscal crisis. When a jurisdiction has something special – like California’s climate or the appeal (to some) of New York City – it can get away with imposing higher tax burdens. But there’s a limit, and migration patterns show that productive people are voting with their feet.

3. Scott Walker and Chris Christie often are mentioned as serious 2016 presidential candidates, and both have become well known for trying to deal with the problem of over-compensated state bureaucrats. But they both preside over states in the bottom 10 of this ranking, and presumably should address this problem if they want to demonstrate that they’re on the side of taxpayers.

4. It’s possible for a state to make a dramatic jump. North Carolina currently is one of the bottom 10, but that will soon change because of reforms – including a flat tax – that were enacted this year. As the Tax Foundation noted: “While the state remains ranked 44th for this edition, it will move to as high as 17th as these reforms take effect in coming years.”

5. States also can move dramatically in the wrong direction. Connecticut is now one of America’s least-competitive states, in large part because politicians managed to push through a state income tax in the early 1990s.

P.S. If you like maps, here are some interesting ones, starting with some international comparisons.

Here are some good state maps with useful information.

There’s even a local map.

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