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Posts Tagged ‘Laffer Curve’

I’m a big fan of the Laffer Curve, which is simply a graphical representation of the common-sense notion that punitively high tax rates can result in less revenue because of reductions in the economy-wide level of work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

This insight of supply-side economics is so obviously true that even Paul Krugman has acknowledged its veracity.

What’s far more important, though, is that Ronald Reagan grasped the importance of Art’s message. And he dramatically reduced tax rates on productive behavior during his presidency.

And those lower tax rates, combined with similar reforms by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, triggered a global reduction in tax rates that has helped boost growth and reduce poverty all around the world.

In other words, Art Laffer was a consequential man.

So it was great news that President Trump yesterday awarded Art with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Let’s look at some commentary on this development, starting with a column in the Washington Examiner by Fred Barnes.

When President Trump announced he was awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist Arthur Laffer, there were groans of dismay in Washington… Their reaction was hardly a surprise. Laffer is everything they don’t like in an economist. He’s an evangelist for tax cuts. He believes slashing tax rates is the key to economic growth and prosperity. And more often than not, he’s been right about this. Laffer emerged as an influential figure in the 1970s as the champion of reducing income tax rates. He was a key player in the Reagan cuts of 1981 that touched off an economic boom lasting two decades. …Laffer, 78, is not a favorite of conventional, predominantly liberal economists. Tax cuts leave the job of economic growth to the private sector. Liberal economists prefer to give government that job. Tax cuts are not on their agenda. Tax hikes are. …His critics would never admit to Laffer envy. But they show it by paying attention to what he says and to whom he’s affiliated. They rush to criticize him at any opportunity. …Laffer was right…about tax cuts and prosperity.

And here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg column by Professor Karl Smith of the University of North Carolina.

Most important, he highlights how supply-side economics provided a misery-minimizing way of escaping the inflation of the 1970s.

President Donald Trump’s decision to award Arthur Laffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom has met with no shortage of criticism… Laffer was a policy entrepreneur, and his..boldness was crucial in the development of what came to be known as the “Supply Side Revolution,” which even today is grossly underappreciated. In the 1980s, the U.S. economy avoided the malaise that afflicted Japan and much of Western Europe. The primary reason was supply-side economics. …Reducing inflation with minimal damage to the economy was the central goal of supply-side economics. …most economists agreed that inflation could be brought down with a severe enough recession. …Conservative economists argued that the long-term gain was worth that level of pain. Liberal economists argued that inflation was better contained with price and income controls. Robert Mundell, a future Nobel Laureate, argued that there was third way. Restricting the money supply, he said, would cause demand in the economy to contract, but making large tax cuts would cause demand to expand. If done together, these two strategies would cancel each other out, leaving room for supply-side factors to do their work. …Laffer suggested that permanent reductions in taxes and regulations would increase long-term economic growth. A faster-growing economy would increase foreign demand for U.S. financial assets, further raising the value of the dollar and reducing the price of foreign imports. These effects would speed the fall in inflation by increasing the supply of goods for sale. In the early 1980s, the so-called Mundell-Laffer hypothesis was put to the test — and it was, by and large, successful.

I’ve already written about how taming inflation was one of Reagan’s great accomplishments, and this column adds some meat to the bones of my argument.

And it’s worth noting that left-leaning economists thought it couldn’t be done. Professor Bryan Caplan shared this quote from Paul Samuelson.

Today’s inflation is chronic.  Its roots are deep in the very nature of the welfare state.  [Establishment of price stability through monetary policy would require] abolishing the humane society [and would] reimpose inequality and suffering not tolerated under democracy.  A fascist political state would be required to impose such a regime and preserve it.  Short of a military junta that imprisons trade union activists and terrorizes intellectuals, this solution to inflation is unrealistic–and, to most of us, undesirable.

It’s laughable to read that today, but during the Keynesian era of the 1970s, this kind of nonsense was very common (in addition to the Samuelson’s equally foolish observations on the supposed strength of the Soviet economy).

The bottom line is that Art Laffer and supply-side economics deserve credit for insights on monetary policy in addition to tax policy.

But since Art is most famous for the Laffer Curve, let’s close with a few additional observations on that part of supply-side economics.

Many folks on the left today criticize Art for being too aggressive about the location of the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve. In other words, they disagree with him on whether certain tax cuts will raise revenue or lose revenue.

While I think there’s very strong evidence that lower tax rates can increase revenue, I also think it doesn’t happen very often.

But I also think that debate doesn’t matter. Simply stated, I don’t want politicians to have more revenue, which means that I don’t want to be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve.

Moreover, there’s a lot of economic damage that occurs as tax rates approach that point, which is why I often cite academic research confirming that one additional dollar of tax revenue is associated with several dollars (or more!) of lost economic output.

Call me crazy, but I’m not willing to destroy $5 or $10 of private-sector income in order to increase Washington’s income by $1.

The bottom line is that the key insight of the Laffer Curve is that there’s a cost to raising tax rates, regardless of whether a nation is on the left side of the curve or the right side of the curve.

P.S. While I’m a huge fan of Art Laffer, that doesn’t mean universal agreement. I think he’s wrong in his analysis of destination-based state sales taxes. And I think he has a blind spot about the danger of a value-added tax.

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The folks at USA Today invited me to opine on fiscal policy, specifically whether the 2017 tax cut was a mistake because of rising levels of red ink.

Here’s some of what I wrote on the topic, including the all-important point that deficits and debt are best understood as symptoms of the real problem of too much spending.

Now that there’s some much needed tax reform to boost American competitiveness, we’re supposed to suddenly believe that red ink is a national crisis. What’s ironic about all this pearl clutching is that the 2017 tax bill actually increases revenue beginning in 2027, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. …This isn’t to say that America’s fiscal house is in good shape, or that President Donald Trump should be immune from criticism. Indeed, the White House should be condemned for repeatedly busting the spending caps as part of bipartisan deals where Republicans get more defense spending, Democrats get more domestic spending and the American people get stuck with the bill. …The real lesson is that red ink is bad, but it’s only the symptom of the real problem of a federal budget that is too big and growing too fast.

I also pointed out that the only good solution for our fiscal problems is some sort of spending cap, similar to the successful systems in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Heck, even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF have pointed out that spending caps are the only successful fiscal rule.

Now let’s look at a different perspective. USA Today also opined on the same topic (I was invited to provide a differing view). Here are excerpts from their editorial.

…more than anyone else, Laffer gave intellectual cover to the proposition that politicians can have their cake and eat it, too. …Laffer argued — on a cocktail napkin, according to economic lore, and elsewhere — that tax reductions would pay for themselves. These “supply side” cuts would stimulate growth so much, revenue would rise even as tax rates declined. This is, of course, rubbish. In the wake of the massive 2017 tax cuts, …the budget deficit is projected to run a little shy of $1 trillion… To run such large deficits a decade into a record economy recovery, is a massive problem because they will soar to dangerous heights the next time a recession strikes.

I think the column misrepresents the Laffer Curve, but let’s set that issue aside for another day.

The editorial also goes overboard in describing the 2017 tax cut as “massive.” As I noted in my column, that legislation actually raises revenue starting in 2027.

That being said, the main shortcoming of the USA Today editorial is that it doesn’t acknowledge that America’s long-run fiscal challenge (even for those who fixate on deficits and debt) is entirely driven by excessive spending growth.

Indeed, all you need to know is that nominal GDP is projected to grow by an average of about 4.0 percent annually over the next 30 years while the federal budget is projected to grow 5.2 percent per year.

This violates the Golden Rule of sensible fiscal policy.

And raising taxes almost certainly would make this bad outlook even worse since the economy would be weaker and politicians would jack up spending even further.

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Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute is most famous for his Venn diagrams that expose hypocrisy and inconsistency.

But he also is famous for his charts.

And since I’m a big fan of sensible tax policy and the Laffer Curve, we’re going to share Mark’s new chart looking at the inverse relationship between the top tax rate and the share of taxes paid by the richest Americans.

Examining the chart, it quickly becomes evident that upper-income taxpayers started paying a much greater share of the tax burden after the Reagan tax cuts.

My left-leaning friends sometimes look at this data and complain that the rich are paying more of the tax burden only because they have grabbed a larger share of national income. And this means we should impose punitive tax rates.

But this argument is flawed for three reasons.

First, there is not a fixed amount of income. The success of a rich entrepreneur does not mean less income for the rest of us. Instead, it’s quite likely that all of us are better off because the entrepreneur created some product of service that we value. Indeed, data from the Census Bureau confirms that all income classes tend to rise and fall simultaneously.

Second, it’s not even accurate to say that the rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting richer.

Third, one of the big fiscal lessons of the 1980s is that punitive tax rates on upper-income taxpayers backfire because investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners will choose to earn and report less taxable income.

For my contribution to this discussion, I want to elaborate on this final point.

When I give speeches, I sometimes discover that audiences don’t understand why rich taxpayers can easily control the amount of their taxable income.

And I greatly sympathize since I didn’t appreciate this point earlier in my career.

That’s because the vast majority of us get the lion’s share of our income from our employers. And when we get this so-called W-2 income, we don’t have much control over how much tax we pay. And we assume that this must be true for others.

But rich people are different. If you go the IRS’s Statistics of Income website and click on the latest data in Table 1.4, you’ll find that wages and salaries are only a small fraction of the income earned by wealthy taxpayers.

These high-income taxpayers may be tempting targets for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and the other peddlers of resentment, but they’re also very elusive targets.

That’s because it’s relatively easy – and completely legal – for them to control the timing, level, and composition of business and investment income.

When tax rates are low, this type of tax planning doesn’t make much sense. But as tax rates increase, rich people have an ever-growing incentive to reduce their taxable income and that creates a bonanza for lawyers, accountants, and financial planners.

Needless to say, there are many loopholes to exploit in a 75,000-page tax code.

P.S. There’s some very good evidence from Sweden confirming my point.

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I’ve periodically opined about why politicians should not try to control people’s behavior with discriminatory taxes, such as the ones being imposed on soda.

And I’ve cited some examples of how these taxes backfire.

If the following headlines are any indication, we can add Philadelphia to that list.

For instances, this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Or this story from the local CBS affiliate.

These examples reinforce my view that it is not a good idea to let meddling politicians impose more taxes in an effort to control people’s behavior.

Some of my left-leaning friends periodically remind me, however, that there’s a difference between anecdotes and evidence. There’s a lot of truth to that cautionary observation.

To be sure, I could simply respond by saying a pattern is evident when a couple of anecdotes turns into dozens of anecdotes. And when dozens become hundreds, surely it’s possible to say the pattern shows causality.

That being said, it is good to have rigorous, statistics-based analysis if we really want to convince skeptics.

So let’s look at the results of some new academic research from scholars at Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Minnesota. We’ll start with the abstract, which nicely summarizes their findings about the impact of Philadelphia’s big soda tax.

We analyze the impact of a tax on sweetened beverages, often referred to as a “soda tax,” using a unique data-set of prices, quantities sold and nutritional information across several thousand taxed and untaxed beverages for a large set of stores in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. We find that the tax is passed through at a rate of 75-115%, leading to a 30-40% price increase. Demand in the taxed area decreases dramatically by 42% in response to the tax. There is no significant substitution to untaxed beverages (water and natural juices), but cross-shopping at stores outside of Philadelphia completely o↵sets the reduction in sales within the taxed area. As a consequence, we find no significant reduction in calorie and sugar intake.

Here are some of their conclusions.

We draw several lessons about the effectiveness of local sweetened-beverage taxes from these analyses. First, the tax was ineffective at reducing consumption of unhealthy products. Second, in terms of revenue generation, the tax was only partly effective due to consumers substituting to stores outside of Philadelphia. Third, low income households are less likely to engage in cross-shopping, and instead are more likely to continue to purchase taxed products at a higher price at stores in Philadelphia. The lower propensity for low income households to avoid the tax through cross-shopping leads to a relatively larger tax burden for those households. In summary, the tax does not lead to a shift in consumption towards healthier products, it affects low income households more severely, and it is limited in its ability to raise revenue.

If you’re wondering why consumers responded so strongly, here’s a chart from the study showing the price difference after the tax was imposed.

The bottom numbers in Figure 3 show that some sales still occurred in the city, but a persistent gap between city sales and suburban sales appeared.

And here’s what happened to sales inside the city (taxed) and outside the city (untaxed).

Wow. This data makes me wonder if suburban sellers will start contributing to the Philadelphia politicians who have generated this windfall?

Others have noticed how the tax is hurting rather than helping.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the failure of Philly’s soda tax.

When Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to pass a soda tax in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would improve public health while funding universal pre-K. Two years in, the policy hasn’t delivered on that elite ideological goal. But the tax has come at the expense of working people… On Jan. 2, Brown’s Super Stores announced the closure of a ShopRite on Haverford Avenue. The supermarket is close to the city limit, and customers discovered they could avoid the soda tax by shopping outside Philly. …the once-profitable store began losing about $1 million a year. …That means fewer opportunities for workers with a criminal record. Mr. Brown’s supermarkets employ more than 600 of them, with the majority in Philadelphia. Some of the ex-cons have become his most-valued employees.

And Kyle Smith explained in National Review how the tax backfired.

Philadelphia’s outlandish soda tax is what Democratic-party politics looks like when it lets its freak flag fly. So many classic elements are there: (failed) social engineering and “think of the children!” on one side, paid for with a punitive tax on poor people and destroyed businesses, which means destroyed jobs, which in turn means lives upended. …Now that beer is, in some cases, cheaper than soda in Philadelphia, alcohol sales are up sharply. …the total loss attributable to the tax in sales of all items was $300,000 a month per store. Other, untaxed drinks also suffered sales declines within the city, suggesting people were simply saving up their shopping trips for when they left town.

I don’t feel compelled to add much to what’s been cited.

Though I will cite a headline from the Seattle Times to reinforce one of the points in the academic study about consumers bearing the cost of the tax rather than the soda companies.

And my one modest contribution to all this analysis is this comparison of the winners and loser from Philadelphia’s new tax.

For what it’s worth, similar comparisons could be developed for just about every action by every government. Academics call this “public choice” while ordinary people realize it’s just common sense.

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Like most taxpayer-supported international bureaucracies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a statist orientation.

The Paris-based OECD is particularly bad on fiscal policy and it is infamous for its efforts to prop up Europe’s welfare states by hindering tax competition.

It even has a relatively new “BEPS” project that is explicitly designed so that politicians can grab more money from corporations.

So it’s safe to say that the OECD is not a hotbed of libertarian thought on tax policy, much less a supporter of pro-growth business taxation.

Which makes it all the more significant that it just announced that supporters of free markets are correct about the Laffer Curve and corporate tax rates.

The OECD doesn’t openly acknowledge that this is the case, of course, but let’s look at key passages from a Tuesday press release.

Taxes paid by companies remain a key source of government revenues, especially in developing countries, despite the worldwide trend of falling corporate tax rates over the past two decades… In 2016, corporate tax revenues accounted for 13.3% of total tax revenues on average across the 88 jurisdictions for which data is available. This figure has increased from 12% in 2000. …OECD analysis shows that a clear trend of falling statutory corporate tax rates – the headline rate faced by companies – over the last two decades. The database shows that the average combined (central and sub-central government) statutory tax rate fell from 28.6% in 2000 to 21.4% in 2018.

So tax rates have dramatically fallen but tax revenue has actually increased. I guess many of the self-styled experts are wrong on the Laffer Curve.

By the way, whoever edits the press releases for the OECD might want to consider changing “despite” to “because of” (writers at the Washington Post, WTNH, Irish-based Independent, and Wall Street Journal need similar lessons in causality).

Let’s take a more detailed look at the data. Here’s a chart from the OECD showing how corporate rates have dropped just since 2000. Pay special attention to the orange line, which shows the rate for developed nations.

I applaud this big drop in tax rates. It’s been good for the world economy and good for workers.

And the chart only tells part of the story. The average corporate rate for OECD nations was 48 percent back in 1980.

In other words, tax rates have fallen by 50 percent in the developed world.

Yet if you look at this chart, which I prepared using the OECD’s own data, it shows that revenues actually have a slight upward trend.

I’ll close with a caveat. The Laffer Curve is very important when looking at corporate taxation, but that doesn’t mean it has an equally powerful impact when looking at other taxes.

It all depends on how sensitive various taxpayers are to changes in tax rates.

Business taxes have a big effect because companies can easily choose where to invest and how much to invest.

The Laffer Curve also is very important when looking at proposals (such as the nutty idea from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to increase tax rates on the rich. That’s because upper-income taxpayers have a lot of control over the timing, level, and composition of business and investment income.

But changes in tax rates on middle-income earners are less likely to have a big effect because most of us get a huge chunk of our compensation from wages and salaries. Similarly, changes in sales taxes and value-added taxes are unlikely to have big effects.

Increasing those taxes is still a bad idea, of course. I’m simply making the point that not all tax increases are equally destructive (and not all tax cuts generate equal amounts of additional growth).

P.S. The International Monetary Fund also accidentally provided evidence about corporate taxes and the Laffer Curve. And there was also a little-noticed OECD study last year making the same point.

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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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As illustrated by this video tutorial, I’m a big advocate of the Laffer Curve.

I very much want to help policy makers understand (especially at the Joint Committee on Taxation) that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue. In other words, you don’t double tax revenue by doubling tax rates.

Having worked on this issue for decades, I can state with great confidence that there are two groups that make my job difficult.

  • The folks who don’t like pro-growth tax policy and thus claim that changes in tax policy have no impact on the economy.
  • The folks who do like pro-growth tax policy and thus claim that every tax cut will “pay for itself” because of faster growth.

Which was my message in this clip from a recent interview.

For all intents and purposes, I’m Goldilocks in the debate over the Laffer Curve. Except instead of stating that the porridge is too hot or too cold, my message is that it is that changes in tax policy generally lead to more taxable income, but the growth in income is usually not enough to offset the impact of lower tax rates.

In other words, some revenue feedback but not 100 percent revenue feedback.

Yes, some tax cuts do pay for themselves. But they tend to be tax cuts on people (such as investors and entrepreneurs) who have a lot of control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

And, as I said in the interview, I think the lower corporate tax rate will have substantial supply-side effects (see here and here for evidence). This is because a business can make big changes in response to a new tax law, whereas people like you and me don’t have the same flexibility.

But I don’t want this column to be nothing but theory, so here’s a news report from Estonia on the Laffer Curve in action.

After Estonia raised its alcohol excise tax rates considerably in 2017, Estonian daily Postimees has estimated that the target of the money the alcohol excise tax would bring into state coffers could have been missed by at least EUR 40 million. …Initially, in the state budget of 2017, the ministry had been planned that proceeds from the alcohol excise tax would bring EUR 276.4 million, but last summer, it cut the forecast to EUR 237.5 million.

I guess I’ll make this story Part VII in my collection of examples designed to educate my friends on the left (here’s Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and Part VI).

But there’s a much more important point I want to make.

The fact that most tax increases produce more revenue is definitely not an argument in favor of higher tax rates.

That argument is wrong in part because government already is far too large. But it’s also wrong because we should consider the health and vitality of the private sector. Here’s some of what I wrote about some academic research in 2012.

…this study implies that the government would reduce private-sector taxable income by about $20 for every $1 of new tax revenue. Does that seem like good public policy? Ask yourself what sort of politicians are willing to destroy so much private sector output to get their greedy paws on a bit more revenue. What about capital taxation? According to the second chart, the government could increase the tax rate from about 40 percent to 70 percent before getting to the revenue-maximizing point. But that 75 percent increase in the tax rate wouldn’t generate much tax revenue, not even a 10 percent increase. So the question then becomes whether it’s good public policy to destroy a large amount of private output in exchange for a small increase in tax revenue. Once again, the loss of taxable income to the private sector would dwarf the new revenue for the political class.

The bottom line is that I don’t think it’s a good trade to reduce the private sector by any amount simply to generate more money for politicians.

P.S. I’m also Goldilocks when considering the Rahn Curve.

P.P.S. For what it’s worth, Paul Krugman (sort of) agrees with me about the Laffer Curve.

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