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Posts Tagged ‘Laffer Curve’

I’ve written dozens of columns about the Laffer Curve and its implications.

My favorite may be the one that pointed out why it generally is misguided to raise tax rates even if the government would collect more revenue (i.e., don’t give politicians $1 if it means reducing the private economy by $5).

And I’m always reminding people that the goal is to maximize growth rather than revenue.

I’ve even written about how the Laffer Curve relates to issues as diverse as sex and ISIS.

But I haven’t paid much attention to the history of the issue. Now, thanks to some great research from Nima Sanandaji, we can investigate that topic.

…the Laffer Curve has been used by supporters of low taxes around the world to reinforce their ideas. …it has helped to inspire a downward shift in taxation. Ronald Reagan’s administration introduced massive changes, which dropped the marginal tax rate to 28 percent. …even the proponents of high tax policy are aware of Laffer’s warnings: there is a limit to how high taxes can be raised.

All that’s true.

Reagan’s lower tax rates did produce a windfall of tax revenue from the rich.

And even folks on the left admit that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is below 100 percent, so they acknowledge the Laffer Curve is real.

But what many people don’t know is that the concept of the Laffer Curve existed long before Art drew his famous curve on a napkin.

Nima points to the example of Ibn Khaldun.

…Laffer’s theory was far from new. …Laffer has himself explained that he didn’t invent the curve, but took it from Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Muslim, North African philosopher. …Born in 14th-century Tunisia, Khaldun was a prominent scholar and one of the founders of economics and social sciences. Khaldun believed that a just government should only, in accordance with Islamic law, impose low taxes. …However, rulers tend to increase the tax to benefit themselves. High taxes hurt commerce and trade. When tax rates are raised to pay for a bloated government, it will finally cause the tax base to shrink so much that the government cannot meet its obligations. …at this point the state would often implode under its own weight, leading to a period of chaos and the rise of a new state.

Here’s Khaldun’s most famous statement on tax rates and tax revenue.

By the way, there were plenty of people between Khaldun and Laffer who understood why punitive tax rates are foolish, including Alexander Hamilton and John Maynard Keynes(!).

P.S. Perhaps because they’re exposed to the real-world impact, America’s CPAs also understand the Laffer Curve is very real.

P.P.S. Nima has just written a fascinating new book, The Birthplace of Capitalism – The Middle East, which can be ordered here.

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I wanted California to decriminalize marijuana because I believe in freedom. Smoking pot may not be a wise choice in many cases, but it’s not the role of government to dictate private behavior so long as people aren’t violating the rights of others.

Politicians, by contrast, are interested in legalization because they see dollar signs. They want to tax marijuana consumption to they can have more money to spend (I half-joked that this was a reason to keep it illegal, but that’s a separate issue).

Lawmakers need to realize, though, that the Laffer Curve is very real. They may not like it, but there’s very strong evidence that imposing lots of taxes does not necessarily mean collecting lots of revenue. Especially when tax rates are onerous.

Here’s some of what the AP recently reported about California’s experiment with taxing pot.

So far, the sale of legal marijuana in California isn’t bringing in the green stuff. Broad legal sales kicked off on Jan. 1. State officials had estimated California would bank $175 million from excise and cultivation taxes by the end of June. But estimates released Tuesday by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office show just $34 million came in between January and March. …it’s unlikely California will reap $175 million by midyear.

And here are some excerpts from a KHTS story.

Governor Jerry Brown’s January budget proposal predicted that $175 million would pour into the state’s coffers from excise and cultivation taxes…analysts believe revenue will be significantly lower… Some politicians argue high taxes are to blame for the revenue shortfalls preventing that prediction from becoming reality, saying the black market is “undercutting” the legal one. …The current taxes on legal marijuana businesses include a 15 percent excise tax on purchases of all cannabis and cannabis products, including medicinal marijuana. The law also added a $9.25 tax for every ounce of bud grown and a $2.75-an-ounce tax on dried cannabis leaves for cultivators.

These results should not have been a surprise.

I’ve been warning – over and over again – that politicians need to pay attention to the Laffer Curve. Simply stated, high tax rates don’t necessarily produce high revenues if taxpayers have the ability to alter their behavior.

That happens with income taxes. It happens with consumption taxes.

And it happens with taxes on marijuana.

Moreover, it’s not just cranky libertarians who make this point. Vox isn’t a site know for rabid support of supply-side economics, so it’s worth noting some of the findings from a recent article on pt taxes.

After accounting for substitution between products by consumers, we find that the tax-inclusive price faced by consumers for identical products increased by 2.3%. We find that the quantity purchased decreased by 0.95%…, implying a short-term price elasticity of -0.43. However, over time, the magnitude of the quantity response significantly increases, and our estimates suggest that the price elasticity of demand is about negative one within two weeks of the reform. We conclude that Washington, the state with the highest marijuana taxes in the country, is near the peak of the Laffer curve – further increases in tax rates may not increase revenue. …tax revenue has historically been one of the many arguments in favour of legalising marijuana…the optimal taxation of marijuana should be designed to take into account responses…excessive taxation might prop up the very black markets that legal marijuana is intended to supplant. As additional jurisdictions consider legalising marijuana and debate over optimal policy design, these trade-offs should be explored and taken into account.

Let’s close by reviewing some interesting passages from a McClatchey report, starting with some observations about the harmful impact of excessive taxes.

Owners of legalized cannabis operations face a range of challenges… But taxes – local, state, federal – present a particular headache. They are a big reason why, in California and other states, only a small percentage of cannabis growers and retailers have chosen to get licensed and come out of the shadows. …In a March report, Fitch Ratings suggested that California may not realize the tax revenue – $1 billion a year – the state projected when Proposition 64, a legalization initiative, was put before voters in 2016. “While it is still too early to assess California’s revenue performance, comparatively high taxes on legal cannabis will likely continue to divert sales to illegal markets, reducing potential tax collections,” Fitch said in its report. …Add it all up, and state-legal cannabis in some parts of California could be taxed at an effective rate of 45 percent, Fitch said in a report last year.

Interestingly, even politicians realize they need to adapt to the harsh reality of the Laffer Curve.

Some state lawmakers blame the taxation for creating a price gap between legal and illegal pot that could doom California’s regulated market. Last month, Assembly members Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, and Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, introduced legislation, AB 3157, that would reduce the state marijuana sales tax rate from 15 percent to 11 percent, and suspend all cultivation taxes until June 2021.

And I can’t resist including one final passage that has nothing to do with taxes. Instead, it’s a reference to the lingering effect of Obama’s dreadful Operation Choke Point.

Davies owns Canna Care, a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento. Like other state-legal cannabis businesses nationwide, her pot shop operates largely with cash. Most banks won’t transact with enterprises deemed illegal by the U.S. government. That forces Davies to stuff $10,000 in bills into her purse each month… even lawyers who represent state-legal marijuana businesses face financial risks. Sacramento lawyer Khurshid Khoja recently lost his two bank accounts with Umpqua Bank, after Umpqua started asking him about his state-legal cannabis clients.

The good news is that Trump has partially eased this awful policy. The bad news is that he only took a small step in the right direction.

But let’s get back to our main topic. I’ve written several times on whether our friends on the left are capable of learning about the Laffer Curve. Especially in cases when they imposed a tax in hopes of changing behavior!

What’s happening in California with pot taxes is simply the latest example.

And I’m hoping leftists will apply the lesson to taxes on things that we don’t want to discourage – such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

P.S. I’ve pointed out that some leftists want high tax rates on income even if no money is collected. That’s because their real goal is punishing success. I wonder if there are some conservatives who are pushing punitive marijuana taxes because they want to discourage “sin” rather than collect revenue.

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Last November, I wrote about the lessons we should learn from tax policy in the 1950s and concluded that very high tax rates impose a very high price.

About six months before that, I shared lessons about tax policy in the 1980s and pointed out that Reaganomics was a recipe for prosperity.

Now let’s take a look at another decade.

Amity Shlaes, writing for the City Journal, discusses the battle between advocates of growth and the equality-über-alles crowd.

…progressives have their metrics wrong and their story backward. The geeky Gini metric fails to capture the American economic dynamic: in our country, innovative bursts lead to great wealth, which then moves to the rest of the population. Equality campaigns don’t lead automatically to prosperity; instead, prosperity leads to a higher standard of living and, eventually, in democracies, to greater equality. The late Simon Kuznets, who posited that societies that grow economically eventually become more equal, was right: growth cannot be assumed. Prioritizing equality over markets and growth hurts markets and growth and, most important, the low earners for whom social-justice advocates claim to fight.

Amity analyzes four important decades in the 20th century, including the 1930s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Her entire article is worth reading, but I want to focus on what she wrote about the 1920s. Especially the part about tax policy.

She starts with a description of the grim situation that President Harding and Vice President Coolidge inherited.

…the early 1920s experienced a significant recession. At the end of World War I, the top income-tax rate stood at 77 percent. …in autumn 1920, two years after the armistice, the top rate was still high, at 73 percent. …The high tax rates, designed to corral the resources of the rich, failed to achieve their purpose. In 1916, 206 families or individuals filed returns reporting income of $1 million or more; the next year, 1917, when Wilson’s higher rates applied, only 141 families reported income of $1 million. By 1921, just 21 families reported to the Treasury that they had earned more than a million.

Wow. Sort of the opposite of what happened in the 1980s, when lower rates resulted in more rich people and lots more taxable income.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at what happened starting in 1921.

Against this tide, Harding and Coolidge made their choice: markets first. Harding tapped the toughest free marketeer on the public landscape, Mellon himself, to head the Treasury. …The Treasury secretary suggested…a lower rate, perhaps 25 percent, might foster more business activity, and so generate more revenue for federal coffers. …Harding and Mellon got the top rate down to 58 percent. When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Coolidge promised to “bend all my energies” to pushing taxes down further. …After winning election in his own right in 1924, Coolidge joined Mellon, and Congress, in yet another tax fight, eventually prevailing and cutting the top rate to the target 25 percent.

And how did this work?

…the tax cuts worked—the government did draw more revenue than predicted, as business, relieved, revived. The rich earned more than the rest—the Gini coefficient rose—but when it came to tax payments, something interesting happened. The Statistics of Income, the Treasury’s database, showed that the rich now paid a greater share of all taxes. Tax cuts for the rich made the rich pay taxes.

To elaborate, let’s cite one of my favorite people. Here are a couple of charts from a study I wrote for the Heritage Foundation back in 1996.

The first one shows that the rich sent more money to Washington when tax rates were reduced and also paid a larger share of the tax burden.

And here’s a look at the second chart, which illustrates how overall revenues increased (red line) as the top tax rate fell (blue).

So why did revenues climb after tax rates were reduced?

Because the private economy prospered. Here are some excerpts about economic performance in the 1920s from a very thorough 1982 report from the Joint Economic Committee.

Economic conditions rapidly improved after the act became law, lifting the United States out of the severe 1920-21 recession. Between 1921 and 1922, real GNP (measured in 1958 dollars) jumped 15.8 percent, from $127.8 billion to $148 billion, while personal savings rose from $1.59 billion to $5.40 -billion (from 2.6 percent to 8.9 percent of disposable personal income). Unemployment declined significantly, commerce and the construction industry boomed, and railroad traffic recovered. Stock prices and new issues increased, with prices up over 20 percent by year-end 1922.8 The Federal Reserve Board’s index of manufacturing production (series P-13-17) expanded 25 percent. …This trend was sustained through much of 1923, with a 12.1 percent boost in GNP to $165.9 billion. Personal savings increased to $7.7 billion (11 percent of disposable income)… Between 1924 ‘and 1925 real GNP grew 8.4 percent, from $165.5 billion to $179.4 billion. In this same period the amount of personal savings rose from an already impressive $6.77 billion to about $8.11 billion (from 9.5 percent to 11 percent of personal disposable income). The unemployment rated dropped 27.3 percents interest rates fell, and railroad traffic moved at near record levels. From June 1924 when the act became law to the end of that year the stock price index jumped almost 19 percent. This index increased another 23 percent between year-end 1924 and year-end 1925, while the amount of non-financial stock issues leapt 100 percent in the same period. …From 1925 to 1926 real GNP grew from $179.4 billion to $190 billion. The index of output per man-hour increased and the unemployment rate fell over 50 percent, from 4.0 percent to 1.9 percent. The Federal Reserve Board’s index of manufacturing production again rose, and stock prices of nonfinancial issues increased about 5 percent.

Now for some caveats.

I’ve pointed out many times that taxes are just one of many policies that impact economic performance.

It’s quite likely that some of the good news in the 1920s was the result of other factors, such as spending discipline under both Harding and Coolidge.

And it’s also possible that some of the growth was illusory since there was a bubble in the latter part of the decade. And everything went to hell in a hand basket, of course, once Hoover took over and radically expanded the size and scope of government.

But all the caveats in the world don’t change the fact that Americans – both rich and poor – immensely benefited when punitive tax rates were slashed.

P.S. Since Ms. Shlaes is Chairman of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, I suggest you click here and here to learn more about the 20th century’s best or second-best President.

P.P.S. I assume I don’t need to identify Coolidge’s rival for the top spot.

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Greece has confirmed that a nation can spend itself into a fiscal crisis.

And the Greek experience also has confirmed that bailouts exacerbate a fiscal crisis by enabling more bad policy, while also rewarding spendthrift politicians and reckless lenders (as I predicted when Greece’s finances first began to unravel).

So now let’s look at a third question: Can a country tax itself to death? Greek politicians are doing their best to see if this is possible, with a seemingly endless parade of tax increases (so many that even the tax-loving folks at the IMF have balked).

At the very least, they’ve pushed the private sector into hospice care.

Let’s peruse a couple of recent stories from Ekathimerini, an English-language Greek news outlet. We’ll start with a rather grim look at a very punitive tax regime that is aggressively grabbing money from taxpayers with arrears.

Tax authorities have confiscated the salaries, pensions and assets of more that 180,000 taxpayers since the start of the year, but expired debts to the state have continued to rise, reaching almost 100 billion euros, as the taxpaying capacity of the Greeks is all but exhausted. In the month of October, authorities made almost 1,000 confiscations a day from people with debts to the state of more than 500 euros. In the first 10 months of the year, the state confiscated some 4 billion euros.

But the Greek government is losing a race. The more it raises taxes, the more people fall behind.

in October alone, the unpaid tax obligations of households and enterprises came to 1.2 billion euros. Unpaid taxes from January to October amounted to 10.44 billion euros, which brings the total including unpaid debts from previous years to almost 100 billion euros (99.8 billion), or about 55 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The inability of citizens and businesses to meet their obligations is also confirmed by the course of public revenues, which this year have declined by more than 2.5 billion euros. The same situation is expected to continue into next year, as the new tax burdens and increased social security contributions look set to send debts to the state soaring.

The fact that revenues have declined should be a glaring signal to politicians that they are past the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

But the government probably won’t be satisfied until everyone in the private sector is in debt to the state.

There are now 4.17 million taxpayers who owe the state money. This means that one in every two taxpayers is in arrears to the state, with 1,724,708 taxpayers facing the risk of forced collection measures. Of the 99.8 billion euros of total debt, just 10-15 billion euros is still considered to be collectible.

Here’s another article from Ekathimerini that looks at how Greece is doubling down on suicidal fiscal policy.

Greece is defying the prevalent trend among the world’s industrialized nations for reducing tax rates in order to boost investment and competitiveness… According to the report, in contrast to the majority of OECD member states, Greece has raised taxes and social security contributions as government policy is geared toward reaching fiscal targets, even though this inevitably harms the crisis-hit country’s competitiveness.

It’s hard to think of a tax that Greek politicians haven’t increased.

Greece…is also the only one among them that increased taxes on labor and corporate profits. …eight OECD member states reduced rates in 2017 on an average of 2.7 percent…, in stark contrast to Greece, which…has the highest corporate tax rates in the OECD compared to 2008. Many countries also offered breaks and reductions on income tax, …also cutting social contributions in 2015-2016. Not so Greece, which in 2016 raised both, thereby increasing the overall burden on low-income earners by 1.5 percent. Greece was also the only country in the OECD to raise value-added tax rates in 2016.

And what was accomplished by all these tax increases? Less tax revenue and recession. That’s a lose-lose scenario by almost any standard.

…in the 2014-2015 period, 25 of the 32 countries for which data is available recorded an increase in tax-to-GDP levels. The report…mentions Greece as an exception to this trend as well, noting that the country was in recession in that two-year period.

Even an establishment outlet like the U.K.-based Financial Times has noticed.

Unemployment is at 23 per cent and 44 per cent of those aged 15-24 are out of work. More than a fifth of Greeks get by without basics such as heating or a telephone connection. …Sweeping new taxes imposed across the economy have already left communities scrabbling to survive. …this year will bring €1bn worth of new taxes on cars, telecoms, television, fuel, cigarettes, coffee and beer… New taxes have eroded disposable incomes still further. Value added tax has increased to 24 per cent on food, disproportionately hurting the poor, for whom living costs represent a far higher proportion of income. Most detested is the Enfia property levy, which brings in €2.65bn a year – roughly €650 from each of Greece’s four million households. …recent direct taxes like the new estate tax have affected households that have seen their income decline greatly during the crisis. The rise of VAT, meanwhile, only adds to the cost of life of poor families.” …this month, new levies will mean the taxes paid by his business will jump 29 per cent.

Interestingly, the article acknowledges that profligate politicians created the mess, while also noting that the Greek people also deserve blame.

…blame is laid on the politicians who spent the 27 years of Greece’s EU membership before the crisis loading the country with debt to fund increased defence expenditure, more public sector jobs and higher pension and other social benefit payments. …“The Greek people should be blamed. We voted for these people,” he concludes.

The problem, of course, is that Greek voters don’t show any interest in now voting for politicians who will clean up the mess. Simply stated, too many people in the country are living off the government.

In other words, even though it’s mathematically possible to fix the problems, the erosion of societal capital suggests that Greece may have reached the point of collapse.

From a fiscal perspective, this chart from OECD data confirms that policy is getting worse rather than better. Measured as a share of economic output, taxes and spending have both become a bigger burden over the past 10 years.

What makes this chart especially depressing is that economic output is lower today than it was in 2005, which means that the problem isn’t so much that annual tax receipts and spending level are climbing, but rather that the private economy is declining.

Let’s close with an additional look at the moribund Greek economy and a discussion of how the bailouts have made a bad situation even worse.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized on the impact of ever-higher taxes and a still-stifling bureaucratic business environment.

…the bailout is not in fact working, if you think the goal should be to restore Athens to sound public finances and to offer Greeks economic hope for the future. The European Commission’s autumn forecast predicts eurozone economic growth of 2.2% this year, the fastest in a decade. But Greece is falling further behind. …Investment has collapsed in the country, to 11% of GDP last year from 26% of GDP in 2007. …The bailouts are creating a dangerous situation in which the government has enough cash to meet its debts but no one else in Greece can thrive.

And here’s the scary part. What happens when there’s another global recession? The already-bad numbers in Greece will get even worse. Not a pleasant thought.

P.S. If you want to know why I’m not optimistic about Greece’s future, how can you expect good policy from a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies? I’d be more hopeful if Greek politicians instead had learned some lessons from Slovakia or Latvia.

P.P.S. Notwithstanding a the constant stream of bad policy, I am capable of feeling sorry for Greece.

P.P.P.S. Newer readers may not be familiar with my collection of Greek-related humor. This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations. Speaking of stereotypes, the Greeks are in a tight race with the Italians and Germans for being considered untrustworthy.

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Since there’s a big debate about whether there should be tax cuts and tax reform in the United States, let’s see what we can learn from abroad.

And let’s focus specifically on whether changes in tax policy actually produce “revenue feedback” because of the Laffer Curve. In other words, if tax rates change, does that incentive people to alter how much they work, save, and invest, thus changing the amount of taxable income they earn and report?

I’ve written about how the Laffer Curve has impacted revenue in nations such as France, Russia, Ireland, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Now let’s go to Africa. In a column for BizNis Africa, Kyle Mandy of PwC explicitly warns that South Africa is at the wrong spot on the Laffer Curve.

At the time of the 2017 Budget in February, a number of commentators, including myself, warned National Treasury and Parliament that the tax increases announced in the Budget, particularly on personal income tax, would likely push tax revenues very close to the top of the Laffer curve, i.e. the point at which tax revenues are maximised and beyond which tax rate increases will actually result in a decrease in tax revenues.

Before continuing with the article, I can’t resist making an important point. The author understands that it is a bad idea to be on the downward-sloping part of the Laffer Curve. As he points out, that’s when tax rates are so punitive that “tax rate increases will actually result in a decrease in tax revenues.”

That’s correct, of course, but it’s almost as important to understand that it’s also a very bad idea to be at the “top of the Laffer Curve.” As noted in a study by economists from the Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago, that’s the point where economic damage is so great that a dollar of tax revenue can be associated with $20 of damage to the private sector.

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s look at some of the details in the article about South Africa.

The evidence…suggests that, in the current environment, South Africa has maximised the tax revenues that it can extract from its citizens and has possibly even gone past that point and is now on the downward slope of the curve. Why do I say this? The last few years have seen significant tax increases… These tax increases saw the main budget tax: GDP ratio increase from 24.5% in 2012/13 to 26% in 2015/16, primarily led by increases in personal income tax. However, since then the tax:GDP ratio has stalled at 26% in both 2016/17 and in the revised forecast for 2017/18. It is not unreasonable to expect that the tax:GDP ratio for 2017/18 may fall below 26% in the final outcome. The stalling of the tax:GDP ratio comes despite significant tax increases in each of 2016/17 and 2017/18 which were expected to deliver ZAR18 billion and ZAR28 billion of additional tax revenues respectively.

Once again, I can’t resist the temptation to interject. That final sentence should be changed to read “the stalling of the tax:GDP ratio comes because of significant tax increases.”

Mr. Mandy concludes his column by warning that the current approach is leading to bad results and noting that further tax hikes would make a bad situation even worse.

…the South African Revenue Service has acknowledged that it has seen a decline in levels of compliance. …So what does all of this mean for tax policy and fiscal policy generally? Simply put, National Treasury have been placed in an invidious position. Increasing taxes further in the current environment could be self-defeating and result in a decline in the tax:GDP ratio. This risk is particularly prevalent insofar as further tax increases in the form of personal income tax are concerned. Increasing the corporate tax rate would further dent investor confidence and economic growth.

The good news is that even South Africa’s government seems to realize there is a problem.

Here are some excerpts from a recent story.

Finance minister Malusi Gigaba has received President Jacob Zuma’s stamp of approval for an inquiry into tax administration and governance at the South African Revenue Service (Sars). According to the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), tax revenue is expected to fall almost R51 billion short of earlier estimates in the current fiscal year. …The probe also comes amid warnings that further tax hikes could be futile and may even result in a decline in the country’s tax-to-GDP ratio. …National Treasury has introduced various tax hikes over the past few years. The main budget tax-to-GDP ratio increased from 24.5% in 2012/13 to 26% in 2015/16, mainly as a result of higher effective personal income tax rates. But the tax-to-GDP ratio has subsequently stalled at 26% in 2016/17 and in the latest 2017/18 forecast and it is not inconceivable that the final outcome for the current fiscal year could fall below 26%… Gigaba seems to be aware of the dangers of additional tax hikes and warned in his MTBPS that it could be “counterproductive”.

I’m glad that there’s a recognition that higher taxes would backfire, but that’s not going to fix any problems.

The pressure for higher taxes will be relentless unless the South African government begins to control spending. The government should adopt a constitutional spending cap, which would alleviate budget pressures and create some “fiscal space” for lower tax rates.

But I’m not confident that will happen, particularly if the International Monetary Fund gets involved. Desmond Lachman, formerly of the IMF and now with the American Enterprise Institute, writes that the country is in trouble.

South Africa is in trouble. Per capita income has been in decline for several years and its economy is in recession for the second time in eight years. Unemployment remains at over 27%. Meanwhile, the rand is floundering on the foreign exchange market… In view of the favourable global economic environment, the country’s predicament is even more troubling. Interest rates have rarely been lower and capital flows to emerging markets have seldom been stronger. …If South Africa’s economy is performing poorly in this environment, it will probably struggle even more when central banks start to normalise their interest rate policies and when the global economic environment becomes more challenging.

He has the right description of the problem, but I’m worried about his proposed solution.

IMF assistance can hasten restoration of confidence. …An IMF programme would not be popular politically within South Africa but the government does not appear to have any realistic alternative.

Simply stated, the IMF has a very bad track record of pushing for higher taxes.

That doesn’t necessarily mean its bureaucrats will push for bad policy in South Africa, but past performance sometimes is a good predictor of future behavior.

For what it’s worth, the IMF is fully aware that the burden of government has been increasing. Here’s a blurb from the most recent Article IV report on South Africa.

During the past few years, the share of both revenues and expenditures continued its rising trend. The size of general government in South Africa is one of the highest among international peers at a similar level of development. Primary expenditures rose by 1.5 percentage points of GDP between 2012/13 and 2015/16, owing primarily to public enterprise-related transfers (0.8 percent of GDP, including a 0.6 percent of GDP equity injection for Eskom in 2015/2016) as well as relatively generous wage agreements combined with an increase in consolidated government employment (0.3 percent of GDP). In recent years, including the 2017 budget, higher personal income taxation has been the main tax  policy instrument to collect revenue combined with higher excise rates.

And here’s a section of the data table showing the expanding burden of both taxes and spending.

Unfortunately, the IMF never says that this growing fiscal burden is a problem. Instead, the focus is solely on the fact that spending is higher than revenue. In other words, the IMF mistakenly fixates on the symptom of red ink instead of addressing the real problem of excessive government.

So if the bureaucrats do an intervention, it almost certainly will result in bailout money for South Africa’s politicians in exchange for a “balanced” package of spending cuts and tax increases.

But the spending cuts likely will be either phony (reductions in planned increases, just like they do it in Washington) or will quickly evaporate. But the higher taxes will be real and permanent. Just like in most other nations where the IMF has intervened. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Speaking of misguided international bureaucracies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development already has been pushing bad policy on South Africa. The bureaucrats even brag about their impact, as you can see from this Table in the OECD’s recent Economic Survey on South Africa.

The OECD is happy that income tax rates have increased and that there’s more double taxation on dividends, but the bureaucrats are still hoping for a new energy tax, expansion of the value-added tax, and more property taxes.

They must really hate the people of South Africa. No wonder the OECD is known as the world’s worst international bureaucracy.

I’ll close by noting that the country’s problems are not limited to fiscal policy. The country is only ranked #95 by Economic Freedom of the World. And it was as high as #46 in 2000.

Instead of pushing for higher taxes, that’s the problem the OECD and IMF should be trying to fix. But given their track record, that’s about as likely as me playing centerfield next year for the Yankees.

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I gave a couple of speeches about fiscal policy in Australia late last week.

During the Q&A sessions (as so often happens when I speak overseas), the audiences mostly asked questions about Donald Trump. I generally give a three-part response.

So when I was asked to appear on Australian television, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was asked several questions about Trump.

But the good news is that the segment lasted for more than 18 minutes so I got a chance to pontificate about taxes and spending.

In particular, I had an opportunity to explain two very important principles of fiscal policy.

First, I explained the Rahn Curve and discussed why both Australia and the United States should worry that the public sector is too large. This means less growth in our respective nations because government spending (whether financed by taxes or borrowing) diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy.

Second, I explained the Laffer Curve and tried to get across why high tax rates are a bad idea (even if they raise more revenue). As always, my top goal was to explain that a nation should not seek to be at the revenue-maximizing point.

I also had an opportunity to take some potshots at international bureaucracies such as the IMF and OECD. Yes, we get good statistics from such organizations and even some occasional good research, but they have a statist policy agenda that undermines global growth. And I never cease to be offended that bureaucrats at these organizations get tax-free salaries, yet get to jet around the world urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

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For months, I’ve been arguing that the big reduction in the corporate tax rate is the most important part of Trump’s tax agenda.

But not because of politics or anything like that. Instead, my goal is to enable additional growth by shifting to a system that doesn’t do as much damage to investment and job creation. A lower rate is consistent with good theory, and there’s also recent research from Australia and Germany to support my position.

Especially since the United States is falling behind the rest of the world. America now has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world and arguably may have the highest rate in the entire world.

Needless to say, this is a self-inflicted wound on U.S. competitiveness.

But since the numbers I’ve been sharing are now a few year’s old, let’s now update some of this data.

Check out these four charts from a new OECD annual report on tax policy changes (the some one that I cited a few days ago when explaining that European-sized government means a suffocating tax burden on the poor and middle class).

Here’s the grim data on the corporate income tax rate (the vertical blue bars). As you can see, the United wins the booby prize for having the highest rate.

But here’s some “good news.” When you add in the second layer of tax on corporate income, the United States is “only” in third place, about where we were back in 2011.

France imposes the highest combined rate on corporate and dividend income (no surprise since the nation’s national sport is taxation), while Ireland is in second place (the corporate rate is very low, but personal rates are high and dividends receive no protection from double taxation).

For what it’s worth, I think it’s incredibly bad policy when governments are skimming 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, and even 60 percent of the income being generated by business investment.

Particularly since high rates don’t translate into high revenue. Check out this third chart. You’ll notice that revenues are relatively low in the United States even though (or perhaps because) the tax rate is very high.

But our final chart provides the strongest evidence. Just like the IMF, the OECD is admitting that tax revenues have remained constant over time, even though (or because) corporate tax rates have plunged.

In other words, the Laffer Curve is alive and well.

Incidentally, the global shift to lower tax rates hasn’t stopped. I wrote back in May about plans for lower corporate tax burdens in Hungary and the United Kingdom and I noted last November that Croatia was lowering its corporate rate.

And, thanks to liberalizing effect of tax competition, more and more nations are hopping on the tax cut bandwagon.

Consider what’s happening in Sweden.

Sweden’s center-left minority government is proposing a corporate tax cut to 20 percent from 22 percent, Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson and Financial Markets Minister Per Bolund said on Monday… “With the proposals we want to strengthen competitiveness and create a more dynamic business climate,” they said… The proposed corporate tax cut would be…implemented on July 1, 2018.

Or what’s taking place in Belgium.

…government ministers finally reached agreement on a number of reforms to the Belgian tax and employment systems. …Belgium is to slash corporation tax from 34% to 29% next year. By 2020 corporation tax will have been cut to 25%. …Capital gains tax on the first 627 euros of dividends from shares disappears, a measure intended to encourage share ownership.

Or what’s looming in Germany.

Germany will likely need to make changes to its corporation tax system in coming years in response to growing tax competition from other countries, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Wednesday… “I expect there will be a need to take action on corporation tax in coming years because in some countries, from the U.S. to Britain, but also on other continents, there are many considerations where we can’t simply say we’ll ignore them,” Schaeuble told a real estate conference.

This bring a smile to my face. Greedy politicians are being pressured to cut tax rates, even though they would prefer to do the opposite. Let’s hope the United States joins this “race to the bottom” before it’s too late.

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