Posts Tagged ‘Laffer Curve’

Since I’m a big fan of the Laffer Curve, I’m always interested in real-world examples showing good results when governments reduce marginal tax rates on productive activity.

Heck, I’m equally interested in real-world results when governments do the wrong thing and increase tax burdens on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship (and, sadly, these examples are more common).

My goal, to be sure, isn’t to maximize revenue for politicians. Instead, I prefer the growth-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

In any event, my modest hope is that politicians will learn that higher tax rates lead to less taxable income. Whether taxable income falls by a lot or a little obviously depends on the specific circumstance. But in either case, I want policy makers to understand that there are negative economic effects.

Writing for Forbes, Jeremy Scott of Tax Notes analyzes the supply-side policies of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu…argued that the Laffer curve worked, and that his 2003 tax cuts had transformed Israel into a market economy and an engine of growth. …He pushed through controversial reforms… The top individual tax rate was cut from 64 percent to 44 percent, while corporate taxes were slashed from 36 percent to 18 percent. …Netanyahu credits these reforms for making Israel’s high-tech boom of the last few years possible. …tax receipts did rise after Netanyahu’s tax cuts. In fact, they were sharply higher in 2007 than in 2003, before falling for several years because of the global recession. …His tax cuts did pay for themselves. And he has transformed Israel into more of a market economy…In fact, the prime minister recently announced plans for more cuts to taxes, this time to the VAT and corporate levies.

Pretty impressive.

Though I have to say that rising revenues doesn’t necessarily mean that the tax cuts were completely self-financing. To answer that question, you have to know what would have happened in the absence of the tax cut. And since that information never will be available, all we can do is speculate.

That being said, I have no doubt there was a strong Laffer Curve response in Israel. Simply stated, dropping the top tax rate on personal income by 20 percentage points creates a much more conducive environment for investment and entrepreneurship.

And cutting the corporate tax rate in half is also a sure-fire recipe for improved investment and job creation.

I’m also impressed that there’s been some progress on the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Netanyahu explained that the public sector had become a fat man resting on a thin man’s back. If Israel were to be successful, it would have to reverse the roles. The private sector would need to become the fat man, something that would be possible only with tax cuts and a trimming of public spending. …Government spending was capped for three years.

The article doesn’t specify the years during which spending was capped, but the IMF data shows a de facto spending freeze between 2002 and 2005. And the same data, along with OECD data, shows that the burden of government spending has dropped by about 10 percentage points of GDP since that period of spending restraint early last decade.

Here’s the big picture from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see from the data on Israel, the nation moved dramatically in the right direction after 1980. And there’s also been an upward bump in recent years.

Since I’m not an expert on Israeli economic policy, I don’t know the degree to which Netanyahu deserves a lot of credit or a little credit, but it’s good to see a country actually moving in the right direction.

Let’s close by touching on two other points. First, there was one passage in the Forbes column that rubbed me the wrong way. Mr. Scott claimed that Netanyahu’s tax cuts worked and Reagan’s didn’t.

Netanyahu might have succeeded where President Reagan failed.

I think this is completely wrong. While it’s possible that the tax cuts in Israel has a bigger Laffer-Curve effect than the tax cuts in the United States, the IRS data clearly shows that Reagan’s lower tax rates led to more revenue from the rich.

Second, the U.S. phased out economic aid to Israel last decade. I suspect that step helped encourage better economic policy since Israeli policy makers knew that American taxpayers no longer would subsidize statism. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson there for other nations?

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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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More than two years ago, I cited some solid research from the Tax Foundation to debunk some misguided analysis from the New York Times about the taxation of multinational companies.

Well, it’s déjà vu all over again, as the late Yogi Berra might say. That’s because we once again find something in the New York Times that cries out for correction.

Here’s some of what Patricia Cohen recently wrote about ostensibly generating lots of tax revenue by pillaging America’s top-1 percent taxpayers.

…what could a tax-the-rich plan actually achieve? As it turns out, quite a lot…the government could raise large amounts of revenue exclusively from this small group, while still allowing them to take home a majority of their income.

Oh, how generous of her for deciding that the awful, evil rich people can keep perhaps keep 50.1 percent of what they earn. Sounds like she should join the other cranks advising Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom.

But I’m getting distracted. Let’s focus on the more important topic, which is her claim that it’s easy to generate a lot of tax revenue by soaking the rich.

The top 1 percent on average already pay roughly a third of their incomes to the federal government, according to a Treasury Department analysishow much more revenue could be generated by asking the rich to pay a larger share of their income in taxes?

Interestingly, Ms. Cohen shares some data showing that the rich already are paying far higher tax rates than the rest of us. Here’s the table that accompanied her article.

Normal people would look at those numbers, or at similar data produced by the IRS, and conclude that we’re already selectively over-penalizing upper-income taxpayers.

But statists see income in the private sector as belonging to the state, so there’s no such thing as too much money for government.

And Ms. Cohen seems to have this attitude. She engages in some simplistic calculations to estimate how much loot could be seized.

Raising their total tax burden to, say, 40 percent would generate about $157 billion in revenue the first year. Increasing it to 45 percent brings in a whopping $276 billion. Move a rung down the ladder and expand the contribution of those in the 95th to 99th percentile — who earn on average $405,000. Raising their total tax rate to 30 percent from a quarter of their total yearly income would generate an additional $86 billion. …A 35 percent share produces $176 billion.

Gee, how easy, at least on paper. If the politicians can figure out how to raise average tax rates to 45 percent for the rich (and 35 percent for the upper-middle class), then they get about $450 billion of additional tax revenue every year.

And you can buy a lot of votes with that much of other people’s money.

But sometimes things that are simple on paper are not so simple in reality.

It turns out that raising someone’s average tax rate (total tax payments/total income) requires some very big (and very bad) decisions on marginal tax rates (tax paid on the last dollar of income/last dollar of income).

Scott Greenberg of the Tax Foundation does that heavy lifting and his analysis makes mincemeat out of Ms. Cohen’s argument.

…how exactly would Congress go about raising the effective tax rate of the 1% from 33.4 percent to 45 percent? The article is not specific about this point. In fact, the article acknowledges that it is “sidestepping… the messy question of just which taxes would be increased.” This is irresponsible policy analysis… When one examines exactly which taxes would have to be increased to raise the effective tax rate of the 1% from 33.4 percent to 45 percent, the endeavor begins to appear much more difficult than the New York Times portrays.

For instance.

…the top tax bracket on ordinary income is 39.6%. How high would Congress have to raise this rate, in order to raise the effective tax rate of the 1% to 45 percent? According to our estimates, Congress would have to raise the top rate on ordinary income to 74 percent, in order to raise the effective rate of the 1% from 33.4 percent to 45 percent.What if Congress decided to increase, not only the top rate on ordinary income, but also the top rate on capital gains and dividends? …According to our estimates, Congress would have to raise the top rate on ordinary income, capital gains, and dividends to 56 percent, in order to increase the effective rate of the 1% to 45 percent.

In other words, if you target the rich with higher income tax rates, you’d have to have a rate higher than the confiscatory structure that existed before any of the Reagan tax cuts.

Or you could boost the top rate “only” to 56 percent, but only by also dramatically increasing the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

And that might not be very smart, at least if you care about economic performance. Scott explains.

The high rates that would need to be in place to tax the 1% at a 45 percent effective rate would almost certainly have negative economic consequences. According to our Taxes and Growth model, raising the top rate on ordinary income to 74 percent would shrink the size of the U.S. economy by 3.5 percent in the long run, by discouraging labor and pass-through business. While this tax increase would raise $3.49 trillion over 10 years under conventional scoring, after taking its economic effects into account, it would only raise $2.37 trillion. This is a significantly smaller figure than that cited by the New York Times. Furthermore, raising the top rate on ordinary income, capital gains, and dividends to 56 percent would lead to an even larger decline in GDP, of 4.9 percent. This is because taxes on investment income are especially harmful to long-term economic growth. After taking economic effects into account, this proposal would only raise $1.96 trillion over 10 years.

So the politicians would still have some extra revenue, but they would destroy several dollars of private economic activity for every one dollar of revenue they would collect.

In what world would that be a good trade?

Oh, and by the way, those revenue estimates overstate how much money the politicians would collect. In the real world, higher tax rates also would increase tax avoidance and tax evasion.

…none of these figures take into account the effects of increased tax evasion and profit shifting by wealthy Americans that would surely occur in response to such high rates. After all, when taxes rise, taxpayers have more incentives to avoid them. And it is well-documented that, when rates on capital gains rise, shareholders simply defer their realizations, making it difficult to raise much revenue from tax increases on capital gains income.

So here’s the bottom line.

…the New York Times claims that the federal government could raise large amounts of revenue by taxing the rich just a little bit more. In fact, taxes on the rich would have to go up enormously in order to bring in the sorts of revenue figures cited by the article. The negative economic effects of these tax increases would then reduce these revenues considerably.

I’d like to think Scott’s analysis will change minds and cause statists to reassess their desire to impose high tax rates.

But I’m not overly hopeful. Let’s not forget that some of these people aren’t particularly interested in generating more revenue for politicians. Their real motive is hate and envy.

P.S. Let’s hope American statists never learn about Francois Hollande’s flat tax.

P.P.S. Speaking of which, here are some amusing cartoons about class-warfare tax policy.

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I have a very mixed view of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is an organization representing self-styled deficit hawks in Washington.

They do careful work and I always feel confident about citing their numbers.

Yet I frequently get frustrated because they seem to think that tax increases have to be part of any budget deal, regardless of the evidence that such an approach will backfire.

So when CRFB published a “Fiscal FactChecker” to debunk 16 supposed budget myths that they expect during this campaign season, I knew I’d find lots of stuff I would like…and lots of stuff I wouldn’t like.

Let’s look at what they said were myths, along with my two cents on CRFB’s analysis.

Myth #1: We Can Continue Borrowing without Consequences

Reality check: CRFB’s view is largely correct. If we leave policy on autopilot, demographic changes and poorly structured entitlement programs  will lead to an ever-rising burden of government spending, which almost surely will mean ever-rising levels of government debt (as well as ever-rising tax burdens). At some point, this will lead to serious consequences, presumably bad monetary policy (i.e., printing money to finance the budget) and/or Greek-style crisis (investors no longer buying bonds because they don’t trust the government will pay them back).

The only reason I don’t fully agree with CRFB is that we could permanently borrow without consequence if the debt grew 1 percent per year while the economy grew 3 percent per year. Unfortunately, given the “new normal” of weak growth, that’s not a realistic scenario.

Myth #2: With Deficits Falling, Our Debt Problems are Behind Us

Reality check: The folks at CRFB are right. Annual deficits have dropped to about $500 billion after peaking above $1 trillion during Obama’s first term, but that’s just the calm before the storm. As already noted, demographics and entitlements are a baked-into-the-cake recipe for a bigger burden of government and more red ink.

That being said, I think that CRFB’s focus is misplaced. They fixate on debt, which is the symptom, when they should be more concerned with reducing excessive government, which is the underlying disease.

Myth #3: There is No Harm in Waiting to Solve Our Debt Problems

Reality check: We have a spending problem. Deficits and debt are merely symptoms of that problem. But other than this chronic mistake, CRFB is right that it is far better to address our fiscal challenges sooner rather than later.

CRFB offers some good analysis of why it’s easier to solve the problem by acting quickly, but this isn’t just about math. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsIt’s also important to impose some sort of spending restraint before a majority of the voting-age population has been lured into some form of government dependency. Once you get to the point when more people are riding in the wagon than pulling the wagon (think Greece), reform becomes almost impossible.

Myth #4: Deficit Reduction is Code for Austerity, Which Will Harm the Economy

Reality check: The folks at CRFB list this as a myth, but they actually agree with the assertion, stating that deficit reduction policies “have damaged economic performance and increased unemployment.” They even seem sympathetic to “modest increases to near-term deficits by replacing short-term ‘sequester’ cuts”, which would gut this century’s biggest victory for good fiscal policy!

There are two reasons for CRFB’s confusion. First, they seem to accept the Keynesian argument about bigger government and red ink boosting growth, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. Second, they fail to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity. If austerity means higher taxes, as has been the case so often in Europe, then it is unambiguously bad for growth. But if it means spending restraint (or even actual spending cuts), then it is clearly good for growth. There may be some short-term disruption since resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated, but the long-term benefits are enormous because labor and capital are used more productively in the private economy.

Myth #5: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves

Reality check: I agree with the folks at CRFB. As a general rule, tax cuts will reduce government revenue, even after measuring possible pro-growth effects that lead to higher levels of taxable income.

But it’s also important to recognize that not all tax cuts are created equal. Some tax cuts have very large “supply-side” effects, particularly once the economy has a chance to adjust in response to better policy. So a lower capital gains tax or a repeal of the death tax, to cite a couple of examples, might increase revenue in the long run. And we definitely saw a huge response when Reagan lowered top tax rates in the 1980s. But other tax cuts, such as expanded child credits, presumably generate almost no pro-growth effects because there’s no change in the relative price of productive behavior.

Myth #6: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Taxing the Top 1%

Reality check: The CRFB report correctly points out that confiscatory tax rates on upper-income taxpayers would backfire for the simple reason that rich people would simply choose to earn and report less income. And they didn’t even include the indirect economic damage (and reductions in taxable income) caused by less saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the CRFB folks seem to recognize that tax rates beyond a certain level would result in less revenue for government. Which implies, of course, that it is possible (notwithstanding what they said in Myth #5) for some tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Myth #7: We Can Lower Tax Rates by Closing a Few Egregious Loopholes

Reality check: It depends on the definition of “egregious.” In the CRFB report, they equate “egregious” with “unpopular” in order to justify their argument.

But if we define “egregious” to mean “economically foolish and misguided,” then there are lots of preferences in the tax code that could – and should – be abolished in order to finance much lower tax rates. Including the healthcare exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable giving deduction, and (especially) the deduction for state and local taxes.

Myth #8: Any Tax Increases Will Cripple Economic Growth

Reality check: The CRFB folks are right. A small tax increase obviously won’t “cripple” economic growth. Indeed, it’s even possible that a tax increase might lead to more growth if it was combined with pro-growth policies in other areas. Heck, that’s exactly what happened during the Clinton years. But now let’s inject some reality into the conversation. Any non-trivial tax increase on productive behavior will have some negative impact on economic performance and competitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that higher tax rates hurt growth and the evidence is also overwhelming that more double taxation will harm the economy.

The CRFB report suggests that the harm of tax hikes could be offset by the supposed pro-growth impact of a lower budget deficit, but the evidence for that proposition if very shaky. Moreover, there’s a substantial amount of real-world data showing that tax increases worsen fiscal balance. Simply stated, tax hikes don’t augment spending restraint, they undermine spending restraint. Which may be why the only “bipartisan” budget deal that actually led to a balanced budget was the one that lowered taxes instead of raising them.

Myth #9: Medicare and Social Security Are Earned Benefits and Should Not Be Touched

Reality check: CRFB is completely correct on this one. The theory of age-related “social insurance” programs such as Medicare and Social Security is that people pay into the programs while young and then get benefits when they are old. This is why they are called “earned benefits.”

The problem is that politicians don’t like asking people to pay and they do like giving people benefits, so the programs are poorly designed. The average Medicare recipient, for instance, costs taxpayers $3 for every $1 that recipient paid into the program. Social Security isn’t that lopsided, but the program desperately needs reform because of demographic change. But the reforms shouldn’t be driven solely by budget considerations, which could lead to trapping people in poorly designed entitlement schemes. We need genuine structural reform.

Myth #10: Repealing “Obamacare” Will Fix the Debt

Reality check: Obamacare is a very costly piece of legislation that increased the burden of government spending and made the tax system more onerous. Repealing the law would dramatically improve fiscal policy.

But CRFB, because of the aforementioned misplaced fixation on red ink, doesn’t have a big problem with Obamacare because the increase in taxes and the increase in spending are roughly equivalent. So the organization is technically correct that repealing the law won’t “fix the debt.” But it would help address America’s real fiscal problem, which is a bloated and costly public sector.

Myth #11: The Health Care Cost Problem is Solved

Reality check: CRFB’s analysis is correct, though it would have been nice to see some discussion of how third-party payer is the problem.

Myth #12: Social Security’s Shortfall Can be Closed Simply by Raising Taxes on or Means-Testing Benefits for the Wealthy

Reality check: To their credit, CRFB is basically arguing against President Obama’s scheme to impose Social Security payroll taxes on all labor income, which would turn the program from a social-insurance system into a pure income-redistribution scheme.

On paper, such a system actually could eliminate the vast majority of Social Security’s giant unfunded liability. In reality, this would mean a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, which would have a serious adverse economic impact.

Myth #13: We Can Solve Our Debt Situation by Cutting Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Earmarks, and/or Foreign Aid

Reality check: Earmarks (which have been substantially curtailed already) and foreign aid are a relatively small share of the budget, so CRFB is right that getting rid of that spending won’t have a big impact. But what about the larger question. Could our fiscal mess (which is a spending problem, not a “debt situation”) be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse?

It depends on how one defines “waste, fraud, and abuse.” If one uses a very narrow definition, such as technical malfeasance, then waste, fraud, and abuse might “only” amount to a couple of hundred billions dollars per year. But from an economic perspective (i.e., grossly inefficient misallocation of resources), then entire federal departments such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc, should be classified as waste, fraud, and abuse.

Myth #14: We Can Grow Our Way Out of Debt

Reality check: CRFB is correct that faster growth won’t solve all of our fiscal problems. Unless one makes an untenable assumption that economic growth will be faster than the projected growth of entitlement spending. And even that kind of heroic assumption would be untenable since faster growth generally obligates the government to pay higher benefits in the future.

Myth #15: A Balanced Budget Amendment is All We Need to Fix the Debt

Reality check: CRFB accurately explains that a BBA is simply an obstacle to additional debt. Politicians still would be obliged to change laws to fulfill that requirement. But that analysis misses the point. A BBA focuses on red ink, whereas the real problem is that government is too big and growing too fast. State balanced-budget requirement haven’t stopped states like California and Illinois from serious fiscal imbalances and eroding competitiveness. The so-called Maastricht anti-deficit and anti-debt rules in the European Union haven’t stopped nations such as France and Greece from fiscal chaos.

This is why the real solution is to have some sort of enforceable cap on government spending. That approach has worked well in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. And even research from the IMF (a bureaucracy that shares CRFB’s misplaced fixation on debt) has concluded that expenditure limits are the only effective fiscal rules.

Myth #16: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Cutting Welfare Spending

Reality check: The federal government is spending about $1 trillion this year on means-tested (i.e., anti-poverty) programs, which is about one-fourth of total outlays, so getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution would substantially lower the burden of federal spending (somewhat offset, to be sure, by increases in state and local spending). And for those who fixate on red ink, that would turn today’s $500 billion deficit into a $500 billion surplus.

That being said, there would still be a big long-run problem caused by other federal programs, most notably Social Security and Medicare. So CRFB is correct in that dealing with welfare-related spending doesn’t fully solve the long-run problem, regardless of whether you focus on the problem of spending or the symptom of borrowing.

This has been a lengthy post, so let’s have a very simple summary.

We know that modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget.

We also know lots of nations that have made rapid progress with modest amounts of spending restraint.

And we know that the tax-hike option simply leads to more spending.

So the only question to answer is why the CRFB crowd can’t put two and two together and get four?

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Every so often, I’ll assert that some statists are so consumed by envy and spite that they favor high tax rates on the “rich” even if the net effect (because of diminished economic output) is less revenue for government.

In other words, they deliberately and openly want to be on the right side (which is definitely the wrong side) of the Laffer Curve.

Critics sometimes accuse me of misrepresenting the left’s ideology, to which I respond by pointing to a poll of left-wing voters who strongly favored soak-the-rich tax hikes even if there was no extra tax collected.

But now I have an even better example.

Writing for Vox, Matthew Yglesias openly argues that we should be on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, “the case for confiscatory taxation” is part of the title for his article.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

Maybe at least some taxes should be really high. Maybe even really really high. So high as to useless for revenue-raising purposes — but powerful for achieving other ends. We already accept this principle for tobacco taxes. If all we wanted to do was raise revenue, we might want to slightly cut cigarette taxes. …But we don’t do that because we care about public health. We tax tobacco not to make money but to discourage smoking.

The tobacco tax analogy is very appropriate.

Indeed, one of my favorite arguments is to point out that we have high taxes on cigarettes precisely because politicians want to discourage smoking.

As a good libertarian, I then point out that government shouldn’t be trying to control our private lives, but my bigger point is that the economic arguments about taxes and smoking are the same as those involving taxes on work, saving, investment.

Needless to say, I want people to understand that high tax rates are a penalty, and it’s particularly foolish to impose penalties on productive behavior.

But not according to Matt. He specifically argues for ultra-high tax rates as a “deterrence” to high levels of income.

If we take seriously the idea that endlessly growing inequality can have a cancerous effect on our democracy, we should consider it for top incomes as well. …apply the same principle of taxation-as-deterrence to very high levels of income. …Imagine a world in which we…imposed a 90 percent marginal tax rate on salaries above $10 million. This seems unlikely to raise substantial amounts of revenue.

I suppose we should give him credit for admitting that high tax rates won’t generate revenue. Which means he’s more honest than some of his fellow statists who want us to believe confiscatory tax rates will produce more money.

But honesty isn’t the same as wisdom.

Let’s look at the economic consequences. Yglesias does admit that there might be some behavioral effects because upper-income taxpayers will be discouraged from earning and reporting income.

Maybe…we really would see a reduction of effort, or at least a relaxation of the intensity with which the performers pursue money. But would that be so bad? Imagine the very best hedge fund managers and law firm partners became inclined to quit the field a bit sooner and devote their time to hobbies. What would we lose, as a society? …some would presumably just move to Switzerland or the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes. That would be a real hit to local economies, but hardly a disaster. …Very high taxation of labor income would mean fewer huge compensation packages, not more revenue. Precisely as Laffer pointed out decades ago, imposing a 90 percent tax rate on something is not really a way to tax it at all — it’s a way to make sure it doesn’t happen.

While I suppose it’s good that Yglesias admits that high tax rates have behavioral effects, he clearly underestimates the damaging impact of such a policy.

He presumably doesn’t understand that rich people earn very large shares of their income from business and investment sources. As such, they have considerable ability to alter the timing, level, and composition of their earnings.

But my biggest problem with Yglesias’ proposals is that he seems to believe in the fixed-pie fallacy that public policy doesn’t have any meaningful impact of economic performance. This leads him to conclude that it’s okay to rape and pillage the “rich” since that will simply mean more income and wealth is available for the rest of us.

That’s utter nonsense. The economy is not a fixed pie and there is overwhelming evidence that nations with better policy grow faster and create more prosperity.

In other words, confiscatory taxation will have a negative effect on everyone, not just upper-income taxpayers.

There will be less saving and investment, which translates into lower wages and salaries for ordinary workers.

And as we saw in France, high tax rates drive out highly productive people, and we have good evidence that “super-entrepreneurs” and inventors are quite sensitive to tax policy.

To be fair, I imagine that Yglesias would try to argue that these negative effects are somehow offset by benefits that somehow materialize when there’s more equality of income.

But the only study I’ve seen that tries to make a connection between growth and equality was from the OECD and that report was justly ridiculed for horrible methodology (not to mention that it’s hard to take serious a study that lists France, Spain, and Ireland as success stories).

P.S. This is my favorite bit of real-world evidence showing why there should be low tax rates on the rich (in addition, of course, to low tax rates on the rest of us).

P.P.S. And don’t forget that leftists generally view higher taxes on the rich as a precursor to higher taxes on the rest of the population.

P.P.P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, Yglesias says I’m insane and irrational.

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What’s the Laffer Curve?

It’s the simple, common-sense observation that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

Folks in the private sector understand this principle. No restaurant owner, for instance, would double meal prices and assume that revenues would climb by 100 percent.

Yet that’s basically the methodology used by the Joint Committee on Taxation when estimating the revenue impact of changes in tax rates.

Which helps to explain why Washington is so often wrong about revenue implications of personal tax rates and corporate tax rates.

The Laffer Curve also applies to tobacco taxation.

Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform points out in the Wall Street Journal that greedy politicians in New York have pushed cigarette taxes so high that the main beneficiaries are smugglers.

Rampant cigarette smuggling isn’t the problem in New York. It’s a symptom of the problem: sky high tobacco taxes. …New York state levies the highest cigarette tax in the nation, $4.35 per pack, and New York City tacks on an additional $1.50 local tax. All told, the cost of one pack there can run to $12 or more. …The result? Most of the cigarettes smoked in New York, 58%, are smuggled in from out of state… The higher that revenue-hungry politicians raise tobacco taxes, the more profit smugglers can make.

Which means, of course, that the higher tax rates don’t lead to more tax revenue.

…revenue from increases in cigarette taxes often falls short of expectations. Washington, D.C., experienced this firsthand after cigarette taxes were raised by 25%, to $2.50 per pack from $2, in October 2009. City leaders claimed the hike would generate a windfall of additional revenue. By February of 2010, D.C.’s chief financial officer reported that projections were off by $15 million. Revenue from the cigarette tax actually fell by $7 million after the hike. New Jersey should have learned the same lesson. In 2007 the Garden State raised cigarette taxes to $2.575, from $2.40. The new tax generated $52 million less than expected, and revenue from cigarette taxes fell by $22 million. But in 2009 New Jersey raised the tax by another 17.5 cents.

By the way, don’t believe the fall-back excuse that politicians don’t care about revenue because they’re motivated by public health concerns.

Lawmakers can claim they’re raising taxes on cigarettes to reduce smoking and improve public health. That talking point is belied by the recent imposition of taxes on electronic cigarettes, which are saving lives by delivering nicotine in puffs of water vapor instead of chemical-filled smoke. There are more than 15 tax bills pending across the country for currently untaxed e-cigarettes. Hawaii is proposing a tax of 80%, New York of 75%, Oregon of 65% and Ohio of 60%. For politicians, cigarette taxes are—and have always been—about one thing: money.

One last thing. Gleason reports that New York is suing UPS because the company ships cigarettes to New York customers.

New York state and New York City in February announced a $180 million lawsuit against the shipping company UPS over what officials allege was unlawful delivery of nearly 700,000 cartons of cigarettes from 2010-14. …New York state officials claim that the cigarette smuggling via UPS cost the treasury $29.7 million in lost tax revenue. That’s less than 0.03% of the state budget. The $4.7 million allegedly lost by New York City represents less than 0.006% of its budget. For a mere rounding error, state and city officials want to grab $180 million from UPS. That’s $180 million UPS could use to hire new workers, give employees raises, or invest back into its business. The leaders of New York and New York City should drop this silly lawsuit and find a more productive use of their time.

They shouldn’t merely drop the lawsuit. They should be condemned for engaging in a thuggish shakedown.

Returning to the main topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that reviews real-world examples of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. If local officials are greedy, state officials are ever greedier, and federal officials are greediest, then you can imagine how awful it would be to let international officials impose tobacco taxes.

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With tax day looming, let’s wallow in misery by contemplating the burden on America’s taxpayers.

But we’ll ignore the angst caused be dealing with an indecipherable tax code and an oppressive IRS and simply focus on the amount of money that gets extracted from our income each year.

The bad news is that the federal government is collecting a record amount of money, even after adjusting for inflation. Here’s a chart, based on the latest numbers from the Office of Management and Budget.

But there is some good news. This isn’t a record tax burden when measured as a share of economic output.

Federal taxes are projected to consume 17.7 percent of GDP this year. That’s higher than the post-WWII average of 17.2 percent of GDP, but there have been several years in which the federal tax burden has been higher than 17.7 percent, most recently in 2007, when it reached 17.9 percent of economic output.

So while it’s bad news that the IRS is collecting a record amount of revenue in inflation-adjusted dollars, I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that it’s not a record share of GDP.

I discuss the growing federal tax burden in this CNBC debate with Jared Bernstein.

A few points are worth emphasizing from the interview, two of which deal with corporate taxation.

First, it’s silly to talk to compare “taxes by individuals” to “taxes paid by corporations.” That’s because all taxes on business ultimately are paid by individuals, whether as workers, consumers, or shareholders. To be blunt, corporations may collect taxes, but the burden inevitably falls on people.

Second, the fact that corporate tax receipts are lagging is a sign that tax rates are too high rather than too low. In other words, there’s a Laffer Curve effect, and there’s lots of evidence that a lower corporate rate will generate more revenue. Which is precisely what happened when personal tax rates were reduced on the “rich” in the 1980s.

Third, if we want a balanced budget, the only responsible approach is spending restraint. As I’ve noted before, our long-run fiscal challenge is because of a rising burden of spending. Indeed, spending is more than 100 percent of the long-run problem.

By the way, let’s not forget about the role of state and local governments. WalletHub just released a report on state and local tax burdens.

Here are the 10 best states.

I’m mystified to see California in the top 10.

Though maybe this is a Laffer Curve-based result. In other words, perhaps taxes are so high that people are paying less?

Moreover, the Golden State drops to 30 if you adjust for the cost of living (see column on far right).

Now here are the 10 worst states.

I’m not surprised to see Illinois in last place, but who knew that Nebraska was a hotbed of taxaholism?

And if you look at the right-most column, you’ll see that New York and Connecticut could be considered the worst states. Both jurisdictions are richly deserving of that designation.

P.S. Don’t forget that Puerto Rico is a secret tax haven for American citizens, particularly when considering federal taxes, so it deserves honorary first place recognition.

P.P.S. The best (i.e., least worst or least destructive) approach to taxation is the flat tax.

P.P.P.S. Though the ideal scenario is to have a very small federal government so that there’s no need for any broad-based tax whatsoever. Our nation enjoyed strong growth before that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was imposed.

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