Posts Tagged ‘Marginal Tax Rate’

Three years ago, I shared two videos explaining taxation and deadweight loss (i.e., why high tax burdens are bad for prosperity).

Today, I have one video on another important principle of taxation. To set the stage for this discussion, here are two simple definitions

  • The “average tax rate” is the share of your income taken by government. If you earn $50,000 and your total tax bill is $10,000, then your average tax rate is 20 percent.
  • The “marginal tax rate” is the amount of money the government takes if you earn more income. In other words, the additional amount government would take if your income rose from $50,000 to $51,000.

These definitions are important because we want to contemplate why and how a tax cut helps an economy.

But let’s start by explaining that a tax cut doesn’t boost growth because people have more money to spend.

I want people to keep more of their earnings, to be sure, but that Keynesian-style explanation overlooks the fact that the additional “spending power” for taxpayers is offset when the government borrows more money to finance the tax cut.

Instead, when thinking about taxes and prosperity, here are the three things you need to know.

1. Economic growth occurs when we increase the quantity and/or quality of labor and capital.

2. Taxes increase the cost of whatever is being taxed, and people respond by doing less of whatever is being taxed.

3. To get more prosperity, lower tax rates on productive behaviors such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

All this is completely correct, but there’s one additional point that needs to be stressed.

4. The tax rate that matters is the marginal tax rate, not the average tax rate.

I discussed the importance of marginal tax rates in 2016, pointing out that Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers was going to lose the Super Bowl (from a financial perspective) because the additional tax he was going to pay was going to exceed the additional income he would earn. In other words, his marginal tax rate was more than 100 percent.

Mon Dieu!

But I also included an example that’s more relevant to the rest of us, looking at our aforementioned hypothetical taxpayer with a 20 percent average tax rate on annual earnings of $50,000. I asked about incentives for this taxpayer to earn more money if the marginal tax rate on additional income was 0 percent, 20 percent, or 100 percent.

Needless to say, as shown in this expanded illustration, the incentive to earn $51,000 will be nonexistent if all of the additional $1,000 goes to government.

That’s why “supply-side economics” is focused on marginal tax rates. If we want more productive behavior, we want the lowest-possible marginal tax rates so people have the greatest-possible incentive to generate more prosperity.

Here’s a very short video primer on this issue.

One very important implication of this insight is that not all tax cuts (or tax increases) are created equal. For instance, as I explained in a three-part series (here, here, and here), there will be very little change in incentives for productive activity if the government gives you a tax credit because you have kids.

But if the government reduces the top tax rate or lowers the tax bias against saving and investment, the incentive for additional productive behavior will be significant.

And this helps to explain why the country enjoyed such positive results from the supply-side changes to tax policy in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s.

Let’s close with some good news (at least relatively speaking) for American readers. Compared to other industrialized countries, top marginal tax rates in the United States are not overly punitive.

Admittedly, this is damning with faint praise. Our tax system is very unfriendly if you compare it to Monaco, Hong Kong, or Bermuda.

But at least we’re not France, where there’s a strong argument to be made that the national sport is taxation rather than soccer.

P.S. I’m not saying tax preferences for kids are wrong. But I am saying they’re not pro-growth.

P.P.S. I mentioned above that Cam Newton – based on his personal finances – lost the Super Bowl even before the opening kickoff. Well, there’s scholarly evidence that teams in high-tax states actually win fewer games.

P.P.P.S. Today’s analysis focuses on the individual income tax, but this analysis also applies to corporate taxation. A company with clever lawyers and accountants may have the ability to lower its average tax rate, but the marginal tax rate is what drives the incentive to earn more income. Which is why reducing the federal corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent was the best part of last year’s tax bill.

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I strongly applauded the tax reform plan that was enacted in December, especially the lower corporate tax rate and the limit on the deduction for state and local taxes.

But I’m not satisfied. Our long-run goal should be fundamental tax reform. And that means replacing the current system with a simple and fair flat tax.

And the recent tax plan only took a small step in that direction. How small? Well, the Tax Foundation just calculated that it only improved the United States from #30 to #25 in their International Tax Competitiveness Ranking. In other words, we have a long way to go before we catch up to Estonia.


It’s possible, of course, to apply different weights and come up with a different list. I think the Tax Foundation’s numbers could be improved, for instance, by including a measure of the aggregate tax burden. And that presumably would boost the U.S. score.

But the fact would remain that the U.S. score would be depressingly low. In other words, the internal revenue code is still a self-imposed wound and huge improvements are still necessary.

That’s why we need another round of tax reform, based on the three core principles of good tax policy.

  1. Lower tax rates
  2. Less double taxation
  3. Fewer loopholes

But how is tax reform possible in a fiscal environment of big government and rising deficits?

This is a challenge. In an ideal world, there would be accompanying budget reforms to save money, thus creating leeway for tax reform to be a net tax cut.

But even in the current fiscal environment, tax reform is possible if policy makers finance pro-growth reforms by closing undesirable loopholes.

Indeed, that’s basically what happened in the recent tax plan. The lower corporate rate was financed by restricting the state and local tax deduction and a few other changes. The budget rules did allow for a modest short-run tax cut, but the overall package was revenue neutral in the long run (i.e., starting in 2027).

It’s now time to repeat this exercise.

The Congressional Budget Office periodically issues a report on Budget Options, which lists all sort of spending reforms and tax increases, along with numbers showing what those changes would mean to the budget over the next 10 years.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this report because it is too limited on the spending side. You won’t find fleshed-out options to shut down departments, for instance, which is unfortunate given the target-rich environment (including TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture).

And on the tax side, it has a lengthy list of tax hikes, generally presented as ways to finance an ever-expanding burden of government spending. The list must be akin to porn for statists like Bernie Sanders.

It includes new taxes.

And it includes increases in existing taxes.

But the CBO report also includes some tax preferences that could be used to finance good tax reforms.

Here are four provisions of the tax code that should be the “pay-fors” in a new tax reform plan.

We’ll start with two that are described in the CBO document.

Further reductions in itemized deductions – The limit on the state and local tax deduction should be the first step. The entire deduction could be repealed as part of a second wave of tax reform. And the same is true for the home mortgage interest deduction and the charitable contributions deduction.

Green-energy pork – The House version of tax reform gutted many of the corrupt tax preferences for green energy. Unfortunately, those changes were not included in the final bill. But the silver lining to that bad decision is that those provisions can be used to finance good reforms in a new bill.

Surprisingly, the CBO report overlooks or only gives cursory treatment to a couple of major tax preferences that each could finance $1 trillion or more of pro-growth changes over the next 10 years.

Municipal bond interest – Under current law, there is no federal tax on the interest paid to owners of bonds issued by state and local governments. This “muni-bond” loophole is very bad tax policy since it creates an incentive that diverts capital from private business investment to subsidizing the profligacy of cities like Chicago and states like California.

Healthcare exclusion – Current law also allows a giant tax break for fringe benefits. When companies purchase health insurance plans for employees, that compensation escapes both payroll taxes and income taxes. Repealing – or at least capping – this exclusion could raise a lot of money for pro-growth reforms (and it would be good healthcare policy as well).

What’s potentially interesting about the four loopholes listed above is that they all disproportionately benefit rich people. This means that if they are curtailed or repealed and the money as part of tax reform, the left won’t be able to argue that upper-income taxpayers are getting unfair benefits.

Actually, they’ll probably still make their usual class-warfare arguments, but they will be laughably wrong.

The bottom line is that we should have smaller government and less taxation. But even if that’s not immediately possible, we can at least figure out revenue-neutral reforms that will produce a tax system that does less damage to growth, jobs, and competitiveness.

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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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In my decades of trying to educate policy makers about the downsides of class-warfare tax policy, I periodically get hit with the argument that high tax rates don’t matter since America enjoyed a golden period of prosperity in the 1950s and early 1960s when the top tax rate was more than 90 percent.

Here’s an example from Politico of what I’m talking about.

Well into the 1950s, the top marginal tax rate was above 90%. …both real GDP and real per capita GDP were growing more than twice as fast in the 1950s as in the 2000s.

This comparison grates on me in part because both Bush and Obama imposed bad policy, so it’s no surprise that the economy did not grow very fast when they were in office.

But I also don’t like the comparison because the 1950s were not a halcyon era, as Brian Domitrovic explains.

…you may be thinking, “But wait a minute. The 1950s, that was the greatest economic era ever. That’s when everybody had a job. Those jobs were for life. People got to live in suburbia and go on vacation and do all sorts of amazing things. It was post-war prosperity, right?” Actually, all of these things are myths. In the 1950s, the United States suffered four recessions. There was one in 1949, 1953, 1957, 1960 — four recessions in 11 years. The rate of structural unemployment kept going up, all the way up to 8% in the severe recession of 1957-58. …there wasn’t significant economic growth in the 1950s. It only averaged 2.5 percent during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

For today’s purposes, though, I want to focus solely on tax policy. And my leftist friends are correct that the United States had a punitive top tax rate in the 1950s.

This chart from the Politico story shows the top tax rate beginning on that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was adopted. It started very low, then jumped dramatically during the horrible presidency of Woodrow Wilson, followed by a big reduction during the wonderful presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Then it jumped again during the awful presidencies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. The rate stayed high in the 1950s before the Kennedy tax cuts and Reagan tax cuts, which were followed by some less dramatic changes under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

What do we know about the impact of the high tax rates put in place by Hoover and Roosevelt? We know the 1930s were an awful period for the economy, we know the 1940s were dominated by World War II, and we know the 1950s was a period of tepid growth.

But we also know that high tax rates don’t result in high revenues. I don’t think Hauser’s Law always applies, but it’s definitely worked so far in the United States.

This is because highly productive taxpayers have three ways to minimize and/or eliminate punitive taxes. First, they can simply choose to live a more relaxed life by reducing levels of work, saving, and investment. Second, they can engage in tax evasion. Third, they can practice tax avoidance, which is remarkably simple for people who have control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

All these factors mean that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue (a.k.a., the Laffer Curve).

And if you want some evidence on how high tax rates don’t work, Lawrence Lindsey, a former governor at the Federal Reserve, noted that extortionary tax rates are generally symbolic – at least from a revenue-raising perspective – since taxpayers will arrange their financial affairs to avoid the tax.

…if you go back and look at the income tax data from 1960, as a place to start, the top rate was 91 percent. There were eight — eight Americans who paid the 91 percent tax rate.

Interestingly, David Leonhardt of the New York Times inadvertently supported my argument in a recent column that was written to celebrate the era when tax rates were confiscatory.

A half-century ago, a top automobile executive named George Romney — yes, Mitt’s father — turned down several big annual bonuses. He did so, he told his company’s board, because he believed that no executive should make more than $225,000 a year (which translates into almost $2 million today). …Romney didn’t try to make every dollar he could, or anywhere close to it. The same was true among many of his corporate peers.

I gather the author wants us to think that the CEOs of the past were somehow better people than today’s versions.

But it turns out that marginal tax rates played a big role in their decisions.

The old culture of restraint had multiple causes, but one of them was the tax code. When Romney was saying no to bonuses, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent. Even if he had accepted the bonuses, he would have kept only a sliver of them. The high tax rates, in other words, didn’t affect only the post-tax incomes of the wealthy. The tax code also affected pretax incomes. As the economist Gabriel Zucman says, “It’s not worth it to try to earn $50 million in income when 90 cents out of an extra dollar goes to the I.R.S.”

By the way, Zucman is far from a supply-sider (indeed, he’s co-written with Piketty), yet he’s basically agreeing that marginal tax rates have a huge impact on incentives.

The only difference between the two of us is that he thinks it is a good idea to discourage highly productive people from generating more income and I think it’s a bad idea.

Meanwhile, Leonhardt also acknowledges the fundamental premise of supply-side economics.

For more than 30 years now, the United States has lived with a top tax rate less than half as high as in George Romney’s day. And during those same three-plus decades, the pay of affluent Americans has soared. That’s not a coincidence.

But he goes awry by then assuming (as is the case for many statists) the economy is a fixed pie. I’m not joking. Read for yourself.

..,the most powerful members of organizations have fought to keep more money for themselves. They have usually won that fight, which has left less money for everyone else.

A market economy, however, is not a zero-sum game. It is possible for all income groups to become richer at the same time.

That’s why lower tax rates are a good idea if we want more prosperity – keeping in mind the important caveat that taxation is just one of many policies that impact economic performance.

P.S. Unbelievably, President Franklin Roosevelt actually tried to impose a 100 percent tax rate (and that’s not even the worst thing he advocated).

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Supply-side economics is simply the common-sense notion that people respond to incentives, though some folks think this elementary observation is “voodoo economics” or “trickle-down economics.”

If you want a wonkish definition of supply-side economics, it is the application of micro-economic principles. In other words, what does “price  theory” tell us about how people will respond when a tax goes up or down.

All of which can be illustrated using supply and demand curves, for those who prefer something visual.

None of this is controversial. Indeed, left-wing economists presumably will agree with everything I just wrote.

There is disagreement, however, about magnitude of supply-side responses. Do people respond a lot or a little when tax policy changes (using economic jargon, what are the “elasticities” of behavioral response)?

And even if there was a consensus on those magnitudes, that still wouldn’t imply agreement on the proper policy since people have different views on whether the goal should be more growth or more redistribution (what economist Arthur Okun referred to as the equality-efficiency tradeoff).

For what it’s worth, this is why there is a lot of fighting about the Laffer Curve. Every left-wing economist agrees with the underlying principle of the Laffer Curve (in other words, because people can change their behavior, nobody actually thinks there is a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue).

But economists don’t agree on the shape of the curve. Is the revenue-maximizing rate for the personal income tax 25 percent or 75 percent? And even if people somehow agreed on the shape of the curve, that doesn’t lead to agreement on the ideal tax rate because some statists want very high rates even if the result is less revenue. And people like me only care about the growth-maximizing tax rate.

I’m giving this background for the simple reason that the policy world is lagging the economics profession. And I’m not just referring to the Joint Economic Committee’s resistance to “dynamic scoring.” My bigger complaint is that a lot of politicians still act as if there is zero insight from supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve.

In hopes of rectifying this situation, I’ve been sharing examples of supply-side-motivated tax changes that have been adopted by leftists. In other words, tax changes that were adopted specifically to alter behavior.

Here’s the list of “successful” leftist tax hikes that have crossed my desk.

Now we have another example to add to my collection, this time from a tax on plastic bags in Chicago.

Just as predicted, there is revenue feedback because people change their behavior in response to changes in tax policy.

Chicago’s effort to keep plastic and paper bags out of area landfills by imposing a 7 cents-per-bag tax is succeeding beyond officials’ wildest dreams. The bad news is that the success of the fee in dissuading shoppers from taking single-use bags means the city’s coffers are taking a steep hit. Chicago officials balanced the city’s 2017 spending plan based on an assumption that the city would earn $9.2 million this year from the tax.

But receipts will fall far short of that goal.

The city has earned just $2.4 million in the five months the tax has been in effect, said Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the city’s Finance Department. If bag use continues at the current pace, that means the city would net just $7.7 million from the tax for the year. …the number of plastic and paper bags Chicagoans used to haul home their groceries dropped 42 percent in the first month after the tax was imposed.

Incidentally, the Mayor claims that the tax is a success because the real goal was discouraging plastic bags rather than raising revenue.

That’s certainly a very legitimate position, but note that his policy is based on supply-side economics: The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

My frustration is that the politicians who say we need higher taxes to discourage bad things (smoking, sugar, plastic bags, etc) oftentimes are the same ones who say that higher taxes won’t discourage good things (work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, etc).

Needless to say, this doesn’t make sense. They are either clueless or hypocritical. But maybe if I accumulate enough example of “successful” supply-side tax hikes, they’ll finally realize it’s not a good idea to punish productive behavior.

P.S. Check out the IRS data from the 1980s on what happened to tax revenue from the rich when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. I’ve used this information in plenty of debates and I’ve never run across a statist who has a good response.

P.P.S. Here’s my video with more evidence in favor of the Laffer Curve.

P.P.P.S. I also think this polling data from certified public accountants is very persuasive. I don’t know about you, but I suspect CPAs have a much better real-world understanding of the impact of tax policy than the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

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The tax system is bad news for professional sports, with plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that athletes (and even fans) get pillaged by government.

Now we have some comprehensive academic research to augment the anecdotes.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on a new study about the impact of marginal tax rates on professional sports teams.

Erik Hembre, an economist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, looked at the question: Do tax rates affect a team’s performance? He analyzed data in professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey between 1977 and 2014. Since the mid-1990s, he writes, “a ten percentage point increase in income tax rates is associated with between a 1.9-3.0 percentage point decrease in winning percentage.” Here’s why: Professional athletes are taxed at the highest marginal rate. The average NBA player earned more than $4.8 million in 2013 and the average was $2.3 in the NFL, so athletes who play for the Minnesota Vikings earn less after taxes than do Dallas Cowboys. …The effect appears strongest in the NBA, “where moving from a high-tax state to a low-tax state has a similar effect on winning as upgrading a bench player to an All-Star.” An NBA team that fled Minnesota (top rate: 9.85%) for Florida (0%) could expect to win an additional 4.5 games a season, Mr. Hembre found.

This makes sense.

Indeed, there’s evidence from Monaco, which plays in the French soccer league, that low taxes produce better results on the playing field.

The editorial concludes with a caveat…and a political lesson.

Players make free-agent decisions for many reasons, and New York or Los Angeles can offer attractions and endorsement deals that offset their horrendous tax rates. But no one should be surprised that professional athletes respond to incentives like individuals in any industry. Perhaps this evidence will tempt governors and state lawmakers to cut rates now that they know that, along with a growing economy, they might end up with better sports teams and happier fans, also known as voters.

None of this should be a surprise. We know taxes impact the decisions of high-income, high-productivity people, everyone from entrepreneurs to inventors.

Now that we’ve looked at the impact of taxes on an industry, let’s now consider the impact of taxes on the overall economy.

Professor Ed Lazear, in an article for the University of Chicago’s Becker-Friedman Institute, makes some critical observations on the American tax code.

Starting with the system’s complexity.

In the first 20 years after the 1986 Tax Reform Act was passed, there were already about 15,000 changes to the basic law. The lack of transparency is costly: resources devoted to tax preparation and avoidance alone amount to more than 1% of GDP.

Continuing with distortions in the internal revenue code.

The tax system is full of inconsistencies, preferences, complex rules, and contradictory definitions that encourage distortionary behavior by Americans in their legitimate attempts to minimize their tax liabilities. …Additionally, there are parallel systems that are not fully integrated into one coherent tax structure. Within the income tax category, the Alternative Minimum Tax has rules that are layered on top of the basic tax rate structure, which override the tax calculation for a sizeable fraction of taxpayers. Beyond that, the payroll tax, both employer and employee contributions, are distinct from the income tax rules, but for most Americans, act as a basic income tax that is an add-on to the income taxes that they pay.

And there’s a big section on the economic harm caused by over-taxing business investment.

…growth is most affected by taxes on capital. Notorious is the high US corporate tax rate of 35% that the US imposes, which results in obvious evasive action like locating business overseas. More important, but less visible, is the actual reduction in investment that occurs because capital is taxed so heavily in the United States. The marginal dollar of investment is one that can find its home in another country as easily as in the US. When we raise taxes on capital, a German investor who might have preferred to invest in an American company simply chooses to keep that money in Germany. The easy flow of capital across borders means that lowering tax rates will encourage more capital to flow to American businesses. …if investment were untaxed altogether, the economy would grow by an additional 5% to 9%. In the short run, the easiest way to accomplish this is to allow full expensing of investment with indefinite carry-forwards. This simply means that firms can deduct the cost of investments from their tax liabilities immediately and fully. Allowing full and immediate deductibility of investment expenses removes the distortions that impede capital investment and, as a consequence, raises productivity, incomes, and GDP.

Augmented by the economic damage caused by over-taxing human capital.

Economists have estimated the human capital portion of the total capital stock in the United States as between 70% and 90%. …increasing tax rates is likely to have profound effects on occupational choice and investment in the skills that are required to be productive in high-value occupations. …The personal income tax, and especially extreme progressivity, which places high burdens on professionals, discourages entry into professional occupations. Since human capital is such an important component of all capital, it is important to avoid over-taxing individuals directly. …

He concludes by explaining why the class-warfare crowd is misguided.

Lowering capital taxation and paying close attention to the progressivity of the tax structure both benefit the rich directly. The middle- and lower-income parts of the income distribution also benefit, however. …there is a close relation between average income wage growth and productivity. Furthermore, there is a close link between GDP growth and productivity growth…unless we ensure that the economy grows, which means that productivity grows, we will not have wage growth. …the poor and rich alike did best when economic growth was robust.

This last excerpt is critical. Some of my leftist friends think the economy is fixed pie, and this leads them to think the rest of us lose money any time a rich person earns more money.

Or they are motivated by envy. In some cases, this even leads them to support policies that hurt poor people so long as rich people suffer even more.

Both these views are wrong. President John F. Kennedy was right about a rising tide lifting all boats.

And we see that in the incredible data that’s been shared by scholars such as Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux.

And since we just quoted Kennedy, let’s close with an equally appropriate quote from Winston Churchill, who famously observed that “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

And the best example of that is in the data comparing the US with Denmark and Sweden. Or the words of Margaret Thatcher.

The moral of the story is that Slovakia has the right approach on taxes while Sweden has the wrong approach. That’s true, whether you want a winning sports team or a winning economy.

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Back in 2014, I shared some data from the Tax Foundation that measured the degree to which various developed nations punished high-income earners.

This measure of relative “progressivity” focused on personal income taxes. And that’s important because that levy often is the most onerous for highly productive residents of a nation.

But there are other taxes that also create a gap between what such taxpayers earn and produce and what they ultimately are able to consume and enjoy. What about the effects of payroll taxes? Of consumption taxes and other levies?

To answer that question, we have a very useful study from the European Policy Information Center on this topic. Authored by Alexander Fritz Englund and Jacob Lundberg, it looks at the total marginal tax rate on each nation’s most productive taxpayers.

They start with some sensible observations about why marginal tax rates matter, basically echoing what I wrote after last year’s Super Bowl.

Here’s what Englund and Lundberg wrote.

The marginal tax rate is the proportion of tax paid on the last euro earned. It is the relevant tax rate when deciding whether to work a few extra hours or accept a promotion, for example. As most income tax systems are progressive, the marginal tax rate on top incomes is usually also the highest marginal tax rate. It is an indicator of how progressive and distortionary the income tax is.

They then explain why they include payroll taxes in their calculations.

The income tax alone does not provide a complete picture of how the tax system affects incentives to work and earn income. Many countries require employers and/or employees to pay social contributions. It is not uncommon for the associated benefits to be capped while the contribution itself is uncapped, meaning it is a de facto tax for high-income earners. Even those social contributions that are legally paid by the employer will in the end be paid by the employee as the employer should be expected to shift the burden of the tax through lower gross wages.

Englund and Lunberg are correct. A payroll tax (sometimes called a “social insurance” levy) will be just as destructive as a regular income tax if workers aren’t “earning” some sort of additional benefit. And they’re also right when they point out that payroll taxes “paid” by employers actually are borne by workers.

They then explain why they include a measure of consumption taxation.

One must also take value-added taxes and other consumption taxes into account. Consumption taxes reduce the purchasing power of wage-earners and thus affect the return to working. In principle, it does not matter whether taxation takes place when income is earned or when it is consumed, as the ultimate purpose of work is consumption.

Once again, the authors are spot on. Taxes undermine incentives to be productive by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption, so you have to look at levies that grab your income as it is earned as well as levies that grab your income as it is spent.

And when you begin to add everything together, you get the most accurate measure of government greed.

Taking all these taxes into account, one can compute the effective marginal tax rate. This shows how many cents the government receives for every euro of additional employee compensation paid by the firm. …If the top effective tax rate is 75 percent, as in Sweden, a person who contributes 100 additional euros to the economy will only be allowed to keep 25 euros while 75 euros are appropriated by the government. The tax system thus drives a wedge between the social and private return to work. …High marginal tax rates disconnect the private and social returns to economic activity and thereby the invisible hand ceases to function. For this reason, taxation causes distortions and is costly to society. High marginal tax rates make it less worthwhile to supply labour on the formal labour market and more worthwhile to spend time on household work, black market activities and tax avoidance.

Here’s their data for various developed nation.

Keep in mind that these are the taxes that impact each nation’s most productive taxpayers. So that includes top income tax rates, both for the central governments and sub-national governments, as well as surtaxes. It includes various social insurance levies, to the extent such taxes apply to all income. And it includes a measure of estimated consumption taxation.

And here’s the ranking of all the nations. Shed a tear for entrepreneurs in Sweden, Belgium, and Portugal.

Slovakia wins the prize for the least-punitive tax regime, though it’s worth noting that Hong Kong easily would have the best system if it was included in the ranking.

For what it’s worth, the United States does fairly well compared to other nations. This is not because our personal income tax is reasonable (see dark blue bars), but rather because Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were unsuccessful in their efforts to bust the “wage base cap” and apply the Social Security payroll tax on all income. We also thankfully don’t have a value-added tax. These factors explain why our medium-blue and light-blue bars are the smallest.

By the way, this doesn’t mean we have a friendly system for upper-income taxpayers in America. They lose almost half of every dollar they generate for the economy. And whether one is looking at Tax Foundation numbers, Congressional Budget Office calculations, information from the New York Times, or data from the IRS, rich people in the United States are paying a hugely disproportionate share of the tax burden.

Though none of this satisfies the statists. They actually would like us to think that letting well-to-do taxpayers keep any of their money is akin to a handout.

Now would be an appropriate time to remind everyone that imposing high tax rates doesn’t necessarily mean collecting high tax revenues.

In the 1980s, for instance, upper-income taxpayers paid far more revenue to the government when Reagan lowered the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Also keep in mind that these calculations don’t measure the tax bias against saving and investment, so the tax burden on some upper-income taxpayers may be higher or lower depending on the degree to which countries penalize capital formation.

P.S. If one includes the perverse incentive effects of various redistribution programs, the very highest marginal tax rates (at least when measuring implicit rates) sometimes apply to a nation’s poor people.

P.P.S. Our statist friends sometimes justify punitive taxes as a way of using coercion to produce more equality, but the net effect of such policies is weaker growth and that means it is more difficult for lower-income and middle-income people to climb the economic ladder. In other words, unfettered markets are the best way to get social mobility.

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