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Posts Tagged ‘Marginal Tax Rate’

At the risk of over-simplifying, the difference between “supply-side economics” and “demand-side economics” is that the former is based on microeconomics (incentives, price theory) while the latter is based on macroeconomics (aggregate demand, Keynesianism).

When discussing the incentive-driven supply-side approach, I often focus on two key points.

  • Marginal tax rates matter more than average tax rates because the incentive to earn additional income (rather than enjoying leisure) is determined by whether the government grabs a small, medium, or large share of any extra earnings.
  • Some taxpayers such as investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners are especially sensitive to changes in marginal tax rates because they have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Today, let’s review some new research from Spain’s central bank confirms these supply-side insights.

Here’s what the authors investigated.

The impact of personal income taxes on the economic decisions of individuals is a key empirical question with important implications for the optimal design of tax policy. …the modern public finance literature has devoted significant efforts to study behavioral responses to changes in taxes on reported taxable income… Most of this work focuses on the elasticity of taxable income (ETI), which captures a broad set of real and reporting behavioral responses to taxation. Indeed, reported taxable income reflects not only individuals’ decisions on hours worked, but also work effort and career choices as well as the results of investment and entrepreneurship activities. Besides these real responses, the ETI also captures tax evasion and avoidance decisions of individuals to reduce their tax bill.

By the way, “elasticity” is econ-speak for sensitivity. In other words, if there’s high elasticity, it means taxpayers are very responsive to a change in tax rates.

Anyhow, here’s how authors designed their study.

In this paper, we estimate the elasticity of taxable income in Spain, an interesting country to study because during the last two decades it has implemented several major personal income tax reforms… In the empirical analysis, we use an administrative panel dataset of income tax returns… We calculate the MTR as a weighted average of the MTR applicable to each income source (labor, financial capital, real-estate capital, business income and capital gains).

You can see in Figure 1 that the 2003 reform was good for taxpayers and the 2012 reform was bad for taxpayers.

If nothing else, though, these changes created the opportunity for scholars to measure how taxpayers respond.

And here are the results.

We obtain estimates of the ETI around 0.35 using the Gruberand Saez (2002) estimation method, 0.54 using Kleven and Schultz (2014)’s method and 0.64 using Weber (2014)’s method. …In addition to the average estimates of the ETI, we analyze heterogeneous responses across groups of taxpayers and sources of income. …As expected, stronger responses are documented for groups of taxpayers with higher ability to respond. In particular, self-employed taxpayers have a higher ETI than wage employees, while real-estate capital and business income respond more strongly than labor income. …we find large responses on the tax deductions margin, especially private pension contributions.

In other words, taxpayers do respond to changes in tax policy.

And some taxpayers are very sensitive (high elasticity) to those changes.

Here’s Table 6 from the study. Much of it will be incomprehensible if you’re not familiar with econometrics. But all that matters is that I circled (in red) the measures of how elasticities vary based on the type of income (larger numbers mean more sensitive).

I’ll close with a very relevant observation about American fiscal policy.

Currently, upper-income taxpayers finance the vast majority of America’s medium-sized welfare state.

But what if the United States had a large-sized welfare state, like the ones that burden many European nations?

If you review the data, those large-sized welfare states are financed with stifling tax burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers. Politicians in Europe learned that they couldn’t squeeze enough money out of the rich (in large part because of high elasticities).

Indeed, I wrote early this year about how taxes are confiscating the lion’s share of the income earned by ordinary workers in Spain.

And if we adopt the expanded welfare state envisioned by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Kamala Harris, the same thing will happen to American workers.

P.S. I admire how Spanish taxpayers have figured out ways of escaping the tax net.

P.P.S. There’s also evidence about the impact of Spain’s corporate tax.

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Assuming the goal is faster growth and higher living standards, there are three core principles of good tax policy.

You could call this list the Holy Trinity of supply-side economics. Simply stated, incentives matter, so it makes no sense for government to discourage the things that make a nation more prosperous.

Regarding low marginal tax rates, my left-leaning friends sometimes dismiss the importance of this principle by pointing out that they don’t pay much attention to their marginal tax rates.

I can sympathize with their skepticism. When I was first learning about public finance and studying supply-and-demand curves showing deadweight loss, I also wondered about the supply-side claim that marginal tax rates mattered. Even after I started working, I had doubts. Would I somehow work harder if my tax rate fell? Or goof off if my tax rate went up? It didn’t make much sense.

What I didn’t recognize, however, is that I was looking at the issue from the perspective of someone working a standard, 9-to-5 job with a modest income. And it is true that such workers are not very responsive (especially in the short run) to changes in tax rates.

In the real world, though, there are lots of people who don’t fit that profile. They have jobs that give them substantial control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

And these people – such as business owners, professionals, second earners, investors, and entrepreneurs – often are very responsive to changes in marginal tax rates.

We have a new example of this phenomenon. Check out these excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Times.

About three quarters of GPs and hospital consultants have cut or are planning to cut their hours… About 42 per cent of family doctors and 30 per cent of consultants have reduced their working times already, claiming that they are being financially penalised the more they work. A further 34 per cent and 40 per cent respectively have confirmed that they plan to reduce their hours in the coming months… The government has launched an urgent consultation over the issue, which is the result of changes to pension rules limiting the amount that those earning £110,000 or more can pay into their pensions before they are hit with a large tax bill.

In other words, high tax rates have made leisure more attractive than work. Why work long hours, after all, if the tax authority is the biggest beneficiary?

There are also indirect victims of these high tax rates.

Last month figures from NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, showed that waiting lists had climbed by up to 50 per cent since April as doctors stopped taking on extra shifts to avoid the financial penalties. Richard Vautrey, chairman of the BMA GPs’ committee, said: “These results show the extent to which GPs are being forced to reduce their hours or indeed leave the profession altogether because of pension taxes. …swift and decisive action is needed from the government to end this shambolic situation and to limit the damage that a punitive pensions taxation system is inflicting on doctors, their patients and across the NHS as a whole.”

The U.K.’s government-run health system already has plenty of problems, including long wait times and denial of care. The last thing it needs is for doctors and other professionals to cut back their hours because politicians are too greedy.

The moral of the story is that tax rates matter. Depending on the type of person, they can matter a lot.

This doesn’t mean tax rates need to be zero (though I like that idea).

It simply means that taxes impose costs, and those costs become increasingly apparent as tax rates climb.

P.S. If you want a horror story about marginal tax rates, check out what happened to Cam Newton, the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

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I’m not a big fan of the current tax system. I’m also not supportive of America’s bankrupt Social Security system.

The country would be much better off with fundamental reform of both the tax system and Social Security.

Some groups will be reap especially large rewards if that happens.

For instance, a new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research examines the impact of taxes and Social Security on female labor supply.

…we ask to what extent the fact that taxes and old age Social Security benefits depend on one’s marital status discourages female labor supply and affect welfare. …as couples file taxes jointly, the secondary earner in the married couple faces a higher marginal tax rate, which tends to discourage their labor supply. …reduced labor supply does not necessarily imply lower Social Security benefits. Since women have historically been the secondary earners, both provisions tend to discourage female labor supply… to what extent are these disincentives holding it back? …We estimate our dynamic structural model using…data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) for the cohort born in 1941-1945 (the “1945” cohort). …we also estimate our model for the 1951-1955 cohort (the “1955” cohort),

This chart from the study shows that married women face a tax penalty – i.e., higher marginal tax rates – compared to single women.

The main takeaway is that this marriage penalty, combined with discriminatory features of Social Security, discourages women from working.

How big is the effect?

The report, authored by Margherita Borella, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Fang Yang, finds that government policies have a significant adverse impact on labor-force participation.

For the 1945 cohort, we find that Social Security spousal and survivor benefits and the current structure of joint income taxation provide strong disincentives to work to married women and single women who expect to get married… For instance, the elimination of all of these marriage-based rules raises participation at age 25 by over 20 percentage points for married women and by five percentage points for single women. At age 45, participation for these groups is, respectively, still 15 and 3 percentage point higher without these marital benefits provisions. In addition, these marriage-based rules reduce the participation of married men starting at age 55, resulting in a participation that is 8 percentage points lower by age 65. Finally, for these cohorts, these marital provisions decrease the savings of married couples by 20.3% at age 66.1 In terms of welfare, abolishing these marital provisions would benefit…over ninety percent of the people in this cohort. …We find that the effects for the 1955 cohort on participation, wages, earnings, and savings are large and similar to those in the 1945 cohort, thus indicating that the effects of marriage-related provisions are large also for cohorts in which the labor participation of married women is higher.

What if these discriminatory policies were fixed?

It depends, of course, on how the problems are addressed.

The report finds that a budget-neutral approach (i.e., returning any budgetary windfall to taxpayers) would be a significant net plus.

…there would also be large aggregate gains from removing marriage related provisions and reducing the income tax… Overall our policy experiments thus indicate that removing marriage related taxes and Social Security benefits would increase female labor supply and the welfare of the majority of the populations.

Here are a couple of charts from the study, showing both an increase in labor supply and an increase in labor income.

I’ll close with a final point about family structure.

Some people will argue that the current penalties in the tax code and Social Security system are desirable because they don’t punish stay-at-home moms as much as working women.

That’s a very strange argument. Sort of like the folks on the left, including the IMF, who advocate policies that hurt the poor if rich people suffer even more.

P.S. If there’s reform, older people also will enjoy significant gains.

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A couple of weeks ago, I used a story about a local tax issue in Washington, DC, to make an important point about how new tax increases cause more damage than previous tax increases because “deadweight losses” increase geometrically rather than arithmetically.

Simply stated, if a tax of X does Y amount of damage, then a tax of 2X will do a lot more damage than 2Y.

This is the core economic reason why even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree that class-warfare taxes are so destructive. When you take a high tax rate and make it even higher, the damage grows exponentially.

As such, I was very interested to see a new study on this topic from the World Bank. It starts by noting that higher tax rates are the wrong way to address fiscal shortfalls.

…studies have used the narrative approach for individual or multi-country analyses (in all cases, focusing solely on industrial economies, and mostly on industrial European countries). These studies find large negative tax multipliers, ranging between 2 and 5. This recent consensus pointing to large negative tax multipliers, especially in industrial European countries, naturally entails important policy prescriptions. For example, as part of a more comprehensive series of papers focusing on spending and tax multipliers, Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi (2015) point that policies based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of short run output losses than tax based adjustments.

The four authors used data on value-added taxes to investigate whether higher tax rates did more damage or less damage in developing nations.

A natural question is whether large negative tax multipliers are a robust empirical regularity… In order to answer this highly relevant academic and policy question, one would ideally need to conduct a study using a more global sample including industrial and, particularly, developing countries. …This paper takes on this challenge by focusing on 51 countries (21 industrial and 30 developing) for the period 1970-2014. …we focus our efforts on building a new series for quarterly standard value-added tax rates (henceforth VAT rates). …We identify a total of 96 VAT rate changes in 35 countries (18 industrial and 17 developing).

The economists found that VAT increases did the most damage in developing nations.

…when splitting the sample into industrial European economies and the rest of countries, we find tax multipliers of 3:6 and 1:2, respectively. While the tax multiplier in industrial European economies is quite negative and statistically significant (in line with recent studies), it is about 3 times smaller (in absolute value) and borderline statistically significant for the rest of countries.

Here’s a chart showing the comparison.

Now here’s the part that merits close attention.

The study confirms that the deadweight loss of VAT hikes is higher in developed nations because the initial tax burden is higher.

Based on different types of macroeconomic models (which in turn rely on different mechanisms), the output effect of tax changes is expected to be small at low initial levels of taxation but exponentially larger when initial tax levels are high. Therefore, the distortions and disincentives imposed by taxation on economic activity are directly, and non-linearly, related to the level of tax rates. By the same token, for a given level of initial tax rates, larger tax rate changes have larger tax multipliers. …In line with theoretical distortionary and disincentive-based arguments, we find, using our novel worldwide narrative, that the effect of tax changes on output is indeed highly non-linear. Our empirical findings show that the tax multiplier is essentially zero under relatively low/moderate initial tax rate levels and more negative as the initial tax rate and the size of the change in the tax rate increase. …This evidence strongly supports distortionary and disincentive-based arguments regarding a nonlinear effect of tax rate changes on economic activity…the economy will inevitably suffer when taxes are increased at higher initial tax rate levels.

What makes these finding especially powerful is that value-added taxes are less destructive than income taxes on a per-dollar-raised basis.

So if taking a high VAT rate and making it even higher causes a disproportionate amount of economic damage, then imagine how destructive it is to increase top income tax rates.

P.S. The fact that a VAT is less destructive than an income tax is definitely not an argument for enacting a VAT. That would be akin to arguing that it would be fun to break your wrist because that wouldn’t hurt as much as the broken leg you already have.

I’ve even dealt with people who actually argue that a VAT isn’t economically destructive because it imposes the same tax on current consumption and future consumption. I agree with them that it is a good idea to avoid double taxation of saving and investment, but that doesn’t change the fact that a VAT increases the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

And that means less incentive to earn income in the first place.

Which is confirmed by the study.

Panels A and B in Figure 18 show the relationship between the VAT rate a and the perceived effect of taxes on incentives to work and invest, respectively, for a sample of 123 countries for the year 2014. Supporting our previous findings, the relationship is highly non-linear. While the perceived effect of taxes on the incentives to work and invest barely changes as VAT rates increase at low/moderate levels (approximately until the VAT rate reaches 14 percent), it falls rapidly for high levels of VAT rates.

Here’s the relevant chart from the report.

The moral of the story is that all tax increases are misguided, but class-warfare taxes wreak the most economic havoc.

P.S. Not everyone understands this common-sense observation. For instance, the bureaucrats at the Congressional Budget Office basically argued back in 2010 that a 100 percent tax rate was the way to maximize growth.

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When I write about the economics of fiscal policy and need to give people an easy-to-understand explanation on how government spending affects growth, I share my four-part video series.

But. other than a much-too-short primer on growth and taxation from 2016, I don’t have something similar for tax policy. So I have to direct people to various columns about marginal tax rates, double taxation, tax favoritism, tax reform, corporate taxation, and tax competition.

Today’s column isn’t going to be a comprehensive analysis of taxes and growth, but it is going to augment the 2016 primer by taking a close look at how some taxes are more destructive than others.

And what makes today’s column noteworthy is that I’ll be citing the work of left-leaning international bureaucracies.

Let’s look at a study from the OECD.

…taxes…affect the decisions of households to save, supply labour and invest in human capital, the decisions of firms to produce, create jobs, invest and innovate, as well as the choice of savings channels and assets by investors. What matters for these decisions is not only the level of taxes but also the way in which different tax instruments are designed and combined to generate revenues…investigating how tax structures could best be designed to promote economic growth is a key issue for tax policy making. … this study looks at consequences of taxes for both GDP per capita levels and their transitional growth rates.

For all intents and purposes, the economists at the OECD wanted to learn more about how taxes distort the quantity and quality of labor and capital, as illustrated by this flowchart from the report.

Here are the main findings (some of which I cited, in an incidental fashion, back in 2014).

The reviewed evidence and the empirical work suggests a “tax and growth ranking” with recurrent taxes on immovable property being the least distortive tax instrument in terms of reducing long-run GDP per capita, followed by consumption taxes (and other property taxes), personal income taxes and corporate income taxes. …relying less on corporate income relative to personal income taxes could increase efficiency. …Focusing on personal income taxation, there is also evidence that flattening the tax schedule could be beneficial for GDP per capita, notably by favouring entrepreneurship. …Estimates in this study point to adverse effects of highly progressive income tax schedules on GDP per capita through both lower labour utilisation and lower productivity… a reduction in the top marginal tax rate is found to raise productivity in industries with potentially high rates of enterprise creation. …Corporate income taxes appear to have a particularly negative impact on GDP per capita.”

Here’s how the study presented the findings. I might quibble with some of the conclusions, but it’s worth noting all the minuses in the columns for marginal tax, progressivity, top rates, dividends, capital gains, and corporate tax.

This is all based on data from relatively prosperous countries.

A new study from the International Monetary Fund, which looks at low-income nations rather than high-income nations, reaches the same conclusion.

The average tax to GDP ratio in low-income countries is 15% compared to that of 30% in advanced economies. Meanwhile, these countries are also those that are in most need of fiscal space for sustainable and inclusive growth. In the past two decades, low-income countries have made substantial efforts in strengthening revenue mobilization. …what is the most desirable tax instrument for fiscal consolidation that balances the efficiency and equity concerns. In this paper, we study quantitatively the macroeconomic and distributional impacts of different tax instruments for low-income countries.

It’s galling that the IMF report implies that there’s a “need for fiscal space” and refers to higher tax burdens as “strengthening revenue mobilization.”

But I assume some of that rhetoric was added at the direction of the political types.

The economists who crunched the numbers produced results that confirm some of the essential principles of supply-side economics.

…we conduct steady state comparison across revenue mobilization schemes where an additional tax revenues equal to 2% GDP in the benchmark economy are raised by VAT, PIT, and CIT respectively. Our quantitative results show that across the three taxes, VAT leads to the least output and consumption losses of respectively 1.8% and 4% due to its non-distorting feature… Overall, we find that among the three taxes, VAT incurs the lowest efficiency costs in terms of aggregate output and consumption, but it could be very regressive… CIT, on the other hand, though causes larger efficiency costs, but has considerable better inequality implications. PIT, however, deteriorates both the economic efficiency and equity, thus is the most detrimental instrument.

Here’s the most important chart from the study. It shows that all taxes undermine prosperity, but that personal income taxes (grey bar) and corporate income tax (white bar) do the most damage.

I’ll close with two observations.

First, these two studies are further confirmation of my observation that many – perhaps most – economists at international bureaucracies generate sensible analysis. They must be very frustrated that their advice is so frequently ignored by the political appointees who push for statist policies.

Second, some well-meaning people look at this type of research and conclude that it would be okay if politicians in America imposed a value-added tax. They overlook that a VAT is bad for growth and are naive if they think a VAT somehow will lead to lower income tax burdens.

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In the past few years, I’ve bolstered the case for lower tax rates by citing country-specific research from Italy, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Israel, Portugal, South Africa, the United States, Denmark, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom.

Now let’s look to the north.

Two Canadian scholars investigated the impact of provincial tax policy changes in Canada. Here are the issues they investigated.

The tax cuts introduced by the provincial government of British Columbia (BC) in 2001 are an important example… The tax reform was introduced in two stages. In an attempt to make the BC’s economy more competitive, the government reduced the corporate income tax (CIT) rate initially by 3.0 percentage points with an additional 1.5 percentage point reduction in 2005. The government also cut the personal income tax (PIT) rate by about 25 percent. …The Canadian provincial governments’ tax policies provide a good natural experiment for the study of the effects of tax rates on growth. …The principal objective of this paper is to investigate the effects of taxation on growth using data from 10 Canadian provinces during 1977-2006. We also explore the relationship between tax rates and total tax revenue. We use the empirical results to assess the revenue and growth rate effects of the 2001 British Columbia’s incentive-based tax cuts.

And here are the headline results.

The results of this paper indicate that higher taxes are associated with lower private investment and slower economic growth. Our analysis suggests that a 10 percentage point cut in the statutory corporate income tax rate is associated with a temporary 1 to 2 percentage point increase in per capita GDP growth rate. Similarly, a 10 percentage point reduction in the top marginal personal income tax rate is related to a temporary one percentage point increase in the growth rate. … The results suggest that the tax cuts can result in significant long-run output gains. In particular, our simulation results indicate that the 4.5 percentage point CIT rate cut will boost the long-run GDP per capita in BC by 18 percent compared to the level that would have prevailed in the absence of the CIT tax cut. …The result indicates that a 10 percentage point reduction in the corporate marginal tax rate is associated with a 5.76 percentage point increase in the private investment to GDP ratio. Similarly, a 10 percentage point cut in the top personal income tax rate is related to a 5.96 percentage point rise in the private investment to GDP ratio.

The authors look specifically at what happened when British Columbia adopted supply-side tax reforms.

…In this section, we attempt to gauge the magnitude of the growth effects of the CIT and PIT rate cuts in BC in 2001… the growth rate effect of the tax cut is temporary, but long-lasting. Figure 2 shows the output with the CIT rate cut relative to the no-tax cut output over the 120 years horizon. Our model indicates that in the long-run per capita output would be 17.6 percent higher with the 4.5 percentage point CIT rate cut. …We have used a similar procedure to calculate the effects of the five percentage point reduction in the PIT rate in BC. …The solid line in Figure 3 shows simulated relative output with the PIT rate cut compared to the output with the base line growth rate of 1.275. Our model indicates that per capita output would be 7.6 percent higher in the long run with the five percentage point PIT rate cut.

Here’s their estimate of the long-run benefits of a lower corporate tax rate.

And here’s what they found when estimating the pro-growth impact of a lower tax rate on households.

In both cases, lower tax rates lead to more economic output.

Which means that lower tax rates result in more taxable income (the core premise of the Laffer Curve).

The amount of tax revenue that a provincial government collects depends on both its tax rates and tax bases. Thus one major concern that policy makers have in cutting tax rates is the implication of tax cuts for government tax receipts. …The true cost of raising a tax rate to taxpayers is not just the direct cost of but also the loss of output caused by changes in taxpayers’ economic decisions. The Marginal Cost of Public Funds (MCF) measures the loss created by the additional distortion in the allocation of resources when an additional dollar of tax revenue is raised through a tax rate increase. …if…government is on the negatively-sloped section of its present value revenue Laffer curve…, a tax rate reduction would increase the present value of the government’s tax revenues.

And the Canadian research determined that, measured by present value, the lower corporate tax rate will increase tax revenue.

…computations indicate that including the growth rate effects substantially raises our view of the MCF for a PIT. Our computations therefore support previous analysis which indicates that it is much more costly to raise revenue through a PIT rate increase than through a sales tax rate increase and that there are potentially large efficiency gains if a province switches from an income tax to a sales tax. When the growth rate effects of the CIT are included in the analysis, …a CIT rate reduction would increase the present value of the government’s tax revenues. A CIT rate cut would make taxpayers better off and the government would have more funds to spend on public services or cut other taxes. Therefore our computations provide strong support for cutting corporate income tax rates.

Needless to say, if faced with the choice between “more funds to spend” and “cut other taxes,” I greatly prefer the latter. Which is why I worry that people learn the wrong lesson when I point out that the rich paid a lot more tax after Reagan lowered the top rate in the 1980s.

The goal is to generate more prosperity for people, not more revenue for government. So if a tax cut produces more revenue, the immediate response should be to drop the rate even further.

But I’m digressing. The point of today’s column is simply to augment my collection of case studies showing that better tax policy produces better economic performance.

P.S. The research from Canada also helps to explain the positive effect of decentralization and federalism. British Columbia had the leeway to adopt supply-side reforms because the central government in Canada is somewhat limited in size and scope. That’s even more true in Switzerland (where we see the best results), and somewhat true about the United States.

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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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