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Posts Tagged ‘Taxation’

Time for a confession. My left-wing friends are correct. I’m an idiot.

Why?

Because I’m an anti-tax libertarian, yet I keep writing favorably about a provision that will raise my taxes. I’m talking specifically about the provision, currently in both the House and Senate tax plans, to eliminate the deduction for state and local income taxes (and maybe also property taxes, though the House proposal will retain deductibility for the first $10,000).

I think this distortion in the tax code is very bad policy and I hope the loophole is entirely eliminated (including the property tax deduction).

But as I look at all the provisions in both bills and speculate about the contours of a final agreement, it’s highly likely that the net result will be a tax hike on one of my favorite people – me!

Sigh. I’ve joked in the past that “it ain’t easy being libertarian,” but it will definitely hurt to put my money where my mouth is (and it reminded me why GOPers should have made tax reform a tax cut by including some spending restraint).

That being said, let’s remind ourselves why the deduction is a bad idea.

Citing the self-destructive example of a recent tax hike in Illinois, Andrew Wilford of the National Taxpayers Union points out that the deduction enables and encourages state and local politicians to impose higher taxes.

…eliminating SALT would…remove this incentive for local governments to overtax its citizens. … this incentive to hike taxes can prove significant enough to drive state policy. In Illinois, residents were forced to bear the burden of a 32 percent hike on their taxes because of the state’s unwillingness to tackle its growing pension funding problem. Tax increases did not solve this underlying spending problem, but it was politically expedient— in part because state lawmakers knew that the federal government would pick up part of the tab.

It also violates my ethical-bleeding-heart rule, as Brian Riedl explains in the New York Post.

Wealthy families are four times more likely to utilize SALT than other families. Only 24 million of 125 million tax filers earning under $100,000 take the deduction, typically lowering their taxes by $1,000. By contrast, 20 million of the 25 million filers earning over $100,000 take the deduction… In fact, half the savings accrue to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers — and in New York, half of the SALT savings go to families making over $500,000.

But I don’t want today’s column to fixate on the policy argument.

Instead, let’s look at whether voting to get rid of the deduction is electoral suicide for Republicans from high-tax states such as New York and California.

Looking at the situation in the Golden State, that’s certainly the argument from the folks at Vox.

Just three of the 14 California House Republicans went against leadership… Republicans in California clearly ran on cutting taxes — but this tax bill could raise taxes on their constituents. …it also sets up their constituents for more risk. Cutting the state and local tax deduction puts undue burden on the state’s budget… “At this point it looks like California Republicans are eager to lose their seats in 2018,” Tyler Law, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said.

Though Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has a more upbeat (if you’re a Republican) assessment. She starts by explaining how California GOPers were targeted.

The House GOP passed its tax-reform bill on Thursday, and special medals of valor go to the 11 of 14 California Republicans who voted in support. The lobbyist brigade had joined with Democrats to target the Golden State delegation, seeing it as their best shot at peeling off enough Republicans to kill the bill. The assault was brutal, dishonest and all-out. …Gov. Jerry Brown unleashed on state Republicans, calling them “sheep” for supporting an end to most state and local tax, or SALT, deductions, and sending them letters deploring the tax hit on residents of high-tax California. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused them of “looting” the state. Her Senate counterpart, New York’s Chuck Schumer, warned of “political fallout” that would be “catastrophic.”

They fought back by arguing that the Democrats are the high-tax party.

What proved most effective, however, was the state Republicans’ willingness to go on offense and throw SALT in Gov. Brown’s face. California has the heaviest tax burden in the country and only just implemented a punishing new 12-cent-a-gallon-increase in its gasoline tax. Mr. McCarthy used the occasion to release a video pouncing on that hike and noting that “if Gov. Brown is worried about the tax burden, let’s make cutting [taxes] a federal and state project.” Other state Republicans ran with that message, even more bluntly. “Why punish the rest of the nation because California is stupid?” asked Rep. Duncan Hunter in a local TV interview. Even Rep. Darrell Issa, who voted “no” on Thursday (along with Dana Rohrabacher and Tom McClintock ), zapped a letter back to Gov. Brown, noting that if SALT had become a big issue, it was “a direct result of the tremendous weight that your misguided policies have put on California taxpayers.”

At the risk of sounding like a mealy-mouthed Washington apparatchik, I’m going to agree with both Vox and the Wall Street Journal.

The bottom line is that voting for tax reform probably does endanger GOP lawmakers from high-tax states, which is the message that the leftists at Vox are peddling in hopes of preserving the awful status quo.

But I want to close with the observation that enacting tax reform will improve the electoral outlook for blue-state Republicans even if it’s not necessarily good for current GOP incumbents.

That’s because voters in high-tax states will be much more likely to resist bad state tax policy if there’s no federal deduction to mitigate the burden.

And that means politicians in blue states will be under even greater pressure to lower tax rates rather than increase tax rates. If they don’t do the right thing, more and more taxpayers will escape, as the Wall Street Journal opines.

The liberal tax model is to fleece the rich to finance spending on entitlements and government programs that invariably grow faster than the economy and revenues. IRS data on tax migration show this model is now breaking down in progressive states as the affluent run for cover and the middle class is left paying the bills. Between 2012 and 2015 (the most recent data), a net $8.5 billion in adjusted gross income left New Jersey while $6.2 billion poured out of Connecticut—4% of the latter state’s total income. Illinois lost $13.6 billion. During that period, Florida with no income tax gained $39.3 billion in AGI. …As these state laboratories of Democratic governance show, dunning the rich ultimately hurts people of all incomes by repressing the growth needed to create jobs, boost wages and raise government revenues that fund public services. If the Republican House and Senate tax-reform bills follow through with eliminating all or part of the state and local tax deduction, progressive states will have an even harder time hiding the damage. They should be the next candidates for reform.

Indeed, the mere prospect of tax reform already is causing statists to rethink their approach.

Even in New Jersey.

The Republican tax reform…already it’s having a political impact in at least one high-tax, ill-governed state. Democrat Steve Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate, said last week that the GOP decision to eliminate the state and local tax deduction could throw a new tax increase on millionaires into doubt. …Excellent news. Making politicians in Trenton, Albany, Sacramento and Springfield nervous about raising taxes is one desirable outcome of tax reform. These politicians have been passing the burden of their tax-and-spend policies onto taxpayers in other states via the state and local deduction. If that goes away, Democrats will have to rethink their policies lest they drive from their states the affluent taxpayers who finance most of state government. …Here’s a radical idea: Cut taxes and make New Jersey more desirable for people to work and invest. Tax reform in Washington could also spur reform in the states.

If tax reform happens and the deduction for state and local taxes is eliminated, the left’s class-warfare agenda will become much less appealing – and much harder to implement.

And in that kind of environment, it should be much easier for Republican politicians to win votes.

For all intents and purposes, tax reform for Republicans could be like Obamacare for Democrats.

Allow me to explain. When Obamacare was enacted, I worried that it might be a long-term political victory for the left even though it was very painful for Democrats in the short run. Simply stated, voters in the future (and we’re now entering that future) would become more reluctant to vote for Republicans once they were hooked on the heroin of government dependency.

Federal tax reform would have a similar impact, except the GOP will be the long-run winners. Voters in high-tax states will be more reluctant to vote for Democrats once a $100 tax hike (for instance) actually costs $100. Which is why genuine tax reform is a win-win situation.

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Left-wing columnists at the Washington Post have hit upon a theme. In late October, Ruth Marcus wrote a column asserting that tax cuts are “dangerous.”

I explained why her argument was nonsensical, but that clearly didn’t have any impact since Robert Rubin has a new column in the same paper with the same theme. He claims to have identified five “dangers” in the Republican tax plan.

It’s a remarkably weak list, but I guess it merits a response, both because Rubin served as Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and because I feel compelled to once again slap down the claim that tax cuts are dangerous.

I debunk each one of Rubin’s points below, but you’ll also notice that I first restate (fairly, I think) what he’s really trying to say since his writing style is so bureaucratically obtuse.

Rubin Claim #1:

…business confidence would likely be negatively affected by creating uncertainty about future policy and heightening concern about our political system’s ability to meet our economic policy challenges.

What he’s really saying: We don’t know what will happen in the future (“uncertainty”) and it would be good if taxes were higher so politicians could spend more (“ability to meet…challenges”).

Why he’s wrong: Since it’s very difficult for today’s politicians to restrict the behavior of future politicians, it is true that there will be policy uncertainty. But that’s just as true if we leave the corporate tax rate at 35 percent as it will be if the rate is reduced the 20 percent. I’m also unimpressed by his desire for government to have more cash to meet challenges since it’s far more likely that government is the cause of problems rather than the solution.

Rubin Claim #2:

…our country’s resilience to deal with inevitable future economic and geopolitical emergencies, including the effects of climate change, would continue to decline.

What he’s really saying: If there’s a tax cut, politicians will have less money, which means it will be harder (a “decline” in “resilience”) to spend money in the future.

Why he’s wrong: Once again, I feel compelled to point out that very few problems can be solved with more government spending. Indeed, that’s usually a recipe for making a problem worse (the welfare state, for example). But the most glaring flaw with Rubin’s argument about “future…emergencies” is that there’s no long-run tax cut. The GOP tax plan is revenue-neutral after 10 years. So how can a plan that doesn’t lower the long-run revenue baseline impact the government’s ability to do anything?

Rubin Claim #3:

…funds available for public investment, national security and defense spending…would continue to decline as debt rises, because of rising interest costs and the increased risk of borrowing to fund government activities.

What he’s really saying: Less tax money going to Washington could mean higher interest payments (“increased risk of borrowing”), which would displace other forms of spending.

Why he’s wrong: There’s actually some truth to this argument, at least in the first 10 years when there actually is a tax cut. If I was being snarky, I could ask why Rubin wasn’t making the same argument when the faux stimulus was being debated. Or when the Obamacare boondoggle was being discussed. Why does he think deficits are only bad when tax cuts are on the agenda (just like CBO), but deficits are “stimulus” when spending goes up? I may sue for whiplash since folks on the other side keep changing their minds on red ink.

Rubin Claim #4:

Treasury bond interest rates would be highly likely to increase over time because of increased demand for the supply of savings and increased concern about future imbalances.

What he’s really saying: A tax cut will lead to higher deficits, which will lead to higher interest rates (“increased demand for the supply of savings”).

Why he’s wrong: I believe in supply-and-demand curves, so it’s theoretically true that interest rates should increase when government competes against private borrowers. That being said, even big shifts in U.S. deficits are just a drop in the bucket in a world where global capital markets amount to tens of trillions of dollars. Here’s a slide from a speech I gave to the Leadership Program of the Rockies earlier this month in Denver. If I had space, I would have added “but in reality the impact is minimal” to the third sentence.

Rubin Claim #5:

…at some unpredictable point, fiscal conditions…would likely be seen as sufficiently serious to cause severe market and economic destabilization.

What he’s really saying: Tax cuts will mean more red ink, which could ultimately lead to a Greek-style fiscal crisis (“severe..destabilization”).

Why he’s wrong: It’s certainly true that America faces very worrisome long-run fiscal problems, but those challenges are entirely due to a rising burden of government spending. And since the GOP plan is only a tax cut in the first 10 years, it’s absurd to say the GOP plan will have any meaningful impact on that dismal outlook. If Rubin really was concerned about America’s fiscal situation, he would be aggressively arguing for genuine entitlement reform.

I could have shortened that entire section by collapsing his five “dangers” into one teenager-type rant: “OMG, the economy will be in danger with tax cuts and the government won’t be able to spend on good things.”

To which I could have replied: “LOL.”

To be fair, there actually is a semi-serious section in Rubin’s column. He summarizes the left’s economic argument against lower tax rates.

…tax cuts will not increase growth and, given their fiscal effects, would likely have a significant and increasingly negative impact. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center’s latest report estimated that, over 10 years, the average increase in our growth rate would be roughly zero, counting the crowding out of private investment by increasing deficits but not counting other adverse effects of worsening our fiscal outlook. The Penn Wharton Budget Model, using the same approach, estimates virtually no increase in long-term growth. …These estimates reflect three underlying views held by mainstream economists. First, individual tax cuts will not materially induce people to work more. Second, corporate tax cuts will likely have limited effect on investment or decisions about where to locate business activity, given the many other variables at play. Third, deficit-funded tax cuts will have little short-term effect on growth, except perhaps for some temporary overheating, because we are at roughly full employment.

Now allow me to translate: It is quite possible to generate bad numbers if you build models that, 1) assume lower tax rates have very little impact on incentives to engage in productive behavior, and 2) assume larger deficits cause interest rates to increase significantly and therefore measurably reduce investment.

The real question is whether those theoretical models are correct given so much of the empirical evidence on the other side. After all, what are you going to believe, the models or your lying eyes?

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There’s an amusing ritual that takes place in Washington every time there’s a big debate about tax policy. A bunch of rich leftists will sign a letter or hold a press conference to announce that they should be paying higher taxes rather than lower taxes.

I’ve debated some of these people in the past, pointing out that they are “neurotic” and “guilt-ridden.”

But they apparently didn’t take my criticisms seriously and go into therapy, They’re now back and the Washington Post provides very favorable coverage to their latest exercise in masochism.

More than 400 American millionaires and billionaires are sending a letter to Congress this week urging Republican lawmakers not to cut their taxes. The wealthy Americans — including doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and chief executives — say the GOP is making a mistake by reducing taxes on the richest families… Instead of petitioning tax cuts for the wealthy, the letter tells Congress to raises taxes on rich people like them. …The letter was put together by Responsible Wealth, a group that advocates progressive causes. Signers include Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, fashion designer Eileen Fisher, billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros… Most of the signers of the letter come from California, New York and Massachusetts.

Earlier in the month, I would have told these “limousine liberals” not to worry because I was pessimistic about the chances of a tax bill getting enacted. But then the Senate GOP unveiled a better-than-expected plan and I’m now semi-hopeful that something will make its way through the process.

That doesn’t mean, however, that these rich leftists should be despondent.

Because I’m a nice guy, today’s column is going to let them know that they don’t have to accept a tax cut. The Treasury Department has a website that they can use to voluntarily send extra money to Washington. It’s called “gifts to reduce the public debt,” and people like George Soros can have their accountants and lawyers calculate the value of any tax cut and then use this form to send that amount of money to D.C.

And if these guilt-ridden rich people take my advice and send extra money to Washington, I surely won’t object if they want to give me a modest commission.

But I don’t think I’ll get any money for the simple reason that these wealthy statists already have been exposed for being hypocrites. When given the option to pay extra to Washington, they run for the hills. In other words, they talk the talk, but won’t walk the walk.

It’s the same at the state level. Massachusetts also gives people the option to pay more to government, yet Elizabeth Warren has never volunteered to cough up extra cash.

By the way, if there was a prize for the most economically illiterate comment in the article, it would go to Bob Crandall, who apparently doesn’t realize that the money he puts in a bank is then lent to entrepreneurs and others who then invest the funds.

“I have a big income. If my income gets bigger, I’m not going to invest more. I’ll just save more,” said Crandall, who is retired.

Remarkable. I’m at a loss for words.

And I can’t resist sharing one final blurb from the article.

Former labor secretary Robert Reich…also signed the letter.

Huh, how did he become eligible to sign? He certainly never contributed to growth in the private sector, and I’m not aware that he inherited a bunch of money. Well, upon closer inspection, it turns out that fretting about inequality is a good way of becoming part of the top-1 percent.

P.S. Germany also has guilt-ridden leftists who push for higher taxes.

P.P.S. It’s not just that rich leftists don’t pay extra tax. They also go out of their way to figure out how to pay lower taxes. Just look at the Clintons. And Warren Buffett. And John Kerry. Or any of the other rich leftists who want higher taxes for you and me while engaging in very aggressive tax avoidance.

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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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Back on November 2, I summarized the good and not-so-good features of the tax plan put forth by House Republicans. Here are the parts that made me happy.

And what was the most disappointing part of the plan?

  • Absence of spending restraint.

Regarding my disappointment, I’m not just being a curmudgeonly libertarian. The bill is filled with timid and convoluted provisions, as well as some undesirable revenue-raising provisions, precisely because of congressional rules on long-run deficit neutrality. As I’ve noted in some of my TV interviews, Republicans are pushing sub-par policy because you can’t fit a football player’s body into Pee Wee Herman’s clothes.

If Republicans were willing to impose some modest spending restraint, by contrast, that would have given them enormous flexibility for large tax cuts (while also balancing the budget!).

But I’m a semi-realist about Washington. I’m not going to make the perfect the enemy of the good (or, in this case, the sort-of-decent the enemy of the I-guess-this-is-acceptable).

Now let’s look at what Senate Republicans have unveiled. In some cases, my grades are identical to the House bill because many of the major provisions are quite similar. But there are some noteworthy differences.

Lower corporate rate: A-

America’s high corporate tax rate is probably the most self-destructive feature of the current system. If the rate is permanently reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent, that will be a huge boost to competitiveness. The only downside is that the lower rate is deferred until 2019.

Lower individual rates: C+

The proposal is relatively timid on rate reductions for households. This is disappointing, but not unexpected since lower individual tax rates mean considerable revenue loss.

Ending deduction for state and local taxes: A+

Next to the lower corporate tax rate, this is the best part of the proposal. It generates revenue to use for pro-growth provisions while also eliminating a subsidy for bad policy on the part of state and local governments. Indeed, the Senate bill goes farther than the House bill since it includes property taxes. So I’ve retroactively changed my grade for the House bill from A+ to A- so I can give the Senate bill an A+.

Curtailing mortgage interest deduction: C

The deduction remains for home mortgages, but is curtailed for home equity loans. A timed improvement that will only slightly reduce the distortion that creates a bias for residential real estate compared to business investment.

Death tax repeal: C+

There’s no repeal. Just an increase in the amount of family savings that can be protected from the tax. Better than nothing, to be sure, but disappointing.

Change to consumer price index: C

It is quite likely that the consumer price index overstates inflation because it doesn’t properly capture increases in the quality of goods and service. Shifting to a different price index will lead to higher revenues because tax brackets and other provisions of the tax code won’t adjust at the same rate. That’s fine, but I’m dissatisfied with this provision since it should apply to spending programs as well as the tax code.

Reduced business interest deduction: C+

The business interest deduction is partially undone, which is a step toward equal treatment of debt and equity. It’s not the right way of achieving that goal, but it does generate revenue to finance other pro-growth changes in the legislation.

Now let’s zoom out and grade the overall plan in terms of major fiscal and economic goals.

And you’ll see that all I’ve done is repeat exactly what I wrote about the House bill.

Restraining the growth of government: F

In my fantasy world, I want a return to the very small federal government created and envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In the real world, I simply hope for a modest bit of spending restraint. This legislation doesn’t even pretend to curtail the growth of government, which is unfortunate since some fiscal prudence (federal budget growing about 2 percent per year) would have allowed a very large tax cut while also balancing the budget within 10 years.

Collecting revenue in a less-destructive manner: B

This is a positive proposal. It will mean more jobs, increased competitiveness, and higher incomes. The wonks in Washington doubtlessly will debate whether these positive effects are small or large, but I’m not overly fixated on that issue. Yes, I think the growth effects will be significant, but I also realize that many other policies also determine economic performance. The most important thing to understand, thought is that even small increases in growth make a big difference over time.

Now let’s take a closer look at how the House and Senate plans differ.

The Tax Foundation put together a very helpful comparison. I’ve broken it into three parts so I can interject some final commentary.

For this first section, since I already gave my two cents about itemized deductions, I’ll simply observe that the Senate plan is slightly better on individual income tax rates.

For this second section, I’ll merely note that the first provision is basically an attempt to give relief to small businesses that are subject to the individual income tax.

The provisions are complicated because it’s not easy to lower tax rates for “Schedule C” income in a way that doesn’t benefit taxpayers who aren’t perceived as being conventional small businesses.

For this final section, the part that’s disappointing to me is “international income.” Both the House and Senate adopt territorial taxation for businesses, which is very good.

But the congressional plans then claw back a bunch of money with OECD-style “base-erosion” policies and Obama-style global minimum taxes. It’s unclear if the net effect is modestly positive or modestly negative, but it’s not what many of us wanted when we pushed for territoriality.

I’ll close by noting that I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the two plans. Yes, I’m grading on a curve, but I had very low expectations this year. I basically hoped to get a lower corporate rate with a bit of window dressing.

And at one point we were actually forced to play defense because Republicans were looking at a very troubling proposal for a “border-adjusted tax.”

So even though I fantasize about a flat tax, I’m reasonably happy about where we are now.

The bottom line is that there’s now a good chance of getting legislation that drops the corporate rate to 20 percent while also eliminating the deduction for state and local income taxes. Those are two very good policies. And if we somehow get death tax repeal, that means three substantive, pro-growth reforms. Fingers crossed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some excerpts from a recent story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My view on the Drug War is somewhat schizophrenic. In my personal life, I’m basically a social conservative. I don’t like drugs, I’ve never tried drugs, and I urge others to behave the same way.

But I know that prohibition is a costly failure that leads to abusive government (such as intrusive money-laundering laws and Orwellian asset-forfeiture laws).

And even if one doesn’t care about individual rights, the Drug War is an irrational misallocation of law enforcement resources.

So does this make a libertarian on the issue? The answer is yes, of course, but I confess that legalization has a downside. And I’m not talking about more people wrecking their lives with drug abuse (indeed, evidence from Portugal suggests drug use may go down).

Instead, I don’t like the fact that politicians see legalization mostly as an opportunity to generate additional tax revenue.

My fears have materialized. sort of.

According to a CNN report, politicians in California want to be the biggest profiteers from legal pot.

Between customers, retailers and growers, taxes on cannabis may reach as high as 45% in parts of the state, according to a Fitch Ratings report. …Consumers will pay a sales tax ranging from 22.25% to 24.25%, which includes the state excise tax of 15%, and additional state and local sales taxes ranging from 7.25% to 9.25%. Local businesses will have to pay a tax ranging from 1% to 20% of gross receipts, or $1 to $50 per square foot of marijuana plants, according to the Fitch report. In addition, farmers will be taxed $9.25 per ounce for flower, and $2.75 per ounce for leaves. …Van Bustic, a specialist in the environmental impact of cannabis cultivation for Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, said that registering with the state and becoming compliant will cost about $100,000.

Geesh, greedy governments can take the fun out of anything!

But not so fast. It seems that politicians are being so greedy that the geese with the golden eggs (or, in this case, drug-addled geese with golden buds) will stay in the shadow economy.

Not that we should be surprised. There is a wealth of evidence showing that high tax burdens lead to evasion and avoidance.

The Wall Street Journal looks at this issue and hits the nail on the head, editorializing that high tax rates on pot are a recipe for non-compliance.

…in California, where recreational pot was legalized last year, citizens now have a much clearer view of the unintended consequences that come from high tax rates. A new report from the global credit-rating firm Fitch Ratings highlights the effect of California’s high taxes on the marijuana market. The combined local and state rate on non-medical cannabis may be as high as 45% in some places, and Fitch says this acts as an incentive for Californians to shun legal pot dealers who pay the tax in favor of black-market sellers who don’t and can charge lower prices. …The irony is that one argument for legalizing pot has been to reduce illegal trafficking. But by imposing taxes that are too high on legal weed, politicians give pot heads an incentive to go back on the illegal market. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the boon to illegal smokes from high cigarette taxes in places like New York City.

The CNN story cited above also addressed this issue.

Among the eight states where recreational marijuana is legal, only Washington has a higher tax rate at about 50%. Colorado and Nevada both follow with rates of 36%. Oregon has a tax rate of 20% and Alaska has a rate of up to 20%. …If taxes increase the price of cannabis beyond a certain point, the legal market becomes less competitive than the illicit market and then consumers become less likely to make the transition from the illicit market to the legal market,” said John Kagia, analyst for New Frontier Data, which tracks the cannabis industry. The Fitch report says this dynamic has already prompted Colorado, Washington and Oregon to lower their “initially uncompetitive” tax rates.

Indeed. I wrote about Colorado’s experience with pot taxation back in 2015.

A story in the Washington Post confirms that the buzzed version of supply-side economics is alive and well.

High taxes on legal marijuana in California could have the potential to turn many consumers away from the state’s cannabis shops and toward the black market, according to a report from Fitch Ratings. …“The existing black market for cannabis may prove a formidable competitor to legal markets if new taxes lead to higher prices than available from illicit sources,” the report says. …These high tax rates have the potential to drive customers toward the black market. …Colorado, Oregon and Washington all reduced tax rates after the commencement of legalization to shift customers back toward the legal market.

That last sentence warms my heart. Isn’t it nice when politicians are forced to lower tax burdens even when they don’t want to?

P.S. Government is a buzz-kill in other ways. Deregulation helped unleash the craft beer industry, but also created a new source of tax revenue.

P.P.S. Since I’m a fiscal wonk, legalizing drugs has never been high (no pun intended) on my list of priorities. But when U.N. bureaucrats try to tell American states that they’re not allowed to end prohibition, I’m almost tempted to become a user.

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