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Posts Tagged ‘Taxation’

New Jersey is a tragic example of state veering in the wrong direction.

Back in the 1960s, it was basically like New Hampshire, with no income tax and no sales tax. State politicians then told voters in the mid-1960s that a sales tax was needed, in part to reduce property taxes. Then state politicians told voters in the mid-1970s that an income tax was needed, again in part to reduce property taxes.

So how did that work out?

Well, the state now has a very high sales tax and a very high income tax. And you won’t be surprised that it still have very high property taxes – arguably the worst in the nation according to the Tax Foundation.

But you have to give credit to politicians from the Garden State.

They are very innovative at coming up with ways to make a bad situation even worse.

In an article for City Journal, Steven Malanga reviews the current status of New Jersey’s misguided fiscal policies.

Relative to the size of its budget, New Jersey’s borrowing is by far the largest. Jersey plans to cover most of the cost of its deficit with debt by tapping a last-resort Federal Reserve lending program. New Jersey is already the nation’s most fiscally unsound state, according to the Institute for Truth in Accounting. It bears some $234 billion in debt, including about $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. A recent Pew study estimated that, between 2003 and 2017, the state spent $1 for every 91 cents in revenue it collected. …Before the pandemic, Murphy had proposed a $40.7 billion budget for fiscal 2021, a spending increase of 5.4 percent. …The administration has taken only marginal steps to reduce spending by, for instance, delaying water infrastructure projects. Many other cuts Murphy has announced involve simply shelving plans to spend more money.

The very latest development is that the state’s politicians want to exacerbate New Jersey’s uncompetitive tax system by extending the state’s top tax rate of 10.75 percent to a larger group of taxpayers.

The New York Times reports on a new tax scheme concocted by the Governor and state legislature.

New Jersey officials agreed on Thursday to make the state one of the first to adopt a so-called millionaires tax… Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, announced a deal with legislative leaders to increase state taxes on income over $1 million by nearly 2 percentage points, giving New Jersey one of the highest state tax rates on wealthy people in the country. …The new tax in New Jersey…is expected to generate an estimated $390 million this fiscal year… With every call for a new tax comes criticism from Republicans and some business leaders who warn that higher taxes will lead to an exodus of affluent residents.

As is so often the case, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial does a good job of nailing the issue.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate President Steve Sweeney struck a deal on Thursday to raise the state’s top marginal tax rate to 10.75% from 8.97% on income of more than $1 million. Two years ago, Democrats increased the top rate to 10.75% on taxpayers making more than $5 million. …New Jersey’s bleeding budget can’t afford to lose any millionaires. In 2018 New Jersey lost a net $3.2 billion in adjusted gross income to other states, including $2 billion to zero-income tax Florida, according to IRS data. More will surely follow now.

The WSJ is right.

As shown by this map, there’s already been a steady exodus of people from the Garden State. More worrisome is that the people leaving tend to have higher-than-average incomes (and it’s been that way for a while since New Jersey’s been pursuing bad policy for a while).

I’ll add one additional point to this discussion. One of the best features of the 2017 tax reform is that there’s now a limit on deducting state and local taxes when filing with the IRS.

This means that people living in high-tax jurisdiction such as California, New York, and Illinois (and, of course, New Jersey) now bear the full burden of state taxes.

In other words, New Jersey’s politicians are pursuing a very foolish policy at a time when federal tax law now makes bad state policy even more suicidal.

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Every single economic school of thought agrees with the proposition that investment is a key factor in driving wages and growth.

Even foolish concepts such as socialism and Marxism acknowledge this relationship, though they want the government to be in charge of deciding where to invest and how much to invest (an approach that has a miserable track record).

Another widely shared proposition is that higher tax rates will discourage whatever is being taxed. Even politicians understand this notion, for instance, when arguing for higher taxes on tobacco.

To be sure, economists will argue about the magnitude of the response (will a higher tax rate cause a big effect, medium effect, or a small effect?).

But they’ll all agree that a higher tax on something will lead to less of that thing.

Which is why I always argue that we need the lowest-possible tax rates on the activities – work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship – that create wealth and prosperity.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that Joe Biden, as part of his platform in the presidential race, has embraced class-warfare taxation.

And it’s even more disappointing that he specifically supports policies that will impose a much higher tax burden on capital formation.

How much higher? Kyle Pomerleau of the American Enterprise Institute churned through Biden’s proposals to see what it would mean for tax rates on investment and business activity.

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has proposed several tax increases that focus on raising taxes on business and capital income. Taxing business and capital income can affect saving and investment decisions by reducing the return to these activities and distorting the allocation across different assets, forms of financing, and business forms. Under current law, the weighted average marginal effective tax rate (METR) on business assets is 19.6 percent… Biden’s tax proposals would raise the METR on business investment in the United States by 7.8 percentage points to 27.5 percent in 2021. The effective tax rate would rise on most assets and new investment in all industries. In addition to increasing the overall tax burden on business investment, Biden’s proposals would increase the bias in favor of debt-financed and noncorporate investment over equity-financed and corporate investment.

Here’s the most illuminating visual from Kyle’s report.

The first row of data shows that the effective tax rate just by almost 8 percentage points.

I also think it’s important to focus on the last two rows. Notice that the tax burden on equity increases by a lot while the tax burden on debt actually drops slightly.

This is very foolish since almost all economists will acknowledge that it’s a bad idea to create more risk for an economy by imposing a preference for debt (indeed, mitigating this bias was one of the best features of the 2017 tax reform).

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It’s not easy to identify the worst international bureaucracy.

As you can see, it’s hard to figure out which bureaucracy is the worst.

I’ve solved this dilemma by allowing a rotation. Today, the OECD is at the top of my list.

That’s because the top tax official at that Paris-based bureaucracy, Pascal Saint-Amans, has a new article about goals for future tax policy.

…policy flexibility and agility may be what is needed to help restore confidence. …Governments should seize the opportunity to build a greener, more inclusive and more resilient economy. Rather than simply returning to business as usual, the goal should be to “build back better” and address some of the structural weaknesses that the crisis has laid bare.

So how do we get a “more resilient economy” with less “structural weakness”?

According to the bureaucrats at the OECD, we achieve that goal with higher taxes. I’m not joking. Here are some additional excerpts.

Today, taxes on polluting fuels are nowhere near the levels needed… Seventy percent of energy-related CO2 emissions from advanced and emerging economies are entirely untaxed.

Here’s a chart from the article showing how nations supposedly are under-taxing energy use.

But it’s not just energy taxes.

The OECD wants a bunch of other tax increases, including a digital tax deal that specifically targets America’s high-tech firms.

It’s also disturbing that the bureaucrats want higher taxes on “personal capital income,” particularly since even economists at the OECD have specifically warned that those types of taxes are particularly harmful to prosperity.

Fair burden sharing will also be central going forward. …consideration should be given to strengthening…social protection in the longer run. …Governments will need to find alternative sources of revenues. The taxation of property and personal capital income will have an important role to play… Rising pressure on public finances as well as increased demands for fair burden sharing should provide new impetus for reaching an agreement on digital taxation.

By the way, “social protection” is OECD-speak for redistribution spending. In other words, “fair burden sharing” means a bigger welfare state financed by ever-higher taxes.

The bureaucrats apparently think we should all be like Greece and Italy.

I want to close by revisiting the topic of environmental taxation. If you peruse the above chart, you’ll see that the OECD wants all nations to impose (at a minimum) a €30-per-ton tax on carbon.

What would that imply for American taxpayers? Well, if we extrapolate from estimates by the Tax Policy Center and Tax Foundation, that would be a tax increase of more than $400-per-year for every man, woman, and child in the United States. That’s $1600 of additional tax for each family of four.

P.S. The OECD has traditionally tailored its analysis to favor Democrats, but even I am surprised that Saint-Amans used the Biden campaign slogan of “build back better” in his column. I’m sure that was no accident. The bureaucrats at the OECD must be quite confident that Biden will win. Or they must feel confident that Republicans will be too stupid to exact any revenge if Trump prevails (probably a safe assumption since Republicans gave the bureaucracy lots of American tax dollars even after a top OECD official compared Trump to Hitler).

P.P.S. To add insult to injury, OECD bureaucrats get tax-free salaries, so they have a special exemption from the bad policies they want for the rest of us.

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New York is in trouble from bad economic policy, especially excessive taxing and spending.

This is one of the reasons why there’s been a steady exodus of taxpayers from the Empire State.

The problem is especially acute for New York City, which has been suffering from Mayor Bill De Blasio’s hard-left governance.

To be sure, not all of the city’s problems are self-inflicted. The 2017 tax reform removed the IRS loophole for state and local tax payments, which means people living in places such as NYC no longer can artificially lower their tax liabilities. And the coronavirus hasn’t helped, either, particularly since Governor Cuomo bungled the state’s response.

The net result of bad policy and bad luck is that New York City has serious economic problems. And this leads, as one might expect, to serious fiscal problems.

What’s surprising, however, is that the normally left-leaning New York Times actually wrote an editorial pointing out that fiscal restraint is the only rational response.

New York is facing…a budget hole of more than $5 billion… Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked the State Legislature to give him the authority to borrow… But borrowing to meet operating expenses is especially hazardous. Cities that do so over and over again are at greater risk of the kind of bankruptcy faced by New York in the late 1970s and Detroit in 2013. …Before Mr. de Blasio adds billions to the city’s debt sheet…he needs to find savings. …The city’s budget grew under Mr. de Blasio, to $92 billion last year from about $73 billion in 2014, his first year in office. Complicating matters, the mayor has hired tens of thousands of employees over his tenure, adding significantly to the city’s pension and retirement obligations. …the mayor will have to be creative, make unpopular decisions and demand serious cost-saving measures… One way to begin is with a far stricter hiring freeze. …The mayor will need to do something he has rarely been able to: ask the labor unions to share in the sacrifice. …There are other cuts to be made.

Wow, this may be the first sensible editorial from the New York Times since it called for abolishing the minimum wage in 1987.*

Mayor De Blasio, needless to say, doesn’t want any form of spending restraint. Depending on the day, he either wants to tax-and-spend or borrow-and-spend.

Both of those approaches are misguided.

Kristin Tate explained in a column for the Hill that the middle class suffers most when class-warfare politicians such as De Blasio impose policies that penalize the private sector.

Finance giant JPMorgan is…slowly relocating many of its operations and jobs to lower tax locations in Ohio, Texas, and Delaware. The Lone Star State currently hosts 25,000 of its employees, and Texas will likely surpass the New York portion in coming years. The resulting move will harm the middle earners of New York far more than that of the wealthy… The exodus is part of a trend sweeping traditionally Democratic states over the last several years. …A whopping 1,800 businesses left California in 2016 alone, while manufacturing firm Honeywell moved its headquarters from New Jersey to greener pastures in North Carolina. …the primary losers in this formula are middle class workers. Between the loss of jobs and revenue, these states and cities press even harder on millions of middle income taxpayers to make up the difference. …Many of the Democrats…who are in charge of the blue state economic models…love to preach that their proposals will make the economy fairer by targeting the most productive members of their states and cities. However, the encompassing butterfly effect spells bad news for people like you and me. Every time you vote for a proposition or a candidate promising a repeat of bad policy, just remember that it will ultimately be the middle class that will pay the largest share.

My contribution to this discussion is to point out that New York City’s fiscal problems are the entirely predictable result of politicians spending too much money over an extended period of time.

In other words, they violated my Golden Rule.

Indeed, the burden of government spending has climbed more than three times faster than inflation during De Blasio’s time in office.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because excessive spending is the cause of every fiscal crisis (as I’ve noted when writing about Cyprus, Alaska, Ireland, Alberta, Greece, Puerto Rico, California, etc).

My final observation is that New York City’s current $5 billion budget shortfall would be a budget surplus of more than $6 billion if De Blasio and the other politicians had adopted a spending cap back in 2015 and limited budget increases to 2 percent annually.

*The New York Times also endorsed the flat tax in 1982, so there have been rare outbursts of common sense.

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Two weeks ago, I shared some video from a presentation to the New Economic School of Georgia (the country, not the state) as part of my “Primer on the Laffer Curve.”

Here’s that portion of that presentation that outlines the principles of sensible taxation.

Just in case you don’t want to watch me pontificate for nearly 14 minutes, here’s the slide from the presentation that most deserves attention since it captures the key principle of good tax policy.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of that thing.

By the way, I had an opportunity earlier this year to share some similar thoughts about the principles of sound tax policy with the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Financial Accountability Transparency & Integrity.

Given my past interactions with fiscal people at the U.N., I’m not overflowing with optimism that the following observations with have an impact, but hope springs eternal.

The ideal fiscal environment is one that has a vibrant and productive economy that generates sufficient revenue with modest tax rates that do not needlessly penalize productive behavior. Public finance experts generally agree on the following features

  • Low marginal tax rates. A tax operates by increasing the “price” of whatever is being taxed. This is most obvious in the case of some excise taxes –such as levies on tobacco –where governments explicitly seek to discourage certain behaviors. …but there should be a general consensus in favor of keeping tax rates reasonable on the behaviors –work, saving, investment, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship –that make an economy more prosperous.
  • A “consumption-base.” Because of capital gains taxes, death taxes, wealth taxes, and double taxation of interest and dividends, many nations impose a disproportionately harsh tax burden on income that is saved and invested. This creates a bias against capital formation, which is problematical since every economic theory –including various forms of socialism –share the view that saving and investment are necessary for rising wages and higher living standards.
  • Neutrality. Special preferences in a tax system distort the relative “prices” of how income is earned or how income is spent. Such special tax breaks encourage taxpayers to make economically inefficient choices simply to lower their tax liabilities. Moreover, loopholes, credits, deductions, exemptions, holidays, exclusions, and other preferences reduce tax receipts, thus creating pressure for higher marginal tax rates, which magnifies the adverse economic impact.
  • Territoriality. This is the simple notion that governments should not tax activity outside their borders. If income is earned in Brazil, for instance, the Brazilian government should have the authority over how that income is taxed.The same should be true for all other nations.

By the way, “consumption-base” is simply the jargon used by public-finance economists when referring to a tax system that doesn’t impose double taxation (i.e., extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested).

Here’s a flowchart I prepared showing the double taxation in the current system compared to what happens with a flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of understatement, it’s impossible to have a good tax system with a bloated public sector, which means it’s not easy to be optimistic about future fiscal policy in the United States.

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Last week, I gave a presentation on the Laffer Curve to a seminar organized by the New Economic School in the nation of Georgia.

A major goal was to help students understand that you can’t figure out how changes in tax rates affect tax revenues without also figuring out how changes in tax rates affect taxable income.

As you might expect, I showed the students a visual depiction of the Laffer Curve, explaining that the government won’t collect any revenue if the tax rate is zero (the left point of the horizontal axis), but also pointing out that the government won’t collect any revenue if tax rates are 100 percent (the right point on the horizontal axis).

The curve between those two points shows how much tax is collected at various tax rates.

The upward-sloping part of the curve shows the “region of increasing revenue” (i.e., where higher tax rates produce more revenue) and the downward-sloping part of the curve shows the “region of declining revenue” (i.e., where higher tax rates produce less revenue).

I noted in my remarks that this is not a controversial concept.

Indeed, I’d wager that every economist in the world will agree.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, you can see in this video that even Paul Krugman agrees that there is a Laffer Curve.

Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that we agree on the shape of the Laffer Curve.

Even more important, we presumably don’t agree on the ideal point on the Laffer Curve.

I’m guessing he would want to be at the revenue-maximizing point, whereas I explained in the presentation that it’s much better to at the growth-maximizing point.

To show why this is an important distinction, I specifically cited research from two economists (one from the University of Chicago and one from the Federal Reserve) in hopes of getting students to understand that higher tax rates will destroy a lot of private income for every dollar of additional revenue that politicians will collect.

If you look at the nearby image, you’ll see that’s especially true for taxes on “capital” since households have much more control over the timing, level, and composition of business and investment income.

Maybe I’m just a wild-eyed libertarian, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to destroy lots of private income just so politicians get a bit of extra revenue to spend.

This does not mean, by the way, that the Laffer Curve is a panacea, or some sort of free lunch.

I should have shown the students this one-minute video clip of me pointing out that it’s only in rare circumstances that a tax cut generates enough additional growth (and therefore enough additional taxable income) to be self-financing.

To be sure, self-financing tax cuts do exist.

In the presentation, I shared the IRS data showing that the federal government collected fives times as much money from the rich after President Reagan reduced the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

And I also shared the OECD data showing that industrialized nations are collecting more revenue from income taxes today, as a share of economic output, than they were back in 1980 when top tax rates on personal and corporate income were much higher.

And I also could have cited interesting results from Canada, Denmark, HungaryIreland, ItalyPortugal, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom.

I’ll close by recycling my three-part video series from 2008 on the Laffer Curve (assuming you’re not already tired of my voice after the 22-minute presentation at the start of today’s column).

The first video discusses the theory.

The second video looks at the evidence.

And the third video shines a spotlight on the Joint Committee on Taxation’s primitive methodology for producing revenue estimates.

The good news is that the Joint Committee on Taxation has been dragged kicking and screaming in the right direction since 2008, so the present process for estimating the revenue impact of change in tax policy is somewhat more accurate.

P.S. Here’s my response to Matt Yglesias’ supposed debunking of the Laffer Curve.

P.P.S. I used to think my friends on the left could be persuaded since they presumably don’t want tax rates to be so high that revenues decline. But it seems many of them actually are motivated by a desire to punish success rather than a desire to maximize revenue for government.

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Speculating about tax policy in 2021, with Washington potentially being controlling by Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi, there are four points to consider.

  1. The bad news is that Joe Biden has endorsed a wide range of punitive tax increases.
  2. The good news is that Joe Biden has not endorsed a wealth tax, which is one of the most damaging ways – on a per-dollar raised basis – for Washington to collect more revenue.
  3. The worse news is that the additional spending desired by Democrats is much greater than Biden’s proposed tax increases, which means there will be significant pressures for additional sources of money.
  4. The worst news is that the class-warfare mentality on the left means the additional tax increases will target successful entrepreneurs, investors, innovators, and business owners – which means a wealth tax is a very real threat.

Let’s consider what would happen if this odious example of double taxation was imposed in the United States.

Two scholars from Rice University, John Diamond and George Zodrow, produced a study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity on the economic impact of a wealth tax.

They based their analysis on the plan proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, which is probably the most realistic option since Biden (assuming he wins the election) presumably won’t choose the more radical plan proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders.

They have a sophisticated model of the U.S. economy. Here’s their simplified description of how a wealth tax would harm incentives for productive behavior.

The most direct effect operates through the reduction in wealth of the affected taxpayers, including the reduction in accumulated wealth over time. Although such a reduction in wealth is, for at least some proponents of the wealth tax, a desirable result, the associated reduction in investment and thus in the capital stock over time will have deleterious effects, reducing labor productivity and thus wage income as well as economic output. …A wealth tax would also affect saving by changing the relative prices of current and future consumption. In the standard life-cycle model of household saving, a wealth tax effectively increases the price of future consumption by lowering the after-tax return to saving, creating a tax bias favoring current consumption and thus reducing saving. … we should note that the apparently low tax rates under the typical wealth tax are misleading if they are compared to income tax rates imposed on capital income, and the capital income tax rates that are analogous to wealth tax rates are often in excess of 100 percent. …For example, with a 1 percent wealth tax and a Treasury bond earning 2 percent, the effective income tax rate associated with the wealth tax is 50 percent; with a 2 percent tax rate, the effective income tax rate increases to 100 percent.

And here are the empirical findings from the report.

We compare the macroeconomic effects of the policy change to the values that would have occurred in the absence of any changes — that is, under a current law long run scenario… The macroeconomic effects of the wealth tax are shown in Table 1. Because the wealth tax reduces the after-tax return to saving and investment and increases the cost of capital to firms, it reduces saving and investment and, over time, reduces the capital stock. Investment declines initially by 13.6 percent…and declines by 4.7 percent in the long run. The total capital stock declines gradually to a level 3.5 percent lower ten years after enactment and 3.7 percent lower in the long run… The smaller capital stock results in decreased labor productivity… The demand for labor falls as the capital stock declines, and the supply of labor falls as households receive larger transfer payments financed by the wealth tax revenues… Hours worked decrease initially by 1.1 percent and decline by 1.5 percent in the long run. …the initial decline in hours worked of 1.1 percent would be equivalent to a decline in employment of approximately 1.8 million jobs initially. The declines in the capital stock and labor supply imply that GDP declines as well, by 2.2 percent 5 years after enactment and by 2.7 percent in the long run.

Here’s the table mentioned in the above excerpt. At the risk of understatement, these are not favorable results.

Other detailed studies on wealth taxation also find very negative results.

The Tax Foundation’s study, authored by Huaqun Li and Karl Smith, also is worth perusing. For purposes of today’s analysis, I’ll simply share one of the tables from the report, which echoes the point about how “low” rates of wealth taxation actually result in very high tax rates on saving and investment.

The American Action Forum also released a study.

Authored by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Gordon Gray, it’s filled with helpful information. The part that deserves the most attention is this table showing how a wealth tax on the rich results in lost wages for everyone else.

Yes, the rich definitely lose out because their net wealth decreases.

But presumably the rest of us are more concerned about the fact that lower levels of saving and investment reduce labor income for ordinary people.

The bottom line is that wealth taxes are very misguided, assuming the goal is a prosperous and competitive America.

P.S. One obvious effect of wealth taxation, which is mentioned in the study from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, is that some rich people will become tax expatriates and move to jurisdictions (not just places such as Monaco, Bermuda, or the Cayman Islands, but any of the other 200-plus nations don’t tax wealth) where politicians don’t engage in class warfare.

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There’s a reason that Greece is almost synonymous with bad economic policy. The country has endured some terrible prime ministers, most recently Alexis Tsipras of the far-left Syriza Party.

Andreas Papandreou, however, wins the prize for doing the most damage. He dramatically expanded the burden of government spending in the 1980s (the opposite of what Reagan and Thatcher were doing that decade), thus setting the stage for Greece’s eventual fiscal collapse.

But Greek economic policy isn’t a total disaster.

Policy makers in Athens are trying a bit of supply-side tax policy, at least for a limited group of people.

The U.K.-based Times has a report on Greece’s campaign to lure foreigners with low tax rates.

“The logic is very simple: we want pensioners to relocate here,” Athina Kalyva, the Greek head of tax policy at the finance ministry, said. “We have a beautiful country, a very good climate, so why not?” “We hope that pensioners benefiting from this attractive rate will spend most of their time in Greece,” Ms Kalyva told the Observer. Ultimately, the aim is to expand the country’s tax base, she added. “That would mean investing a bit — renting or buying a home.” …The proposal goes further than other countries, however, with the flat tax rate in Greece to apply to other sources of revenue as well as pensions, according to the draft law. “The 7 per cent flat rate will apply to whatever income a person might have, be that rents or dividends as well as pensions,” said Alex Patelis, chief economic adviser to Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister. “As a reformist government, we have to try to tick all the boxes to boost the economy and change growth models.”

Here are excerpts from a Reuters report.

Greece will offer financial incentives to encourage wealthy individuals to move their tax residence to the country, part of a package of tax relief measures… Greece’s conservative government is keen to attract investments to boost the recovering economy’s growth prospects. …The so-called “non-dom” programme will offer qualified wealthy investors who opt to shift their tax residence to the country a flat tax of 100,000 euros ($110,710) on global incomes earned outside Greece annually. “The tax incentive will run for a duration of up to 15 years and will include the benefit of no inheritance tax for assets outside Greece,” a senior government official told Reuters. One of the requirements to qualify will be residing in Greece for at least 183 days per year and making an investment of at least 500,000 euros within three years. …Investments of 3 million euros will reduce the flat tax to just 25,000 euros. There will also be a grandfathering clause protecting investors from policy changes by future governments.

By the way, Greece isn’t simply offering a flat-rate tax to wealthy foreigners. It’s offering them a flat-amount tax.

In other words, because they simply pay a predetermined amount, their actual tax rate (at least for non-Greek income) shrinks as their income goes up.

And since tax rates matter, this policy is luring well-to-do foreigners to Greece.

That’s good news. I’m a big fan of cross-border tax migration, both inside countries and between countries. And I’ve specifically applauded “citizenship by investment” programs that offer favorable tax rates to foreigners who bring much-needed investment to countries wanting more growth.

But I want politicians to understand that if low tax rates are good for newcomers, those low rates also would be good for locals.

But here’s the bad news. Fiscal policy in Greece is terrible (ranked #158 for “size of government” out of 162 nations according to the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World).

What’s especially depressing is that Greece’s score has actually declined ever since the fiscal crisis began about 10 years ago.

In other words, the country got in trouble because of too much government, and politicians responded by actually making fiscal policy worse (aided and abetted by the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF).

And the bottom line is that it’s impossible to have overall low tax rates with a bloated public sector – a lesson that applies in other nations, including the United States.

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Because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, the burden of government spending in the United States (in the absence of genuine reform) is going to increase dramatically over the next few decades.

That bad outlook will get even worse thanks to all the coronavirus-related spending from Washington.

This is bad news for America since more of the economy’s output will be consumed by government, leaving fewer resources for the private sector. And that problem would exist even if all the spending was magically offset by trillions of dollars of unexpected tax revenue.

Many people, however, think the nation’s future fiscal problem is that politicians will borrow to finance  that new spending. I think that’s a mistaken view, since it focuses on a symptom (red ink) rather than the underlying disease (excessive spending).

But regardless of one’s views on that issue, fiscal policy is on an unsustainable path. And that means there will soon be a fight between twho different ways of addressing the nation’s grim fiscal outlook.

  • Restrain the growth of government spending.
  • Divert more money from taxpayers to the IRS.

Fortunately, we now have some new evidence to help guide policy.

A new study from the Mercatus Center, authored by Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon, examines what actually happens when politicians try to control debt with spending restraint or tax increases.

Here’s what the authors wanted to investigate.

Fiscal consolidation can take two forms: (1) adopting a debt-reduction package driven primarily by tax increases or (2) adopting a package mostly consisting of spending restraint. …What policymakers might not know is which of these two forms of consolidation tend to be more effective at reining in debt levels and which are less harmful to economic performance: tax-based (TB) fiscal consolidation or expenditure-based (EB) fiscal consolidation.

Here’s their methodology.

Our analysis focuses on large fiscal consolidations, or consolidations in which the fiscal deficit as a share of GDP improves by at least 1.5 percentage points over two years and does not decrease in either of those two years. …A successful consolidation is defined as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 5 percentage points three years after the adjustment takes places or by at least 3 percentage points two years after the adjustment. …Episodes in which the consolidation is at least 60 percent revenue increases are labeled TB, and episodes in which the consolidation is at least 60 percent spending decreases are labeled EB.

And here are their results.

…of the 45 EB episodes, more than half were successful, while of the 67 TB episodes, less than 4 in 10 were successful. …The results in table 2 show that while in unsuccessful adjustments most (74 percent) of the changes are on the revenue side, in successful adjustments most (60 percent) of the changes are on the expenditure side. In successful adjustments, for every 1.00 percent of GDP increase in revenues, expenditures are cut by 1.50 percent. By contrast, in unsuccessful adjustments, for every 1.00 percent of GDP increase in revenues, expenditures are cut by less than 0.35 percent. From these findings we conclude that successful fiscal adjustments are those that involve significant spending reductions with only modest increases in taxation. Unsuccessful fiscal adjustments, however, typically involve significant increases in taxation and very modest spending reductions.

Table 2 summarizes the findings.

As you can see, tax increases are the least effective way of dealing with the problem. Which makes sense when you realize that the nation’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not inadequate revenue.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think the table I prepared back in 2014 is even more compelling.

Based on IMF data, it shows nations that imposed mutli-year spending restraint and how that fiscally prudent policy generated very good results – both in terms of reducing the spending burden and lowering red ink.

When I do debates at conferences with my left-wing friends, I almost always ask them to show me a similar table of countries that achieved good results with tax increases.

Needless to say, none of them have ever even attempted to prepare such a list.

That’s because nations that repeatedly raise taxes – as we’ve seen in Europe – wind up with more spending and more debt.

In other words, politicians pull a bait-and-switch. They claim more revenue is needed to reduce debt, but they use any additional money to buy votes.

Which is why advocates of good fiscal policy should adamantly oppose any and all tax increases.

Let’s close by looking at two more charts from the Mercatus study.

Here’s a look at how Irish politicians have mostly chose to restrain spending.

And here’s a look at how Greek politicians have mostly opted for tax increases.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that the Greek approach has been very unsuccessful.

P.S. For fiscal wonks, one of the best parts of the Mercatus study is that it cites a lot of academic research on the issue of fiscal consolidation.

Scholars who have conducted research find – over and over again – that spending restraint works.

In a 1995 working paper, Alberto Alesina and Roberto Perotti observe 52 efforts to reduce debt in 20 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries between 1960 and 1992. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 5 percentage points three years after the adjustment takes place. In successful adjustments, government spending is reduced by almost 2.2 percent of gross national product (GNP) and taxes are increased by less than 0.5 percent of GNP. For unsuccessful adjustments, government expenditure is reduced by less than 0.5 percent of GNP and taxes are increased by almost 1.3 percent of GNP. These results suggest that successful fiscal adjustments are those that cut spending and include very modest increases in taxation.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists John McDermott and Robert Wescott, in a 1996 paper, examine 74 episodes of fiscal adjustment in which countries attempted to address their budget gaps. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as a reduction of at least 3 percentage points in the ratio of gross public debt to GDP by the second year after the end of an adjustment. The authors then divide episodes of fiscal consolidation into two categories: those in which the deficit was cut primarily (by at least 60 percent) through revenue increases, and those in which it was reduced primarily (by at least 60 percent) through expenditure cuts. Of the expenditure-based episodes of fiscal consolidation, almost half were successful, while of the tax-based episodes, less than one out of six met the criteria for success.

Jürgen von Hagen and Rolf Strauch observe 65 episodes in 20 OECD countries from 1960 to 1998 and define a successful adjustment as one in which the budget balance stands at no more than 75 percent of the initial balance two years after the adjustment period. …it does find that successful consolidations consist of expenditure cuts averaging more than 1.2 percent of GDP, while expenditure cuts in unsuccessful adjustments are smaller than 0.3 percent of GDP. The opposite pattern is true for revenue-based adjustments: successful consolidations consist of increases in revenue averaging around 1.1 percent, while unsuccessful adjustments consist of revenue increases exceeding 1.9 percent.

American Enterprise Institute economists Andrew Biggs, Kevin Hassett, and Matthew Jensen examine over 100 episodes of fiscal consolidation in a 2010 study. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 4.5 percentage points three years after the first year of consolidation. Their study finds that countries that addressed their budget shortfalls through reduced spending burdens were far more likely to reduce their debt than countries whose budget-balancing strategies depended upon higher taxes. …the typical successful adjustment consists of 85 percent spending cuts and just 15 percent tax increases.

In a 1998 Brookings Institution paper, Alberto Alesina and coauthors reexamined the research on the economic effects of fiscal adjustments. Using data drawn from 19 OECD countries, the authors assess whether the composition of fiscal adjustments results in different economic outcomes… Contrary to the Keynesian view that fiscal adjustments are contractionary, the results of this study suggest that consolidation achieved primarily through spending reductions often has expansionary effects.

Another study that observes which features of fiscal adjustments are more or less likely to predict whether the fiscal adjustment is contractionary or expansionary is by Alesina and Silvia Ardagna. Using data from 20 OECD countries during 1960 to 1994, the authors label an adjustment expansionary if the average GDP growth rate in the period of adjustment and in the two years after is greater than the average value (of G7 countries) in all episodes of adjustment. …The authors conclude, “The composition of the adjustment appears as the strongest predictor of the growth effect: all the non-expansionary adjustments were tax-based and all the expansionary ones were expenditure-based.”

French economists Boris Cournède and Frédéric Gonand adopt a dynamic general equilibrium model to compare the macroeconomic impacts of four debt reduction scenarios. Results from the model suggest that TB adjustments are much more costly than spending restraint when policymakers are attempting to achieve fiscal sustainability. Annual consumption per capita would be 15 percent higher in 2050 if consolidation were achieved through spending reductions rather than broad tax increases.

In a review of every major fiscal adjustment in the OECD since 1975, Bank of England economist Ben Broadbent and Goldman Sachs economist Kevin Daly found that “decisive budgetary adjustments that have focused on reducing government expenditure have (i) been successful in correcting fiscal imbalances; (ii) typically boosted growth; and (iii) resulted in significant bond and equity market outperformance. Tax-driven fiscal adjustments, by contrast, typically fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging for growth.”

Economists Christina and David Romer investigated the impact of tax changes on economic activity in the United States from 1945 to 2007. The authors find that an exogenous tax increase of 1 percent of GDP lowers real GDP by almost 3 percent, suggesting that TB adjustments are highly contractionary.

…the IMF released its annual World Economic Outlook in 2010 and included a study on the effects of fiscal consolidation on economic activity. The results of studying episodes of fiscal consolidation for 15 OECD countries over three decades…reveals that EB fiscal adjustments tend to have smaller contractionary effects than TB adjustments. For TB adjustments, the effect of a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP on GDP is −1.3 percent after two years, while for EB adjustments the effect is just −0.3 percent after two years and is not statistically significant. Interestingly, TB adjustments also raise unemployment levels by about 0.6 percentage points, while EB adjustments raise the unemployment rate by only 0.2 percentage points.

…a 2014 IMF study…estimates the short-term effect of fiscal consolidation on economic activity among 17 OECD countries. The authors of the IMF study find that the fall in GDP associated with EB consolidations is 0.82 percentage points smaller than the one associated with TB adjustments in the first year and 2.31 percentage points smaller in the second year after the adjustment.

Focusing on the fiscal consolidations that followed the Great Recession, Alesina and coauthors…find that EB consolidations are far less costly for economic output than TB adjustments. They also find that TB adjustments result in a cumulative contraction of 2 percent of GDP in the following three years, while EB adjustments generate very small contractions with an impact on output not significantly different from zero.

A study by the European Central Bank in 2018…finds that macroeconomic responses are largely caused by differences in the composition of the adjustment plans. The authors find large and negative multipliers for TB adjustment plans and positive, but close to zero, multipliers for EB plans. The composition of adjustment plans is found to be the largest contributor to the differences in economic performance under the two types of consolidation plans.

The bottom line is that nations enjoy success when they obey fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. Sadly, that doesn’t happen very often because politicians focus mostly on buying votes in the short run rather than increasing national prosperity in the long run.

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I participated in a debate yesterday on “tax havens” for the BBC World Service. If you read last month’s two-part series on the topic (here and here), you already know I’m a big defender of low-tax jurisdictions.

But it’s always interesting to interact with people with a different perspective (in this case, former Obama appointee David Carden and U.K. Professor Rita de la Feria).

As you might imagine, critics generally argue that tax havens should be eliminated so politicians have greater leeway to increase tax rates and finance bigger government. And if you listen to the entire interview, that’s an even bigger part of their argument now that there’s lots of coronavirus-related spending.

But for purposes of today’s column, I want to focus on what I said beginning at 49:10 of the interview.

I opined that it’s reasonably to issue debt to finance a temporary emergency and then gradually reduce the debt burden afterwards (similar to what happened during and after World War II, as well as during other points in history).

The most important part of my answer, however, was the discussion about how revenues didn’t decline when tax rates were slashed beginning in 1980.

Let’s first take a look at what happened to top tax rates for 24 industrialized nations from North America, Western Europe, and the Pacific Rim. As you can see, there’s been a big reduction in tax rates since 1980.

In the interview, I mentioned OECD data about taxes on income and profits, which can be found here (specifically data series 1000). So let’s see what happened to revenues during the period of falling tax rates.

Lo and behold, it turns out that revenue went up. Not just nominal revenues. Not just inflation-adjusted revenues. Tax revenues even increased as a share of gross domestic product.

In part, this is the Laffer Curve in action. Lower tax rates meant better incentives to engage in productive behavior. That meant higher levels of taxable income (the variable that should matter most).

For what it’s worth, I suspect that the lower tax rates – by themselves – did not cause tax revenue to rise. After all, there are many policies that determine the overall vitality of an economy.

But there’s no question that there’s a lot of “revenue feedback” when tax rates are changed.

The bottom line is that the folks advocating higher tax rates shouldn’t expect a windfall of tax revenue if they succeed in imposing class-warfare tax policy.

P.S. For the folks on the left who are motivated by spite rather than greed, it doesn’t matter if higher tax rates generate more money.

P.P.S. Interestingly, both the IMF and OECD have admitted, at least by inference, that lower corporate tax rates don’t result in lower tax revenues.

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New York is ranked dead last for fiscal policy according to Freedom in the 50 States.

But it’s not the worst state, at least according to the Tax Foundation, which calculates that the Empire State is ranked #49 in the latest edition of the State Business Tax Climate Index.

Some politicians from New York must be upset that New Jersey edged them out for last place (and the Garden State does have some wretched tax laws).

So in a perverse form of competition, New York lawmakers are pushing a plan to tax unrealized capital gains, which would be a form of economic suicide for the Empire State and definitely cement its status as the place with the worst tax policy.

Here are some excerpts from a CNBC report.

The tax, part of a new “Make Billionaires Pay” campaign by progressive lawmakers and activists, would impose a new form of capital gains tax on New Yorkers with $1 billion or more in assets. …“It’s time to stop protecting billionaires, and it’s time to start working for working families,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said… Currently, taxpayers pay capital gains tax on assets only when they sell. The new policy would tax any gain in value for an asset during the calendar year, regardless of whether it’s sold. Capital gains are taxed in New York at the same rate as ordinary income, so the rate would be 8.8%.

Given her track record, I’m not surprised that Ocasio-Cortez has embraced this punitive idea.

That being said, the proposal is so radical that even New York’s governor understands that it would be suicidal.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said raising taxes on billionaires and other rich New Yorkers will only cause them to move to lower-tax states. …“If they want a tax increase, don’t make New York alone do a tax increase — then they just have the people move… Because if you take people who are highly mobile, and you tax them, well then they’ll just move next door where the tax treatment is simpler.”

Actually, they won’t move next door. After all, politicians from New Jersey and Connecticut also abuse and mistreat taxpayers.

Instead, they’ll be more likely to escape to Florida and other states with no income taxes.

In a column for the New York Post, E.J. McMahon points out that residents already have been fleeing.

…there were clear signs of erosion at the high end of New York’s state tax base even before the pandemic. Between 2010 and 2017, according to the Internal Revenue Service, the number of tax filers with incomes above $1 million rose 75 percent ­nationwide, but just 49 percent in New York. …Migration data from the IRS point to a broader leakage. From 2011-12 through 2017-18, roughly 205,220 New Yorkers moved to Florida. …their average incomes nearly doubled to $120,023 in 2017-18, from $63,951 at the start of the period. Focusing on wealthy Manhattan, the incomes of Florida-bound New Yorkers rose at the same rate from a higher starting point— to $244,936 for 3,144 out-migrants in 2017-18, from $124,113 for 3,712 out-migrants in 2011-12.

What should worry New York politicians is that higher-income residents are disproportionately represented among the escapees.

And the author also makes the all-important observation that these numbers doubtlessly will grow, not only because of additional bad policies from state lawmakers, but also because the federal tax code no longer includes a big preference for people living in high-tax states.

These figures are from the ­period ending just before the new federal tax law temporarily virtually eliminated state and local tax deductions for high earners, raising New York’s effective tax rates higher than ever. …soak-the-rich tax sloganeering is hardly a welcome-home signal for high earners now on the fence about their futures in New York.

The bottom line is that it’s a very bad idea for a country to tax unrealized capital gains.

And it’s a downright suicidal idea for a state to choose that perverse form of double taxation. After all, it’s very easy for rich people to move to Florida and other states with better tax laws.

And since the richest residents of New York pay such a large share of the tax burden (Investor’s Business Daily points out that the top 1 percent pay 46 percent of state income taxes), even a small increase in out-migration because of the new tax could result in receipts falling rather than rising.

Another example of “Revenge of the Laffer Curve.”

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Yesterday, in Part I of our series about greedy state politicians, we looked at top income tax rates.

The worst state, not surprisingly, was California with a top tax rate of 13.3 percent.

This onerous tax rate, combined with low-quality government and absurd levels of red tape, helps to explain why so many people have fled the Golden State.

(And because California’s problems are self-inflicted, that’s the biggest reason why the state should not get a bailout from Uncle Sam.)

Today, we’re going to look at another major source of tax revenue for state politicians.

Here are some excerpts from the Tax Foundation’s report on sales tax rates.

While graduated income tax rates and brackets are complex and confusing to many taxpayers, sales taxes are easier to understand; consumers can see their tax burden printed directly on their receipts. In addition to state-level sales taxes, consumers also face local sales taxes in 38 states. These rates can be substantial, so a state with a moderate statewide sales tax rate could actually have a very high combined state and local rate compared to other states. This report provides a population-weighted average of local sales taxes… Five states do not have statewide sales taxes: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon. Of these, Alaska allows localities to charge local sales taxes. The five states with the highest average combined state and local sales tax rates are Tennessee (9.55 percent), Arkansas (9.53 percent), Louisiana (9.52 percent), Washington (9.23 percent), and Alabama (9.22 percent). The five states with the lowest average combined rates are Alaska (1.76 percent), Hawaii (4.44 percent), Wyoming (5.34 percent), Wisconsin (5.43 percent), and Maine (5.50 percent). California has the highest state-level sales tax rate, at 7.25 percent.

Here’s the map that accompanied the report.

It’s good to be gray. By contrast the states with the darkest colors have the most onerous rates.

As noted in the excerpt above, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Washington have the greediest politicians, at least measured by sales tax rates.

But this is the point where it makes sense to merge today’s map with yesterday’s map. Because Tennessee and Washington don’t impose income taxes, while Louisiana and Arkansas both make that mistake.

And if you combine the tax rates from both maps, you’ll find that Tennessee and Washington are relatively low-tax states while Louisiana and Arkansas are relatively high-tax states.

So one of the lessons to be learned is that it’s never a good idea to give politicians multiple sources of revenue (something to remember every time greedy officials in D.C. broach the idea of a value-added tax).

But let’s keep our focus on the main topic, which is identifying the state with the greediest politicians?

If we continue with the methodology of combining the numbers from both maps, California easily ranks as the worst state, with a combined rate of 21.98 percent.

Indeed, it has a huge lead compared to the next-worst states (New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota), all of which have combined rates of between 17-18 percent.

What’s the best state?

Depends on the approach. If you count only wages and salaries, then New Hampshire wins with a combined rate of 0.0 percent. But if you include New Hampshire’s unfortunate policy of imposing income tax on interest and dividends, then Alaska wins with a combined rate of 1.76 percent.

Wyoming, South Dakota, and Florida also deserve applause. Those states are ranked #3, #4, and #5 because they have no income taxes and also manage to keep sales taxes at semi-reasonable levels.

P.S. Alaska and Wyoming both collect large amounts of energy taxes, so their good scores don’t necessarily reflect a commitment to low overall tax burdens.

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When considering which state has the greediest politicians, the flippant (but understandable) answer is to say “all of them.”

A more serious way of dealing with that question, though, is to look at overall rankings of economic policy.

According to the Fraser Institute, we can assume that Delaware apparently has the worst politicians and New Hampshire has the best ones.

According to comprehensive calculations in Freedom in the 50 States, New York’s politicians seem to be the worst and Florida’s are the best.

But what if we just want to know the state where politicians squeeze the most money from taxpayers? In other words, which state has the worst tax system?

The Tax Foundation gives us part of the answer in their review of state income tax burdens.

Individual income taxes are a major source of state government revenue, accounting for 37 percent of state tax collections. …Forty-one tax wage and salary income… Of those states taxing wages, nine have single-rate tax structures… Conversely, 32 states levy graduated-rate income taxes… Top marginal rates range from North Dakota’s 2.9 percent to California’s 13.3 percent.

Here’s the accompanying map.

It’s very good to live in a gray state (no income tax!) and you definitely don’t want to live in a red or maroon state.

Unsurprisingly, California is the worst of the worst, with a top tax rate of 13.3 percent. No wonder productive people have been escaping the not-so-Golden State.

Hawaii and New Jersey are the next worst states, followed by Oregon and Minnesota. Though it’s definitely worth noting that there’s a local income tax in New York City, which would put the residents of that unfortunate community (if NYC was a state) in second place after California.

P.S. The disadvantage of living in a high-tax jurisdiction is especially significant now that there’s no longer a loophole in the federal tax code that subsidizes state profligacy.

P.P.S. The maroon and red states are obviously among the worst places to be an entrepreneur, investor, or business owner, though people with lots of unrealized capital gains fortunately don’t have to worry (yet!) about punitive tax laws.

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The good news is that Joe Biden has not embraced many of Bernie Sanders’ worst tax ideas, such as imposing a wealth tax or hiking the top income tax rate to 52 percent..

The bad news is that he nonetheless is supporting a wide range of punitive tax increases.

  • Increasing the top income tax rate to 39.6 percent.
  • Imposing a 12.4 percent payroll tax on wages above $400,000.
  • Increasing the double taxation of dividends and capital gains from 23.8 percent to 43.4 percent.
  • Hiking the corporate tax rate to 28 percent.
  • Increasing taxes on American companies competing in foreign markets.

The worst news is that Nancy Pelosi, et al, may wind up enacting all these tax increases and then also add some of Crazy Bernie‘s proposals.

This won’t be good for the U.S. economy and national competitiveness.

Simply stated, some people will choose to reduce their levels of work, saving, and investment when the tax penalties on productive behavior increase. These changes give economists the information needed to calculate the “elasticity of taxable income”.

And this, in the jargon of economists, is a measure of “deadweight loss.”

But now there’s a new study published by the Federal Reserve which suggests that these losses are greater than traditionally believed.

Authored by Brendan Epstein, Ryan Nunn, Musa Orak and Elena Patel, the study looks at how best to measure the economic damage associated with higher tax rates. Here’s some of the background analysis.

The personal income tax is one of the most important instruments for raising government revenue. As a consequence, this tax is the focus of a large body of public finance research that seeks a theoretical and empirical understanding of the associated deadweight loss (DWL). …Feldstein (1999) demonstrated that, under very general conditions, the elasticity of taxable income (ETI) is a sufficient statistic for evaluating DWL. …It is well understood that, apart from rarely employed lump-sum taxes and…Pigouvian taxes, revenue-raising tax systems impose efficiency costs by distorting economic outcomes relative to those that would be obtained in the absence of taxation… ETI can potentially serve as a perfect proxy for DWL…this result is consistent with the ETI reflecting all taxpayer responses to changes in marginal tax rates, including behavioral changes (e.g., reductions in hours worked) and tax avoidance (e.g., shifting consumption toward tax-preferred goods). …a large empirical literature has provided estimates of the individual ETI, identified based on variation in tax rates and bunching at kinks in the marginal tax schedule.

And here are the new contributions from the authors.

… researchers have fairly recently come to recognize an important limitation of the finding that the ETI is a sufficient statistic for deadweight loss… we embed labor search frictions into the canonical macroeconomic model…and we show that within this framework, a host of additional information beyond the ETI is needed to infer DWL …once these empirically observable factors are controlled for, DWL can be calculated easily and in a straightforward fashion as the sum of the ETI and additional terms involving these factors. … We find that…once search frictions are introduced, …DWL can be between 7 and 38 percent higher than the ETI under a reasonable calibration.

To give you an idea of what this means, here are some of their estimates of the economic damage associated with a 1 percent increase in tax rates.

As you peruse these estimates, keep in mind that Biden wants to increase the top income tax rate by 2.6 percentage points and the payroll tax by 12.4 percentage points (and don’t forget he wants to nearly double tax rates on dividends, capital gains, and other forms of saving and investment).

Those are all bad choices with traditional estimates of deadweight loss, and they are even worse choices with the new estimates from the Fed’s study.

So what’s the bottom line?

The political impact will be that “the rich” pay more. The economic impact will be less capital formation and entrepreneurship, and those are the changes that hurt the vast majority of us who aren’t rich.

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Yesterday’s column focused on the theoretical argument for tax havens.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I explained that the pressure of tax competition was necessary to prevent “stationary bandits” from saddling nations with “goldfish government.”

And I specifically explained why the left’s theory of “capital export neutrality” was only persuasive if people just paid attention to one side of the equation.

Today, let’s look at some real-world evidence to better understand the beneficial role of these international financial centers.

We’ll start with a column in the Hill by Jorge González-Gallarza.

Using as a natural experiment the terminal phase-out in 2006 of corporate tax exemptions to affiliates of U.S. companies setting shop in Puerto Rico, the research finds that scrapping the island’s status as a tax haven led U.S. companies to cut back investments and job creation in the mainland substantially. The provision in question was Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code and it exempted Puerto Rico-based affiliates of U.S. companies from paying any corporate income tax altogether. …In 1996, President Clinton signed the Small Business Job Creation Act, spelling §936’s full phaseout by 2006. …ditching §936 appears to have raised U.S. companies’ average effective tax rate on domestic corporate income by 10 percentage points. Notably yet unsurprisingly, they responded by cutting global investment by a whopping 23 percent while balancing away from domestic projects, in Puerto Rico and the mainland alike — domestic investment fell by 38 percent, with Foreign Direct Investments’ (FDIs) share of the total growing 17.5 percent. …Employing 11 million workers in the continental US before repeal, firms taking advantage of §936 laid off a million of them, amounting to a 9.1 percent decline in payrolls.

In other words, higher taxes on business resulted in less investment and fewer jobs. Gee, what a surprise.

Hopefully, the 2017 reduction in the corporate tax rate is now offsetting some of that damage.

In an article for the Tax Foundation, Elke Asen shares some academic research on how tax havens help mitigate the destructive policies of high-tax governments.

Tax havens, or “offshore financial centers,” can be defined as small, well-governed tax jurisdictions that do not have substantial domestic economic activity and impose low or zero tax rates on foreign investors. By doing so, they attract a considerable amount of capital inflow, particularly from high-tax countries. …academic research reveals that high-tax jurisdictions may also have something to gain from tax havens. …A 2004 paper by economists Mihir Desai, C. Fritz Foley, and James Hines…found that tax havens indirectly stimulate the growth of businesses in non-haven countries located in the same region. …These findings suggest that although high-tax countries can lose tax revenue due to profit shifting, tax havens can indirectly facilitate economic growth in high-tax countries by reducing the cost of financing investment in those countries.

By the way, I cited the Desai-Foley-Hines paper in my video on “The Economic Case for Tax Havens” because it makes the key point that governments hurt their own economies when they go after low-tax jurisdictions.

Here are some excerpts from an article by Abrar Aowsaf in the Bangladesh-based Dhaka Tribune. It’s especially worth citing since it notes that tax havens are a refuge for oppressed people around the world.

A tax haven is basically a jurisdiction with low taxes, high legal security, and a high degree of protection of savers’ privacy. …The Cayman Islands, Switzerland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Cyprus, Jersey, and Bermuda — all of these jurisdictions that we recognize as tax havens are characterized by their high legal safety. Savers know that the government will not decide to take their money on a whim. …Operating in tax havens is not illegal in itself. …Singer Shakira, for example, uses tax havens to minimize her tax bills within the bounds of the law. …Another very important detail is that tax havens are a refuge for millions of citizens who have had the misfortune of being born in authoritarian and unstable countries. In many countries, the most basic human rights are not guaranteed. There also exist states where authoritarian governments arbitrarily decide who to repress or prosecute. Many investors do not seek protection just for the lower taxes, but they are also escaping political, ideological, and religious persecution. …In reality, tax havens are not to be blamed…nor do they force us to pay more taxes or harm our economies. Ireland, for example, was poorer than Spain in 1980. Today, thanks to its low taxes, it is the second richest country in the Eurozone. In order to improve general welfare, what we need are more companies, not more incompetent politicians and haphazard public spending. The problems faced by countries with economic difficulties do not come from tax havens, but from their politicians and ineffective policies.

Amen. More people need to be making “The Moral Case for Tax Havens.”

Andy Morriss, the Dean of Texas A&M’s School of Innovation, explains the vital role of these low-tax jurisdictions in bring more investment and prosperity to poor nations.

The seemingly endless debate over the role of IFCs in corporate and personal tax avoidance ignores these jurisdictions’ crucial role in providing the rule of law for international transactions. …The world’s poorest countries desperately need their economies to grow if their populations are to have better lives. For example, Africa has about 17 per cent of the world’s population but only 3 per cent of global GDP. The root causes of African nations’ underdevelopment are complex, but one critical element is that there is too little investment in their economies. …most developing countries lack the legal and regulatory infrastructure necessary to support a domestic capital market. …When multiple investors pool their investments, they need a mechanism to address the governance of their pooled investment. …By providing legal systems which offer a powerful combination of modern, efficient, well-designed laws and regulations, regulatory agencies staffed with experienced, well-credentialed experts, and court systems capable of quick, fair, and thoughtful decisions, IFCs offer alternative locations for transactions and entities. …In short, the price of investing in a developing economy is reduced.  And when the price of something falls, the amount demanded increases. That’s good for investors, it’s good for developing countries, and it’s good for the world’s poorest. …Improving the lives of the poorest around the world is going to require massive private investment in productive activities. This need cannot be met by government provided aid… Only economic growth can solve this problem. And growth requires investment… Fortunately, IFCs are helping to meet this need.

Click here if you want more information on how tax havens help the developing world.

Writing for the Bahamas-based Tribune and citing former Finance Minister James Smith, Neil Hartnell warns that the OECD’s agenda of “neo-colonialism” will cripple his nation’s economy.

The Bahamas “may devastate the economy” if it surrenders too easily to demands from high-tax European nations for a corporate income tax, a former finance minister warned yesterday. …OECD and European Union (EU) initiatives…calling for all nations to impose some form of “minimum level of” taxation on the activities of multinational entities. …Mr Smith…blasted the OECD’s European members for seemingly seeking to “recast our economy in their own image”, adding that this nation’s economic model had worked well for 50 years without income and other direct forms of taxation. …Describing the OECD and EU pressures as a form of “neo-colonialism”, Mr Smith said The Bahamas shared few economic characteristics with their members. He pointed out that this nation was suffering from high unemployment and “low wages for the majority” of Bahamians. “Conceptually the take from an income tax may devastate the economy,” he told Tribune Business.

The former Finance Minister is correct in that the OECD is trying to export its high-tax policies.

For what it’s worth, I’ve reversed the argument and pointed out that OECD nations should be copying zero-income tax jurisdictions such as the Bahamas.

So what’s the argument against tax havens?

As illustrated by this article from the International Monetary Fund, authored by Jannick Damgaard, Thomas Elkjaer, and Niels Johannesen, all the complaints revolve around the fact that some people don’t like it when governments can’t grab as much money.

Although Swiss Leaks, the Panama Papers, and recent disclosures from the offshore industry have revealed some of the intricate ways multinational firms and wealthy individuals use tax havens to escape paying their fair share, the offshore financial world remains highly opaque. …These questions are particularly important today in countries where policy initiatives aiming to curb the harmful use of tax havens abound. …a new study…finds that a stunning $12 trillion…consists of financial investment passing through empty corporate shells… These investments in empty corporate shells almost always pass through well-known tax havens. The eight major pass-through economies—the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Hong Kong SAR, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Ireland, and Singapore—host more than 85 percent of the world’s investment in special purpose entities, which are often set up for tax reasons. …private individuals also use tax havens on a grand scale… Globally, individuals hold about $7 trillion—corresponding to roughly 10 percent of world GDP—in tax havens. …the stock of offshore wealth ranges…to about 50 percent in some oil-producing countries, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, and in countries that have suffered instances of major financial instability, such as Argentina and Greece.

I find it interesting that even the pro-tax IMF felt obliged to acknowledge that people living in nations with bad governments are especially likely to make use of tax havens.

Though I’m not sure I fully trust the data in this chart from the article.

Because of problems such as corruption, expropriation, crime, and political persecution, I’m sure that usage of tax havens by people in nations such as China, India, Iran, Mexico, and South Africa is much greater than what we see in the chart.

Though perhaps the numbers are distorted because the authors didn’t include the United States (sadly, the policies that make the U.S. a tax haven are only available for foreigners).

P.S. American taxpayers legally can use Puerto Rico as a tax haven.

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As part of my presentation earlier this month to IES Europe, I discussed topics such as comparative economics and federalism.

I also had a chance to explain why tax havens are good for global prosperity.

Many of the points I made will be familiar to regular readers.

1. Because politicians have been worried that the “geese with the golden eggs” can escape – thanks to tax havens and tax competition – governments around the world reluctantly have lowered tax rates and reduced discriminatory taxes on saving and investment.

2. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (heavily subsidized by American taxpayers) is a bureaucracy that is controlled by high-tax governments and it seeks to undermine tax competition and tax havens by creating a global tax cartel – sort of an “OPEC for politicians.”

3. When tax competition is weakened, politicians respond by increasing tax rates.

4. There is an economic theory that is used to justify tax harmonization. It’s called “capital export neutrality” and I shared a slide in the presentation to show why CEN doesn’t make sense. Here’s a new version of the slide, which I’ve augmented to help people understand why tax havens and tax competition are good for prosperity.

The bottom line is that we should fight to protect tax havens and tax competition. The alternative is “stationary bandits” and “Goldfish Government.”

P.S. My work on this issue has been…umm…interesting, resulting in everything from a front-page attack by the Washington Post to the possibility of getting tossed in a Mexican jail.

P.S.S. This column has four videos on the issue of tax competition, and this column has five videos on the issue of tax havens.

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Assuming the goal is more prosperity, lawmakers who work on tax issues should be guided by the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

  1. Low marginal tax rates on productive activity such as work and entrepreneurship.
  2. No tax bias (i.e., extra layers of tax) that penalizes saving and investment.
  3. No complicating preferences and loopholes that encourage inefficient economic choices.

Today, with these three principles as our guide, we’re going to discuss a major problem in how dividends are taxed in the United States.

Simply stated, there’s an unfair and counterproductive double tax. All you really need to know is that if a corporation earns a profit, the corporate income tax takes a chunk of the money. But that money then gets taxed again as dividend income when distributed to shareholders (the people who own the company).

So why is this a bad thing?

From an economic perspective, the extra layer of tax means that the actual tax burden on corporate income is not 21 percent (the corporate tax rate) or 23.8 percent (how dividends are taxed on the 1040 form), but a combination of the two rates. And when you include the average additional tax imposed at the state level, the real tax rate on dividends in the United States can be as high as 47.47 percent according to the OECD.

You don’t need to be a wild-eyed supply-sider to think that incentives to build businesses and create jobs are adversely affected when the government grabs nearly half of the additional income generated by corporate investment.

Keep in mind, by the way, that workers ultimately bear most of this tax since lower levels of investment translate to lower wages.

So what’s the solution?

If we want a properly designed system for taxing businesses, we know the answer. Just get rid of the extra layer of tax.

A 2015 report from the Tax Foundation explains how various types of “corporate integration” can achieve this goal.

The United States’ tax code treats corporations and their shareholders as separate taxable entities. The result is two layers of taxation on corporate income: one at the corporate level and a second at the shareholder level. This creates a high tax burden on corporate income, increasing the cost of capital. The double taxation of corporate income reduces investment and distorts business decisions. … Many developed countries have integrated their tax systems in order to mitigate or completely eliminate the double taxation of corporate income. …There are several ways to integrate the corporate tax code. Corporate income can be fully taxed at the entity level (a corporate income tax) and then tax exempt when passed to shareholders as dividend income, or corporations could be given a deduction for dividends passed to their shareholders, who pay tax on the dividend income. Alternatively, shareholders and corporations both pay tax on their income, but shareholders can be given a credit to offset taxes the corporation already paid on their behalf.

For what it’s worth, I think it would be best to get rid of the double tax by eliminating the layer of tax that is imposed on individuals.

In other words, modify the above image in this way.

Though the economic benefit would be the same if the corporate income tax was abolished and the income was taxed one time at the individual level.

I’ll close today’s column with a bit of good news.

A few years ago, the United States had a much higher burden of double taxation because the corporate tax rate was so high. Indeed, the combined tax rate on dividends was the fourth-highest in the developed world.

Today, thanks to the 2017 tax reform, the combined tax rate is “only” the tenth-highest in the developed world.

P.S. The Estonian tax system for businesses is a good role model.

P.P.S. Under Joe Biden’s tax plan, the U.S. would have the world’s-highest combined tax rate on dividends.

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After Barack Obama took office (and especially after he was reelected), there was a big uptick in the number of rich people who chose to emigrate from the United States.

There are many reasons wealthy people choose to move from one nation to another, but Obama’s embrace of class-warfare tax policy (including FATCA) was seen as a big factor.

Joe Biden’s tax agenda is significantly more punitive than Obama’s, so we may see something similar happen if he wins the 2020 election.

Given the economic importance of innovators, entrepreneurs, and inventors, this would be not be good news for the American economy.

The New York Times reported late last year that the United States could be shooting itself in the foot by discouraging wealthy residents.

…a different group of Americans say they are considering leaving — people of both parties who would be hit by the wealth tax… Wealthy Americans often leave high-tax states like New York and California for lower-tax ones like Florida and Texas. But renouncing citizenship is a far more permanent, costly and complicated proposition. …“America’s the most attractive destination for capital, entrepreneurs and people wanting to get a great education,” said Reaz H. Jafri, a partner and head of the immigration practice at Withers, an international law firm. “But in today’s world, when you have other economic centers of excellence — like Singapore, Switzerland and London — people don’t view the U.S. as the only place to be.” …now, the price may be right to leave. While the cost of expatriating varies depending on a person’s assets, the wealthiest are betting that if a Democrat wins…, leaving now means a lower exit tax. …The wealthy who are considering renouncing their citizenship fear a wealth tax less than the possibility that the tax on capital gains could be raised to the ordinary income tax rate, effectively doubling what a wealthy person would pay… When Eduardo Saverin, a founder of Facebook…renounced his United States citizenship shortly before the social network went public, …several estimates said that renouncing his citizenship…saved him $700 million in taxes.

The migratory habits of rich people make a difference in the global economy.

Here are some excerpts from a 2017 Bloomberg story.

Australia is luring increasing numbers of global millionaires, helping make it one of the fastest growing wealthy nations in the world… Over the past decade, total wealth held in Australia has risen by 85 percent compared to 30 percent in the U.S. and 28 percent in the U.K… As a result, the average Australian is now significantly wealthier than the average American or Briton. …Given its relatively small population, Australia also makes an appearance on a list of average wealth per person. This one is, however, dominated by small tax havens.

Here’s one of the charts from the story.

As you can see, Australia is doing very well, though the small tax havens like Monaco are world leaders.

I’m mystified, however, that the Cayman Islands isn’t listed.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s get back to our main topic. It’s worth noting that even Greece is seeking to attract rich foreigners.

The new tax law is aimed at attracting fresh revenues into the country’s state coffers – mainly from foreigners as well as Greeks who are taxed abroad – by relocating their tax domicile to Greece, as it tries to woo “high-net-worth individuals” to the Greek tax register. The non-dom model provides for revenues obtained abroad to be taxed at a flat amount… Having these foreigners stay in Greece for at least 183 days a year, as the law requires, will also entail expenditure on accommodation and everyday costs that will be added to the Greek economy. …most eligible foreigners will be able to considerably lighten their tax burden if they relocate to Greece…nevertheless, the amount of 500,000 euros’ worth of investment in Greece required of foreigners and the annual flat tax of 100,000 euros demanded (plus 20,000 euros per family member) may keep many of them away.

The system is too restrictive, but it will make the beleaguered nation an attractive destination for some rich people. After all, they don’t even have to pay a flat tax, just a flat fee.

Italy has enjoyed some success with a similar regime to entice millionaires.

Last but not least, an article published last year has some fascinating details on the where rich people move and why they move.

The world’s wealthiest people are also the most mobile. High net worth individuals (HNWIs) – persons with wealth over US$1 million – may decide to pick up and move for a number of reasons. In some cases they are attracted by jurisdictions with more favorable tax laws… Unlike the middle class, wealthy citizens have the means to pick up and leave when things start to sideways in their home country. An uptick in HNWI migration from a country can often be a signal of negative economic or societal factors influencing a country. …Time-honored locations – such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands – continue to attract the world’s wealthy, but no country is experiencing HNWI inflows quite like Australia. …The country has a robust economy, and is perceived as being a safe place to raise a family. Even better, Australia has no inheritance tax

Here’s a map from the article.

The good news is that the United States is attracting more millionaires than it’s losing (perhaps because of the EB-5 program).

The bad news is that this ratio could flip after the election. Indeed, it may already be happening even though recent data on expatriation paints a rosy picture.

The bottom line is that the United States should be competing to attract millionaires, not repel them. Assuming, of course, politicians care about jobs and prosperity for the rest of the population.

P.S. American politicians, copying laws normally imposed by the world’s most loathsome regimes, have imposed an “exit tax” so they can grab extra cash from rich people who choose to become citizens elsewhere.

P.P.S. I’ve argued that Australia is a good place to emigrate even for those of us who aren’t rich.

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In the world of tax policy, big-picture issues such as tax reform can capture the public’s attention (should we junk the IRS, instance, and adopt a flat tax?).

People also get very interested if politicians are threatening to grab more of their money.

But many tax issues are tedious and boring, even if they involve important issues.

Today, we’re going to discuss another one of the sleep-inducing tax issues – how to account for business losses.

This arcane issues has been attracting a bit of attention because the big coronavirus-driven emergency package included some changes to the tax treatment of such losses (making it easier to reduce overall tax liabilities by balancing losses in some years with profits in other years).

That upset two left-leaning members of Congress, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who editorialized in USA Today about the changes.

…tucked into its 880 pages were Republican-inserted tax provisions…that..allow certain investors…to cut their tax bills by shifting losses to prior tax years. …Large corporations were also authorized to convert losses from two years before the pandemic into immediate tax refunds. Businesses with losses when the economy was growing are rewarded for poor management or adverse market conditions that had absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic. …let’s reverse the damage. We are offering legislation to unwind this massive tax giveaway, to recover the lost revenues… Giant special interest tax breaks were not needed before and certainly have no place during a pandemic.

Is this right? Did a handful of GOP politicians insert a special favor for their friends in the business community?

For what it’s worth, I’m sure the answer to both questions is yes. Politicians are a very self-interested group and I’m sure there were dozens of provisions in the legislation that qualified for that type of criticism.

I’m interested, however, in whether the provisions moved policy in the right direction or the wrong direction.

Kyle Pomerleau with the American Enterprise Institute explains why the changes were desirable.

The liberalized treatment of losses is not a bailout and does not provide special treatment of certain industries. Loss deductions are an essential part of a well-functioning income tax. Businesses typically make multi-year investments. Those investments may lose money in some years make money in other years. The ability to either carry back losses to offset previous years’ taxes or carry forward losses to offset future taxes ensures that the tax system accurately measures income. Without loss deductions, a tax system would be biased against risky investment. …In the future, lawmakers should consider permanently liberalizing the treatment of losses.

Nicole Kaeding made similar arguments for the National Taxpayers Union.

The provision at hand, a loosening of net operating loss rules, isn’t cronyism. Instead, it reflects Congress’s priority of helping affected individuals and businesses weather our economic crisis by smoothing out “lumpy” tax burdens over time. Net operating losses (NOLs) are key features of the tax code. Tax years, calendar years, and business profitability don’t always align. Net operating loss provisions help smooth profits and losses across tax years to ensure that businesses are taxed on their economic income, not an accounting byproduct. …many have argued that it made little sense for Congress to revise loss rules for 2018 and 2019, when the virus wasn’t a consideration. In the abstract, that concern makes sense but policymakers were concerned about providing immediate liquidity to firms. A 2020 NOL doesn’t help a firm until they file their 2020 tax return in 2021. But allowing carrybacks for 2018 or 2019 allows firms to access capital quickly by amending their previous returns and claiming a refund.

For what it’s worth, I addressed this topic back in 2016 because it became a controversy in that year’s presidential campaign.

I didn’t pretend to know whether Trump was doing the right thing or wrong thing with his tax returns, but I made the argument that a fair and neutral tax system should have carry-forward rules.

Indeed, the business side of the flat tax expressly includes such provisions.

For what it’s worth, households used to have the option for “income-averaging,” which basically meant they could lower their overall tax rate by spreading a spike in income over several years.

A difference between households and businesses, though, is that businesses can suffer losses, while the worst thing that happens to a household is when income drops to zero.

The bottom line is that income averaging for people would be a helpful provision in the tax code, but carry-forward rules for businesses are a necessary provision.

P.S. That last sentence assumes goal is a tax system that is designed to extract money while imposing the smallest-possible amount of damage on economic efficiency.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a simple and fair tax system is not the goal of most politicians. In public, they prefer using the tax code as a tool for class-war demagoguery, and in private, they use it as a vehicle for auctioning off special provisions to their cronies.

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I’ve explained the economics of taxation, which is based on the common-sense notion that you get less productive economic activity when taxes drive a bigger wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of it, and this applies to taxes on labor and taxes on capital.

Today, let’s examine some empirical evidence. I’ve done that before (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but it’s always good to expand the collection.

Three Italian professors, in a new working paper for the Centre for Economic and International Studies, investigated the relationship between taxes and growth.

We’ll start with a description of the methodology.

In this paper, we revisit a traditional issue in the empirics of growth and economic policy: whether taxation has long-lasting effects on real GDP dynamics. …we focus on the impact that taxes may have on the rates of physical and human capital accumulation. …our main departure from the existing literature is the use of a semi-parametric technique, which allows for countries’ unobserved heterogeneity in the input effects on per capita GDP. …we test our model, using a sample of 21 OECD countries over the period 1965-2010.

Here are the key findings.

Our main finding is that taxation negatively affect per capita GDP growth rates, both directly and indirectly, via physical and human capital saving rates. …Our cross-country analysis makes a clear point on this, at least for our sample of OECD countries: on average, tax cuts produce a beneficial impact on GDP dynamics but of modest size. In our baseline specification, a cut by 10% in personal income tax rate generates an change in the real per capita GDP growth rate of +1% while a cut by 10% in corporate income tax rate increases the rate of growth of real per capita GDP by 0.9%. …The main message of our empirical exercise is that, across various samples and specifications, taxes are harmful for growth.

These are very strong results.

Though I find it very interesting that the authors say they are “of modest size.”

I guess that depends on expectations and perspective. I’ll simply repeat the point I made two years ago about the importance of even small increases in the long-run growth rate.

The bottom line is that future Americans would enjoy significantly greater prosperity with better tax policy.

That’s a desirable outcome at any point in time, and it’s even more important today as we consider how to recover from the economic wreckage caused by the coronavirus.

Interestingly, the study ends with some interesting estimates on the impact of lower tax rates on labor and capital.

Table 10 reports the results of a “what if”exercise, in which we compute the change in GDP growth rate generated by a ceteris paribus cut by 10 % in τw and τk.

And here is the aforementioned Table 10 (“τw” is the tax rate on labor and “τk” is the tax rate on capital).

There are two big takeaways from this research.

First, it’s further evidence that Trump’s tax reform, which lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, was a very good step for the American economy.

Second, it’s further evidence that it’s a big mistake for Biden and other folks on the left to push for higher tax rates, including big increases in tax rates on personal income.

P.S. Just in case those last two sentences sound overly favorable to Trump, I’ll remind people that reckless spending increases – sooner or later – will lead to punitive tax increases. In other words, if Biden wins and there are big tax hikes, Trump will deserve some of the blame (just as Bush’s irresponsible policies set the stage for some of Obama’s irresponsible policies).

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The crowd in Washington has responded to the coronavirus crisis with an orgy of borrowing and spending.

The good news is that the legislation isn’t based on the failed notion of Keynesian economics (i.e., the belief that you get more prosperity when the government borrows money from the economy’s left pocket and then puts it in the economy’s right pocket).

Instead, it is vaguely based on the idea of government acting as an insurer for unforeseen loss of income.

Not ideal from a libertarian perspective, of course, but we can at least hope it might be somewhat successful in easing temporary hardship and averting bankruptcies of otherwise viable businesses.

The bad news is that the legislation is filled with corrupt handouts and favors for the friends and cronies of politicians. Simply stated, they have not “let a crisis go to waste.”

The worst news, however, is that politicians have plenty of additional ideas for how to exploit the crisis.

An especially awful idea for so-called stimulus comes from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wants to restore (retroactively!) the full federal deduction for state and local tax payments.

Pelosi suggested that reversing the tax law’s $10,000 cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction… The cap on the SALT deduction has been strongly disliked by politicians in high-tax, Democratic-leaning states such as New York, New Jersey and California… But most Republicans support the SALT deduction cap, arguing that it helps to prevent the tax code from subsidizing higher state taxes.

I’ve written many times on this issue and explained why curtailing that deduction (which basically existed to subsidize the profligacy of high-tax states) was one of the best features of the 2017 tax reform.

Needless to say, it would be a horrible mistake to reverse that much-needed change.

The Wall Street Journal agrees, opining on Pelosi’s proposal to subsidize high tax states.

Democrats are far from finished using the crisis to try to force through partisan priorities they couldn’t pass in normal times. Mrs. Pelosi is now hinting the price for further economic relief may include expanding a regressive tax deduction for high-earners in states run by Democrats. …In the 2017 tax reform, Republicans limited the state and local tax deduction to $10,000. …Democrats have been trying to repeal the SALT cap since tax reform passed. …Blowing up the state and local tax deduction would…also make it easier for poorly governed states to rely on soaking their high earners through capital-gains and income taxes, because the federal deduction would ease the burden. …Mrs. Pelosi’s remarks underscore the potential for further political mischief and long-term damage as the government intervenes… When Democrats next complain that Republicans want to cut taxes “for the rich,” remember that Mrs. Pelosi wants to cut them too—but mainly for the progressive rich in Democratic states.

Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget also denounced the idea.

This is not the time to load up emergency packages with giveaways that waste billions of taxpayer dollars… Weakening or eliminating the SALT cap would be regressive, expensive, poorly targeted, and precisely the kind of political giveaway that compromises the credibility of emergency spending. …Retroactively repealing the SALT caps for the last two years would mean sending a check of $100,000 to the household making over $1 million per year, and less than $100 for the average household making less than $100,000 per year. …During this crisis, the Committee implores special interest lobbyists to stand down and lawmakers to put self-serving politics aside.

By the way, I care about whether a change in tax policy will make the country more prosperous in the long run and don’t fixate on whether the change helps or hurts any particular income group. So Maya’s point about the rich getting almost all the benefits is not what motivates me to oppose Pelosi’s proposal.

That being said, it is remarkable that she is pushing a change that overwhelmingly benefits the very richest people in the nation.

The obvious message is that it’s okay to help the rich when a) those rich people live in places such as California, and b) helping the rich also makes it easier for states to impose bad fiscal policy.

Which is why she was pushing her bad idea before the coronavirus ever became an issue. Indeed, House Democrats even passed legislation in 2019 to restore the loophole.

Professor John McGinnis of Northwestern University Law School wrote early last year why the deduction was misguided and why the provision to restrict the deduction was the best provision of the 2017 tax law.

…the best feature of the Trump tax cuts was the $10,000 cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. It advanced one of the Constitution’s most important structures for good government—competitive federalism. Deductibility of state taxes deadens that competition, because it allows states to slough off some of the costs of taxation to citizens in other states. Moreover, it allows states to avoid accountability for the taxes they impose. Given high federal tax rates in some brackets, high income tax payers end up paying only about sixty percent of the actual tax imposed. The federal government and thereby other tax payers effectively pick up the rest of the tab. …the ceiling makes some taxpayers pay more, but its dynamic effect is to make it less likely that state and local taxes, particularly highly visible state income taxes, will be raised and more likely that they will be cut.

For what it’s worth, I think the lower corporate tax rate was the best provision of the 2017 reform, but McGinnis makes a strong case.

Perhaps the best evidence for this change comes from the behavior of politicians from high-tax states.

Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial from early last year.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo…is blaming the state’s $2.3 billion budget shortfall on a political party that doesn’t run the place. He says the state is suffering from declining tax receipts because the GOP Congress as part of tax reform in 2017 limited the state-and-local tax deduction to $10,000. …the once unlimited deduction allowed those in high tax climes to mitigate the pain of state taxes. It amounted to a subsidy for progressive policies. …The real problem is New York’s punitive tax rates, which Mr. Cuomo and his party could fix. “People are mobile,” Mr. Cuomo said this week. “And they will go to a better tax environment. That is not a hypothesis. That is a fact.” Maybe Mr. Cuomo should stay in Albany and do something about that reality.

Amen.

The federal tax code should not subsidize politicians from high-tax states. Nor should it subsidize rich people who live in high-tax states.

If Governor Cuomo is worried about rich people moving to Florida (and he should be), he should lower tax rates and make government more efficient.

I’ll close with the observation that the state and local tax deduction created the fiscal version of a third-party payer problem. It reduced the perceived cost of state and local government, which made it easier for politicians to increase taxes (much as government subsidies for healthcare and higher education have made it easier for hospitals and colleges to increase prices).

P.S. Speaking of fake stimulus, there’s also plenty of discussion on Capitol Hill (especially given Trump’s weakness on the issue) about squandering a couple of trillion dollars on infrastructure, even though such spending a) should not be financed at the federal level, b) would not have any immediate impact on jobs, and c) would be a vehicle for giveaways such as mass transit boondoggles.

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Back in 2013, I joked that “you get bipartisanship when the Stupid Party and the Evil Party both agree on something.”

That generally means bad outcomes, with the TARP bailout being a prime illustration.

We now have another example since many Republicans and Democrats want to restrict – or even ban – companies from buying shares from owners (i.e., company shareholders).

Known as stock buybacks, these share purchases should be viewed as an innocuous way of distributing profits.

But you’ll see below that many politicians think they be able to dictate how private businesses operate.

First, let’s look at some excerpts from the Tax Foundation’s very useful primer on the issue.

It’s important to understand why stock buybacks occur and the economic role they play. The new tax law lowered the corporate income tax rate… A lower rate also means that corporations will receive larger profits than anticipated on investments they made in the past—it should be expected that companies would share at least some of this unexpected increase in cash with their shareholders. …Stock buybacks are complements to investment, not substitutes for it. Research shows that stock buybacks do not deprive firms of capital that they would otherwise invest, and further, that stock buybacks can facilitate long-term investment by redirecting funds from lower growth firms to higher growth firms. …Limiting the ability of a corporation to return value to shareholders—value which was created by productive investments made in the past—will not improve economic conditions.

Many experts from the worlds of finance, business, and public policy have tried to explain why stock buybacks should not be viewed as controversial.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, for instance, Donald Luskin and Chris Hynes explain why it’s a bad idea to curtail buybacks.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren would require, among other things, that to receive aid…companies receiving aid be permanently barred from executing share buybacks, even after the aid is repaid. This is an opportunistic mutation of the left’s longstanding claim that buybacks are a uniquely evil form of predatory capitalism. In reality, buybacks create benefits for shareholders large and small… Shareholders must receive a dividend when it’s declared and pay taxes on it. In a share buyback, investors who want cash can sell some shares and pay taxes. If they don’t want cash, they can choose to hold on to their shares. …Some opponents of buybacks…argue that they waste company cash that ought to be reinvested in plant and equipment. But not every company is in growth mode, and even those that are might have more cash than growth ideas. …Paying money out to shareholders frees them to reinvest in new companies with big growth ideas. This is the best way to promote growth for the economy as a whole.

The Washington Post is not exactly a hotbed of libertarian thinking, so it’s noteworthy that its editorial warned that politicians shouldn’t be dictating private business choices.

the practice by which public corporations use spare cash to buy back their own stock has turned into a policy flash point for both Democrats and Republicans. The basic allegation is that profits devoted to stock buybacks…are profits not plowed back into new plants, equipment or higher wages. …Contrary to the concerns about diverting investment funds, U.S. nonresidential investment and job creation have been rising for most of the past decade. When shareholders get cash for their stocks, the money doesn’t disappear; it flows through the economy, often as productive investment elsewhere. …Perhaps a tax change would accomplish something — though companies would still have an incentive to give spare cash back to shareholders as long as there is no clearly superior investment alternative. Critics of stock buybacks are saying, in effect, that elected officials or regulators may know better than companies themselves what should be done with extra cash.

Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Ethan Lamb points out why Senator Cory Booker doesn’t understand the economics of buybacks.

Senator Cory Booker…reintroduced the “Workers Dividend Act,” which would mandate corporations match every dollar spent on buybacks with compensation toward employees. …this bill presupposes that stock buybacks are inherently bad for society. …Booker doesn’t understand the function of stock buybacks. …Buybacks are just another mechanism, like dividends, to return money to shareholders. …Booker and company will also argue that stock buybacks come at the expense of investment, whether it be in the form of wages or capital expenditures. …none of that is true. …stock buybacks are a brilliant example of the free-market system offering a win-win to both parties. In other words, when the corporation purchases its own stock, the money from that exchange has to go somewhere. Presumably, the investor that just received the money would re-invest in another company that would be more inclined to use that money on investments in labor, R&D, or capital.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal warned about the risks of government intervention.

Stock buybacks are the latest bipartisan piñata, whacked by politicians on the left and right who misunderstand capital markets. …Repurchasing shares is simply one way a company can return cash to owners if it lacks better ideas for investment. …Senators complain that “when corporations direct resources to buy back shares on this scale, they restrain their capacity to reinvest.” But the money doesn’t fall into a black hole. An investor who sells stock into a buyback will save or reinvest the proceeds. …Banning buybacks won’t create better investment options inside companies. Instead CEOs may spend more on corporate jets or pet projects with marginal economic returns. …A recent report from Mr. Rubio floats the idea of raising tax rates on buybacks. …For example: “An increased tax rate on repurchases might raise revenue to finance other incentives for capital investment.” In other words, Mr. Rubio wants politicians to have more leverage to direct how businesses deploy their capital. This would produce less investment, not more, with corresponding damage to workers and federal revenue.

Jon Hartley, in an article for National Review, debunks the notion that there’s some sort of special tax favoritism for buybacks.

Marco Rubio’s plan to tax stock buybacks in the hopes of spurring investment…is heavily flawed for multiple reasons. …the senator seems to be operating under the incorrect belief that buybacks are tax-advantaged, when in fact buybacks are already taxed in the form of capital-gains taxes. Since 2003, when the dividend-tax rate was lowered to remove the tax advantage then afforded buybacks, the tax rates on qualified dividends and long-term capital gains have been the same. …let’s take a hypothetical example: Say an investor bought a stock at $100 and over the period of a year, the stock price appreciated by 10 percent to $110 after the company increased its profits and paid corporate taxes (at today’s 21 percent rate) on its earnings. If the company pays a $2 dividend at the end of the year and the investor sells the stock at $108 (ex-dividend), the investor pays the 23.8 percent dividend tax on the $2 dividend received and 23.8 percent on the $8 capital gain. If the company buys back some of its stock at $110 instead of paying a dividend and the investor sells his shares at $110, the investor pays the long-term capital-gains tax of 23.8 percent on the $10 he made. …Now, let’s imagine that Senator Rubio’s legislation is passed and a tax on buybacks goes into effect. …A transaction that was previously subject to two layers of taxation (corporate and capital-gains taxes) is suddenly subject to three layers of taxation (corporate taxes, capital-gains taxes, and buyback taxes), yielding a higher overall tax bill.

Ted Frank, writing for the Washington Examiner, adds further analysis.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, proposed banning buybacks as one of a series of conditions of government relief. Anyone making blanket condemnations of stock buybacks is either confused or otherwise fundamentally unserious — and proposing counterproductive policies that will slow the recovery. …It’s economically indistinguishable from a special dividend, where a corporation pays out money to every shareholder, except it permits shareholders to elect their own tax consequences, unlike a dividend that creates a tax event immediately. …Proposals to ban buybacks are effectively proposals to demand corporations hold such huge stockpiles of cash, depriving shareholders of investment choices. Such proposals will backfire by slowing down the economic recovery when money that could be invested is instead held in corporate bank accounts, doing nothing.

I want to close by sharing two additional columns that argue against restrictions on stock buybacks, but also suggest that there may be some desirable reforms that might – as a side effect – lead to fewer buybacks.

Clifford Asness recently opined for the Wall Street Journal about buybacks and investment, echoing many of the points included in the above excerpts.

Share buybacks are when a company purchases its own common shares on the open market. After a buyback, a company is left with less cash and fewer shares outstanding. Buybacks, along with ordinary dividends, are one of the main ways companies return cash to investors—the ultimate objective of any investment. So why have buybacks become the subject of vitriolic criticism? …The lead accusation against buybacks is that they “starve investment.” …Related to the claims of starving investment, some argue that today’s buybacks are a form of “self-liquidation” in which companies are systematically shrinking away. This ignores that…the net cash outflow from share buybacks has been more than replaced by cash inflow due to new borrowing (think of this as a debt-for-equity swap). Despite buybacks, on net companies have been raising money, not liquidating. …Buybacks…facilitate a movement of capital from companies that don’t need it to those that do. That’s how markets are supposed to work.

But he then notes that the tax code’s bias for debt could be a problem.

…there are some possible problems with buybacks. If taken to excess far beyond today’s levels and financed with debt, they could lead to too much leverage.

Noah Smith explains for Bloomberg that banning stock buybacks is the wrong response to the wrong question.

Stock buybacks are a fraught and confusing issue. …A number of politicians have decried this practice, and sought restrictions or a ban. …Many observers are mystified by this animosity. …share repurchases are like dividends — a way to return money to shareholders. When companies don’t have any way to invest their money profitably, they might as well give the money back to investors.

But he then suggests other government policy mistakes that could be artificially boosting the level of buybacks.

…many of the concerns people have with buybacks probably could be better addressed by reforming other parts of the corporate system. If executive short-termism is the problem, stock- and option-based compensation should be discouraged. If debt is the problem, tax corporate borrowing more heavily. …instead of attacking buybacks, reformers should focus on fixing other parts of corporate America.

Since I just wrote about the tax code being biased in favor of debt, I obviously am very sympathetic to tax reforms that would put debt and equity on a level-playing field.

Noah Smith raised the issue of whether stock- and option-based compensation arrangements for company executives are artificially encouraging buybacks.

Well, my modest contribution to this discussion is to explain that such compensation packages became more prevalent after Bill Clinton’s failed 1993 tax hike imposed a significant indirect tax increase on corporate salaries of more than $1 million. That tax hike, however, did not apply to performance-based compensation, such as measures tied to a stock’s performance.

So what we’re really looking at are a couple of example’s of Mitchell’s Law in action.

Politicians adopt bad policies (favoritism for debt in the tax code and higher taxes on regular salaries), which lead to unintended consequences (more stock buybacks), which then gives politicians an excuse to further expand the size and scope of the federal government (restrictions and bans on buybacks).

Lather, rinse, repeat.

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There will be many lessons that we hopefully learn from the current crisis, most notably that it’s foolish to give so much regulatory power to sloth-like bureaucracies such as the FDA and CDC.

Today, I want to focus on a longer-run lesson, which is how tax policy (a bias for debt over equity) and monetary policy (artificially low interest rates) encourage excessive private debt.

Are current debt levels excessive? Let’s look at some excerpts from a column in the Washington Post, which was written by David Lynch last November – before coronavirus started wreaking havoc with the economy.

Little more than a decade after consumers binged on inexpensive mortgages that helped bring on a global financial crisis, a new debt surge — this time by major corporations — threatens to unleash fresh turmoil. A decade of historically low interest rates has allowed companies to sell record amounts of bonds to investors, sending total U.S. corporate debt to nearly $10 trillion… Some of America’s best-known companies…have splurged on borrowed cash. This year, the weakest firms have accounted for most of the growth and are increasingly using debt for “financial risk-taking,”… “We are sitting on the top of an unexploded bomb, and we really don’t know what will trigger the explosion,” said Emre Tiftik, a debt specialist at the Institute of International Finance, an industry association. …The root cause of the debt boom is the decision by the Federal Reserve and other key central banks to cut interest rates to zero in the wake of the financial crisis and to hold them at historic lows for years.

Needless to say, Emre Tiftik didn’t know last November what would “trigger the explosion.”

Now we have coronavirus, and George Melloan explained a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal that the “unexploded bomb” has detonated.

The Covid-19 pandemic…will do further damage to the global economy… The danger is heightened by the heavy load of debt American corporations have piled up as they have taken advantage of low-cost borrowing. …Cheap credit brought on the heavy overload of corporate debt. The Federal Reserve has responded to the virus by—what else?—making credit even cheaper, cutting its fed funds lending rate all the way to 0%-0.25% on Sunday. …Rate cuts in response to crises are programmed into the Fed’s software. There is no compelling evidence that they are a solution or even a remedy. …the low interest rates of the past decade have ballooned all forms of debt: government, consumer, corporate. Corporate debt, the most worrisome type at the moment, stands at about $10 trillion and has made a steady climb to 47% of gross domestic product, a record level… But even cheap borrowing and securitized debt obligations have to be paid back. It becomes harder to make payments when a global health crisis is killing sales and your company is bleeding red ink. …the increased political bias toward easy money remains a problem. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was political from the day Woodrow Wilson signed it. It has gotten more political ever since, increasingly becoming an instrument for robbing the poor—savers and pensioners—and giving to often profligate borrowers.

Melloan’s final points deserve emphasis. There are good reasons to reconsider the Federal Reserve, and we definitely should be angry about the perverse redistribution enabled by Fed policies.

But let’s keep our focus on the topic of government-encouraged debt and how it contributes to economic instability.

It’s not just an issue of bad monetary policy. We also have a tax code that encourages companies to disproportionately utilize debt.

But the 2017 tax bill addressed that flaw, as Reihan Salam explained two years ago in an article for National Review.

…one of the TCJA’s good points…limits that the legislation places on corporate interest deductibility, which…could change the way companies in the United States do business and make the U.S. economy more stable. …By stipulating that companies cannot use the interest deduction to reduce their earnings by more than 30 percent, the law made taking on debt somewhat less attractive compared to seeking financing by offering equity to investors. …equity is more flexible in times of crisis than debt, which means that problems are less likely to spiral out of control.

That’s the good news (along with the lower corporate rate and restriction on deductibility of state and local taxes).

The bad news is that the 2017 law only partially addressed the bias for debt over equity. Companies still have a tax-driven incentive to prefer borrowing.

Here’s the Tax Foundation’s depiction of how the pre-TCJA system worked, which I’ve altered to show how the new system operates.

I’ll close with the observation that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with private debt. Families borrow to buy homes, for instance, and companies borrow for reasons such as financing research and building factories.

But debt only makes sense if it’s based on market-driven factors (i.e., will borrowing enable future benefits and will there be enough cash to make payments). And that includes planning for what happens if there’s a recession and income falls.

Unfortunately, government intervention has distorted market signals and the result is excessive debt. And now the economic damage of the coronavirus will be even higher because more companies will become insolvent.

P.S. Even the International Monetary Fund is on the correct side about the downsides of tax-driven debt.

P.P.S. In addition to eliminating the bias for debt over equity, it also would be a very good idea to get rid of the bias for current consumption over future consumption (i.e., double taxation).

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This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is nearly 10 years old, so some of the numbers are outdated, but the seven reasons to reject tax increases are still very relevant.

I’m recycling the video because the battle over tax increases is becoming more heated.

Indeed, depending on what happens in November, we may be fighting against major tax-hike proposals in less than one year.

Every single candidate seeking the Democratic nomination (such as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, etc) wants Washington to have much more of our money.

And there are plenty of cheerleaders for a bigger welfare state who favor this outcome. Some of them urge class-warfare tax increases. Other admit that lower-income and middle-class people will need to be pillaged to finance bigger government.

The one unifying principle on the left, as illustrated by this column for The Week by Paul Waldman, is the belief that Americans are under-taxed.

…as an American, when it comes to taxes you’ve got it easy. …we pay much lower taxes than most of our peer countries. In the United States, our tax-to-GDP ratio is about 26 percent, far below the 34 percent average of the advanced economies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and drastically less than some European countries (Denmark tops the list at 46 percent). …We have chosen — whether we did it consciously or not — to create a system that makes it easier for a small number of people to get super-rich, but also makes life more cruel and difficult for everyone else. …We could all pay more, and in return get more from government than we’re getting now. We just have to decide to do it.

This is a very weak argument since a cursory investigation quickly reveals that Americans have much higher living standards than people in other developed nations.

That’s a good thing, not a “cruel and difficult” consequence, though I’m not surprised that folks on the left are impervious to real-world evidence.

However, I am surprised when otherwise sensible people throw in the towel and say it’s time to surrender on the issue of taxes.

The latest example is James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute.

Here’s some of what he wrote on the topic.

…the GOP commitment, implied and explicit at the same time, to never, ever support a net tax increase, under any circumstance, is making sensible lawmaking far more difficult than it should be. It’s time to break free of this counterproductive constraint. …The no tax hike position got its start in the 1986 tax reform effort. Several business and policy advocacy organizations began asking members of the House and Senate, as well as candidates for seats in those chambers, to sign a pledge opposing a net increase in income tax rates. …The pledge became politically salient in 1992, when then President George H.W. Bush lost his bid for reelection. His loss is widely assumed to have been caused, at least in part, by his acceptance of a large tax hike…after having pledged never to increase taxes… Retaining the GOP’s absolutist position on taxes might be defensible if the party were advancing an agenda that demonstrated it could govern responsibly without new revenue. Unfortunately, Republicans have proved beyond all doubt that they have no such agenda. In fact, the party has gladly gone along with successive bipartisan deals that increased federal spending by hundreds of billions.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jim is theoretically wrong.

Heck, even I offered up three scenarios where a tax increase could be an acceptable price in order to achieve much-needed spending reforms. And I’ll even add a fourth scenario by admitting that I would trade a modest tax increase for a Swiss-style spending cap.

But every one of my options is a meaningless fantasy.

In the real world, those acceptable scenarios are not part of the discussion. Instead, two very bad things inevitably happen when tax increases are on the table.

  1. The automatic default assumption is that tax increases should be 50 percent of any budget deal. That’s bad news, but the worse news is that the other 50 percent of the budget deal isn’t even genuine spending cuts. Instead, all we get is reductions (often illusory or transitory) in previously planned increases. The net result is bigger government (and it’s even worse in Europe!). This is why every budget deal in recent history has backfired – except the one that cut taxes in 1997.
  2. Budget deals result in the worst types of tax increases for the simple reason that budget deals get judged by their impact on “distribution tables.” And since the make-believe spending cuts ostensibly will reduce benefits for lower-income and middle-class people, the crowd in Washington demands that the tax increases should target investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and others with above-average incomes. Yet these are the tax hikes that disproportionately hinder growth.

The bottom line is that tax increases should be a no-go zone. If Washington gets more of our money, that will “feed the beast.”

At the risk of under-statement, Grover Norquist’s no-tax-hike pledge is good policy (and good politics for the GOP). Americans for Tax Reform should double down in its opposition to tax increases.

P.S. I’ve shared five previous “Fiscal Fights with Friends”:

  • In Part I, I defended the flat tax, which had been criticized by Reihan Salam
  • In Part II, I explained why I thought a comprehensive fiscal package from the American Enterprise Institute was too timid.
  • In Part III, I disagreed with Jerry Taylor’s argument for a carbon tax.
  • In Part IV, I highlighted reasons why conservatives should reject a federal program for paid parental leave.
  • In Part V, I warned that “Hauser’s Law” would not protect America from higher taxes and bigger government.

P.P.S. There’s great wisdom on tax policy from these four presidents.

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I pointed out yesterday that Donald Trump has increased domestic spending at a faster rate than Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter.

The day before, I castigated him for proposing a budget that expands the burden of government spending by $2 trillion over the next decade.

And two days before that, I explained that he hasn’t really changed the trend line on jobs.

So it’s safe to say I don’t go out of my way to say nice things.

But I’m also very fair. I don’t hesitate to praise politicians whenever they do good things, or to point out evidence that their policies are having a desirable effect.

And here’s a tweet that suggest Trump has made a positive difference.

This is an amazing shift.

Especially since Trump hasn’t actually fixed the problems that lead some successful people to expatriate.

But he has moved policy in the right direction is some of those areas thanks to the 2017 tax legislation.

His other achievement, which is probably even more important, is that he’s not Hillary Clinton. In other words, we’re not getting the bad tax policies that might have occurred in a Clinton Administration.

So it’s understandable that there’s been a big drop in the number of expatriates. The type of people who might move (the “canaries in the coal mine“) now think things are getting better rather than worse.

By the way, we’re talking about small numbers of people. But they’re often exactly the type of people – entrepreneurs, inventors, and innovators – that help drive growth.

P.S. I’ll add today’s column to my collection of noteworthy tweets.

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Assuming he was able to impose his policy agenda, I think Bernie Sanders – at best – would turn America into Greece. In more pessimistic moments, I fear he would turn the U.S. into Venezuela.

The Vermont Senator and his supporters say that’s wrong and that the real goal is to make America into a Nordic-style welfare state.

Since those nations mitigate the damage of their large public sectors with very pro-market policies on regulation, trade, and property rights, that wouldn’t be the worst outcome.

Though “Crazy Bernie” is still wrong to view Denmark and Sweden as role models. Why adopt the policies of nations that have less income, lower living standards, and slower growth?

Is Finland a better alternative?

The answer is yes, according to Ishaan Tharoor’s WorldView column in the Washington Post.

Sanders and some of his Democratic competitors are clear about what they want to change in the United States. They call for the building of a robust social democratic state, including programs such as universal healthcare, funded in large part by new taxation on the ultrarich and Wall Street. …Sanders is particularly fond of the “Nordic model” — the social plans that exist in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, which deploy higher taxation to provide quality public services and keep inequality at rates lower than the United States. …Across the Atlantic, at least one leading proponent of the Nordic model welcomed its embrace by U.S. politicians. “We feel that the Nordic Model is a success story,” said Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin… “I feel that the American Dream can be achieved best in the Nordic countries, where every child no matter their background or the background of their families can become anything, because we have a very good education system,” she said.

I prefer the analysis of a previous Prime Minister, though it’s hard to fault Ms. Marin for extolling the virtues of her nation.

But is Bernie Sanders really talking about turning America into Finland?

Tharoor correctly notes that the Nordic nation tell a very mixed story.

Sanders’s ascent in the past five years has spurred considerable debate over what lessons should be learned from the Nordic countries he celebrates. A cast of centrist and conservative critics note, first, that these Nordic countries are more capitalist than Sanders concedes, with generous pro-business policies and their own crop of billionaires; and, second, that the welfare states in Nordic countries are largely financed by extensive taxes on middle-class wages and consumption.

The last excerpt is key.

The big welfare states in Europe – and specifically in Nordic nations such as Finland – are financed with big burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

According to data from the Tax Foundation and OECD, middle-income Finnish taxpayers are forced to surrender about 15 percent more of their income to government.

Why such a big difference?

Because Finland has an onerous value-added tax, punitive payroll taxes, and their income tax imposes high rates on people with modest incomes.

In other words, it’s not the rich who are financing the welfare state. Yet Bernie Sanders never mentions that point.

I’ll close by simply noting that Finland (like other Nordic nations) is not a statist hellhole. As I wrote just two months ago, the nation has some very attractive policies.

Indeed, the country is almost as market-oriented as the United States according to Economic Freedom of the World (and actually ranked above America as recently as 2011).

Bernie Sanders, though, wants to copy the bad features of Finland.

He wants America to have a big welfare state, but doesn’t want Finland’s very strong rule of law or robust property rights for people in the private sector. Nor does he want Finland’s 20 percent corporate tax rate.

And I suspect he doesn’t realize that Finland just learned an important lesson about the downsides of giving people money for nothing.

Most important of all, I’m very confident he doesn’t understand why Americans of Finnish descent generate 47 percent more national income than Finns who stayed home.

P.S.S. Researchers at Finland’s central bank seem to agree with my concern about excessive government spending.

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I’ve written dozens of columns explaining why it would be a terrible idea for the United States to enact a value-added tax.

But that’s not because I think consumption taxes are worse than income taxes. Indeed, sales taxes and VATs are less destructive because tax rates tend to be reasonable and there’s no double taxation of saving and investment.

My opposition is solely based on the fact that we shouldn’t give politicians an extra source of revenue to finance bigger government. That would effectively guarantee that the United States would morph into a stagnant European-style welfare state.

In other words, I’d be willing to accept a trade. Politicians get a VAT, but only if they permanently abolish the income tax.

There’s no chance of that happening in Washington, but it may happen in Nebraska, as reported by the North Platte Telegraph.

If Nebraskans can’t agree on reform…, state Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard has a sweeping answer: …Income and property taxes in Nebraska would be abolished — and the state sales tax replaced by a “consumption tax” to fund state and local governments — if a constitutional amendment spearheaded by Erdman were approved by lawmakers and voters. …It would need “yes” votes from 30 of the 49 senators on final reading to appear on November’s general election ballot. …Nebraska’s state and local governments now collect a combined $9.5 billion annually in taxes, which would require a 10% consumption tax rate to replace, Erdman said. …If income and property taxes go away, Erdman said, all the state and local departments or agencies that enforce, set and collect them wouldn’t be needed, either.

Here’s some additional coverage from KETV.

Imagine not having to pay any property or income taxes in Nebraska, but there’s a catch you’d pay a new consumption tax on just about everything you buy, such as food and medical services, things that are not taxed right now. That is the idea behind a new constitutional resolution introduced by state Sen. Steve Erdman. …He and nine other lawmakers introduced LR300CA on Thursday. The resolution would allow voters to decide whether to replace all those taxes with a consumption tax. It is like a sales tax and would be about 10.6% on everything, including services and food. …He said under this proposal, everyone would get a payment called a prebate of about $1,000, which would offset the cost for low-income families. Erdman said it would also eliminate the need for property tax relief and the state having to offer costly tax incentives to attract businesses. “This is fixing the whole issue, everything. This is eliminating all those taxes and replacing it with a fair tax,” Erdman said. “Nothing is exempt,” Erdman said.

I have no idea if this proposal has any chance of getting approval by the legislature, but Senator Erdman’s proposal for a broad-based neutral tax (i.e., no exemptions) would make Nebraska more competitive.

Which would be a good idea considering that the state is only ranked #28 according to the Tax Foundation and is way down at #44 according to Freedom in the 50 States.

In one fell swoop, Nebraska would join the list of states that have no income tax, which is even better than the states that have flat taxes.

P.S. The switch to a consumption tax would address the revenue side of the fiscal equation. Nebraska should also fix the spending side by copying its neighbors in Colorado and adopting a TABOR-style spending cap.

P.P.S. Unlike advocates of the value-added tax, proponents of a national sales tax support full repeal of the income tax. I don’t think that’s realistic since it’s so difficult to amend the Constitution, but their hearts are in the right place.

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About 10 years ago, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video to explain that America’s real fiscal problem is too much spending and that red ink is best viewed as a symptom of that problem.

I wrote a primer on this issue two years ago, but I want to revisit the topic because I’m increasingly irked when I see people – over and over again – mistakenly assume that “deficit neutrality” or “budget neutrality” is the same thing as good fiscal policy.

  • For instance, advocates of a carbon tax want to use the new revenues to finance bigger government. Their approach (at least in theory) would not increase the deficit. Regardless, that’s a plan to increase to overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • Just two days ago, I noted that Mayor Buttigieg wants the federal government to spend more money on health programs and is proposing an even-greater amount of new taxes. That’s a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • Back in 2016, a columnist for the Washington Post argued Hillary Clinton was a fiscal conservative because her proposals for new taxes were larger than her proposals for new spending. That was a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • And in 2011, Bruce Bartlett argued that Obama was a “moderate conservative” because his didn’t raises taxes and spending as much as some on the left wanted him to. Regardless, he still increased the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.

To help make this point clear, I’ve created a simple 2×2 matrix and inserted some examples for purposes of illustration.

At the risk of stating the obvious, good fiscal policy is in the top-left quadrant and bad fiscal policy is in the bottom-two quadrants.

Because of “public choice,” there are no real-world examples in the top-right quadrant. Why would politicians collect extra taxes, after all, if they weren’t planning to use the money to buy votes?

P.S. In 2012, I created a table showing the differences on fiscal policy between supply-siders, Keynesians, the IMF, and libertarians.

P.P.S. I also recommend Milton Friedman’s 2×2 matrix on spending and incentives.

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There are many boring topics in tax policy, such as the debate between expensing and depreciation for business investment.

International tax rules also put most people to sleep, but they’re nonetheless important.

Indeed, the United States government is currently squabbling with several European governments about the appropriate tax policy for U.S.-based tech companies.

A report from the New York Times last July describes the controversy.

France is seeking a 3 percent tax on the revenues that companies earn from providing digital services to French users. It would apply to digital businesses with annual global revenue of more than 750 million euros, or about $845 million, and sales of €25 million in France. That would cover more than two dozen companies, many of them American, including Facebook, Google and Amazon. …Mr. Lighthizer said the United States was “very concerned that the digital services tax which is expected to pass the French Senate tomorrow unfairly targets American companies.” …France’s digital tax adds to the list of actions that European authorities have taken against the tech industry… And more regulation looms. Amazon and Facebook are facing antitrust inquiries from the European Commission. …Britain provided further details about its own proposal to tax tech companies. Starting in 2020, it plans to impose a 2 percent tax on revenue from companies that provide a social media platform, search engine or online marketplace to British users.

For the latest developments, here are excerpts from an article in yesterday’s New York Times.

A growing movement by foreign governments to tax American tech giants that supply internet search, online shopping and social media to their citizens has quickly emerged as the largest global economic battle of 2020. …At the core of the debate are fundamental questions about where economic activity in the digital age is generated, where it should be taxed and who should collect that revenue. …The discussions, which are expected to last months, could end with an agreement on a global minimum tax that all multinational companies must pay on their profits, regardless of where the profits are booked. The negotiations could also set a worldwide standard for how much tax companies must remit to certain countries based on their digital activity. …Mr. Mnuchin expressed frustration on Thursday in Davos that a digital sales tax had become such a focus of discussion at the World Economic Forum. …American tech firms are eager for a deal that would prevent multiple countries from imposing a wide variety of taxes on their activities.

Daniel Bunn of the Tax Foundation has an informative summary of the current debate.

In March of 2018, the European Commission advanced a proposal to tax the revenues of large digital companies at a rate of 3 percent. …The tax would apply to revenues from digital advertising, online marketplaces, and sales of user data and was expected to generate €5 billion ($5.5 billion) in revenues for EU member countries. The tax is inherently distortive and violates standard principles of tax policy. Effectively, the digital services tax is an excise tax on digital services. Additionally, the thresholds make it function effectively like a tariff since most of the businesses subject to the tax are based outside of the EU. …the European Commission was unable to find the necessary unanimous support for the proposal to be adopted. The proposal was laid aside… the French decided to design their own policy. The tax was adopted in the summer of 2019 but is retroactive to January 1, 2019. Similar to the EU proposal, the tax has a rate of 3 percent and applies to online marketplaces and online advertising services. …The United Kingdom proposed a digital services tax at 2 percent as part of its budget in the fall of 2018. The tax has already been legislated and will go into force in April of 2020. …The tax will fall on revenues of search engines, social media platforms, and online marketplaces. …The OECD has been working for most of the last decade to negotiate changes that will limit tax planning opportunities that businesses use to minimize their tax burdens. …The reforms have two general objectives (Pillars 1 and 2): 1) to require businesses to pay more taxes where they have sales, and 2) to further limit the incentives for businesses to locate profits in low-tax jurisdictions. …This week in Davos, the U.S. and France…agreed to continue work on both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2… The burden of proof is on the OECD to show that the price the U.S. and other countries may have to pay in lost revenue or higher taxes on their companies (paid to other countries) will be worth the challenge of adopting and implementing the new rules.

At the risk of over-simplifying, European politicians want the tech companies to pay tax on their revenues rather than their profits (such a digital excise tax would be sort of akin to the gross receipts taxes imposed by some American states).

And they want to use a global formula (if a country has X percent of the world’s Internet users, they would impose the tax on X percent of a company’s worldwide revenue).

Though all you really need to understand is that European politicians view American tech companies as a potential source of loot (the thresholds are designed so European companies would largely be exempt).

For background, let’s review a 2017 article from Agence France-Presse.

…are US tech giants the new robber barons of the 21st century, banking billions in profit while short-changing the public by paying only a pittance in tax? …French President Emmanuel Macron…has slammed the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple as the “freeloaders of the modern world”. …According to EU law, to operate across Europe, multinationals have almost total liberty to choose a home country of their choosing. Not surprisingly, they choose small, low tax nations such as Ireland, the Netherlands or Luxembourg. …Facebook tracks likes, comments and page views and sells the data to companies who then target consumers. But unlike the economy of old, Facebook sells its data to French companies not from France but from a great, nation-less elsewhere… It is in states like Ireland, whose official tax rate of 12.5 percent is the lowest in Europe, that the giants have parked their EU headquarters and book profits from revenues made across the bloc. …France has proposed an unusual idea that has so far divided Europe: tax the US tech giants on sales generated in each European country, rather than on the profits that are cycled through low-tax countries. …the commission wants to dust off an old project…the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base or CCCTB — an ambitious bid to consolidate a company’s tax base across the EU. …tax would be distributed in all the countries where the company operates, and not according to the level of booked profit in each of these states, but according to the level of activity.

This below chart from the article must cause nightmares for Europe’s politicians.

As you can see, both Google and Facebook sell the bulk of their services from their Irish subsidiaries.

When I look at this data, it tells me that other European nations should lower their corporate tax rates so they can compete with Ireland.

When European politicians look at this data, it tells them that they should come up with new ways of extracting money from the companies.

P.S. The American tech companies are so worried about digital excise taxes that they’re open to the idea of a global agreement to revamp how their profits are taxed. I suspect that strategy will backfire in the long run (see, for instance, how the OECD has used the BEPS project as an excuse to impose higher tax burdens on multinational companies).

P.P.S. As a general rule, governments should be free to impose very bad tax policy on economic activity inside their borders (just as places such as Monaco and the Cayman Islands should be free to impose very good tax policy on what happens inside their borders). That being said, it’s also true that nations like France are designing their digital taxes American companies are the sole targets. An indirect form of protectionism.

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I’m part of the small minority that thinks the big news from the United Kingdom is that “Brexit” will finally happen, thanks to Boris Johnson’s landslide victory last month.

Most everyone else seems more focused on the latest development with the royal family. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, better known as Harry and Meghan, have decided to partially extricate themselves from the cloistered world of the monarchy – in part so they can take advantage of “the freedom to make a professional income.”

More power to them, I guess, if they can monetize their celebrity status.

The U.K.-based Economist expects that they’ll rake in lots of money.

In stepping down as “senior royals” while pronouncing that they “value the freedom to make a professional income” the Duke and Duchess threaten to unleash the spirit of capitalism on the very core of the monarchy. …The Sussexes are determined to turn themselves into a global brand. Their first move after they announced that they were stepping down from many of their royal duties was to unveil the name of their brand, Sussex Royal… Various branding experts have pronounced that Harry and Meghan have “a ready-made brand” that could earn them as much as £500m in their first year. InfluencerMarketingHub, a website, points out that, with 10m Instagram followers, they could expect $34,000 for a sponsored post. …They will need more than Prince Harry’s inheritance, which is estimated at £20m-30m, to keep up with the global super-rich.

I don’t have a rooting interest in their financial success. Indeed, I suspect they’ll wind up being annoying hypocrites like Harry’s dim-bulb father, lecturing us peasants about our carbon footprints while they fly around the world in private jets.

That being said, I am interested in the intricacies of international taxation.

And that will be a big issue for the couple according to Town and Country.

Now that Meghan and Harry intend to retreat from their royal roles, attain “financial independence,” and live part-time in North America, Meghan and Archie’s tax and citizenship plans are a little up in the air. …Meghan is still a US citizen, and therefore required to pay US taxes on her worldwide income. Prince Harry could technically elect to be treated as a US tax payer and file jointly with Meghan, but “he would never do that,” explains Dianne Mehany, a lawyer specializing in international tax planning. …When Meghan and Harry announced their engagement back in 2017, Harry’s communications team confirmed to the BBC that Meghan “intends to become a UK citizen and will go through the process of that.” …Once gaining UK citizenship, Meghan could elect to relinquish her US citizenship, and save herself the trouble and expense of filing US tax returns. “The only problem there is, she would have to pay the exit tax,” Mehany notes…regardless of what type of employment or contract work Meghan pursues, it will be taxable in the US. …”The real tricky thing,” Mehany notes, “is to make sure they don’t spend too much time in the United States, so that Harry becomes a resident of the United States, at which point his entire worldwide wealth would become subject to US taxation, which I know they want to avoid.”

For all intents and purposes, Meghan and Harry will face the same challenges as a multinational company.

  • Multinational companies have to figure out where to be “domiciled” just as Meghan and Harry have to figure out the best place to reside.
  • Multinational companies have to figure out where to conduct business, just as Meghan and Harry have to figure out where they will work.
  • Multinational companies have to figure out how to protect their income from taxes, just as Meghan and Harry will try to protect their income.

For what it’s worth, the Royal couple already is being smart.

As reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph, they’re minimizing their exposure to the rapacious California tax system.

The Duchess of Sussex has moved her business to a US state used by the super-rich to protect their interests from scrutiny. The Duchess’s company Frim Fram Inc was moved out of California in December and incorporated in Delaware, which tax experts suggest could be done to avoid being hit with tax liabilities in California. …the move was made on New Year’s Eve…”You would want to do it on New Year’s Eve simply because if you go one minute into the next year you would owe some taxes to California for the year of 2020,” said Alan Stachura, from financial services firm Wolters Kluwer. …Mr Stachura, who helps companies incorporate in Delaware, added that the state offers “a tax benefit for items like trademarks and royalties”. …Experts say there are several benefits in moving a corporation to Delaware, including the state’s flexible business laws and its low personal income tax rates. …A source said that as the Duchess is no longer resident in California it was appropriate for the registration to be moved.

I can’t resist commenting on the last line of the excerpt. The fact that Meghan is no longer a resident of California is irrelevant.

After all, she’s not becoming a resident of Delaware.

Instead, she and her husband are being rational by seeking to minimize the amount of their money that will be diverted to politicians (the same is true of everyone with any sense in the United Kingdom, whether they are on the right or on the left).

It’s a shame Meghan and Harry feel too insecure to acknowledge that reality.

P.S. The Town and Country article noted that Prince Harry “would never” allow himself to become a tax resident of the United States because he wants “to avoid” America’s worldwide tax system. That’s completely understandable. He probably learned about the nightmare of FATCA after marrying Meghan and wants to make sure he’s never ensnared by America’s awful internal revenue code.

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