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Posts Tagged ‘Taxation’

I’m currently in London for discussions about public policy, particularly the potential for the right kind of free-trade pact between the United States and United Kingdom.

I deliberately picked this week for my visit so I also could be here for the British election. As a big fan of Brexit, I’m very interested in seeing whether the U.K. ultimately will escape the slowly sinking ship otherwise known as the European Union.

But the election also is an interesting test case of whether people are willing to vote for socialism. The Brits actually made this mistake already, voting for Clement Attlee back in 1945. That led to decades of relative decline, culminating in a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Margaret Thatcher then was elected in 1979 to reverse Attlee’s mistakes and she did a remarkable job of restoring the British economy.

But do voters understand this history?

We’ll find out on Thursday because they’ll have the opportunity to vote for the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is the British version of Bernie Sanders.

And he doesn’t hide his radical vision for state control of economic life. Here’s how the Economist describes Corbyn’s agenda.

…the clear outlines of a Corbyn-led government emerged in the manifesto. Under Labour, Britain would have a larger, deeper state… Its frontiers would expand to cover everything from water supply to broadband to how much a landlord may charge a tenant. Where the state already rules, such as in education or health, the government would go deeper, with the introduction of free child-care for pre-schoolers and a “National Care Service” for the elderly. …The government would spend £75bn on building 100,000 council homes per year, paid for from a £150bn “transformation fund”, a pot of money for capital spending on public services. Rent increases would be capped at inflation. The most eye-catching proposal, a plan to nationalise BT’s broadband operations and then offer the service free of charge… Surviving policies from 2017 include a plan to nationalise utilities, alongside Royal Mail and the rail network, and a range of new rights for workers, from a higher minimum wage to restored collective-bargaining rights. All told, government spending would hit 45.1% of GDP, the highest ratio in the post-war era outside of a recession and more than in Germany… To pay for it all, very rich people and businesses would be clobbered. Corporation tax would rise to 26% (from 19% now), which Labour believes, somewhat optimistically, would raise another £24bn by 2024.

As reported by City A.M., the tax increases target a small slice of the population.

Jeremy Corbyn…is planning to introduce a new 45 per cent income tax rate for those earning more than £80,000 and 50 per cent on those with incomes of £125,000 or more. The IFS…estimates that would affect 1.6m people from the outset, rising to 1.9m people by 2023-24. Labour’s policy would add further burden to the country’s biggest tax contributors, with the top five per cent of income tax payers currently contributing half of all income tax revenues, up from 43 per cent just before the financial crisis.  But the IFS warned the amount this policy would raise was “highly uncertain”, with estimates ranging from a high of £6bn to an actual cost of around £1bn, if the policy resulted in a flight of capital from the UK. Lawyers have previously warned that high net worth individuals are poised to shift billions out of the country in the event of a Corbyn government.

Is that a smart idea?

We could debate the degree to which upper-income taxpayers will have less incentive to be productive.

But the biggest impact is probably that the geese with the golden eggs will simply fly away.

Even the left-leaning Guardian seems aware of this possibility.

The super-rich are preparing to immediately leave the UK if Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, fearing they will lose billions of pounds if the Labour leader does “go after” the wealthy elite with new taxes, possible capital controls and a clampdown on private schools. Lawyers and accountants for the UK’s richest families said they had been deluged with calls from millionaire and billionaire clients asking for help and advice on moving countries, shifting their fortunes offshore and making early gifts to their children to avoid the Labour leader’s threat to tax all inheritances above £125,000. …Geoffrey Todd, a partner at the law firm Boodle Hatfield, said many of his clients had already put plans in place to transfer their wealth out of the country within minutes if Corbyn is elected. …“There will be plenty of people on the phone to their lawyers in the early hours of 13 December if Labour wins. Movements of capital to new owners and different locations are already prepared, and they are just awaiting final approval.” …On Thursday, Corbyn singled out five members of “the elite” that a Labour government would go after in order to rebalance the country. …The shadow Treasury minister Clive Lewis went further than the Labour leader, telling the BBC’s Newsnight programme: “Billionaires shouldn’t exist. It’s a travesty that there are people on this planet living on less than a dollar a day.

Some companies also are taking steps to protect shareholders.

National Grid (NG.) and SSE (SSE) are certainly not adopting a wait-and-see approach to the general election. Both companies have moved ownership of large parts of their UK operations overseas in a bid to soften the blow of potential nationalisation. With the Labour manifesto reiterating the party’s intention to bring Britain’s electricity and gas infrastructure back into public ownership, energy companies (and their shareholders) face the threat of their assets being transferred to the state at a price below market value.

The Corbyn agenda violates the laws of economics.

It also violates the laws of math. The Labour Party, for all intents and purposes, wants a big expansion of the welfare state financed by a tiny slice of the population.

That simply doesn’t work. The numbers don’t add up when Elizabeth Warren tries to do that in the United States. And an expert for the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes that it doesn’t work in the United Kingdom.

The bottom line is that Corbyn and his team are terrible.

That being said, Boris Johnson and the current crop of Tories are not exactly paragons of prudence and responsibility.

They’re proposing lots of additional spending. And, as City A.M. reports, Johnson also is being criticized for promising company-specific handouts and protectionist rules for public procurement.

In a press conference today, Johnson promised to expand Britain’s state aid regime once the UK leaves the EU. “We will back British businesses by introducing a new state aid regime which makes it faster and easier for the government to intervene to protect jobs when an industry is in trouble,” a briefing document said. Head of regulatory affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Victoria Hewson said support for state aid was “veiled support for cronyism.” …A spokesperson for the Institute of Directors said: “It’s not clear how these proposals will fit with ambitions of a ‘Global Britain’. The Conservatives must be wary of opening a can of worms on state aid, it’s important to have consistent rules in place to resist the impulse of unwarranted protectionism.” Johnson also promised to introduce a buy British rule for public procurement. …IEA economics fellow Julian Jessop said: “A ‘Buy British’ policy is pure protectionism, and it comes with heavy costs.

Perhaps this is why John O’Connell of the Taxpayers Alliance has a rather pessimistic view about future tax policy. Here are excerpts of a column he wrote for CapX.

Theresa May’s government implemented a series of big state, high tax policies. Promises of no strings attached cash for the NHS; new regulations on net zero; tax cuts shelved and the creation of more quangos. After his surprise non-loss in the election, Corbyn shifted even further to the political left, doubling down on his nationalisation plans. All in all, the 2017 election result was terrible for people who believe in a small state. …A report from the Resolution Foundation found that government spending is rising once again, and likely to head back towards the heights of the 1970s over the coming years. The Conservatives’ recent spending review suggests state spending could be 41.3% of GDP by 2023, while Labour’s spending plans could take it to 43.3%. This compares to the 37.4% average throughout the noughties. Based on the manifestos, Labour are working towards a German-sized state, while the Tories’ plan looks more Dutch. Unsurprisingly we see this mirrored by the tax burden, which at 34.6% of GDP has already reached a fifty-year high. It is likely to increase further. …British taxpayers are presented with something of a Hobson’s choice: Boris Johnson will see taxes increase and spending shoot up, while Jeremy Corbyn has £1.2 trillion worth of unfunded spending rises just waiting to become unimaginable tax hikes for everyone. Whoever you vote for, you’ll get higher taxes, the question is just about how high.

Let’s close by looking at the big picture.

Here’s a chart showing the burden of government spending in the United Kingdom since 1900. I’ve augmented the chart to show the awful trend started by Attlee (in red) and then the positive impact of Thatcher (in green).

You can also see that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did a bad job early this century, followed by a surprisingly good performance by David Cameron.

Now it appears that British voters have to choose between a slow drift in the wrong direction under Boris Johnson or a rapid leap in the wrong direction under Jeremy Corbyn.

Normally I would be rather depressed by such a choice. I’m hoping, however, that Brexit (assuming it actually happens!) will cause Boris Johnson to make smart choices even if he is otherwise tempted to make bad choices.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Corbyn has been an apologist for thugs and dictators.

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I’ve written many columns about Sweden and Denmark over the past 10-plus years, and I’ve also written several times about Norway and Iceland.

But I’ve mostly neglected Finland, other than some analysis of the country’s experiment with “basic income” in 2017 and 2018.

Now, thanks to a very interesting column in the New York Times, it’s time to rectify that oversight. According to the authors, Anu Partanen and , Finland is a great place with lots of goodies provided by taxpayers.

Finland, of course, is one of those Nordic countries that we hear some Americans, including President Trump, describe as unsustainable and oppressive — “socialist nanny states.”…We’ve now been living in Finland for more than a year. The difference between our lives here and in the States has been tremendous… What we’ve experienced is an increase in personal freedom. …in Finland, we are automatically covered, no matter what, by taxpayer-funded universal health care… Our child attends a fabulous, highly professional and ethnically diverse public day-care center that amazes us with its enrichment activities and professionalism. The price? About $300 a month — the maximum for public day care, because in Finland day-care fees are subsidized for all families. …if we stay here, …College would also be tuition free. If we have another child, we will automatically get paid parental leave, funded largely through taxes, for nearly a year… Compared with our life in the United States, this is fantastic.

Interestingly, the authors are not clueless Bernie Sanders-style leftists.

They fully understand and appreciate that Finland (like all Nordic nations) is not a socialist country.

…surely, many in the United States will conclude, Finnish citizens and businesses must be paying a steep price in lost freedoms, opportunity and wealth. …In fact, a recent report by the chairman of market and investment strategy for J.P. Morgan Asset Management came to a surprising conclusion: The Nordic region is not only “just as business-friendly as the U.S.” but also better on key free-market indexes, including greater protection of private property, less impact on competition from government controls and more openness to trade and capital flows. …What to make of all this? For starters, politicians in the United States might want to think twice about calling the Nordics “socialist.” …in Finland, you don’t really see the kind of socialist movement…, especially around goals such as curtailing free markets and even nationalizing the means of production. The irony is that if you championed socialism like this in Finland, you’d get few takers. …a 2006 study by the Finnish researchers Markus Jantti, Juho Saari and Juhana Vartiainen demonstrates…throughout the 20th century Finland remained — and remains to this day — a country and an economy committed to markets, private businesses and capitalism.

This is a very accurate assessment. Finland is more market-oriented than the United States in many categories.

Moreover, the country is ranked #21 for economic freedom out of 162 nations in Economic Freedom of the World, with a score of 7.80. That’s just .05 behind Taiwan and .09 behind Chile.

That being said, the burden of taxes and spending is rather onerous.

…after World War II, …Finnish capitalists also realized that it would be in their own long-term interests to accept steep progressive tax hikes. …the nation’s commitment to providing generous and universal public services…buffered and absorbed the risks and dislocations caused by capitalist innovation. …Visit Finland today and it’s obvious that the much-heralded quality of life is taking place within a bustling economy of upscale shopping malls, fancy cars and internationally competitive private companies. …Yes, this requires capitalists and corporations to pay fairer wages and more taxes than their American counterparts currently do.

The column concludes by suggesting that American capitalists follow the same model.

Right now might be an opportune moment for American capitalists to pause and ask themselves what kind of long-term cost-benefit calculation makes the most sense.

So should the United States copy Finland, as the authors suggest?

People would get lots of taxpayer-financed freebies, but there would be a heavy price. Taxes consume nearly 50 percent of an average family’s income (even higher according to some measures).

That’s compared to about 30 percent in the United States.

And there’s a very Orwellian aspect of the Finnish tax system. As the New York Times reported last year, everyone in the country has the right to know how much income you earn.

Pamplona can boast of the running of the bulls, Rio de Janeiro has Carnival, but Helsinki is alone in observing “National Jealousy Day,” when every Finnish citizen’s taxable income is made public at 8 a.m. sharp. The annual Nov. 1 data dump is the starting gun for a countrywide game of who’s up and who’s down. …Finland is unusual, even among the Nordic states, in turning its release of personal tax data — to comply with government transparency laws — into a public ritual of comparison. …A large dosage of Thursday’s reporting concerned the income of minor celebrities… The country’s best-known porn star, Anssi “Mr. Lothar” Viskari, was reported to have earned 23,826 euros (about $27,000).

Given the onerous level of Finnish taxes, it’s probably safe to say that “Mr. Lothar” is getting screwed more than he’s…um….well, you get the point.

So what’s the bottom line? Should America be more like Finland? Is the country reasonably successful because of high taxes, or in spite of high taxes?

The U.S. should not mimic Finland, at least if the goal is higher living standards. Finland has some advantages over the United States (including better business taxation), but the United States has more overall economic liberty.

And that presumably helps to explain why, based on data from the Organization for economic Cooperation and Development, the average American enjoys 40 percent higher living standards than the average Finn.

But the most compelling piece of data, for those who prefer apples-to-apples comparison, is that Americans of Finnish descent produce 47 percent more than Finns in Finland.

Is Finland a relatively rich nation? Yes.

Is Finland a relatively free nation? Definitely.

Is Finland a good example of western civilization? Unquestionably.

The bottom line is that Finland seems like a great country (I’ve never visited). All I’m saying is that Americans would not be as prosperous if we had Finnish-style taxation and Finnish-style spending.

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

P.P.S. And Finland’s former Prime Minister understood the downside of an excessive public sector.

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Arthur Okun was a well-known left-of-center economist last century. He taught at Yale, was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for President Lyndon Johnson, and also did a stint at Brookings.

In today’s column, I’m not going to blame him for any of LBJ’s mistakes (being a big spender, creating Medicare and Medicaid).

Instead, I’m going to praise Okun for his honesty. Is his book, Equality and Efficiency: The Big Trade Off, he openly acknowledged that higher taxes and bigger government – policies he often favored – hindered economic performance.

Sadly, some folks on the left today are not similarly honest.

A column in the New York Times by Jim Tankersley looks at the odd claim, put forth by Elizabeth Warren and others, that class-warfare taxes are good for growth.

Elizabeth Warren is leading a liberal rebellion against a long-held economic view that large tax increases slow economic growth… Generations of economists, across much of the ideological spectrum, have long held that higher taxes reduce investment, slowing economic growth. …Ms. Warren and other leading Democrats say the opposite. …that her plans to tax the rich and spend the revenue to lift the poor and the middle class would accelerate economic growth, not impede it. …That argument tries to reframe a classic debate…by suggesting there is no trade-off between increasing the size of the pie and dividing the slices more equitably among all Americans.

Most people, when looking at why some nations grow faster and become more prosperous, naturally recognize that there’s a trade-off.

So what’s the basis of this counter-intuitive and anti-empirical assertion from Warren, et al?

It’s partly based on their assertion that more government spending is an “investment” that will lead to more growth. In other words, politicians ostensibly will allocate new tax revenues in a productive manner.

Ms. Warren wrote on Twitter that education, child care and student loan relief programs funded by her tax on wealthy Americans would “grow the economy.” In a separate post, she said student debt relief would “supercharge” growth. …Ms. Warren is making the case that the economy could benefit if money is redistributed from the rich and corporations to uses that she and other liberals say would be more productive. …a belief that well-targeted government spending can encourage more Americans to work, invest and build skills that would make them more productive.

To be fair, this isn’t a totally absurd argument.

The Rahn Curve, for instance, is predicated on the notion that some spending on core public goods is correlated with better economic performance.

It’s only when government gets too big that the Rahn Curve begins to show that spending has a negative impact on growth.

For what it’s worth, modern research says the growth-maximizing size of government is about 20 percent of economic output, though I think historical evidence indicates that number should be much lower.

But even if the correct figure is 20 percent of GDP, there’s no support for Senator Warren’s position since overall government spending currently consumes close to 40 percent of U.S. economic output.

Warren and others also make the discredited Keynesian argument about government spending somehow kick-starting growth, ostensibly because a tax-and-spend agenda will give money to poor people who are more likely to consume (in the Keynesian model, saving and investing can be a bad thing).

Democrats cite evidence that transferring money to poor and middle-class individuals would increase consumer spending…liberal economists say taxes on high-earners could spur growth even if the government did nothing with the revenue because the concentration of income and wealth is dampening consumer spending.

This argument is dependent on the notion that consumer spending drives the economy.

But that’s not the case. As I explained two years ago, consumer spending is a reflection of a strong economy, not the driver of a strong economy.

Which helps to explain why the data show that Keynesian stimulus schemes routinely fail.

Moreover, the Keynesian model only says it is good to artificially stimulate consumer spending when trying to deal with a weak economy. There’s nothing in the theory (at least as Keynes described it) that suggests it’s good to endlessly expand the public sector.

The bottom line is that there’s no meaningful theoretical or empirical support for a tax-and-spend agenda.

Which is why I think this visual very succinctly captures what Warren, Sanders, and the rest (including international bureaucracies) are proposing.

P.S. By the way, I think Tankersley’s article was quite fair. It cited arguments from both sides and had a neutral tone.

But there’s one part that rubbed me the wrong way. He implies in this section that America’s relatively modest aggregate tax burden somehow helps the left’s argument.

Fueling their argument is the fact that the United States now has one of the lowest corporate tax burdens among developed nations — a direct result of President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. Tax revenues at all levels of government in the United States fell to 24.3 percent of the economy last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported on Thursday, down from 26.8 percent in 2017. America is now has the fourth lowest tax burden in all of the O.E.C.D.

Huh? How does the fact that we have lower taxes that other nations serve as “fuel” for the left?

Since living standards in the United States are considerably higher than they are in higher-taxed Europe, it’s actually “fuel” for those of us who argue against class-warfare taxation and bigger government.

Though maybe Tankersley is suggesting that America’s comparatively modest tax burden is fueling the greed of U.S. politicians who are envious of their European counterparts?

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Whenever I review a tax proposal, I automatically check whether it is consistent with 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) penalizing saving and investment.
  3. No complicating preferences and loopholes that encourage inefficient economic choices.

A good proposal satisfies one of these three principles. A great proposals satisfies all of them.

And that’s a good way of introducing today’s topic, which is about whether we should replace “depreciation” with “expensing.” Or, for those who aren’t familiar with technical tax terminology, this issue revolves around whether there should be a tax penalty on new investment.

Erica York of the Tax Foundation has a nice summary of the issue.

While tax rates matter to businesses, so too does the measure of income to which those tax rates apply. The corporate income tax is a tax on profits, normally defined as revenue minus costs. However, under the current tax code, businesses are unable to deduct the full cost of certain expenses—their capital investments—meaning the tax code is not neutral and actually increases the cost of investment. …Typically, when businesses incur capital investment costs, they must deduct them over several years according to preset depreciation schedules, instead of deducting them immediately in the year the investment occurs. …the delay in taking deductions means the present value of the write-offs (adjusted for inflation and the time value of money) is smaller than the original cost. …The delay effectively shifts the tax burden forward in time as businesses face a higher tax burden today because they cannot fully deduct their costs, and it decreases the after-tax return on the investment. …Ultimately, this means that the corporate income tax is biased against investment in capital assets to the extent that it makes the investor wait years or decades to claim the cost of machines, equipment, or factories on their tax returns.

Here’s a visual depiction of how the current system works.

The key thing to understand is that businesses are forced to overstate their income, which basically means a higher tax rate on actual income (thus violating principle #1).

Back in 2017, Adam Michel and Salim Furth wrote about this topic for the Heritage Foundation.

Here is their main argument.

The current system gives companies a partial deduction for each dollar invested in the economy. The real value of the deduction depends on the vagaries of the tax code, future inflation, and the company’s cost of borrowing. The classification of investments by type and the somewhat arbitrary assignment of the number of years over which each investment must be written off are called depreciation schedules. The imperfect design of these schedules creates unequal tax rates on investment across industries. …Adopting full expensing would reduce effective tax rates everywhere, but especially in industries disfavored under the current system. The result would be more economically efficient: The tax code would no longer be steering investment to arbitrarily favored industries. …Expensing lowers the cost of capital investments. …Both the U.S. capital stock and the demand for labor to operate and service the new investments would be permanently larger. A larger capital stock and higher labor demand would increase the number of jobs and place upward pressure on wages.

A key takeaway is that the tax bias created by the current system is a penalty on new investment (thus violating principle #2).

And the current approach of depreciation also is incredibly complicated (thus violating principle #3).

Expensing can also significantly cut compliance costs. According to IRS research, business tax compliance costs are over $100 billion per year, representing a massive waste of money and effort. Other estimates place the cost of complying with depreciation schedules alone at over $23 billion annually, or 448 million hours each year. Considering that the total compliance cost for traditional C corporations is equal to 14 percent of their taxes paid, expensing could make major inroads toward simplifying business taxpaying and lowering compliance costs.

Unsurprisingly, some politicians are on the wrong side.

Not only are they against a neutral system based on expensing, Erica York explains that they want to make the current system even more biased against new investment.

…proposals to stretch deductions over longer periods of time, such as those from Senators Warren (D-MA) and Sanders (I-VT)…would increase the cost of capital, bias the tax code against investment, and lead to less capital accumulation and lower productivity, output, and wages.

Yes, I know readers are shocked to learn that “Crazy Bernie” and “Looney Liz” want to make a bad situation even worse.

Returning to the policy discussion, the fight over depreciation vs. expensing also matters for national competitiveness.

In another study for the Tax Foundation, Amir El-Sibaie looks at how the U.S. compares to other developed nations.

Currently, the U.S. tax code only allows businesses to recover an average of 67.7 percent of a capital investment (e.g., an investment in buildings, machinery, intangibles, etc.). This is slightly higher than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) average capital allowance of 67.2 percent. …Since 1979, overall treatment of capital assets has worsened in the U.S., dropping from an average capital allowance of 75.8 percent in the 1980s to an average capital allowance of 67.7 percent in 2018. Capital allowances across the OECD have also declined, but by a lesser extent over the same period: 72.4 percent in the 1980s to 67.2 percent in 2018. …The countries with the best average treatment of capital assets are Estonia (100 percent), Latvia (100 percent), and Slovakia (78.2 percent). Countries with the worst treatment of capital assets are Chile (41.7 percent), the United Kingdom (45.7 percent), and Spain (54.5 percent).

The bad news is that the United States is much worse than Estonia (the gold standard for neutral business taxation).

The good news is that we’re not in last place. Here’s a comparison of the United States to the average of other developed nations.

By the way, there are folks in the United Kingdom who want to improve that nation’s next-to-last score.

Here are some excerpts from a column in CapX by Eamonn Ives.

…successive governments have…cut the headline rate of corporation tax. …That said, some of the positive effects of the cuts to corporation tax were blunted by changes to the tax code which allow businesses to write off the cost of capital expenditure… Typically, corporate tax systems let firms deduct day to day expenses – like labour and materials – right away. However, the cost of longer-term investments – such as those in machinery and industrial premises – can only be deducted in a piecemeal manner, over a set period of time. …this creates a problem for businesses, because the more a tax deduction for capital investment is spread out, the less valuable it becomes to a firm. This is not only because of inflationary effects, but also due to what economists would call the time value of money… Thankfully, however, a solution is at hand to iron out this peculiarity. ‘Full expensing’ allows firms to immediately and entirely deduct the cost of any investment they undertake from their corporation tax bill.

He cites some of the research on the topic.

A 2017 study, from Eric Ohrn, found that in parts of America, full expensing has increased investment by 17.5%, and has increased wages by 2.5%. Employment also rose, by 7.7% after five years, as did production, by 10.5%. If the same results were replicated in the UK, the average worker could stand to earn a staggering additional £700 a year. Another academic study, this time from the UK itself, found that access to more generous capital allowances for small and medium sized enterprises which were offered prior to fiscal year 2008/09 increased the investment rate by 11%.

Let’s conclude.

When I discuss this issue, I usually start by asking an audience for a definition of profit.

That part is easy. Everyone agrees that profit is the difference between cost and revenue.

To show why depreciation should be replaced by expensing, I then use the very simple example of a lemonade stand.

In the start-up year for this hypothetical lemonade stand, our entrepreneur has total costs of $25 (investment costs for the actual stand and operating costs for the lemons) and total revenue of $30. I then explain the different tax implications of expensing and depreciation.

As you can see, our budding entrepreneur faces a much higher tax burden when forced to depreciate the cost of the lemonade stand.

For all intents and purposes, depreciation mandates that businesses overstate profits.

This is unfair. And it’s also bad economic policy because some people will respond to these perverse incentives by deciding not to invest or be entrepreneurial.

To be fair, businesses eventually are allowed to deduct the full cost of investments. But this process can take as long as 39 years.

Here’s another comparison, which shows the difference over time between expensing and a five-year deprecation schedule. I’ve also made it more realistic by showing a loss in the first year.

In both examples, our entrepreneur’s five-year tax bill is $3.

But the timing of the tax matters, both because of inflation and the “time value” of money. That’s why, in a good system, there should only be a tax when there’s an actual profit.

Needless to say, good tax reform plans such as the flat tax are based on expensing rather than depreciation.

P.S. This principle applies even if businesses are investing in private jets.

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I wrote yesterday about Japan’s experience with the value-added tax, mostly to criticize the International Monetary Fund.

The statist bureaucrats at the IMF are urging a big increase in Japan’s VAT even though the last increase was only imposed two months ago (in a perverse way, I admire their ability to stay on message).

Today, I want to focus on a broader lesson regarding the political economy of the value-added tax. Because what’s happened in Japan is further confirmation that a VAT would be a terrible idea for the United States.

Simply stated, the levy would be a recipe for bigger government and more red ink.

Let’s look at three charts. First, here’s a look at how politicians in Japan have been pushing the VAT burden ever higher.

What’s been the result? Have politicians used the money to lower other taxes? Have they used the money to reduce government debt?

Hardly. As was the case in Europe, the value-added tax in Japan is associated with an increase in the burden of spending.

Here’s a chart (based on the IMF’s own data) showing that government is now consuming almost 35 percent of economic output, up from about 30 percent of GDP when the VAT was first imposed.

I’ve added a trend line (automatically generated by Excel) to illustrate what’s been happening. It’s not a big effect, but keep in mind the VAT never climbed above 5 percent until 2014.

Now let’s look at some numbers that are very unambiguous.

Japan’s politicians imposed the VAT in part because they claimed it was a way of averting more red ink.

Yet our final chart shows what’s happened to both gross debt and net debt since the VAT was imposed.

To be sure, the VAT was only one piece of a large economic puzzle. If you want to finger the main culprits for all this red ink, look first at Keynesian spending binges and economic stagnation.

But we also know the politicians were wrong when they said a VAT would keep debt under control

I’ll close with a political observation.

The left wants a value-added tax for the simple reason that it’s the only way to finance European-type levels of redistribution (yes, they also want class-warfare taxes on the rich, but that’s mostly for reasons of spite since even they recognize that such levies don’t actually generate much revenue).

But it’s very unlikely that a VAT will be imposed on the United States by the left. At least not acting alone.

The real danger is that we’ll wind up with a VAT because some folks on the right offer their support. These people don’t particularly want European-type levels of redistribution, but they think that’s going to happen. So one of their motives is to figure out ways to finance a large welfare state without completely tanking the economy.

They are right that a VAT doesn’t impose the same amount of damage, on a per-dollar-collected basis, as higher income tax rates. Or increases in double taxation (though it’s important to realize that it would still penalize productive behavior by increasing the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption).

But their willingness to surrender is nonetheless very distressing.

The bottom line is that the most important fiscal issue facing America is the need for genuine entitlement reform. Achieving that goal is an uphill battle. But if politicians get a big new source of revenue, that uphill battle becomes an impossible battle.

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I want lower taxes. I want to reform taxes. And I want to abolish existing taxes and block new taxes.

But I also recognize that the biggest fiscal problem, both in America and elsewhere in the world, is that there’s too much government spending.

This creates a bit of a quandary. Given the various pressures and trade-offs in the world of fiscal policy, should supporters of limited government embrace additional tax relief?

Steve Moore opines in the Washington Times that it’s time for further tax cuts.

Every single plausible Democratic candidate for president has endorsed tax increases as centerpieces of their economic agenda. …Meanwhile, Mr. Trump and the Republicans in Congress have the 2017 tax cut to trumpet… Middle class incomes have hit an all-time high as has the stock market and employment. …Mr. Trump and the Republicans need a new tax cut plan… Mr. Trump has said he wants any new tax cut to be aimed at the middle class. …Let the liberals spend the next 11 months trying to explain why higher taxes and lower take home pay is better for families than lower taxes and MORE take home pay.  That should be fascinating to watch.

Steve specifically mentions some good ideas, such as lower marginal tax rates, a lower tax burden on capital gains, protecting more savings from double taxation, and allowing workers to shift some of their payroll taxes to personal retirement accounts.

But are these ideas smart policy?

Robert Verbruggen of National Review is very skeptical.

…it’s shocking that anyone is even thinking about tax cuts as a smart policy right now. …Our deficit has grown by a quarter since the 2018 fiscal year to hit nearly a trillion dollars in 2019, Baby Boomers are retiring, and the president has consistently said he has no intention of cutting the old-age entitlements that drive our spending. …tax cuts at this point would just add to the debt and hasten the day of our fiscal reckoning. We have a bunch of bills piling up. Let’s start paying them. …We need some mix of spending cuts and tax hikes to survive this. …Politicians almost certainly don’t have the guts to get serious about all this until a true crisis forces them to. But at very least, they should stop making matters worse.

So who is right?

The answer may depend on the goal.

If the objective is to simply get more votes in 2020, I’m not the right person to judge the effectiveness of that approach. After all, I’m a policy wonk, not a political strategist.

So let’s focus on the narrower issue of whether further tax relief would be good policy. Here are five things to consider, starting with two points about taxes and the economy.

1. Will tax cuts improve long-run economic performance? It’s impossible to answer this question without knowing what kind of tax cut. Increasing child credits may or may not be desirable, but that kind of tax relief doesn’t boost incentives for additional economic activity. Other types of tax reforms, by contrast, can have a very positive effect on incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

2. Will tax cuts improve short-run economic performance? This is actually the wrong way to analyze fiscal policy. Advocates of Keynesian economics are fixated on trying to tinker with the economy’s short-run performance. That being said, some types of tax cuts – particularly reforms designed to attract global capital – may generate quicker positive effects.

Now let’s broaden our scope and consider tax cuts as part of overall fiscal policy.

3. Should policy makers focus on deficit reduction? Excessive government borrowing is undesirable, but it’s important to understand that red ink is the symptom and government spending is the underlying disease. Treat the disease and the symptoms automatically begin to go away.

4. Will tax cuts interfere with a bipartisan deal? Some people imagine that America’s fiscal problems can be addressed only if there’s a package deal of tax increases and spending cuts (dishonestly defined). Such an outcome is theoretically possible, but entirely unrealistic. Tax increases almost surely would be a recipe for additional spending.

5. Is there a starve-the-beast constraint on spending? There’s a theory, known as “starve the beast,” that suggests lower taxes can help constrain government spending. Given that Trump has simultaneously lowered the tax burden and increased the spending burden, that’s obviously not true in the short run. But the evidence suggests a firm commitment to lower taxes can inhibit long-run spending.

Based on these five points, I side with Steve Moore. It’s always a good idea to push for lower taxes.

And I definitely disagree with Robert Verbruggen’s willingness to put tax increases on the table. A huge mistake.

That being said, the Trump Administration’s reckless approach to discretionary spending and feckless approach to entitlement spending makes any discussion of further tax relief completely pointless.

So, at the risk of sounding like a politician, I also disagree with Steve. Instead of writing a column discussing additional tax cuts, he should have used the opportunity to condemn big-spending GOPers.

P.S. For what it’s worth, more than 100 percent (yes, that’s mathematically possible) of America’s long-run fiscal problem is excessive spending.

P.P.S. If you doubt my assertion that higher taxes will lead to more spending, I invite you to come up with another explanation for what’s happened in Europe.

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Free markets and limited government are a tried-and-true recipe for growth and prosperity.

Indeed, it’s the only way for a poor nation to become a rich nation. Those are the policies that helpd North America and Western Europe become rich in the 1800s and it’s how East Asia became rich in the second half of the 1900s.

By contrast, there’s no poor country that has implemented statist policies and then become rich (which is why none of my left-wing friends have ever come up with a good answer to my two-question challenge).

But that doesn’t stop some international bureaucracies from pushing bad policies on poor nations.

I wrote last year about the International Monetary Fund’s pernicious efforts to impose higher tax burdens in Africa.

Now the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is seeking to perpetuate poverty in the world’s poorest continent. The Paris-based bureaucracy actually is arguing that “urgent action” is need to impose higher taxes.

The average tax-to-GDP ratio for the 26 countries participating in the new edition of Revenue Statistics in Africa was…17.2% for the third consecutive year in 2017. …underlining the need for urgent action to enhance domestic revenue mobilisation in Africa. …Overall, the tax structure across participating countries has evolved over the past decade, with VAT and personal income tax (PIT) accounting for a higher proportion of revenue generation in 2017 relative to 2008, on average. However, PIT (15.4% of total tax revenues) and social security contributions (8.1% of total tax revenues) remain low in Africa. Reforms to broaden the personal tax base…and expand social insurance coverage can assist in domestic resource mobilisation efforts while contributing to inclusive growth. …Property taxes are shown to be much lower in Africa than in LAC and in the OECD but have the potential to play a key role.

Before explaining why the OECD’s analysis is wrong, here are a couple of charts for those who want some country-specific details.

Here’s a look at the aggregate tax burdens in various nations.

I’m not surprised that South Africa’snumbers are so bad.

And here’s a look at how tax burdens have changed over the past 10 years.

Kudos to Botswana.

The big question to consider, of course, is why the OECD is pushing for higher taxes in poor nations.

The real reason is that the OECD represents the interest of governments and politicians instinctively want more revenue.

The official reason, though, is that the bureaucrats want people to believe – notwithstanding reams of evidence – that higher taxes are good for prosperity. And it’s not just the OECD pushing this bizarre theory. It’s now routine for international bureaucracies to push this upside-down analysis, based on the anti-empirical notion that economies will prosper if governments can finance more spending.

P.S. Africa’s big economic challenge is not bad fiscal policy. If you peruse the data from Economic Freedom of the World, the continent has huge problems with excessive regulation and poor quality of governance. What’s tragic, though, is that the OECD doesn’t push for good reforms in those area. Instead, it wants to make fiscal policy worse.

P.P.S. To be fair, the OECD doesn’t discriminate. The bureaucrats also advocate higher taxes in other poor regions, such as Latin America and Asia.

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