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Posts Tagged ‘Taxation’

I’m a huge fan of a simple and fair flat tax.

Simply stated, if we’re going to have some sort of broad-based tax, it makes sense to collect revenue in the least-damaging fashion possible.

And a flat tax achieves that goal by adhering to the principles of good tax policy.

  1. A low tax rate – This is the best-known feature of the flat tax. A low tax rate is designed to minimize the penalty on work, entrepreneurship, and other forms of productive behavior.
  2. No double taxation of saving and investment – The flat tax gets rid of the tax bias against income that is saved and invested. The capital gains tax, double tax on dividends, and death tax are all abolished. Shifting to a system that taxes economic activity only one time will boost capital formation, thus facilitating an increase in productivity and wages.
  3. No distorting loopholes – With the exception of a family-based allowance designed to protect lower-income people, the flat tax eliminates all deductions, exemptions, shelters, preference, exclusions, and credits. By creating a neutral tax system, this ensures that decisions are made on the basis of economic fundamentals, not tax distortions.

All three features are equally important, sort of akin to the legs of a stool. And if we succeeded with fundamental reform, it would mean an end to the disgraceful internal revenue code.

But just because an idea is good policy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s also good politics.

So let’s delve into the debate over whether the flat tax is a winning political issue as well as a pro-growth reform.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation thinks the flat tax has political legs.

…the flat tax is again the rage in a presidential primary. A number of GOP candidates, including Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker, are looking to go flat with a radically simplified postcard tax return. …Ripping up the 70,000-page tax code has visceral appeal to voters.The way to sell the flat tax is as the ultimate Washington versus America issue. The only people who benefit from a complicated, barnacle-encrusted 70,000-page tax code are tax attorneys, accountants, lobbyists, IRS agents, and politicians who use the tax code as a way to buy and sell favors. The belly of the beast of corruption in American politics is the IRS tax code. The left keeps saying it wants to end the corrupting influence of big money in politics. Fine. By far the best way to do that is enact a flat tax and D.C. becomes the Sahara Desert.

I like what Steve is saying.

And I specifically agree that the best way of selling tax reform is to point out that it’s a Washington-versus-America issue.

When I first started giving speeches about the flat tax in the 1990s, I focused on the pro-growth and pro-competitive impact of lower marginal tax rates and reductions in double taxation.

People largely agreed with those points, but they didn’t get excited.

I soon learned that they instinctively liked the flat tax because they saw it as a way of cleaning out the stables of a corrupt system. In other words, they wanted tax reform mostly for reasons of fairness.

But with fairness properly defined, meaning all taxpayers playing by the same rules. Not the left’s definition, which is based on punishing success with high marginal tax rates.

Steve concurs.

So can the flat tax catch the populist tide of voter rage and angst over an economy that has squeezed the middle class for nearly a decade? Who knows? What seems certain is Democrats will run a class warfare campaign of raising tax rates on the rich. But envy isn’t an economic revival policy. Republicans can win this debate by going on the offensive and reminding voters that the best way to grow the economy, create jobs, and increase tax payments by the rich is to flatten the code. Flat is the new fair.

So does this mean the flat tax is a slam-dunk issue?

Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review is unconvinced. Here’s some of what he wrote about the candidates pushing fundamental reform.

They may have some creative ideas to get around problems with previous flat-tax proposals. But I have my doubts about whether a flat tax could be…as politically attractive as Moore suggests.

Ramesh is particularly skeptical whether the flat tax can be more appealing than the Lee-Rubio tax plan.

I have my doubts about whether a flat tax could be free from the objections Moore raises against Lee-Rubio… A 15 percent flat tax could also expose many more millions of people to tax increases than Lee-Rubio does; and it seems highly unlikely to reduce tax bills for as many people as Lee-Rubio does.

At the risk of sounding like a politician, I agree with both Steve and Ramesh.

Taking them in reverse order, Ramesh is correct that a flat tax faces an uphill battle. He specifically warns that a flat tax might result in higher fiscal burdens for millions of middle-class taxpayers.

Ultimately, that would depend on the tax rate, the size of the family-based allowance, and whether tax reform also was a tax cut. And those choices could be easier to make if Republicans actually demonstrated some political acumen and modernized the revenue-estimating system at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

And Ramesh also points out, quite appropriately, that the flat tax will create strong opposition from interest groups that benefit from provisions in the current system.

But Steve is correct that people want bold reform, which is a proxy for ending tax-code corruption. I’ve already praised the Lee-Rubio plan, which Ramesh likes, but I have a hard time imagining that such a plan will seize the public imagination like a flat tax.

Moreover, the Lee-Rubio plan is a huge tax cut. Since I think good reform is more likely if a plan lowers the overall tax burden, I consider that to be a feature rather than a bug.

But it does mean you have to fight a two-front war, battling both those who benefit from the current system as well as those who don’t want to reduce the flow of revenue to Washington.

These are big obstacles, whether we’re talking about an incremental plan like Lee-Rubio or big-picture reform like a flat tax.

Which is why, regardless of what happens with elections, I’m not overly optimistic about making progress. Unless, of course, we figure out some way of dealing the growing burden of federal spending. Which necessarily requires genuine entitlement reform.

P.S. Don’t forget that Barack Obama reportedly will be introducing a very simple tax reform plan.

P.P.S. Since we’re talking about the impact of policies on the election, my colleague Michael Cannon points to some very low-hanging fruit.

For more than five years, the executive branch has been issuing illegal subsidies that personally benefit the most powerful interest group in the nation’s capital: members of Congress and their staffs. …executive-branch agencies have broken the law, over and over, to protect ObamaCare. …The longest-running and perhaps most significant way the administration has broken the law to protect ObamaCare is by issuing illegal subsidies to members of Congress.

What’s Michael talking about?

When congressional Democrats passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), they were so desperate to pass a health care law that the ACA did not receive the scrutiny most bills do. Many members of Congress and their staffs were therefore surprised to learn that, as of the moment the president signed the ACA, that very law threw them out of their health plans. The ACA prohibits members of Congress and their staffs from receiving health coverage through the Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program. They remained free to purchase health insurance on their own, but they would have to do so without the $10,000 or so the federal government “contributed” to their FEHBP premiums.

But who cares what the law says.

Rather than risk Congress reopening the ACA to restore their lost health coverage — because who knows what other changes Congress might make in the process — the administration simply pretended that that part of the law didn’t exist. The Office of Personnel Management announced that members of Congress and their staffs could remain in the FEHBP until the ACA’s Exchanges launched in 2014.  …That still didn’t solve the president’s problems, however. The ACA says that as of 2014, the only coverage the federal government can offer members of Congress in connection with their employment is coverage created under the Act. In effect, that means Exchange coverage. But the law still cut off that $10,000 “employer contribution” to their health benefits. According to Politico, “OPM initially ruled that lawmakers and staffers couldn’t receive the subsidies once they went into the exchanges.” After the president intervened, OPM just ignored that part of the law and started issuing (illegal) subsidies on the order of $10,000 to hundreds of individual members of Congress and thousands of individual congressional staffers.

So what does all this have to do with the 2016 elections?

Well, as Michael points out, the GOP could make a lot of hay by going after the Obama Administration’s illegal favor for Capitol Hill.

Ending Congress’ special ObamaCare exemption — i.e., the bribes individual members of Congress and their staffs are receiving not to reopen ObamaCare — polls off the charts. More than 90 percent of voters believe this exemption is unfair.

The goal, of course, isn’t to deny the folks on Capitol Hill from getting pre-Obamacare subsidies for their health plans.

Instead, Michael is saying that these subsidies have to be restored in the proper fashion, which means amending the law, which will also open the door to other changes.

Which might mean actually addressing the real problems in our healthcare system.

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There are some things in life that are guaranteed to make me smile.

Georgia Bulldog victories are on that list, of course, and I also relish occasional moments of glory on the softball field.

Shifting to the world of public policy, nothing warms my heart and brings a smile to my face faster than news that taxpayers have successfully escaped the greedy and grasping claws of government.

I cheered when successful French taxpayers moved across the border when Francois Hollande imposed a 75 percent class-warfare tax rate. And I was overjoyed when elitist French politicians whined that the geese with the golden eggs were escaping.

I was happy to learn about consumers traveling across borders to escape punitive air-travel taxes in places such as England and the Netherlands.

I applauded when Toyota moved hundreds of jobs from high-tax California to low-tax Texas. And when oppressed taxpayers successfully escaped from New Jersey. Or from Detroit.

I also was glad to find out that Americans can dramatically reduce their tax bills by moving to Puerto Rico, which is a completely legal tax haven for U.S. citizens.

I’m even happy when American companies use “inversions” to get out from under America’s insanely punitive approach to business taxation. I’ll also defend individual Americans who reluctantly give up their passports to protect themselves from confiscatory taxation.

The common theme in all these examples is that politicians were unable to seize as much money as they hoped because taxpayers had the ability to shift economic activity to jurisdictions with better policy.

This is why tax competition is so praiseworthy – and also why we need to be so concerned about sinister efforts to create cartels for the purpose of replacing this liberalizing process with an “OPEC for politicians.”

But I’m guilty of digressing. Today, we simply want to focus on good news.

And I know this Bloomberg story made me feel all warm and fuzzy. Here are some excerpts about the looming decision of at least one bank to escape excessive English taxes.

HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, has faced calls to move its domicile away from the British capital after the government increased the levy on bank’s balance sheets for an eighth time this year. HSBC is hit the hardest by the tax and paid 750 million pounds ($1.1 billion) last year. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have pledged a more onerous tax regime for banks in their manifestos for the May 7 U.K. election. “Banks and pay are still easy cannon fodder for politicians,” said Jonathan Tyce, senior banks analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in London. “The lines between the Labour and Conservative parties are more blurred than usual and either way, it doesn’t look promising for banks or bankers.” …Standard Chartered Plc, another British bank that like HSBC makes most of its profit in Asia, is also being urged by Aberdeen Asset Management Plc, its second-largest shareholder, to relocate to Asia because of the cost of being in London.

Good. I hope both banks leave.

While I have grudgingly admitted that David Cameron’s government has done a decent job of restraining spending in recent years, taxpayers haven’t reaped many dividends. Yes, there have been some very successful reductions in the corporate tax rate and a modest reduction in the top tax rate on personal income, but these reforms were more than offset by big tax hikes when Cameron first took power.

P.S. If I understand correctly, HSBC didn’t get a bailout during the financial crisis. But if I’m wrong and the bank did mooch off taxpayers, then I’m much less sympathetic.

P.P.S. Shifting to another topic, I like to share examples of how some nations enjoy faster growth than others, mostly because these comparison invariably help to show why small government and free markets are the best route to prosperity.

To echo this point, here’s a very enlightening chart I just saw on Twitter, which shows per-capita economic output for a group of nations that were all roughly equal back in 1997.

What’s remarkable is that a couple of those nations dramatically boosted living standards in a very short period of time while others have stagnated.

And since I’ve written about the good reforms in Estonia and Poland and complained about bad policy in Venezuela and South Africa, you can understand why this is yet another example of why leftists have no good response to my two-part challenge.

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Who benefits most from the death tax?

There are two obvious answers.

First, politicians presumably benefit since they get more money to spend. Yes, it’s true that the tax discourages capital formation and may actually lose revenue in the long run, but politicians aren’t exactly famous for thinking past the next election cycle.

Second, there are some statists who are motivated by envy and resentment. These are the folks who make class-warfare arguments about the death tax being necessary to prevent the “rich” from accumulating more wealth, even though evidence shows large family fortunes dissipate over time.

Both of those answers are correct, but they don’t fully explain why this pernicious levy still exists.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a must-read piece for the American Enterprise Institute. He reveals the groups that actually are spending time and money to defend this odious version of double taxation.

…about two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters that they oppose the death tax. …But some segments of the population feel differently — most notably, the estate-planning industry. A survey by an industry magazine in 2011 found that 63 percent of estate-planning attorneys opposed repeal of the estate tax. That’s fitting. The death tax forces people to engage in complex and expensive estate planning. Lobbying disclosure forms show that the insurance industry is lobbying on the issue these days. The Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, which represents companies that sell estate-planning products, lobbied on the issue last year, as it has for years. Last decade, AALU funded a group called the Coalition for America’s Priorities, which attacked estate tax repeal as a tax break for Paris Hilton. …When the estate tax was last before Congress, the life insurance industry revved up the troops, spending $10 million a month on lobbying in the first half of 2010. In that stretch, only three industries spent more, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

I concur with Tim.

Indeed, I remember giving a speech back in the 1990s to a group of estate-planning professionals. In my youthful naiveté, I expected that these folks would very much appreciate my arguments against the death tax.

Instead, the reception was somewhat frosty.

Though not nearly as hostile, I must confess, as the treatment I got when speaking about the flat tax to a group of tax lobbyists for big corporations.

In both cases, I was surprised because I mistakenly assumed that my audiences actually cared about the best interests of their clients or employers.

In reality, they cared about what made them rich instead (economists and other social scientists call this the principal-agent problem).

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at more of Tim’s article. He cites the Clintons to make a key point about rich people being able to avoid the tax so long as they cough up enough money to the estate-planning industry.

Those same techniques, however, often are not available to farmers, small business owners, and others who are victimized by the levy.

The Clintons may be stupid-rich, but they aren’t stupid — they’re using estate-planning techniques to avoid the estate tax. Bloomberg News reported in 2014 that the Clinton family home has been divided, for tax purposes, into two shares, and those shares have been placed in a special trust that will shield Chelsea from having to pay the estate tax on the full value of the home when she inherits it. Also, the Clintons have created a life insurance trust — a common tool wealthy people use to provide liquidity for heirs to pay the estate tax. The Clintons’ games, and the estate-planning industry’s interest in the tax, highlights how the tax fails at its stated aims of preventing the inheritance of wealth and privilege. Instead, the estate tax forces the wealthy to play games in order to pass on their wealth. These games don’t add anything to the economy, they just enrich the estate-planning industry. Those whose wealth is tied up in a small or medium-sized business, on the other hand, aren’t always capable of playing the estate planning games. They’re the victims.

The bottom line is that the tax should be abolished for reasons of growth.

But it also should be repealed because it’s unfair to newly successful entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners, all of whom generally lack access to the clever tax-planning tools of those with established wealth.

And it should be repealed simply because it would be morally satisfying to reduce the income of those who benefit from – and lobby for – bad government policy.

P.S. The U.S. death tax is more punitive than the ones imposed by even France and Venezuela.

P.P.S. It’s particularly hypocritical for the Clintons to support the death tax on others while taking steps to make sure it doesn’t apply to them.

P.P.P.S. In a truly repugnant development, there are efforts in the U.K. to apply the death tax while people are still alive.

P.P.P.P.S. On a more positive note, a gay “adoption” in Pennsylvania helped one couple reduce exposure to that state’s death tax.

P.P.P.P.P.S. If you live in New Jersey, by contrast, the best choice is to move before you die.

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I’ve sometimes asserted, only half-jokingly, that statists believe all of our income belongs to the government and that we should be grateful if we’re allowed to keep any slice of what we earn.

This is, at least in part, the mentality behind the “tax expenditure” concept, which creates a false equivalence between spending programs and provisions of the tax code that allow people to keep greater amounts of their own income.

Here’s how I characterized this moral blindness when criticizing a Washington Post columnist back in 2013.

Hiatt presumably thinks that the government’s decision not to impose double taxation is somehow akin to a giveaway. But that only makes sense if you assume that government has a preemptive claim to all private income. …Hiatt wants us the think that there’s no moral, ethical, or economic difference between giving person A $5,000 of other people’s money and person B being allowed to keep $5,000 of his or her own money.

Today, I have a particularly absurd real-world illustration of this statist mindset.

Two writers for the Wonkblog section of the Washington Post recently wrote an article entitled, “The rich get government handouts just like the poor. Here are 10 of them.”

Did their list of 10 “handouts” include the Export-Import Bank, which lines the pockets of big corporations? Nope.

Did it include agriculture subsidies, which provide unearned goodies for big agribusiness firms? Nope.

Did it the TARP bailout, which shielded Wall Street fatcats from capitalism? Nope.

And how about subsidized terrorism insurance, ethanol goodies, and green energy subsidies? Nope, nope, and nope.

Or the handouts in Obamacare for major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies? Nope and nope.

Instead, every single “handout” that the rich “get” from government is nothing more than a provision of the tax code that lets people keep more of their own money.

I’m not joking. Here’s the list, followed by my two cents.

1. The mortgage interest deduction for big houses and second homes.

As I’ve previously explained, I don’t think the tax code should be tilted in favor of residential real estate. But a handout is when the government takes money from Person A and gives it to Person B.

2. The yacht tax deduction.

There actually isn’t a yacht tax deduction, but if you can live in something, it can be eligible for a mortgage interest deduction. I don’t think that’s wise tax policy, but it’s not an example of government taking from Person A and giving to Person B.

3. Rental property.

The authors appear to be upset that people running a business get to subtract costs from gross income when calculating net income. But that’s exactly how businesses are supposed to be taxed. And even if one thought, for some odd reason, that gross income was the right tax base, this still isn’t an example of government taking from Person A to give to Person B.

4. Fancy business meals.

As just noted, businesses should be taxed on profits rather than gross receipts. Well, profits are the difference between total income and total costs, including the cost of business-related meals. And even if one thinks that folks in business are lying and mischaracterizing personal meals, they’re not spending other people’s money. No funds are being taken from Person A and being given to Person B.

5. The capital gains tax rate.

In a good tax system, there’s no double taxation of income that is saved and invested, so the capital gains tax should be abolished. As such, the “preferential” rate in the current system is more accurately characterized as a mitigation of a penalty. But even if one believes that saving and investment should be double taxed, a lower capital gains tax rate doesn’t take money from Person A to give to Person B.

6. The estate tax.

The death tax is triple taxation, so it also should be abolished. Regardless, letting a family hold onto its own money is not the same as taking from Person A to give to Person B.

7. Gambling loss deductions.

The government taxes gamblers on their net winnings (if any), which is the proper approach. And even if the government gave a deduction for net losses (which isn’t the case), this wouldn’t be an example of taking from Person A and giving to Person B.

8. The Social Security earnings limit.

The Social Security system is supposed to be social insurance, and one of the implications of this approach is that there’s a limit on the benefits one can receive and the payments one has to make. As such, it’s silly to assert that the “wage base cap” is somehow improper. But even if one believed in turning Social Security into a pure redistribution scheme, the existing earnings limit simply means a cap on what the government takes. There’s no coerced handout from Person A to Person B.

9. Retirement plans.

The bad news is that we have pervasive double taxation in the internal revenue code. The good news is that some forms of retirement savings, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, are protected from double taxation. That protection does not require any money being taken from Person A and given to Person B.

10. Tax prep.

I’m not a fan of companies like H&R Block that benefit from an unfair and convoluted tax code. Under a simple and fair system like the flat tax, they would go out of business. But a deduction for tax preparation costs simply allows a taxpayer to keep more of his or her income. There’s no handout from Person A to Person B.

In case you didn’t notice, there’s a strong moral component to my argument. The leftists think you’re getting a handout if you get to keep more of your own money.

I think that’s absurd.

And it’s also economically illiterate when applied to provisions of the tax code that make sense, such as companies getting to subtract expenses when calculating taxable income.

Or individuals not being subjected to double taxation.

P.S. Here’s some pro-Second Amendment humor, which cleverly uses the left’s “undocumented” terminology for illegal aliens and applies it in a much better fashion.

And if you like pro-gun humor, you can find lots of good links by clicking here.

P.P.S. Since I mentioned immigration, here’s a fascinating graphic that shows immigration trends over the past two centuries.

There’s no policy lesson of philosophical point. I just think this graphic is very informative and well designed.

But if you want my two cents, I like immigration but want to make sure we attract people who want to work and assimilate rather than scroungers (and worse) who want welfare and handouts.

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I realize it’s tax week and I should be condemning our convoluted tax code and oppressive IRS.

But I can’t resist getting diverted to another topic. It’s time to debunk the notion that there is rampant sexism in the private economy that causes women to by systematically underpaid.

I addressed the issue back in 2010, citing the solid work of Christina Hoff Summers. And I cited more of her work, as well as some analysis by Steve Chapman, when writing about the topic in 2012. The bottom line is that rigorous analysis finds that the so-called gender gap largely disappears once you consider factors such as occupational choice, hours worked, and education.

I’ll add my two cents to the discussion. For decades, I’ve been dealing with leftists who repeatedly tell me that business owners are consumed by greed and put profit above everything. Yet if women truly were making less money than men for doing equal work, then why aren’t these greed-filled business owners firing all their male employees and hiring women who will work for 80 percent of what it costs to employ men? Or 85 percent? Or 90 percent?

When I pose this question, my statist friends begin to mumble and stumble, but the clever ones eventually asset that business owners are not only soulless profiteers but also malign sexists. And the sexism apparently trumps the greed because they’re willing to employ men when equally competent women would work for less.

At that point, I usually ask them why entrepreneurs (presumably women and perhaps financed by rich leftists) don’t take advantage of a huge competitive opportunity by setting up rival businesses that could hire women for less money and lure customers away from the greedy sexist firms by charging lower prices.

I still haven’t received an answer to that question.

And that may explain why even one of President Obama’s top economic advisers basically admitted that equal-pay propaganda from the left is completely bogus.

Let’s dig into the data. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute does a very good job of explaining why Equal Pay Day is based on nonsensical numbers.

…the bogus feminist holiday event known as Equal Pay Day…is a statistical fairy tale because it’s based on the false assumption that women get paid 23% less than men for doing exactly the same work in the exact same occupations and careers, working side-by-side with men on the same job for the same organization, working the same number of hours per week, traveling the same amount of time for work obligations, with the same exact work experience and education, with exactly the same level of productivity, etc. …The reality is that you can only find a 23% gender pay gap by comparing raw, aggregate, unadjusted full-time median salaries, i.e. when you control for NOTHING that would help explain gender differences in salaries… Most economic studies that control for all of those variables conclude that gender discrimination accounts for only a very small fraction of gender pay differences, and may not even be a statistically significant factor at all. …As the Department of Labor concluded in 2009, “The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.” They also concluded that “the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action.”

By the way, all this data and research doesn’t mean sexism doesn’t exist. I’m sure it does, and it probably goes both ways.

I’m simply saying that unjustified discrimination in a competitive market economy is expensive. People who put prejudice above profits suffer. Which is why there’s so little actual evidence to support the feminist position.

Now let’s enjoy a bit of fun. It’s always amusing to expose statist hypocrisy.

The Obama White House claims to believe in so-called equal pay for equal work. But apparently that’s only a rule for us peasants.

And Hillary Clinton doubtlessly will regale us with speeches about equal pay over the next several months. Yet she didn’t practice what she preaches.

Yes, I realize we’re all shocked that politicians like Hillary prevaricate and dissemble.

P.S. Since this is tax season, I suppose I should close with a couple of relevant items.

First, we have an update to the infamous chart on the number of pages in the tax code.

Second, we have a new video from Reason TV about the “best tax code.”

Sadly, I don’t think my tax videos will ever be that entertaining.

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With so many Americans currently filled with anxiety about their annual tax forms, this is the time of year that many people wistfully dream about how nice it would be to have a simple and fair flat tax.

Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to better tax policy. I’ve previously addressed some of these obstacles.

1. Politicians who prefer the status quo make appeals to envy by making class-warfare arguments about imposing higher tax rates on those who contribute more to economic output.

2. Politicians have created a revenue-estimating system based on the preposterous notion that even big changes in tax policy have no impact on economic performance, thus creating a procedural barrier to reform.

3. Politicians enormously benefit from the current corrupt and complex system since they can auction off tax loopholes for campaign cash and use the tax code to reward friends and punish enemies.

Today, we’re going to look at another obstacle to pro-growth reform.

One of the main goals of tax reform is to get a low flat rate. This is important because marginal tax rates affect people’s incentives to engage in additional productive behavior.

But it’s equally important to have a system that taxes economic activity only one time. This is a big issue because the current internal revenue code imposes a heavy bias against income that is saved and invested. It’s possible, when you consider the impact of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, double tax on dividends, and the death tax, for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four times.

And what makes this system so crazy is that all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is critical for long-run growth and rising living standards.

Yet here’s the problem. The crowd in Washington has set up a system for determining tax loopholes and that system assumes that there should be this kind of double taxation!

I’m not joking. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

This is why I organized a briefing for Capitol Hill staffers last week. You can watch the entire hour by clicking here, but if you don’t have a lot of time, here’s my 10-minute speech on the importance of choosing the right tax base (i.e., taxing income only one time).

Since I’m an economist, I want to highlight one particular aspect on my presentation. You’ll notice near the end that I tried to explain the destructive economic impact of double taxation with an analogy.

I shared a Powerpoint slide that compared the tax system to an apple tree. If you want to tax income, the sensible approach is to pick the apples off the tree.

But if you want to mimic the current tax system, with the pervasive double taxation and bias against capital, you harvest the apples by chopping down the tree.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), it’s utterly foolish to harvest apples by chopping down the tree since it means fewer apples in following years.

In this analogy, the apples are the income and the tree is the capital.

But as I thought about the issue further, I realized my analogy was imperfect because our current system doesn’t confiscate all existing capital.

Which is why it is very fortunate that one of the interns at Cato, Jonathan Babington-Heina, is a very good artist. And he was able to take my idea and come up with a set of cartoons that accurately – and effectively – show why discriminatory taxation of capital is so misguided.

By the way, this isn’t the first time that an intern has come to my rescue with artistic skill.

My highest-viewed post of all time is this famous set of cartoons that shows the dangerous evolution of the welfare state.

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What’s the Laffer Curve?

It’s the simple, common-sense observation that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

Folks in the private sector understand this principle. No restaurant owner, for instance, would double meal prices and assume that revenues would climb by 100 percent.

Yet that’s basically the methodology used by the Joint Committee on Taxation when estimating the revenue impact of changes in tax rates.

Which helps to explain why Washington is so often wrong about revenue implications of personal tax rates and corporate tax rates.

The Laffer Curve also applies to tobacco taxation.

Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform points out in the Wall Street Journal that greedy politicians in New York have pushed cigarette taxes so high that the main beneficiaries are smugglers.

Rampant cigarette smuggling isn’t the problem in New York. It’s a symptom of the problem: sky high tobacco taxes. …New York state levies the highest cigarette tax in the nation, $4.35 per pack, and New York City tacks on an additional $1.50 local tax. All told, the cost of one pack there can run to $12 or more. …The result? Most of the cigarettes smoked in New York, 58%, are smuggled in from out of state… The higher that revenue-hungry politicians raise tobacco taxes, the more profit smugglers can make.

Which means, of course, that the higher tax rates don’t lead to more tax revenue.

…revenue from increases in cigarette taxes often falls short of expectations. Washington, D.C., experienced this firsthand after cigarette taxes were raised by 25%, to $2.50 per pack from $2, in October 2009. City leaders claimed the hike would generate a windfall of additional revenue. By February of 2010, D.C.’s chief financial officer reported that projections were off by $15 million. Revenue from the cigarette tax actually fell by $7 million after the hike. New Jersey should have learned the same lesson. In 2007 the Garden State raised cigarette taxes to $2.575, from $2.40. The new tax generated $52 million less than expected, and revenue from cigarette taxes fell by $22 million. But in 2009 New Jersey raised the tax by another 17.5 cents.

By the way, don’t believe the fall-back excuse that politicians don’t care about revenue because they’re motivated by public health concerns.

Lawmakers can claim they’re raising taxes on cigarettes to reduce smoking and improve public health. That talking point is belied by the recent imposition of taxes on electronic cigarettes, which are saving lives by delivering nicotine in puffs of water vapor instead of chemical-filled smoke. There are more than 15 tax bills pending across the country for currently untaxed e-cigarettes. Hawaii is proposing a tax of 80%, New York of 75%, Oregon of 65% and Ohio of 60%. For politicians, cigarette taxes are—and have always been—about one thing: money.

One last thing. Gleason reports that New York is suing UPS because the company ships cigarettes to New York customers.

New York state and New York City in February announced a $180 million lawsuit against the shipping company UPS over what officials allege was unlawful delivery of nearly 700,000 cartons of cigarettes from 2010-14. …New York state officials claim that the cigarette smuggling via UPS cost the treasury $29.7 million in lost tax revenue. That’s less than 0.03% of the state budget. The $4.7 million allegedly lost by New York City represents less than 0.006% of its budget. For a mere rounding error, state and city officials want to grab $180 million from UPS. That’s $180 million UPS could use to hire new workers, give employees raises, or invest back into its business. The leaders of New York and New York City should drop this silly lawsuit and find a more productive use of their time.

They shouldn’t merely drop the lawsuit. They should be condemned for engaging in a thuggish shakedown.

Returning to the main topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that reviews real-world examples of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. If local officials are greedy, state officials are ever greedier, and federal officials are greediest, then you can imagine how awful it would be to let international officials impose tobacco taxes.

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