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Posts Tagged ‘Wealth Tax’

I sometimes mock the New York Times for dodgy and inaccurate writing about economics.

Though, to be fair, the paper has many sound journalists who do a good job, so I should be more careful about explaining that the mistakes are the result of specific reporters and columnists.

Paul Krugman is an obvious example.

And we should add David Leonhardt to the list. He actually claims that imposing a wealth tax and confiscating private capital can lead to more growth.

There are two problems with the arguments from these opponents. First, they’re based on a premise that the American economy is doing just fine and we shouldn’t mess with success. …Second, …it’s also plausible that a wealth tax would accelerate economic growth. …A large portion of society’s resources are held by a tiny slice of people, who aren’t using the resources very efficiently. …Sure, it’s theoretically possible that some entrepreneurs and investors might work less hard… But it’s more likely that any such effect would be small — and more than outweighed by the return that the economy would get on the programs that a wealth tax would finance, like education, scientific research, infrastructure and more.

Wow. It’s rare to see so much inaccuracy in so few words.

Let’s review his arguments.

His first claim is utter nonsense. I’ve been following the debate over the wealth tax for years, and I’ve never run across a critic who argued that the wealth tax is a bad idea because the economy is “doing just fine.”

Instead, critics invariably explain that the tax is a bad idea because it would exacerbate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment and thus have a negative effect on jobs, wages, productivity, and competitiveness.

And those arguments are true and relevant whether the economy is booming, in a recession, or somewhere in between.

His second claim is equally absurd. He wants readers to believe that government spending is good for growth and that those benefits will more than offset the economic harm from the punitive tax.

To be fair, at least this is not a make-believe argument. Left-leaning bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have been pushing this idea in recent years. They use phrases such as “resource mobilization” and “financing for development” to argue that higher taxes will lead to more growth because governments somehow will use money wisely.

Needless to say, that’s a preposterous, anti-empirical assertion. Especially when dealing with a tax that would do lots of damage on a per-dollar-collected basis.

Interestingly, a news report in the New York Times had a much more rational assessment, largely focusing on the degree of damage such a tax would cause.

Progressive Democrats are advocating the most drastic shift in tax policy in over a century as they look to redistribute wealth…with new taxes that could fundamentally reshape the United States economy. …Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont have proposed wealth taxes that would shrink the fortunes of the richest Americans. Their plans envision an enormous transfer of money from the wealthy… the idea of redistributing wealth by targeting billionaires is stirring fierce debates at the highest ranks of academia and business, with opponents arguing it would cripple economic growth, sap the motivation of entrepreneurs who aspire to be multimillionaires and set off a search for loopholes. …At a conference sponsored by the Brookings Institution in September, N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist, …offered a searing critique, arguing that a wealth tax would skew incentives that could alter when the superrich make investments, how they give to charity and even potentially spur a wave of divorces for tax purposes. He also noted that billionaires, with their legions of lawyers and accountants, have proven to be experts at gaming the system to avoid even the most onerous taxes. …“On the one hand it’s a bad policy, and then the other thing is it’s a feckless policy,” Mr. Mankiw said. Left-leaning economists have expressed their own doubts about a wealth tax. Earlier this year, Lawrence Summers, who was President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, warned…that wealth taxes would sap innovation by putting new burdens on entrepreneurial businesses while they are starting up. In their view, a country with more millionaires is a sign of economic vibrancy.

This is an example of good reporting. It cited supporters and opponents and fairly represented their arguments.

Readers learn that the real debate is over the magnitude of economic harm.

Speaking of which, a Bloomberg column explains how much money might get siphoned from the private economy if a wealth tax is imposed.

Billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett could have collectively lost hundreds of billions of dollars in net worth over decades if presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax plan had been in effect — and they had done nothing to avoid it. That’s according to calculations in a new paper by two French economists, who helped her devise the proposed tax on the wealthiest Americans. The top 15 richest Americans would have seen their net worth decline by more than half to $433.9 billion had Warren’s plan been in place since 1982, according to the paper by University of California, Berkeley professors Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. …The calculations underscore how a wealth tax of just a few percentage points might erode fortunes over time.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article.

What matters to the economy, though, is not the amount of wealth owned by individual entrepreneurs.

Instead, it’s the amount of saving and investment (i.e., the stock of capital) in the economy.

A wealth tax is bad news because it diverts capital from the private sector and transfers it to Washington where politicians will squander the funds (notwithstanding David Leonhardt’s fanciful hopes).

So I decided to edit the Bloomberg chart so that is gives us an idea of how the economy will be impacted.

The bottom line is that wealth taxation would be very harmful to America’s economy.

P.S. Several years ago, bureaucrats at the IMF tried to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t damage growth if two impossible conditions were satisfied: 1) It was a total surprise, and 2) It was only imposed one time.

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Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but I get rather irked when rich people endorse higher taxes.

Are they trying to curry favor with politicians? Seeking some sort of favoritism from Washington (like Warren Buffett)?

Or do they genuinely think it’s a good idea to voluntarily send extra cash to the clowns in D.C. ?

I’m not sure how Bill Gates should be classified, but the billionaire is sympathetic to a wealth tax according to news reports.

Bill Gates…says he’d be ok with a tax on his assets. In an interview with Bloomberg, Gates was asked if he would support a wealth tax… Gates said he wouldn’t be opposed to such a measure… “I doubt, you know, the U.S. will do a wealth tax, but I wouldn’t be against it,” he said. …This isn’t the first time Gates has hinted at supporting a wealth tax, an idea being pushed by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). In February, Gates told The Verge that tax plans solely focused on income are “missing the picture,” suggesting the estate tax and taxes on capital should instead be the subject of more progressive rates.

My reaction is that Gates should lead by example.

A quick web search indicates that Gates is worth $105 billion.

Based on Warren’s proposal for a 3 percent tax on all assets about $1 billion, Gates should put his money where his mouth is and send a $3.12 billion check to Washington.

Or, if Gates really wanted to show his “patriotism,” he could pay back taxes on his fortune.

CNBC helpfully did the calculations.

A recent paper by two economists who helped Warren create her plan — University of California, Berkeley professors Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman — calculated what effect Warren’s plan would have had on America’s richest, including Gates, if it had been imposed starting in 1982 (the first year Forbes magazine began tracking the net worth of the 400 richest Americans) through 2018. Gates, whose fortune was tallied at $97 billion on 2018′s Forbes 400 list, would have been worth nearly two-thirds less last year — a total of only $36.4 billion — had Warren’s plan been in place for the last three decades. Gates’ current net worth is $105.3 billion, according to Forbes.

In other words, Gates could show he’s not a hypocrite by sending a check for more than $60 billion to Uncle Sam.

Because I’m a helpful guy, I’ll even direct him to the website that the federal government maintains for the knaves and fools who think people like Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi should have extra money to squander (my two cents is that they’re the ones with the worst incentive to use money wisely).

Needless to say, Gates won’t give extra money to Washington.

Just like he won’t fire the dozens (if not hundreds) of financial advisors that he surely employs to protect his income and assets from the IRS.

The bottom line is that nobody who embraces higher taxes should be taken seriously unless they show us that they’re willing to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Based on the behavior of Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

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When I wrote about the wealth tax early this year, I made three simple points.

I obviously have not been very persuasive.

At least in certain quarters.

A story in the Wall Street Journal explores the growing interest on the left in this new form of taxation.

The income tax..system could change fundamentally if Democrats win the White House and Congress. …Democrats want to shift toward taxing their wealth, instead of just their salaries and the income their assets generate. …At the end of 2017, U.S. households had $3.8 trillion in unrealized gains in stocks and investment funds, plus more in real estate, private businesses and artwork… Democrats are eager to tap that mountain of wealth to finance priorities such as expanding health-insurance coverage, combating climate change and aiding low-income households. …The most ambitious plan comes from Sen. Warren of Massachusetts, whose annual wealth tax would fund spending proposals such as universal child care and student-loan forgiveness. …rich would pay whether they make money or not, whether they sell assets or not and whether their assets are growing or shrinking.

The report includes this comparison of current law with various soak-the-rich proposals (click here for my thoughts on the Wyden plan).

The article does acknowledge that there are some critiques of this class-warfare tax proposal.

European countries tried—and largely abandoned—wealth taxes. …For an investment yielding a steady 1.5% return, a 2% wealth levy would be equivalent to an income-tax rate above 100% and cause the asset to shrink. …The wealth tax also has an extra asterisk: it would be challenged as unconstitutional.

The two economists advising Elizabeth Warren, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, have a new study extolling the ostensible benefits of a wealth tax.

I want to focus on their economic arguments, but I can’t resist starting with an observation that I was right when I warned that the attack on financial privacy and the assault on so-called tax havens was a precursor to big tax increases.

Indeed, Saez and Zucman explicitly argue this is a big reason to push their punitive new wealth tax.

European countries were exposed to tax competition and tax evasion through offshore accounts, in a context where until recently there was no cross-border information sharing. …offshore tax evasion can be fought more effectively today than in the past, thanks to recent breakthrough in cross-border information exchange, and wealth taxes could be applied to expatriates (for at least some years), mitigating concerns about tax competition. …Cracking down on offshore tax evasion, as the US has started doing with FATCA, is crucial.

Now that I’m done patting myself on the back for my foresight (not that it took any special insight to realize that politicians were attacking tax competition in order to grab more money), let’s look at what they wrote about the potential economic impact.

A potential concern with wealth taxation is that by reducing large wealth holdings, it may reduce the capital stock in the economy–thus lowering the productivity of U.S. workers and their wages. However, these effects are likely to be dampened in the case of a progressive wealth tax for two reasons. First, the United States is an open economy and a significant fraction of U.S. saving is invested abroad while a large fraction of U.S. domestic investment is financed by foreign saving. Therefore, a reduction in U.S. savings does not necessarily translate into a large reduction in the capital stock used in the United States. …Second, a progressive wealth tax applies to only the wealthiest families. For example, we estimated that a wealth tax above $50 million would apply only to about 10% of the household wealth stock. Therefore increased savings from the rest of the population or the government sector could possibly offset any reduction in the capital stock. …A wealth tax would reduce the financial payoff to extreme cases of business success, but would it reduce the socially valuable innovation that can be associated with such success? And would any such reduction exceed the social gains of discouraging extractive wealth accumulation? In our assessment the effect on innovation and productivity is likely to be modest, and if anything slightly positive.

I’m not overly impressed by these two arguments.

  1. Yes, foreign savings could offset some of the damage caused by the new wealth tax. But it’s highly likely that other nations would copy Washington’s revenue grab. Especially now that it’s easier for governments to track money around the world.
  2. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that other people may save more to offset the damage caused by the new wealth tax. But why would that happen when Warren and other proponents want to give people more goodies, thus reducing the necessity for saving and personal responsibility?

By the way, they openly admit that there are Laffer Curve effects because their proposed levy will reduce taxable activity.

With successful enforcement, a wealth tax has to deliver either revenue or de-concentrate wealth. Set the rates low (1%) and you get revenue in perpetuity but little (or very slow) de-concentration. Set the rates medium (2-3%) and you get revenue for quite a while and de-concentration eventually. Set the rates high (significantly above 3%) and you get de-concentration fast but revenue does not last long.

Now let’s look at experts from the other side.

In a column for Bloomberg, Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute takes aim at Elizabeth Warren’s bad math.

Warren’s plan would augment the existing income tax by adding a tax on wealth. …The tax would apply to fortunes above $50 million, hitting them with a 2% annual rate; there would be a surcharge of 1% per year on wealth in excess of $1 billion. …Not only would such a tax be very hard to administer, as many have pointed out. It likely won’t collect nearly as much revenue as Warren claims. …Under Warren’s proposal, the fair market value of all assets for the wealthiest 0.06% of households would have to be assessed every year. It would be difficult to determine the market value of partially held private businesses, works of art and the like… This helps to explain why the number of countries in the high-income OECD that administer a wealth tax fell from 14 in 1996 to only four in 2017. …It is highly unlikely that the tax would yield the $2.75 trillion estimated by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the University of California, Berkeley, professors who are Warren’s economic advisers. Lawrence Summers, the economist and top adviser to the last two Democratic presidents, and University of Pennsylvania professor Natasha Sarin…convincingly argued Warren’s plan would bring in a fraction of what Saez and Zucman expect once real-world factors like tax avoidance…are factored in. …economists Matthew Smith, Owen Zidar and Eric Zwick present preliminary estimates suggesting that the Warren proposal would raise half as much as projected.

But a much bigger problem is her bad economics.

…a household worth $50 million would lose 2% of its wealth every year to the tax, or 20% over the first decade. For an asset yielding a steady 1.5% return, a 2% wealth tax is equivalent to an income tax of 133%. …And remember that the wealth tax would operate along with the existing income tax system. The combined (equivalent income) tax rate would often be well over 100%. Underlying assets would routinely shrink. …The tax would likely reduce national savings, resulting in less business investment in the U.S… Less investment spending would reduce productivity and wages to some extent over the longer term.

Strain’s point is key. A wealth tax is equivalent to a very high marginal tax rate on saving and investment.

Of course that’s going to have a negative effect.

Chris Edwards, in a report on wealth taxes, shared some of the scholarly research on the economic effects of the levy.

Because wealth taxes suppress savings and investment, they undermine economic growth. A 2010 study by Asa Hansson examined the relationship between wealth taxes and economic growth across 20 OECD countries from 1980 to 1999. She found “fairly robust support for the popular contention that wealth taxes dampen economic growth,” although the magnitude of the measured effect was modest. The Tax Foundation simulated an annual net wealth tax of 1 percent above $1.3 million and 2 percent above $6.5 million. They estimated that such a tax would reduce the U.S. capital stock in the long run by 13 percent, which in turn would reduce GDP by 4.9 percent and reduce wages by 4.2 percent. The government would raise about $20 billion a year from such a wealth tax, but in the long run GDP would be reduced by hundreds of billions of dollars a year.Germany’s Ifo Institute recently simulated a wealth tax for that nation. The study assumed a tax rate of 0.8 percent on individual net wealth above 1 million euros. Such a wealth tax would reduce employment by 2 percent and GDP by 5 percent in the long run. The government would raise about 15 billion euros a year from the tax, but because growth was undermined the government would lose 46 billion euros in other revenues, resulting in a net revenue loss of 31 billion euros. The study concluded, “the burden of the wealth tax is practically borne by every citizen, even if the wealth tax is designed to target only the wealthiest individuals in society.”

The last part of the excerpt is key.

Yes, the tax is a hassle for rich people, but it’s the rest of us who suffer most because we’re much dependent on a vibrant economy to improve our living standards.

My contribution to this discussion it to put this argument in visual form. Here’s a simply depiction of how income is generated in our economy.

Now here’s the same process, but with a wealth tax.

For the sake of argument, as you can see from the letters that have been fully or partially erased, I assumed the wealth tax would depress the capital stock by 10 percent and that this would reduce national income by 5 percent.

I’m not wedded to these specific numbers. Both might be higher (especially in the long run), both might be lower (at least in the short run), or one of them might be higher or lower.

What’s important to understand is that rich people won’t be the only ones hurt by this tax. Indeed, this is a very accurate criticism of almost all class-warfare taxes.

The bottom line is that you can’t punish capital without simultaneously punishing labor.

But some of our friends on the left – as Margaret Thatcher noted many years ago – seem to think such taxes are okay if rich people are hurt by a greater amount than poor people.

P.S. Since I mentioned foresight above, I was warning about wealth taxation more than five years ago.

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I wrote five years ago about the growing threat of a wealth tax.

Some friends at the time told me I was being paranoid. The crowd in Washington, they assured me, would never be foolish enough to impose such a levy, especially when other nations such as Sweden have repealed wealth taxes because of their harmful impact.

But, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the foolishness of politicians.

I already wrote this year about how folks on the left are demonizing wealth in hopes of creating a receptive environment for this extra layer of tax.

And some masochistic rich people are peddling the same message. Here’s some of what the Washington Post reported.

A group of ultrarich Americans wants to pay more in taxes, saying the nation has a “moral, ethical and economic responsibility” to ensure that they do. In an open letter addressed to the 2020 presidential candidates and published Monday on Medium, the 18 signatories urged political leaders to support a wealth tax on the richest one-tenth of the richest 1 percent of Americans. “On us,” they wrote. …The letter, which emphasized that it was nonpartisan and not to be interpreted as an endorsement of anyone in 2020, noted that several presidential candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, have already signaled interest in addressing the nation’s staggering wealth inequality through taxation.

I’m not sure a please-tax-us letter from a small handful of rich leftists merits so much news coverage.

Though, to be fair, they’re not the only masochistic rich people.

Another guilt-ridden rich guy wrote for the New York Times that he wants the government to have more of his money.

My parents watched me build two Fortune 500 companies and become one of the wealthiest people in the country. …It’s time to start talking seriously about a wealth tax. …Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating an end to the capitalist system that’s yielded some of the greatest gains in prosperity and innovation in human history. I simply believe it’s time for those of us with great wealth to commit to reducing income inequality, starting with the demand to be taxed at a higher rate than everyone else. …let’s end this tired argument that we must delay fixing structural inequities until our government is running as efficiently as the most profitable companies. …we can’t waste any more time tinkering around the edges. …A wealth tax can start to address the economic inequality eroding the soul of our country’s strength. I can afford to pay more, and I know others can too.

When reading this kind of nonsense, my initial instinct is to tell this kind of person to go ahead and write a big check to the IRS (or, better yet, send the money to me as a personal form of redistribution to the less fortunate). After all, if he really thinks he shouldn’t have so much wealth, he should put his money where his mouth is.

But rich leftists like Elizabeth Warren don’t do this, and I’m guessing the author of the NYT column won’t, either. At least if the actions of other rich leftists are any guide.

But I don’t want to focus on hypocrisy.

Today’s column is about the destructive economics of wealth taxation.

A report from the Mercatus Center makes a very important point about how a wealth tax is really a tax on the creation of new wealth.

Wealth taxes have been historically plagued by “ultra-millionaire” mobility. …The Ultra-Millionaire Tax, therefore, contains “strong anti-evasion measures” like a 40 percent exit tax on any targeted household that attempts to emigrate, minimum audit rates, and increased funding for IRS enforcement. …Sen. Warren’s wealth tax would target the…households that met the threshold—around 75,000—would be required to value all of their assets, which would then be subject to a two or three percent tax every year. Sen. Warren’s team estimates that all of this would bring $2.75 trillion to the federal treasury over ten years… a wealth tax would almost certainly be anti-growth. …A wealth tax might not cause economic indicators to tumble immediately, but the American economy would eventually become less dynamic and competitive… If a household’s wealth grows at a normal rate—say, five percent—then the three percent annual tax on wealth would amount to a 60 percent tax on net wealth added.

Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute makes the same point in a column for the Hill.

Wealth taxes operate differently from income taxes because the same stock of money is taxed repeatedly year after year. …Under a 2 percent wealth tax, an investor pays taxes each year equal to 2 percent of his or her net worth, but in the end pays taxes each decade equal to a full 20 percent of his or her net worth. …Consider a taxpayer who holds a long term bond with a fixed interest rate of 3 percent each year. Because a 2 percent wealth tax captures 67 percent of the interest income of the bondholder makes each year, it is essentially identical to a 67 percent income tax. The proposed tax raises the same revenue and has the same economic effects, whether it is called a 2 percent wealth tax or a 67 percent income tax. …The 3 percent wealth tax that Warren has proposed for billionaires is still higher, equivalent to a 100 percent income tax rate in this example. The total tax burden is even greater because the wealth tax would be imposed on top of the 37 percent income tax rate. …Although the wealth tax would be less burdensome in years with high returns, it would be more burdensome in years with low or negative returns. …high rates make the tax a drain on the pool of American savings. That effect is troubling because savings finance the business investment that in turn drives future growth of the economy and living standards of workers.

Alan is absolutely correct (I made the same point back in 2012).

Taxing wealth is the same as taxing saving and investment (actually, it’s the same as triple- or quadruple-taxing saving and investment). And that’s bad for competitiveness, growth, and wages.

And the implicit marginal tax rate on saving and investment can be extremely punitive. Between 67 percent and 100 percent in Alan’s examples. And that’s in addition to regular income tax rates.

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed supply-side economist to recognize that this is crazy.

Which is one of the reasons why other nations have been repealing this class-warfare levy.

Here’s a chart from the Tax Foundation showing the number of developed nations with wealth taxes from1965-present.

And here’s a tweet with a chart making the same point.

 

P.S. I’ve tried to figure out why so many rich leftists support higher taxes. For non-rich leftists, I cite IRS data in hopes of convincing them they should be happy there are rich people.

P.P.S. I’ve had two TV debates with rich, pro-tax leftists (see here and here). Very strange experiences.

P.P.P.S. There are also pro-tax rich leftists in Germany.

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While Switzerland is one of the world’s most market-oriented nations, ranked #4 by Economic Freedom of the World, it’s not libertarian Nirvana.

Government spending, for instance, consumes about one-third of economic output. That may be the second-lowest level among all OECD nations (fast-growing South Korea wins the prize for the smallest public sector relative to GDP), but it’s still far too high when compared to Hong Kong and Singapore.*

Moreover, while the Swiss tax code is benign compared to what exists in other European nations, it also is not perfect. One of the warts is a wealth tax, which is a very pernicious levy that drains capital from the private sector.

Let’s look at some excerpts from a report in the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the Swiss system.

Switzerland has taxed wealth since the late 18th century. Its 26 cantons in 2014 levied taxes on net wealth with rates varying from 0.13% in the lighter taxing German-speaking parts to 1% in French-speaking Geneva. Swiss wealth taxes are also special because they apply from wealth as low as 25,000 Swiss francs, ensuring large swaths of the middle class incur them. Typical taxpayers pay a rate of just over 0.5%.

Here are the wealth tax rates in the various cantons, based on a recent study of the system.

As noted in the WSJ story, that study contains strong evidence that the tax is hurting Switzerland.

…according to a new paper, …taxing wealth leads declared wealth to disappear. Based on experience in Switzerland, which uses wealth taxes the most, reported wealth falls around 20 times as much in response to an increase in a wealth tax as it does to an equivalent increase in a tax on capital income, such as dividends or capital gains. …Economists at the University of Lausanne and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a 0.1 percentage point increase in Swiss wealth taxes caused a 3.5% reduction in reported wealth. That’s equivalent to 100,000 Swiss francs going missing for a person worth 3 million francs. …they conclude in a study investigating changes in wealth tax rates on Swiss taxpayers’ reported wealth from 2001 to 2012.

Why is there such a big response?

For the same reason that class-warfare taxes don’t work very well in the United States. Simply stated, taxpayers have considerable ability to rearrange their financial affairs when governments try to tax capital (or capital income). And that ability is especially pronounced for those with higher levels of income and wealth.

Individuals have greater control over their reported wealth–especially financial wealth such as bank deposits, stock and bonds–than their reported income.

By the way, the story also included this nugget of good news.

Thanks primarily to tax competition, many nations have eliminated wealth taxes over the past 20 years.

…only five members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still levy annual taxes on individuals’ total financial and non-financial wealth… That is down from 14 nations two decades ago.

And if you want more good news, the Swiss cantons also are lowering their tax rates on wealth.

Here’s another map from the study. It shows that a couple of French-speaking cantons have imposed very small increases in the tax since 2003, while the vast majority of cantons have moved in the other direction, in some cases slashing their wealth tax rates by substantial amounts.

Since I’m a big fan of Switzerland, let’s close with some more good news about the Swiss tax system. Not only are tax rates on wealth dropping, but there’s no capital gains tax. And there are no taxes on interest.

So while there is a wealth tax, which is a very unfortunate and destructive imposition, the Swiss avoid many other forms of double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

*The burden of government spending also is excessive in Hong Kong and Singapore. Based on historical data, economic performance will be maximized if total government spending is less than 10 percent of GDP.

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Allister Heath, the superb economic writer from London, recently warned that governments are undermining incentives to save.

And not just because of high tax rates and double taxation of savings. Allister says people are worried about outright confiscation resulting from possible wealth taxation.

It is clear that individuals, when at all possible, need to accumulate more financial assets. …Tragically, it won’t happen. A lack of trust in the system is one important explanation. People simply don’t believe the government – and politicians of all parties – when it comes to long-terms savings and pensions. They worry, with good reason, that the rules will keep changing; they are afraid that savers are an easy target and that they will eventually be hit by a wealth tax.

Are savers being paranoid? Is Allister being paranoid?

Well, even paranoid people have enemies, and this already has happened in countries such as Poland and Argentina. Moreover, it appears that plenty of politicians and bureaucrats elsewhere want this type of punitive levy.

Here are some passages from a Reuters report.

Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.

Since data from the IMF, OECD, and BIS show that almost every industrialized nation will face a fiscal crisis in the next decade or two, people with assets understandably are concerned that their necks will be on the chopping block when politicians are scavenging for more cash to prop up failed welfare states.

Though to be fair, the Bundesbank may simply be sending a signal that German taxpayers don’t want to pick up the tab for fiscal excess in nations such as France and Greece. And it also acknowledged such a tax would harm growth.

“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. …the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.

Other German economists, however, openly advocate for wealth taxes on German taxpayers.

…governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich… In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population. …a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP. …In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

The pro-tax crowd at the International Monetary Fund has a similarly favorable perspective, relying on absurdly unrealistic conditions to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t hurt growth. Here’s some of what the IMF asserted in its Fiscal Monitor last October.

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).

The IMF even floats a trial balloon that governments could confiscate 10 percent of household assets.

The tax rates needed to bring down public debt to precrisis levels…are sizable: reducing debt ratios to end-2007 levels would require (for a sample of 15 euro area countries) a tax rate of about 10 percent on households with positive net wealth.

Many people condemned the IMF for seeming to endorse theft by government.

The IMF’s Deputy Director of Fiscal Affairs then backpedaled a bit the following month. He did regurgitate the implausible notion that a wealth tax won’t hurt the economy so long as it only happens once and it is a surprise.

To an economist, …it’s close to an ideal form of taxation, since there is nothing you can now do to reduce, avoid, or evade it—the holy grail of what economists call a non-distorting tax. …Such a levy would entail a one-off charge on capital assets, the precise base being a matter for choice, but generally larger than cash left on kitchen tables. Added to the efficiency advantage of such a tax, many see an equity appeal in that such a charge would naturally fall most heavily on those with the most assets.

But he then felt obliged to point out some real-world concerns.

…governments have rarely implemented capital levies, and they have almost never succeeded. And there are very good reasons for that. …to be non-distorting the tax must be both unanticipated and believed certain not to be repeated. These are both very hard things to achieve. Introducing and implementing any new tax takes time, and governments can rarely do it in entire secrecy (even leaving aside transparency issues). And that gives time for assets to be moved abroad, run down, or concealed. The risk of future levies can be even more damaging; they discourage the saving and investment that generate future capital assets.

Though these practical flaws and problems don’t cause much hesitation on the left.

Here’s what Joann Weiner recently wrote in the Washington Post about the work of Thomas Piketty, a French economist who apparently believes society will be better if higher taxes result in everyone being equally poor.

A much higher tax on upper income — say 80 percent — coupled with a significant tax on wealth — say 10 percent — would go a long way toward making America’s income distribution more equitable than it is now. …capital is the chief culprit… Piketty has another pretty radical, at least for the United States, way to shrink the share of wealth at the top — introduce a global tax on all capital. This means taxes on not just stocks and bonds, but also land, homes, machines, patents — you name it; if it’s wealth or if it generates what tax authorities call “unearned income,” then it should be taxed. One other thing. All countries have to adopt the tax to keep capital from fleeing to tax havens.

Writing in the New York Times back in January, Thomas Edsall also applauds proposals for a new wealth tax.

…worsening inequality is an inevitable outcome of free market capitalism. …The only way to halt this process…is to impose a global progressive tax on wealth – global in order to prevent (among other things) the transfer of assets to countries without such levies. A global tax, in this scheme, would restrict the concentration of wealth and limit the income flowing to capital.

Not surprisingly, there’s support in academia for confiscating other people’s money. One professors thinks the “impossible dream” of theft by government could become reality.

…this article proposes a yearly graduated tax on the net wealth of all individuals in excess of $100 million. The rate would be 5% on the excess up to $500 million and then 10% thereafter. …Such taxes are attacked as “class warfare” that runs counter to America’s libertarian and capitalist traditions. However…the time may once again be ripe for adopting a new tax to combat the growing wealth inequality in the nation. …wealth inequality harms the very social fabric of society. …The purpose of the proposed Equality Tax would not be to raise general revenue, although revenue would be raised. Instead it would be focused on establishing a societal value that for the health of society, no individual should accrue wealth beyond a certain point. Essentially, once an individual has $100 million of assets, …further wealth accumulation harms society while providing little economic benefit or incentive to the individual. …At a minimum such a tax would raise
at least $140 billion a year.

Let’s close by looking at the real economic consequences of wealth taxation. Jan Schnellenbach of the Walter Eucken Intitut in Germany analyzed this question.

Are there sound economic reasons for the net wealth tax, as an instrument to tax stocks of physical and financial capital, to be levied in addition to taxes on capital incomes?

Before even addressing that issue, the author points out that policy actually has been moving in the right direction, presumably because of tax competition.

There has been a wave of OECD countries abolishing their personal net wealth taxes recently. Examples are Spain (abolished in 2008), Sweden (2007) as well as Finland, Iceland and Luxembourg (all 2006). Nevertheless, the net wealth tax repeatedly surfaces again in the public debate.

So what about the economics of a wealth tax? Schnellenbach makes the critical point that even a small levy on assets translates into a very punitive rate on actual returns.

…every tax on domestic wealth needs to be paid out of the returns on wealth, every net wealth tax with a given rate is trivially equivalent to a capital income tax with a substantially higher rate. …even an – on aggregate – non-confi scatory wealth tax may at least temporarily actually have confi scatory eff ects on individuals in periods where they realize sufficiently low returns on their capital stock.

He then looks at the impact on incentives.

…a net wealth tax will have similar distortionary e ffects as a capital income tax. …Introducing a comprehensive net wealth tax would then, through the creation of new incentives for tax avoidance and evasion, also diminish the base of the income tax. Scenarios with even a negative overall revenue eff ect would be conceivable. There is thus good reason to cast doubt on the popular belief that a net wealth tax combines little distortions and large amounts of revenue. …A wealth tax aggravates the distortions and the incentives to evade that already exist due to a pre-existing capital income tax.

And he closes by emphasizing that this form of double taxation undermines property rights.

The intrusion into private property rights may be far more severe for a wealth tax compared to an income tax. …It takes hold of a stock of wealth that consists of saved incomes which have already been subject to an income tax in the past… Our discussion has shown that economically, the wealth tax walks on thin ice.

In other words, a wealth tax is a very bad idea. And that’s true whether it’s a permanent levy or a one-time cash grab by politicians.

Some may wonder whether a wealth tax is a real threat. The answer depends on the time frame. Could such a levy happen in the next year or two in the United States?

The answer is no.

But the wealth tax will probably be a real threat in the not-too-distant future. America’s long-run fiscal outlook is very grim because of a rising burden of government spending.

This necessarily means there will be a big fiscal policy battle. On one side, libertarians and small-government advocates will push for genuine entitlement reform. Advocates of big government, by contrast, will want new revenues to enable and facilitate the expansion of the public sector.

The statists will urge higher income tax rates, but sober-minded folks on the left privately admit that the Laffer Curve is real and that they can’t collect much more money with class-warfare tax policy.

That’s why there is considerable interest in new revenue sources, such as energy taxes, financial transaction taxes, and the value-added tax.

And, of course, a wealth tax.

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I realize it’s wrong, but I can’t help cheering for France’s socialist president. Francois Hollande seems determined to raise every tax, expand every program, and augment every bit of red tape that afflicts the French economy.

“Let them eat cake with the 20 percent I generously allow them to keep”

I fully expect this to end poorly, but at the risk of admitting that I’m chauvinistically concerned first and foremost with the United States, I think it will be helpful to have France as an example of why class-warfare tax policy is a bad idea.

In other words, even though I’m quite fond of many of the French people I’ve met, I’m willing to sacrifice the people of France to save the people of America.

Having explained what’s at stake, now let’s mock Hollande’s latest bright idea. I’ve previously highlighted his support for a 75 percent income tax rate on the so-called rich. Well, he also wants to increase the wealth tax so that the French government arbitrarily seizes as much as 1.8 percent of a household’s assets every year.

Some people – doubtlessly selfish and evil libertarians – have pointed out that the combination of these two levies could result in someone having an annual tax bill equal to 90 percent, 95 percent, or even more than 100 percent of annual income!

But here’s where Monsieur Hollande shows that he is a magnanimous and thoughtful soul. He has decided, out of the kindness of his heart and with generosity of spirit, that no taxpayer will ever have to pay more than 80 percent of their annual income to the government. All hail Francois the Merciful. He puts the Sun King to shame.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from a Tax-news.com report.

The government is therefore planning to restore the ISF tax to the scale that was applied prior to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2011 reform. Prior to the reform last year, the tax scale comprised six tax rates varying between 0.55% and 1.8%. This compares with the current simplified ISF tax of 0.25% imposed on assets of between EUR1.3m and EUR3m and 0.5% on assets in excess of EUR3m. The government forecasts additional fiscal revenues from the measure of around EUR1.3bn. Given the constraints that it has been working under, the government aims to re-establish a cap of 80% of income, to ensure that taxpayers do not pay more than 80% of their income in ISF, income tax or social contributions.

But there’s one point I don’t understand. Like Vice President Biden, Hollande has asserted that entrepreneurs, investors, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers should welcome high tax rates so they can express their patriotism. So why, then, is he limiting their love of government country to 80 percent?

Monsieur Hollande is also boosting the minimum wage, so I guess it will also be patriotic to be unemployed.

And his predecessor, the de facto socialist Sarkozy, also had an interesting way of looking at the world. When he launched an initiative to clamp down on welfare fraud, he wasn’t talking about going after the people who illegitimately mooch off the government. He was targeting taxpayers who objected to paying for the fraud. Those unpatriotic scoundrels!

Just goes to show that Obama will have to try much harder if he wants America to be more statist than France.

P.S. Hollande’s policies already are having an impact. France’s richest person apparently isn’t very “patriotic” and has decided to move where he will be allowed to keep more than 20 percent of his annual income.

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