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Posts Tagged ‘Wealth Tax’

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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Last year, I debunked the silly claim that Obama is a conservative.

I almost didn’t write that post. Some things, after all, presumably don’t require a response. Would I waste my time, for instance, responding to someone who claimed that Milton Friedman was a communist?

But sometimes it’s necessary to counter absurd arguments, precisely so they don’t gain a foothold among otherwise sensible people.

That’s why it’s time to write about the economics of a wealth tax.

And I’m doing this because Ronald McKinnon, an economics professor at Stanford University, recently wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Conservative Case for a Wealth Tax.”

I could make this post very short and simply note that there is no conservative (or libertarian) case for higher taxes, period. But let’s use this opportunity to explain the economic impact of taxing wealth.

Professor McKinnon starts out with a very sensible point about the foolishness of higher income tax rates.

…any attempt to impose higher marginal tax rates on even moderately high income earners—as President Obama wants for families earning more than $200,000 per year—can lead to losses in economic efficiency and even to losses in sorely needed government revenue if high earners work less or seek out more loopholes and tax shelters.

I particularly like his point about potential revenue losses. For all intents and purposes, he is saying the Laffer Curve is very strong for those with high income – a point I have made in previous blog posts.

Unfortunately, he then forgets this good analysis and urges a tax on wealth.

In order to have a fairer tax system, we should implement a new federal wealth tax in addition to the federal income tax. Unlike the current income tax, the wealth tax would not rely on how income is defined. Rather, it would require that households list all their domestic and foreign assets on, say, Dec. 31 in the relevant tax year. …If on Dec. 31 a household declares total net assets of $5 million, and the “standard” wealth tax exemption is $3 million, then its wealth tax is $60,000 ($2 million x 0.03). Because wealth will generally present a much larger tax base than income, tax rates can be kept low and still raise substantial revenue. The incentive for tax avoidance is minimal—unlike the incentive created by a high marginal income-tax rate of 40% or more for earners paying both federal and state income taxes.

There are two big problems with McKinnon’s analysis. First, he wants us to believe a 3 percent tax on wealth won’t hurt the economy, but he apparently doesn’t understand that a wealth tax is actually a tax on the returns to capital.

Do we want rich people to create future growth with investment, or do we want to encourage them to engage in lavish consumption instead?

Let’s use a simple example. Imagine that I’m a rich person with $100 million that I’ve accumulated over the years. And let’s further assume that I’m a savvy investor. Even though the economy is weak, I manage to get a 5 percent return on my capital, so my $100 million is now worth $105 million.

But Uncle Sam wants to grab $3 million because of a new wealth tax. That is akin to a 60 percent tax rate on my new wealth!

And don’t forget that the IRS will probably be grabbing some portion of that additional wealth because of income taxes, capital gains taxes, and double taxation of dividends.

Here’s the bottom line: The wealth tax is really a tax on saving and investment. And the tax rates are likely to be very high.

Indeed, if the economy is sour and portfolios are growing at less than 3 percent, the tax rate can be more than 100 percent!

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed supply sider to conclude that there may be some negative effect on incentives to save and invest.

Heck, even if there is a bull market and portfolios are expanding at 15 percent, the tax rate is still 20 percent. And keep in mind all the other layers of tax that would still exist, so the effective marginal tax rate will still be punitive.

The second problem with McKinnon’s analysis is that he acknowledges big evasion and avoidance problems caused by 40 percent income tax rates, but he somehow assumes those problems will disappear if we impose a wealth tax.

Indeed, he even references the infamous FATCA legislation. But that legislation is a disaster, imposing crippling burdens on overseas Americans and driving investment out of the American economy. If that’s an indication of how a new wealth tax would be enforced, then we can all look forward to a turbo-charged IRS with even more powers to wreck our lives and disrupt our economy.

In reality, evasion, avoidance, and punitive economic costs are inevitable when taxes become too onerous. Professor McKinnon wants us to think that the costs can be reduced with a wealth tax. He’s right that some forms of taxation do less damage than others, but his proposal would make things worse, not better.

The only potentially good thing about his plan (and I admit that I’m motivated by pettiness) is that it would tax hypocritical leftists such as Warren Buffett, who argue for higher income tax rates, secure in the knowledge that they will be largely unaffected.

But I’m not willing to hurt the economy just to go after a handful of rich and dishonest statists. My goal is to create a more prosperous economy to help the less fortunate.

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I’m in Milan, at the office of the Institute Bruno Leoni, which overlooks the famous Castle Sforza and is almost within shouting distance of the remarkable cathedral.

This evening, I’ll be talking about how Italy should balance its budget by limiting the size of government, and my message will be identical to the one I give American policymakers. Restraining spending is the only pro-growth way of lowering red ink.

Italy actually has a smaller budget deficit than the United States according to OECD data, so that should make their job easier. On the other hand, the economy seems permanently stagnant, so revenues are projected to climb by an average of only 3.5 percent annually (compared to 7 percent in the United States).

Here are the specific numbers. The Italian budget this year is about €822 billion, while revenues are estimated to be about €752 billion. If the budget is frozen at current levels, the deficit disappears within three years. If spending grows by 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2015. And if spending is allowed to grow only 2 percent annually, there is a surplus in 2017. If lawmakers can maintain fiscal discipline in subsequent years, they can begin to reduce the public debt.

This last point is important because Italian politicians are actually considering proposals to either levy a temporary property tax or a temporary tax on all assets, supposedly for the purpose of reducing the nation’s debt.

Some economists might argue that one-off taxes on assets are an efficient way of collecting revenue. After all, taxes on assets punish income that already was earned and do not punish earning income today or in the future. That is true, but such a tax would represent a blatant confiscation of private capital.

If the government is successful, this policy will undermine economic confidence and give Italian taxpayers an additional reason to move their money overseas. And since the politicians can achieve their alleged goal of debt reduction by restraining spending, there is no legitimate reason to steal wealth from the Italian people.

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