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Posts Tagged ‘Withholding’

The internal revenue code is a reprehensible mess that torments taxpayers and undermines American competitiveness.

The good news is that Americans don’t like the tax system.

The bad news is that they don’t dislike it nearly as much as they should. At least in my humble opinion.

There are two reasons for the inadequate level of disdain.

  • First, nearly half of all households are no longer are subject to the income tax. Indeed, the system is actually a revenue generator for some households since the EITC wage subsidy is a redistribution program laundered through the tax code.
  • Second, many people get a warm and fuzzy feeling when they file their taxes because of the expectation that they will get a sizable refund, even though that payment from the IRS is simply a reflection of having paid too much tax during the prior year.

For those of us who want to scrap the tax system, this is a challenge.

And I’m not shy about admitting the problem.

About three-quarters typically get money back, with refunds so far this year averaging almost $3,000. For many, it will be the single biggest payment they receive all year. …the fact that so many people are getting paid by the IRS, and not the other way around, takes some of the edge off a day when they’re trying to stoke public anger at the tax system. “The fact that people are looking forward to tax time rubs me the wrong way,” said Dan Mitchell, a tax expert at the libertarian Cato Institute. “I would like them to be upset.”

I also have a good idea of why the problem exists.

It’s withholding. And it started back during World War II. Here’s some background.

During the war, tax rates went up, and a broader number of people were expected to pay them. Professor Anuj Desai from the University of Wisconsin Law School said there was a saying that income tax went from “a class tax to a mass tax.” …“The thought was that if we withhold a little bit every bit every paycheck, people won’t have to worry about the problem of coming up with a huge chunk of money,” Desai said. But withholding is also a remarkably efficient way for the government to raise money, and policymakers knew that. …“You could never have the taxes that were levied during World War II without withholding. It was absolutely essential for that purpose,” economist Milton Friedman said in an interview… Friedman worked with the Treasury Department at the time withholding was introduced. Withholding stuck around after the war, much to Friedman’s chagrin. “Unfortunately, once you got it installed, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it,”  Friedman said. “It’s too useful to the people in power.”

Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education elaborates.

The problem is…the withholding tax. Instead of being collected directly from the payer, the government  collects them “at the source,” which is to say that they are collected from the institution that pays wages and salaries — on behalf of the taxpayer. …one of the most amazingly brilliant innovations of the modern state. This tinkering with the system — the creation of the institution called withholding — has created an illusion that paying taxes is really about getting free money! When the check arrives from the government a month or so later, the taxpayer is actually tempted to think: wow, this is really great! A pillaging has been spun to look like a gift. …Withholding dramatically changed the psychology of paying taxes. It almost feels like you aren’t paying any at all. The worker gets used to how much after-tax income she makes and adapts to it quickly. Then when tax time arrives, there is no more to pay. Instead you file and find yourself on the receiving end of what seems like an unexpected gift of a check from government. Yet in reality your refund is nothing more than the belated return of a zero-interest loan you were forced to provide the government.

Exactly.

Every time I talk to somehow who is happy about a refund, I ask them whether they will give me an interest free loan instead. After all, I’d be happy to collect money from them all year long and then return it the following April.

But I’m digressing.

Jeffrey points out how the political dynamics of tax day would change in the absence of withholding.

If we really wanted to make a wonderful change in favor of transparency and decency, one that would mark a shift in people’s perceptions of the costs of government, the withholding tax could just be repealed completely. …every taxpayer would pay the full amount owed to the government every April 15 and otherwise receive full compensation the rest of the year. Such a seemingly small change would have a dramatic effect on public perceptions of taxation and government. Even from the age of 16, every citizen would have a more pungent reminder of the costs of government. We would no longer live the illusion that we can all get something for nothing and that government isn’t really expensive after all.

Ben Domenech of the Federalist agrees.

The overwhelming majority of Americans pay their taxes by having them extracted from their paychecks before they ever see the money. Operating under the fiction that the government is giving you money as opposed to returning what it has already taken is damaging to the psyche of the nation’s taxpayers. …Withholding was originally mandated as a wartime step, but its continuation since then disguises the property rights involved, essentially offers the government an interest free loan, and shields taxpayers from the ramifications of federal spending. The country would be better off if everyone experienced what entrepreneurs and business owners do: writing the most sizable checks every year to the government, and watching that hard-earned money walk out the door.

By the way, this isn’t merely impractical libertarian fantasy.

There’s a real-world example of a tax system where people actually write checks to the government and are much more aware of the cost of the public sector. It’s called Hong Kong, which is – not coincidentally – an economic success story in large part because of a good fiscal system.

And I would argue that good fiscal system exists because taxpayers are directly sensitive to the cost of government (it also helps that there’s a spending cap in Hong Kong).

Let’s close with some government propaganda. This Disney cartoon was produced before withholding. As you can see the government basically had to make the case that people should set aside money out of their paychecks so they would have enough money to make periodic tax payments.

This was a plausible case when seeking to finance a war against National Socialism and Japanese imperialism. It wouldn’t be nearly as persuasive today when the government seems to specialize in financing waste, fraud, and abuse.

P.S. At the bottom of this column, you can watch a much better cartoon from the 1940s.

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I don’t often use the literary tactic of referring to something as the “best-ever.” Indeed, the only time that phrase appeared in the title of a column was back in 2014 when I smugly wrote about the collapse of government-run single-payer healthcare in Vermont. Recalling what Justice Brandeis wrote about states being the “laboratories of democracy,” I asserted that the disaster in the Green Mountain State taught the entire nation a valuable lesson about the dangers of bad policy and that this was the “best-ever argument for federalism.”

Well, it’s time to once again use this superlative because consumers in California get the “best-ever receipt” when they make purchases at Firearms Unknown. Here’s the example that’s gone viral, and I’ve highlighted the relevant portion that gives an amusing description of California’s onerous sales tax.

By the way, not everything you see on the Internet is true (yes, shocking news). And since the folks at Independent Journal Review didn’t want to make the mistake of sharing without checking (like I did when trying to mock Justin Trudeau), they actually did some due diligence.

Many times, viral photos are too good to be true. So we contacted Firearms Unknown in National City, CA, to find out if this was one of those times. Sure enough, a representative with Firearms Unknown confirmed the receipt’s authenticity to Independent Journal Review. Then, he let out a chuckle. I guess if you’re going to operate a gun shop in a far-left state like California, you better have a good sense of humor. Bravo, Firearms Unknown.

Yes, kudos to the store, but I also want to take this opportunity to make a serious point about tax visibility.

One of the many reasons to oppose a value-added tax is that the tax almost always is hidden from consumers. When taxpayers make purchases in Europe, they don’t know that VATs are responsible, on average, for about 21 percent of the purchase price.

So it’s good that consumers in America know there’s a sales tax, both because it’s visible on their receipts and also because they can see the difference between the price on the shelf and the price at the cash register.

Though this system isn’t perfect. How many Americans, after all, know how much sales tax they paid last year?

The visibility issue also exists with the income tax. In theory, we all know what we paid the previous year based on our annual tax returns. But because of withholding, most Americans don’t really pay attention to that very important number and instead focus on whether they’re getting a refund. They actually think a big refund is a great outcome, even though it simply means that they gave the government an interest-free loan by over-paying their taxes during the year!

This is one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of Hong Kong, in part because of the flat tax. Not only is there a low rate and no double taxation, but there’s also no withholding. Instead, taxpayers write checks to the government twice annually. So they are fully aware of the cost of government, which may explain why the fiscal burden of government is relatively low (it also helps that there is a constitutional spending cap).

In the United States, the only levies that are visible (at least some of the time) are property taxes. Taxpayers usually have to make annual or semiannual payments on cars and houses (though property taxes on homes are sometimes built into mortgage payments).

And when you have to write a lump-sum check to the government, that’s a wonderful opportunity for people to ponder whether they’re actually getting good value for their money.

And since the answer almost always is no, it’s easy to understand why politicians are big fans of policies (such as VATs and withholding) that disguise the burden of taxation.

P.S. In the body of previous columns, I have used the “best-ever” superlative a handful of times.

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Our tax system in America is an absurd nightmare, but at least we have some ability to monitor what is happening. We can’t get too aggressive (nobody wants the ogres at the IRS breathing down their necks), but at least we can adjust our withholding levels and control what gets put on our annual tax returns. The serfs in the United Kingdom are in much worse shape. To a large degree, the tax authority (Inland Revenue) decides everyone’s tax liability, and taxpayers have no role other than to meekly acquiesce. But now the statists over in London have decided to go one step farther and have proposed to require employers to send all paychecks directly to the government. The politicians and bureaucrats that comprise the ruling class then would decide how much to pass along to the people actually earning the money. Here’s a CNBC report on the issue.
The UK’s tax collection agency is putting forth a proposal that all employers send employee paychecks to the government, after which the government would deduct what it deems as the appropriate tax and pay the employees by bank transfer. The proposal by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) stresses the need for employers to provide real-time information to the government so that it can monitor all payments and make a better assessment of whether the correct tax is being paid. …George Bull, head of Tax at Baker Tilly, told CNBC.com. “If HMRC has direct access to employees’ bank accounts and makes a mistake, people are going to feel very exposed and vulnerable,” Bull said. And the chance of widespread mistakes could be high, according to Bull. HMRC does not have a good track record of handling large computer systems and has suffered high-profile errors with data, he said. …the cost of implementing the new system would be “phenomenal,” Bull pointed out.  …The Institute of Directors (IoD), a UK organization created to promote the business agenda of directors and entreprenuers, said in a press release it had major concerns about the proposal to allow employees’ pay to be paid directly to HMRC. 
This is withholding on steroids. Politicians love pay-as-you-earn (as it’s called on the other side of the ocean), largely because it disguises the burden of government. Many workers never realize how much of their paychecks are confiscated by politicians. Indeed, they probably think greedy companies are to blame when higher tax burdens result in less take-home pay. This new system could have an even more corrosive effect. It presumably would become more difficult for taxpayers to know how much government is costing them, and some people might even begin to think that their pay is the result of political kindness. After all, zoo animals often feel gratitude to the keepers that feed (and enslave) them.

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