Archives: 04/2009

Robert H. Frank, A 200% Tax Even Socialists Will Hate

In the latest issue of Forbes, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank is pushing “A Tax Even Libertarians Can Love.” I hope he wasn’t counting on this libertarian’s support.

What he advocates is “replacing the income tax with a progressive tax on spending. …A family’s income minus its savings is its consumption, and that amount minus a large standard deduction – say, $30,000 a year for a family of four – would be its taxable consumption. …Rates would start low, perhaps 20%, then rise gradually with total consumption. …With savings tax-exempt, top marginal tax rates on consumption would have to be significantly higher than current top rates on income.”

His concept of “significantly higher” includes tax rates of 100-200% on marginal income that isn’t saved.  This is about minimizing affluence, not maximizing revenues.  There is ample evidence from Emmanuel Saez and others that the amount of reported income drops sharply as marginal tax rates rise above 25-30% (and even less on capital gains).

In his 2007 book, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, Frank suggests marginal tax rates of 50% above $220,000  and rising to 200%.  Since seniors (like me) commonly finance retirement from past savings, Frank’s tax scheme amounts to rapid confiscation of past savings.

For young people, Frank’s tax can’t possibly encourage savings because it discourages earning any income in the first place.  Consumption is, after all, the motive for both earning and saving.   The prospect of facing future consumption taxes of 50-200% would surely discourage saving much, because the rewards from invested savings (namely, future consumption) would be subjected to such prohibitive tax brackets. Under this steeply progressive tax on unsaved income, any income exempt from taxes today would be subject to brutal taxes whenever folks wanted to buy anything of value, like a car or house, or to retire on their accumulated savings.

In another April 25 piece in The New York Times, Mr. Frank shifts from promoting confiscatory taxes on consumption to defending small tweaks to the current tax regime. “The current [tax] system is much fairer than many people believe, and the president’s proposal will make it both fairer and more efficient.” That comment was aimed at the tea parties.  Yet tax party protesters clearly understood, as Frank does not, that the president’s first wave of proposed tax increases come nowhere near paying for his grandiose spending plans.  My estimate of last October, that Obama’s plans would add $4.3 trillion to the deficits over ten years is now looking much too generous, if not wildly optimistic.

In the New York Times piece, Frank argues that income differences are mainly a matter of luck.  As he often does, Frank pretends to possess evidence about this topic that other economists have missed.  He says, “economists have only begun to realize [that] pay differences often vastly overstate differences in performance.”

In his book, whenever Frank alludes to what “the evidence suggests,” his sources are usually suspect, obsolete or invisible. He claims “regulations, like cartoons are data.”  He cites an unpublished master’s thesis, unidentified surveys and “casual impressions.”

Frank  claims “happiness can be measured reliably” by brain waves.  Explaining this better in the Economic Journal in 1997, he noted that people who say they are happy show “greater electrical activity in the left prefrontal region of the brain” which “is rich in receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, higher concentrations of which been shown independently to be correlated with positive affect.”  If we accept the amount of dopamine in the brain as the gauge of happiness, however, then the happiest people are those who routinely abuse crack and meth.

In the second chapter of Falling Behind, his first graph lists a Census Bureau URL as the source for household income data from 1949 to 1979.  Click on that link and you will find the data only go back to 1967.   In reality, all of Frank’s income and wealth graphs actually came from Chris Hartman at inequality.org. Hartman is not an economist or statistician, but a “researcher, writer, editor, and graphic designer with experience in politics, higher education, and publishing.”  Hartman’s non-facts used in Robert Frank’s first graph actually came from a 1994 book from the Economic Policy Institute, reflecting the “authors’ analysis…  of unpublished census data.” Frank’s comparison of CEO pay with “average wages” came from Hartman’s flawed calculations for United for a Fair Economy, which were critiqued on page 131 of my textbook Income and Wealth. And Frank’s demonstrably false claim that “asset ownership has become even more heavily concentrated during recent years” is likewise from inequality.org.

In short, Professor Frank often bases his remarkably strong opinions on fragile facts.

America Alone on Punitive Corporate Taxes

In Tax Notes International today, two Ernst and Young experts describe how corporate tax reforms in Japan have made America an even bigger outlier in its punitive treatment of multinational corporations:

Japan’s recent adoption of a territorial tax system as part of a broader tax reform reduces the tax burden on the foreign-source income of Japanese multinational corporations.

Before the Japanese reform, the two largest economies had both high corporate income tax rates and worldwide tax systems. Now the United States not only has the second-highest corporate income tax rate of the OECD countries, it is also one of the few that still have a general worldwide tax system.

The Japanese corporate tax reform is part of a global trend toward reduced taxation of corporate income, which often takes the form of a significantly reduced corporate tax rate but also is reflected through reduced taxation of foreign-source income.

The details of the president’s budget proposal to reform deferral are expected in the coming weeks. As we await the specifics, it is clear that the direction of the proposal runs counter to this strong current of global corporate tax reform with lower overall corporate tax rates and reductions in domestic taxation of foreign-source income.

In simple terms, Japan’s reforms may give firms such as Toyota or Hitachi an advantage over firms such as Ford or General Electric in international markets.

Alas, U.S. policymakers don’t seem to understand that in a globalized world of free-flowing capital we need to change our uncompetitive tax policies. At Cato, we will keep trying to educate them, but it is sad that our economy loses jobs and investment because our elected leaders are such slow learners compared to leaders in Japan, Jordan, Canada, and elsewhere.

Globalization and Tax Reform

Despite the recession, globalization continues to exert pressure for beneficial tax reforms. From Tax Notes International today:

Jordanian Finance Minister Bassem al-Salem on April 20 confirmed that the government is working on draft legislation that would cut corporate tax rates drastically, reducing them in some cases by more than half.

Al-Salem said the government will seek to introduce a single 12 percent tax rate for most corporate entities, although companies in the banking, insurance, and mining sectors would pay tax at a rate of 25 percent. The current corporate tax rates range from 15 percent to 35 percent for different profit levels and also differ by business sector.

The draft legislation would also rationalize individual income tax, custom duties, and other taxes to increase efficiency, al-Salem said. Jordan has about 100 different taxes.

Al-Salem said the tax cuts are needed because many countries in the region either don’t have taxes at all or have much lower tax rates than Jordan’s, making them more attractive jurisdictions for investment.

 The full story on taxation and globalization is here.

More on South Carolina School Choice Hearing

State Senator Robert Ford is an African-American, Democratic champion of education tax credits to fund school choice and sponsor of the bill under consideration at this hearing. He has a tendency for quotable lines, and delivered one of my favorite last week.

“For 37 years I lied to myself [about education reform],” Sen. Ford admitted. He’s now determined to shine a light on all of those lies that he swallowed … that the public schools are the only way to help the poor, that we just need one more public school reform and all will be right and good.

Sen. Ford has the courage to admit that he was wrong and face the vicious attacks of his one-time allies for choosing children over public school special interests. And he’s not the type to let go on a matter of justice. I look forward to hearing a lot more from him …

Check in here for updates on school choice in SC and videos from the hearing, and in the meantime, here’s my testimony (speakers were limited to 3 minutes …).

Obama’s Transparency Average Drops

On the campaign trail, President Obama promised to post bills online for five days before signing them.

Last week, President Obama signed three new bills into law. None of them received the promised “Sunlight Before Signing” treatment - at least, not as far as our research reveals. (The White House has yet to establish a uniform place on its Web site where the public can look for bills that the President has received from Congress.)

The new bills put today’s podcast on Obama’s five-day pledge slightly out of date. He is not batting .091 on his transparency pledge. He’s batting .071. The substance of the podcast remains true, however: This is still a worse record than the Nationals.

President Obama waited more than five days to sign two of the three bills he passed into law last week. The simple matter of posting them on Whitehouse.gov would have fulfilled the promise as to those bills - and would have brought his average up to .214.

The current list of new laws, with presentment date and signing date, is after the break.

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 1/28/2009 1/29/2009 1/29/2009 No
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 2/4/2009 2/4/2009 2/1/2009 No
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act 2/9/2009 2/11/2009 2/5/2009 Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 2/16/2009 2/17/2009 2/13/2009 No
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes 3/6/2009 3/6/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building” 2/26/09 3/9/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 3/11/2009 3/11/2009 3/6/2009 No
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs 3/18/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes 3/19/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 No
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009 3/24/2009 3/30/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-13, The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act 4/20/2009 4/21/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-14, To designate the United States courthouse under construction at 327 South Church Street, Rockford, Illinois, as the “Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse” 4/14/2009 4/23/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-15, The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009 4/14/2009 4/24/2009 No n/a

Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Record on Foreign Policy

Cato foreign policy experts weigh in on President Obama’s record in his first 100 days:

Christopher Preble, Director Foreign Policy Studies:

President Obama deserves credit for making a few modest changes in U.S. foreign and defense policy, and he has signaled a desire to make more fundamental shifts in the future. Some of these may prove helpful, while others are likely to encounter problems. In the end, however, so long as the president is unwilling to revisit some of the core assumptions that have guided U.S grand strategy for nearly two decades – chief among these the conceit that the United States is the world’s indispensable nation, and that we must take the lead in resolving all the world’s problems – then he will be unable to effect the broad changes that are truly needed.

Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President Defense & Foreign Policy Studies; Christopher Preble:

On the plus side, Obama moved quickly to fulfill his most important foreign policy promise: ending the war in Iraq. That said, the policy that his administration will implement is consistent with the agreement that the outgoing Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqis. Given that the war has undermined U.S. security interests, and our continuing presence there is costly and counterproductive, Obama should have proposed to remove U.S. troops on a faster timetable.

Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy Analyst:

The jury is still out on the other major, ongoing military operation, the war in Afghanistan. That mission is directly related to events in neighboring Pakistan, which is serving – and has served – as a safe haven for Taliban supporters for years. President Obama deserves credit for approaching the problem with both countries together, and also in a regional context, which includes Iran, as well as India. Still unknown is the scope and scale of the U.S. commitment. President Obama has approved a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. Some have suggested that still more troops are needed, and that these additional troop numbers might prevail for 10-15 years. That would be a mistake. The United States should be looking for ways to increase the capacity of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to confront the extremism in their countries, and should not allow either to grow dependent upon U.S. military and financial support.

Christopher Preble and Ted Galen Carpenter:

On Iran, President Obama made the right decision by agreeing to join the P5 + 1 negotiations, but that is only a first step. The two sides are far apart and President Obama has not signaled his intentions if negotiations fail to produce a definitive breakthrough. Sanctions have had a very uneven track record, and are unlikely to succeed in convincing the Iranians to permanently forego uranium enrichment. If the Iranians are intent upon acquiring nuclear weapons, military action would merely delay Iran ’s program, and would serve in the meantime to rally support for an otherwise unpopular clerical regime, and a manifestly incompetent president.

Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow; Christopher Preble:

A related problem is North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, an area where the president and his team seem to be grasping for answers. President Obama was mistaken if he believed that that the UN Security Council would render a meaningful response to Pyongyang’s provocative missile launch. It was naive, at best, for him to believe that even a strong rebuke from the UNSC would have altered Kim Jong Il’s behavior. The president must directly engage China, the only country with any significant influence over Kim. The North’s reckless and unpredictable behavior does not serve Beijing’s interests.

Benjamin Friedman, Research Fellow; Christopher Preble:

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are correct to apply greater scrutiny to bloated Pentagon spending, and to terminating unnecessary weapon systems, but the budget will actually grow slightly, at a time when we should be looking for ways to trim spending. If President Obama decided to avoid Iraq-style occupations, we could cut our ground forces in half. If we stopped planning for near-term war with China or Russia, the Air Force and Navy could be much smaller. Unless we commit to a grand strategy of restraint, and encourage other countries to provide for their own defense, it will be impossible to make the large-scale cuts in military spending that are needed.

Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies; Benjamin Friedman; Christopher Preble:

Two other quick points. President Obama has moved away from some of the overheated rhetoric surrounding counterterrorism and homeland security, including dropping the phrase ‘War on Terror”. This was the right approach. The language surrounding the fight against terrorism is as important – if not more important – than the actual fight itself. Equally useful is his pledge to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and his renunciation of the use of torture and other illegal means in the first against al Qaeda. These steps send an important message to audiences outside of the United States who cooperation is essential.

Ian Vasquez, Director, Center for Global Liberty & Prosperity; Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Project Coordinator for Latin America.

President Obama has signaled a slight change on US-Cuba policy by softening some travel and financial restrictions. It is not as far as we would have liked, but it is a step in the right direction – toward greater engagement, as opposed to more isolation, which was the approach adopted by the Bush administration.

For more research, check out Cato’s foreign policy and national security page.