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.