Tag: Death tax

On Death Tax, the U.S. Is Worse than Greece, Worse than France, and Even Worse than Venezuela

Considering that every economic theory agrees that living standards and worker compensation are closely correlated with the amount of capital in an economy (this picture is a compelling illustration of the relationship), one would think that politicians - particularly those who say they want to improve wages - would be very anxious not to create tax penalties on saving and investment.

Yet the United States imposes very harsh tax burdens on capital formation, largely thanks to multiple layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

But we compound the damage with very high tax rates, including the highest corporate tax burden in the developed world.

And the double taxation of dividends and capital gains is nearly the worst in the world (and will get even worse if Obama’s class-warfare proposals are approved).

To make matters worse, the United States also has one of the most onerous death taxes in the world. As you can see from this chart prepared by the Joint Economic Committee, it is more punitive than places such as Greece, France, and Venezuela.

Who would have ever thought that Russia would have the correct death tax rate, while the United States would have one of the world’s worst systems?

Fortunately, not all U.S. tax policies are this bad. Our taxation of labor income is generally not as bad as other industrialized nations. And the burden of government spending in the United States tends to be lower than European nations (though both Bush and Obama have undermined that advantage).

And if you look at broad measures of economic freedom, America tends to be in - or near - the top 10 (though that’s more a reflection of how bad other nations are).

But these mitigating factors don’t change the fact that the U.S. needlessly punishes saving and investment, and workers are the biggest victims. So let’s junk the internal revenue code and adopt a simple and fair flat tax.

Grading Perry’s Flat Tax: Some Missing Homework, but a Solid B+

Governor Rick Perry of Texas has announced a plan, which he outlines in the Wall Street Journal, to replace the corrupt and inefficient internal revenue code with a flat tax. Let’s review his proposal, using the principles of good tax policy as a benchmark.

1. Does the plan have a low, flat rate to minimize penalties on productive behavior?

Governor Perry is proposing an optional 20 percent tax rate. Combined with a very generous allowance (it appears that a family of four would not pay tax on the first $50,000 of income), this means the income tax will be only a modest burden for households. Most important, at least from an economic perspective, the 20-percent marginal tax rate will be much more conducive to entrepreneurship and hard work, giving people more incentive to create jobs and wealth.

2. Does the plan eliminate double taxation so there is no longer a tax bias against saving and investment?

The Perry flat tax gets rid of the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the double tax on dividends. This would significantly reduce the discriminatory and punitive treatment of income that is saved and invested (see this chart to understand why this is a serious problem in the current tax code). Since all economic theories - even socialism and Marxism - agree that capital formation is key for long-run growth and higher living standards, addressing the tax bias against saving and investment is one of the best features of Perry’s plan.

3. Does the plan get rid of deductions, preferences, exemptions, preferences, deductions, loopholes, credits, shelters, and other provisions that distort economic behavior?

A pure flat tax does not include any preferences or penalties. The goal is to leave people alone so they make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than what reduces their tax liability. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Perry flat tax falls a bit short. His plan gets rid of lots of special favors in the tax code, but it would retain deductions (for those earning less than $500,000 yearly) for charitable contributions, home mortgage interest, and state and local taxes.

As a long-time advocate of a pure flat tax, I’m not happy that Perry has deviated from the ideal approach. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the very good. If implemented, his plan would dramatically boost economic performance and improve competitiveness.

That being said, there are some questions that need to be answered before giving a final grade to the plan. Based on Perry’s Wall Street Journal column and material from the campaign, here are some unknowns.

1. Is the double tax on interest eliminated?

A flat tax should get rid of all forms of double taxation. For all intents and purposes, a pure flat tax includes an unlimited and unrestricted IRA. You pay tax when you first earn your income, but the IRS shouldn’t get another bite of the apple simply because you save and invest your after-tax income. It’s not clear, though, whether the Perry plan eliminates the double tax on interest. Also, the Perry plan eliminates the double taxation of “qualified dividends,” but it’s not clear what that means.

2. Is the special tax preference for fringe benefits eliminated?

One of the best features of the flat tax is that it gets rid of the business deduction for fringe benefits such as health insurance. This special tax break has helped create a very inefficient healthcare system and a third-party payer crisis. It is unclear, though, whether this pernicious tax distortion is eliminated with the Perry flat tax.

3. How will the optional flat tax operate?

The Perry plan copies the Hong Kong system in that it allows people to choose whether to participate in the flat tax. This is attractive since it ensures that nobody can be disadvantaged, but how will it work? Can people switch back and forth every year? Is the optional system also available to all the small businesses that use the 1040 individual tax system to file their returns?

4. Will businesses be allowed to “expense” investment expenditures?

The current tax code penalizes new business investment by forcing companies to pretend that a substantial share of current-year investment outlays take place in the future. The government imposes this perverse policy in order to get more short-run revenue since companies are forced to artificially overstate current-year profits. A pure flat tax allows a business to “expense” the cost of business investments (just as they “expense” workers wages) for the simple reason that taxable income should be defined as total revenue minus total costs.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the grade for Perry’s flat tax could be as high as A- or as low as B. Regardless, it will be a radical improvement compared to the current tax system, which gets a D- (and that’s a very kind grade).

Here’s a brief video for those who want more information about the flat tax.

Last but not least, I’ve already received several requests to comment on how Perry’s flat tax compares to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

At a conceptual level, the plans are quite similar. They both replace the discriminatory rate structure of the current system with a low rate. They both get rid of double taxation. And they both dramatically reduce corrupt loopholes and distortions when compared to the current tax code.

All things considered, though, I prefer the flat tax. The 9-9-9 plan combines a 9 percent flat tax with a 9 percent VAT and a 9 percent national sales tax, and I don’t trust that politicians will keep the rates at 9 percent.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax is that we degenerate back to the current system. The worst thing that happens with the 9-9-9 plan, as I explain in this video, is that politicians pull a bait-and-switch and America becomes Greece or France.

Explaining the Perverse Impact of Double Taxation With a Chart

Whether I’m criticizing Warren Buffett’s innumeracy or explaining how to identify illegitimate loopholes, I frequently write about the perverse impact of double taxation.

By this, I mean the tendency of politicians to impose multiple layers of taxation on income that is saved and invested. Examples of this self-destructive practice include the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the second layer of tax of dividends.

Double taxation is particularly foolish since every economic theory—including socialism and Marxism—agrees that capital formation is necessary for long-run growth and higher living standards.

Yet even though this is a critically important issue, I’ve never been satisfied with the way I explain the topic. But perhaps this flowchart makes everything easier to understand.

There are a lot of boxes, so it’s not a simple flowchart, but the underlying message hopefully is very clear.

  1. We earn income.
  2. We then pay tax on that income.
  3. We then either consume our after-tax income, or we save and invest it.
  4. If we consume our after-tax income, the government largely leaves us alone.
  5. If we save and invest our after-tax income, a single dollar of income can be taxed as many as four different times.

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed supply-side economist to conclude that this heavy bias against saving and investment is not a good idea for America’s long-run prosperity.

There are various ways to protect yourself from double taxation, particularly by using IRAs and 401(k)s. You lock up your capital until retirement, but it is protected from double taxation.

Also, you cannot accumulate enough savings and investment to be subject to the death tax, though that’s not exactly aiming high.

But these strategies—and others—are not economically optimal. There should not be a tax bias against capital formation.

Too bad we can’t be more like Hong Kong, which has eliminated all extra layers of taxation.

That’s the benefit of real tax reform such as a flat tax. You get a low tax rate and you get rid of corrupt loopholes, but you also get rid of double taxation so that the IRS only gets one bite at the apple.

Should We Blame Obama, Rangel, and Baucus if People Die to Escape the Death Tax?

The death tax is a punitive levy that discourages saving and investment and causes substantial economic inefficiency. But it’s also an immoral tax that seizes assets from grieving families solely because someone dies. The good news is that this odious tax no longer exists. It disappeared on January 1, 2010, thanks to the 2001 tax cut legislation. The bad news is that the death tax comes back with a vengeance on January 1, 2011, ready to confiscate as much as 55 percent of the assets of unfortunate families.

I’ve criticized the death tax on many occasions, including one column in USA Today explaining the economic damage caused by this perverse form of double taxation, and I highlighted a few of the nations around the world that have eliminated this odious tax in another column for the same paper.

Politicians don’t seem persuaded by these arguments, in part because they feel class warfare is a winning political formula. President Obama, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus have been successful in thwarting efforts to permanently kill the death tax. But I wonder what they’ll say if their obstinate approach results in death?

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming is getting a bit of attention (including a link on the Drudge Report) for her recent comments that some people may choose to die in the next two months in order to protect family assets from the death tax. For successful entrepreneurs, investors, and small business owners who might already be old (especially if they have a serious illness), there is a perverse incentive to die quickly. 

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis says some of her Wyoming constituents are so worried about the reinstatement of federal estate taxes that they plan to discontinue dialysis and other life-extending medical treatments so they can die before Dec. 31. Lummis…said many ranchers and farmers in the state would rather pass along their businesses – “their life’s work” – to their children and grandchildren than see the federal government take a large chunk. “If you have spent your whole life building a ranch, and you wanted to pass your estate on to your children, and you were 88 years old and on dialysis, and the only thing that was keeping you alive was that dialysis, you might make that same decision,” Lummis told reporters.

The class-warfare crowd doubtlessly will dismiss these concerns, but they should set aside their ideology and do some research. Four years ago, two Australian scholars published an article on this issue in Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, which is published by the Berkeley Electronic Press. Entitled “Did the Death of Australian Inheritance Taxes Affect Deaths?”, their paper looked at the roles of tax, incentives, and death rates. The abstract has an excellent summary.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. …our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

And here’s a graph from the article, which shows how many affected taxpayers managed to delay death until the tax went away.

Obama and other class-warfare politicians now want to run this experiment in reverse. I already noted in another blog post that there are Americans who are acutely aware of the hugely beneficial tax implications if they die in 2010. In other words, Congresswoman Lummis almost certainly is right.

I don’t actually think that Obama, Rangel, Baucus and the rest of the big-government crowd should be blamed for any premature deaths that occur. But I definitely think that they should be asked if they feel any sense of guilt, remorse, and/or indirect responsibility.

The Deadly Impact of the Death Tax

Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

It looks like this experiment is going to be repeated in the United States, but in the opposite direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.

Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. …The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.

The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don’t want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.

“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year. …Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says. In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says. …Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.

The obvious question, of course, is whether politicians will allow the tax to be reinstated. The answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s also going to be interesting to see if they try to impose the tax retroactively on people who died this year.

So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan. …”Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.

It should go without saying, by the way, that the correct rate for the death tax is zero. It’s also worth noting that this is an issue that shows that incentives do matter.