Tag: England

Progress on the Laffer Curve*

The title of this piece has an asterisk because, unfortunately, we’re not talking about progress on the Laffer Curve in the United States.

Instead, we’re discussing today how lawmakers in other nations are beginning to recognize that it’s absurdly inaccurate to predict the revenue impact of changes in tax rates without also trying to measure what happens to taxable income (if you want a short tutorial on the Laffer Curve, click here).

But I’m a firm believer that policies in other nations (for better or worse) are a very persuasive form of real-world evidence. Simply stated, if you’re trying to convince a politician that a certain policy is worth pursuing, you’ll have a much greater chance of success if you can point to tangible examples of how it has been successful.

That’s why I cite Hong Kong and Singapore as examples of why free markets and small government are the best recipe for prosperity. It’s also why I use nations such as New Zealand, Canada, and Estonia when arguing for a lower burden of government spending.

And it’s why I’m quite encouraged that even the squishy Tory-Liberal coalition government in the United Kingdom has begun to acknowledge that the Laffer Curve should be part of the analysis when making major changes in taxation.

UK Laffer CurveI don’t know whether that’s because they learned a lesson from the disastrous failure of Gordon Brown’s class-warfare tax hike, or whether they feel they should do something good to compensate for bad tax policies they’re pursuing in other areas, but I’m not going to quibble when politicians finally begin to move in the right direction.


The Wall Street Journal opines that this is a very worthwhile development.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has cut Britain’s corporate tax rate to 22% from 28% since taking office in 2010, with a further cut to 20% due in 2015. On paper, these tax cuts were predicted to “cost” Her Majesty’s Treasury some £7.8 billion a year when fully phased in. But Mr. Osborne asked his department to figure out how much additional revenue would be generated by the higher investment, wages and productivity made possible by leaving that money in private hands.

By the way, I can’t resist a bit of nit-picking at this point. The increases in investment, wages, and productivity all occur because the marginal corporate tax rate is reduced, not because more money is in private hands.

I’m all in favor of leaving more money in private hands, but you get more growth when you change relative prices to make productive behavior more rewarding. And this happens when you reduce the tax code’s penalty on work compared to leisure and when you lower the tax on saving and investment compared to consumption.

Margaret Thatcher and the Battle of the 364 Keynesians

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, and the ensuing profusion of commentary on her legacy, it is worth looking back at an overlooked chapter in the Thatcher story. I am referring to her 1981 showdown with the Keynesian establishment—a showdown that the Iron Lady won handily. Before getting caught up with the phony “austerity vs. fiscal stimulus” debate, the chattering classes should take note of how Mrs. Thatcher debunked the Keynesian “fiscal factoid.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a factoid is “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” The standard Keynesian fiscal policy prescription for the maintenance of non-inflationary full employment is a fiscal factoid. The chattering classes can repeat this factoid on cue: to stimulate the economy, expand the government’s deficit (or shrink its surplus); and to rein in an overheated economy, shrink the government’s deficit (or expand its surplus).

Even the economic oracles embrace the fiscal factoid. That, of course, is one reason that the Keynesians’ fiscal mantra has become a factoid. No less than Nobelist Paul Krugman repeats it ad nauseam. Now, the new secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew (who claims no economic expertise), is in Europe peddling the fiscal factoid.

Unfortunately, the grim reaper finally caught up with Margaret Thatcher—but not before she laid waste to 364 wrong-headed British Keynesians.

In 1981, Prime Minister Thatcher made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze. To restart the economy, Mrs. Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British fiscal deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists. In a letter to The Times, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Mrs. Thatcher was quickly vindicated. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures to that letter than the economy boomed. Confidence in the British economy was restored, and Mrs. Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep, free-market reforms.

As for the 364 economists (who included seventy-six present or past professors, a majority of the Chief Economic Advisors to the Government in the post-WWII period, and the president, as well as nine present or past vice-presidents, and the secretary general of the Royal Economic Society), they were not only wrong, but also came to look ridiculous.

In the United States, the peddlers of the fiscal factoid have never suffered the intellectual humiliation of their British counterparts. In consequence, American Keynesians can continue to peddle snake oil with reckless abandon and continue to influence policy in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Higher Taxes on the Rich Are a Precursor to Higher Taxes on the Rest of Us

President Obama repeatedly assures us that he only wants higher taxes on the rich as part of his class-warfare agenda.

But I don’t trust him. In part because he’s a politician, but also because there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government (not to mention that the rich easily can alter their financial affairs to avoid higher tax rates).

Honest leftists are beginning to admit that their real target is the middle class. Here are a few examples.

In other words, politicians often say they want to tax the rich, but the real target is the middle class. Indeed, this is the history of tax policy. In a post earlier this year, warning the folks in the Cayman Islands not to impose an income tax, I noted how the U.S. income tax began small and then swallowed up more and more people.

[T]he U.S. income tax began in 1913 with a top rate of only 7 percent and it affected less than 1 percent of the population. But that supposedly benign tax has since become a monstrous internal revenue code that plagues the nation today.

The same thing is true elsewhere in the world.

Allister Heath explains for London’s City A.M. newspaper.

The introduction of income taxes around the world have tended to follow a very similar pattern over the past couple of centuries. First, we get generally low income tax rates, with most people exempt and with the highest rate only affecting a few people relatively lightly. Eventually, tax rates shoot up for everybody – including to crippling levels for top earners – and millions more are caught by income tax. The next stage is that the ultra-high tax rates for top earners are reduced to manageable levels – but ever more people are brought into the tax system, with the higher brackets also catching vastly more folk.

By the way, you can see that Allister makes a reference to tax rates being reduced for top earners. That’s largely because many politicians learned an important lesson about the Laffer Curve. Sometimes, the best way to “soak the rich” is by lowering their tax rates. Unfortunately, President Obama still needs some remedial education on this topic.

Allister then looks at some specific United Kingdom data revealing how more and more middle class people are now subject to higher tax rates.

The biggest change in the UK has been the number of people paying what is now the 40p tax rate: up six-fold in thirty years, from 674,000 in 1979-80, 2.5m in 1999-2000 to 4.048m in 2011-12. This number will jump again to around 5m in 2014, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, just 2.6 per cent of taxpayers paid the top rate; by the time of the next election, 16.7 per cent will.

If Obama and other statists get their way, we’ll see similar statistic in the United States. Higher income tax rates for the rich will mean higher income tax rates for the rest of us. Though I’m even more worried about a value-added tax, which would be a huge burden on ordinary people and a revenue machine for greedy politicians.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the American tax code actually is more “progressive” than the tax codes of Europe’s welfare states. This is largely because we don’t pillage poor and middle-class taxpayers with a VAT.

P.S.: Since I mentioned the Laffer Curve above, I should emphasize that the goal of good tax policy should be to maximize growth, not to maximize tax revenue.

P.P.S.: And don’t forget that poor and middle-income taxpayers also will be hurt because slower growth is an inevitable consequence when tax rates climb and the burden of government spending increases.

The Laffer Curve Wreaks Havoc in the United Kingdom

Back in 2010, I excoriated the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, noting that David Cameron was increasing tax rates and expanding the burden of government spending (including an increase in the capital gains tax!).

I also criticized Cameron for leaving in place the 50 percent income tax rate imposed by his feckless predecessor, and was not surprised when experts began to warn that this class-warfare tax hike might actually result in less revenue because the reduction in taxable income could be more significant than the increase in the tax rate.

In other words, bad policy might lead to a turbo-charged version of the Laffer Curve.

Allow me to elaborate. In most cases, punitive tax hikes do raise revenue, but not as much as politicians predict. As explained in this three-part video series, this is because it takes a very significant reduction in taxable income to offset the revenue-generating impact of the higher tax rate.

But if a tax increase imposes a lot of damage and taxpayers have enough flexibility in their financial affairs, then it’s possible that a tax hike can lose revenue (or, as we saw with Reagan’s “tax cuts for the rich,” a well-designed reduction in tax rates can actually generate higher revenue).

With that background knowledge, let’s now take a closer look at David Cameron’s tax increases. They’ve been in place for a while, so we can look at some real-world data. Allister Heath of City AM has the details.

Something very worrying is happening to the UK’s public finances. Income tax and capital gains tax receipts fell by 7.3 per cent in May compared with a year ago, according to official figures. Over the first two months of the fiscal year, they are down by 0.5 per cent. This is merely the confirmation of a hugely important but largely overlooked trend: income and capital gains tax (CGT) receipts were stagnant in 2011-12, edging up by just £414m to £151.7bn, from £151.3bn, a rise of under 0.3 per cent. By contrast, overall tax receipts rose 3.9 per cent.

Is this because the United Kingdom is cutting tax rates? Nope. As we mentioned in the introduction, Cameron is doing just the opposite.

…overall taxes on labour and capital have been hiked: the 50p tax was introduced from April 2010 (and will fall to a still high 45p in April 2013), those earning above £150,000 have lost their personal allowance, CGT has risen to 28 per cent, many workers have been dragged into higher tax thresholds, and so on. In theory, if one were to believe the traditional static model of tax, beloved of establishment economists, this should have meant higher receipts, not lower revenues.

So what’s the problem? Well, it seems that there’s thing called the Laffer Curve.

…there is a revenue-maximising rate of tax – and that if you set rates too high, you raise less because people work less, find ways of avoiding tax or quit the country. The world isn’t static, it is dynamic; people respond to tax rates, just as they respond to other prices. Laffer told a gathering at the Institute of Economic Affairs that this is definitely true in the UK today – and the struggling tax take revealed in the official numbers suggest that he is right. Tax rates and levels are so high as to be counterproductive: slashing capital gains tax would undoubtedly increase its yield, for example. Many self-employed workers are delaying incomes as much as possible until the new, lower top rate of tax kicks in.

Allister’s column also makes the critical point that not all taxes are created equal.

…higher VAT is also damaging growth, though it is still yielding more. Some taxes can still raise more – but try doing that with income tax, CGT or corporation tax and the result is now clearly counter-productive. These taxes are maxed out; they have been pushed beyond their ability to raise revenues.

Last but not least, he makes an essential point about the role of bad spending policy.

The problem is that spending is too high – central government current expenditure is up by 3.7 per cent year on year in April-May – not that taxes are too low. The result is that the April-May budget deficit reached £30.7bn, some £6.2bn higher than a year ago.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman has been whining about “spending cuts” in the United Kingdom, even though the burden of the public sector has been climbing. But given his outlandish errors about Estonia, we shouldn’t be surprised.

But that’s not the point of this post. The relevant question is why do politicians pursue bad policy and why do some economists aid and abet bad policy?

For politicians, I think the answer is easy. They simply care about getting elected and holding power. So if they think class-warfare tax policy is the way of achieving those narcissistic goals, they’ll push higher tax rates. Even if it means lower revenue, notwithstanding their usual desire to have more money so they can buy more votes.

I’m more mystified by the behavior of economists. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Justin Wolfers and Mark Thoma recently cited some survey data to claim that the Laffer Curve was universally rejected by the profession.

But as James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute explained, the survey actually showed just the opposite, with economists by a margin of nearly 5-1 agreeing that lower tax rates could boost GDP (and therefore taxable income).

Those economists did say that a reduction in tax rates, based on current levels, would not cause taxable income to jump by a large enough amount to fully offset the revenue-losing impact of the lower tax rate. But the Laffer Curve says that only happens in extreme circumstances, so there’s zero contradiction.

So why did Wolfers and Thoma create a straw man in an attempt to discredit the Laffer Curve?

I have no idea, but Republican politicians probably deserve some of the blame. Too many of them make silly claims that “all tax cuts pay for themselves,” even when talking about new credits and deductions that have no positive impact on economic performance.

To the extent that Wolfers, Thoma, and others think that’s what the Laffer Curve is all about, then their skepticism is warranted.

But if that’s the case, they should read what Art Laffer actually wrote so they can be more accurate in the future. Or they can watch these three videos.

Part I describes the theory.

Part II describes the evidence.

And Part III explains the sloppy and inaccurate revenue-estimating methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

But if they think I’m too biased or that Art is similarly misguided, then they should look at some of the evidence produced by other economists.

The sooner they get up to speed on these issues, the sooner they can help give politicians good advice so that the Laffer Curve doesn’t cause more unpleasant surprises.

Notwithstanding David Cameron’s Statolatry, Tax Avoidance Is Both Legal and Moral

I’m not a fan of David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister.

Even though he belongs to the Conservative Party that produced the great Margaret Thatcher, Cameron seems to be a bit of guilt-ridden statist with his finger always in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. The policy results are not pretty.

Now I have another reason to dislike Cameron. He just condemned a comedian for legally seeking to minimize the amount of his income that is seized - and then wasted - by the U.K. government. Here are some of the details from The Telegraph.

Prime Minister David Cameron today branded the tax arrangement of comedian Jimmy Carr “morally wrong” after it emerged he was using a scheme which allows the wealthy to pay as little as one per cent of their income. …Speaking at the G20 summit the Prime Minister told ITV News: “I think some of these schemes - and I think particularly of the Jimmy Carr scheme - I have had time to read about and I just think this is completely wrong. “People work hard, they pay their taxes, they save up to go to one of his shows. They buy the tickets. He is taking the money from those tickets and he, as far as I can see, is putting all of that into some very dodgy tax avoiding schemes. …some of these schemes we have seen are quite frankly morally wrong.” …Lawyers for the comedian have…categorically denied any wrongdoing, saying the scheme had been disclosed to the relevant authorities in line with the law. …Chancellor George Osborne has claimed he was left “shocked” after finding the extent to which multi-millionaires were exploiting tax loopholes and vowed to take “action”.

 I have no idea whether the specific “tax avoiding scheme” used by Carr is good tax policy (protecting against double taxation, for instance) or bad policy (such as a loophole that creates favoritism for a specific behavior), but that’s not the point of this post.

Instead, this is a moral question about whether people have some sort of obligation to pay extra tax, merely to get some sort of pat on the head from politicians. The same politicians, by the way, that squander the money on varying vote-buying schemes that undermine prosperity and create dependency.

I’d be willing to condemn Carr if I found out he’s some sort of statist who wants higher taxes for everybody else, but then (like John Kerry) takes steps to minimize his personal tax bill.

But I’d be condemning Carr for hypocrisy, not criticizing the idea of tax avoidance.

The United Kingdom has become a bloated welfare state (with horribly depressing implications, as you can read here and here). If people want to be moral, they should strive to pay the least amount possible to this corrupt and wasteful enterprise. The United States is not quite as bad (yet), but the same principle applies.

Politicians, needless to say, will violently disagree with this ethical viewpoint. So we can all expect more taxes, higher taxes, and additional draconian enforcement measures.

The only good news is that the Laffer Curve will prevent these greedy thugs from collecting nearly as much money as they think.

P.S. To get an idea of how the Conservative Party has declined, compare Cameron’s statist rhetoric to Margaret Thatcher’s comments that “there is no such thing as public money.”

English Riots, Moral Relativism, Gun Control, and the Welfare State

I wrote earlier this year about the connection between a morally corrupt welfare state and the riots in the United Kingdom.

But what’s happening now is not just some left-wing punks engaging in political street theater. Instead, the UK is dealing with a bigger problem of societal decay caused in part by a government’s failure to fulfill one of its few legitimate functions: protection of property.

To make matters worse, the political class has disarmed law-abiding people, thus exacerbating the risks. These two photos are a pretty good summary of what this means. On the left, we have Korean entrepreneurs using guns to defend themselves from murdering thugs during the 1992 LA riots. On the right, we have Turkish entrepreneurs reduced to using their fists (and some hidden knives, I hope) to protect themselves in London.

Which group do you think has a better chance of surviving when things spiral out of control? When the welfare state collapses, will the Koreans or the Turks be in a better position to protect themselves? And what does it say about the morality of a political class that wants innocent people to be vulnerable when bad government policies lead to chaos?

Speaking of chaos, let’s look at the “root causes” of the riots and looting in the United Kingdom.

Allister Heath is the editor of City A.M. in London, and normally I follow his economic insights, but his analysis of the turmoil is superb as well. Here’s an excerpt. But as Instapundit likes to say, read the whole article.

Debilitating, widespread fear. The country held to ransom by feckless youths. Thousands of shocked Londoners cowering in their homes, with many shops, banks and offices shutting early. …It no longer feels as if we live in a civilised country. The cause of the riots is the looters; opportunistic, greedy, arrogant and amoral young criminals who believe that they have the right to steal, burn and destroy other people’s property. There were no extenuating circumstances, no excuses. …decades of failed social, educational, family and microeconomic policies, which means that a large chunk of the UK has become alienated from mainstream society, culturally impoverished, bereft of role models, permanently workless and trapped and dependent on welfare or the shadow economy. For this the establishment and the dominant politically correct ideology are to blame: they deemed it acceptable to permanently chuck welfare money… Criminals need to fear the possibility and consequence of arrest; if they do not, they suddenly realise that the emperor has no clothes. At some point, something was bound to happen to trigger both these forces and for consumerist thugs to let themselves loose on innocent bystanders. …the argument made by some that the riots were “caused” or “provoked” by cuts, university fees or unemployment is wrong-headed. …the state will spend 50.1 per cent of GDP this year; state spending has still been rising by 2 per cent year on year in cash terms. It has never been as high as it is today – in fact, it is squeezing out private sector growth and hence reducing opportunities and jobs. …This wasn’t a political protest, it was thievery. …We need to see New York style zero tolerance policing, with all offences, however minor, prosecuted. But what matters right now is to regain control, to stamp out the violence and to arrest, prosecute and jail as many thugs as possible. The law-abiding mainstream majority feels that it has been abandoned and betrayed by the establishment and is very, very angry.

Tina Brown and the Economics of Recession

Talking about royal weddings on NPR, Tina Brown says that there’s high unemployment in Britain, as there was in 1981, because of Conservative governments’ budget cuts (transcript edited to match broadcast):

Of course, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana occurred three decades ago, but Brown points out that there are plenty of similarities between the two eras. “2.5 million are out of work right now with the budget slashes and all the economic austerity that’s happening in England,” Brown says. “There were actually the same amount of people exactly out of work at the time of Charles and Diana, when Mrs. Thatcher came in and began her draconian moves.”

I know that Tina Brown is a journalist, not an economist, but surely she’s heard of the recessions of 1979 and 2009, both of which may have helped to usher in a new government pledged to economic reform. It isn’t budget cuts that have increased British unemployment, it’s the recession. The unemployment rate started rising in early 2008 and kept right on rising during the world financial crisis, which featured not budget cuts but massive spending by governments around the world.