Tag: Higher Taxes

Warren Buffett’s Fiscal Innumeracy

Warren Buffett’s at it again. He has a column in the New York Times complaining that he has been coddled by the tax code and that “rich” people should pay higher taxes.

My first instinct is to send Buffett the website where people can voluntarily pay extra money to the federal government. I’ve made this suggestion to guilt-ridden rich people in the past.

But I no longer give that advice. I’m worried he might actually do it. And even though Buffett is wildly misguided about fiscal policy, I know he will invest his money much more wisely than Barack Obama will spend it.

But Buffett goes beyond guilt-ridden rants in favor of higher taxes. He makes specific assertions that are inaccurate.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

His numbers are flawed in two important ways.

  1. When Buffett receives dividends and capital gains, it is true that he pays “only” 15 percent of that money on his tax return. But dividends and capital gains are both forms of double taxation. So if he wants honest effective tax rate numbers, he needs to show the 35 percent corporate tax rate.

    Moreover, as I noted in a previous post, Buffett completely ignores the impact of the death tax, which will result in the federal government seizing 45 percent of his assets. To be sure, Buffett may be engaging in clever tax planning, so it is hard to know the impact on his effective tax rate, but it will be significant.

  2. Buffett also mischaracterizes the impact of the Social Security payroll tax, which is dedicated for a specific purpose. The law only imposes that tax on income up to about $107,000 per year because the tax is designed so that people “earn” a corresponding  retirement benefit (which actually is tilted in favor of low-income workers).

    Imposing the tax on multi-millionaire income, however, would mean sending rich people giant checks from Social Security when they retire. But nobody thinks that’s a good idea. Or you could apply the payroll tax to all income and not pay any additional benefits. But this would turn Social Security from an “earned benefit” to a redistribution program, which also is widely rejected (though the left has been warming to the idea in recent years because their hunger for more tax revenue is greater than their support for Social Security).

If we consider these two factors, Buffett’s effective tax rate almost surely is much higher than the burden on any of the people who work for him.

But this entire discussion is a good example of why we should junk the corrupt, punitive, and unfair tax code and replace it with a simple flat tax. With no double taxation and a single, low tax rate, we would know that rich people were paying the right amount, neither too much based on class-warfare tax rates nor too little based on loopholes, deduction, preferences, exemptions, shelters, and credits.

So why doesn’t Buffett endorse this approach? Tim Carney offers a very plausible answer.

For more information about why class-warfare taxes are misguided, this video may be helpful.

Deconstructing the Revenue Side of the Debt-Ceiling Deal: Yes, There’s a Real Threat of Higher Taxes

Politicians last night announced the framework of a deal to increase the debt limit. In addition to authorizing about $900 billion more red ink right away, it would require immediate budget cuts of more than $900 billion, though “immediate” means over 10 years and “budget cuts” means spending still goes up (but not as fast as previously planned).

But that’s the relatively uncontroversial part. The fighting we’re seeing today revolves around a “super-committee” that’s been created to find $1.5 trillion of additional “deficit reduction” over the next 10 years (based on Washington math, of course).

And much of the squabbling deals with whether the super-committee is a vehicle for higher taxes. As with all kiss-your-sister budget deals, both sides can point to something they like.

Here’s what Republicans like:

The super-committee must use the “current law” baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the super-committee therefore can’t use repeal of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich” as a revenue raiser.

Here’s what Democrats like:

There appears to be nothing in the agreement to preclude the super-committee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table (notwithstanding GOP claims that it is “impossible for Joint Committee to increase taxes”).

In other words, there is a risk of tax hikes, just as I warned last week. Indeed, the five-step scenario I outlined last week needs to be modified because now a tax-hike deal would be “vital” to not only “protect” the nation from alleged default, but also to forestall the “brutal” sequester that might take place in the absence of an agreement.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just read the fact sheet distributed by the White House, which is filled with class warfare rhetoric about “shared sacrifice.”

This doesn’t mean there will be tax increases, of course, and this doesn’t mean Boehner and McConnell gave up more than Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

But as someone who assumes politicians will do the wrong thing whenever possible, it’s always good to identify the worst-case scenario and then prepare to explain why it’s not a good idea.

Debunking the Left’s Tax Burden Deception

I testified yesterday before the Joint Economic Committee about budget process reform. As part of the Q&A session after the testimony, one of the Democratic members made a big deal about the fact that federal tax revenues today are “only” consuming about 15 percent of GDP. And since the long-run average is about 18 percent of GDP, we are all supposed to conclude that a substantial tax hike is needed as part of what President Obama calls a “balanced approach” to red ink.

But it’s not just statist politicians making this argument. After making fun of his assertion that Obama is a conservative, I was hoping to ignore Bruce Bartlett for a while, but I noticed that he has a piece on the New York Times website also implying that America’s fiscal problems are the result of federal tax revenues dropping far below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.

In a previous post, I noted that federal taxes as a share of gross domestic product were at their lowest level in generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects revenue to be just 14.8 percent of G.D.P. this year; the last year it was lower was 1950, when revenue amounted to 14.4 percent of G.D.P. But revenue has been below 15 percent of G.D.P. since 2009, and the last time we had three years in a row when revenue as a share of G.D.P. was that low was 1941 to 1943. Revenue has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since 1970 and a little more than that in the postwar era.

To be fair, both the politician at the JEC hearing and Bruce are correct in claiming that tax revenues this year are considerably below the historical average.

But they are both being a bit deceptive, either deliberately or accidentally, in that they fail to show the CBO forecast for the rest of the decade. But I understand why they cherry-picked data. The chart below shows, rather remarkably, that tax revenues (the fuschia line) are expected to be back at the long-run average (the blue line) in just three years. And that’s even if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent and the alternative minimum tax is frozen.

It’s also worth noting the black line, which shows how the tax burden will climb if the Bush tax cuts expire (and also if millions of new taxpayers are swept into the AMT). In that “current law” scenario, the tax burden jumps considerably above the long-run average in just two years. Keep in mind, though, that government forecasters assume that higher tax rates have no adverse impact on economic performance, so it’s quite likely that neither tax revenues nor GDP would match the forecast.

The “Tax Expenditure” Con Job

For both political and policy reasons, the left is desperately trying to maneuver Republicans into going along with a tax increase. And they are smart to make this their top goal. After all, it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to increase the burden of government spending without more revenue coming to Washington.

But how to make this happen? President Obama is mostly arguing in favor of class-warfare tax increases, but that’s a non-serious gambit driven by 2012 political considerations. Moreover, there’s presumably zero chance that Republicans would surrender to higher tax rates on work, saving, and investment.

The real threat is back-door hikes resulting from the elimination and/or reduction of so-called tax breaks. The big spenders on the left are being very clever about this effort, appealing to anti-spending and pro-tax reform sentiments by arguing that it is important to get rid of “tax expenditures” and “spending in the tax code.”

recently warned, however, that GOPers shouldn’t fall for this sophistry, noting that “If legislation is enacted that results in more money coming into Washington, that is a tax increase.” I also explained that tax breaks are not spending, stating that “When politicians tax (or borrow) money from one person and give it to another, that’s government spending. But if politicians allow a person keep more of their own money, that’s a tax cut.”

To be sure, the tax code is riddled with inefficient and corrupt loopholes. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of fundamental tax reform, such as a flat tax. More specifically, every penny of revenue generated by shutting down tax preferences should be used to lower tax rates. This is a win-win situation that would make America more prosperous and competitive.

It’s also important to understand what’s a loophole and what isn’t. Ideally, you determine special tax breaks by first deciding on the right benchmark and then measuring how the current tax system deviates from that ideal. That presumably means all income should be taxed, but only one time.

So what can we say about the internal revenue code using this neutral benchmark? Well, there are lots of genuine loopholes. The government completely exempts compensation in the form of employer-provided health insurance, for instance, and everyone agrees that’s a special tax break. There’s also the standard deduction and personal exemptions, but most people think it’s appropriate to protect poor people from the income tax (though perhaps we’ve gone too far in that direction since only 49 percent of households now pay income tax).

Sometimes the tax code goes overboard in the other direction, however, subjecting some income to double taxation. Indeed, because of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, personal income tax, and death tax, it’s possible for some types of income to be taxed as many of three or four times.

Double taxation is a special tax penalty, which is the opposite of a special tax break. The good news is that there are some provisions in the tax code, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, that reduce these tax penalties.

The bad news is that these provisions get added to “tax expenditure” lists, and therefore get mixed up with the provisions that provide special tax breaks. This may sound too strange to be true, but here’s a list of the biggest so-called tax expenditures from the Tax Policy Center (which is a left-leaning organization, but their numbers are basically the same as the ones found at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

Since this post already is too long, I’ll close by simply noting that items 2, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12 are not loopholes. They are not “tax expenditures.” And they are not “spending in the tax code.” Every one of those provisions is designed to mitigate a penalty in the tax code.

So even if lawmakers have good motives (i.e., pursuing real tax reform such as the flat tax) when looking to get rid of special tax breaks, they need to understand what’s actually a loophole.

But since politicians rarely have good motives, there’s a real threat that they will take existing tax penalties and make them even worse. That’s another reason why tax increases should be a non-starter.

Back-Door Tax Increases Are a Recipe for Bigger Government

Martin Feldstein’s on a roll, but not in a good way. Earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, he advocated throwing in the towel on reforming Social Security into a system of personal retirement accounts. Today, in the New York Times, he endorses big tax increases.

Rather odd positions for someone who served as Chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. The Gipper must be rolling in his grave.

To be fair, when compared to Obama’s tax-hike plan, Feldstein wants to raise taxes in ways that impose much less damage on the economy. Obama wants to raise tax rate on productive behavior, thus discouraging work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. Feldstein, by contrast, wants to cap various tax preferences.

Reducing the budget deficit and stopping the explosion of our national debt will require more tax revenue… But the need for more revenue needn’t mean higher tax rates. …tax revenues can be increased substantially by limiting the deductions, credits and exclusions that are essentially government spending by another name. …such tax expenditures create incentives for wasteful borrowing and spending; they have been factors in the mortgage crisis and the rising cost of health care. …here is a way to curb this loss of revenue without eliminating any individual deduction: limit the total tax saving for any individual to a maximum percentage of his total income. …What’s the result? Taxpayers with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 would pay about $1,000 more in taxes; those with incomes of more than $500,000 might pay $40,000 more. The cap would affect more than 80 percent of taxpayers. Although they would continue to benefit from the mortgage deduction, the health insurance exclusion and other tax expenditures, their tax savings would not increase if they took out a larger mortgage or a more expensive insurance policy. … a 2 percent cap on tax expenditures in 2011 would raise tax revenue by $278 billion — nearly 30 percent of total projected income tax revenue for this year. The extra revenue would increase over time, reaching nearly half of the projected future fiscal deficits.

I’m not a fan of tax preferences. I agree with much of Professor Feldstein’s argument about the inefficiency and distortions that are created when government plays industrial policy with the tax code.

But there are good ways and bad ways of addressing the problem. If Professor Feldstein was proposing to cap or eliminate tax preferences as part of a plan that also lowered tax rates, that would be great news.

Unfortunately, Feldstein is proposing to cap tax preferences in order to funnel more money to Washington. But giving more tax revenue to politicians and bureaucrats, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, would be like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

The big problem with Feldstein’s approach is that any source of additional revenue will ease up the pressure to restrain government spending. There are several budget plans, such as Congressman Ryan’s proposal and the House Study Committee plan, that would significantly improve America’s fiscal position by restraining the growth of federal spending. But these pro-growth initiatives will have zero chance of getting enacted if politicians think more revenue is forthcoming.

America’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not insufficient revenue.

Yes, the tax code is riddled with terrible provisions that are both corrupt and economically inefficient. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of tax reform - not as part of a plan to give politicians an excuse to prop up big government.

Seven Reasons to Oppose Higher Taxes

As I have explained elsewhere, tax increases are a bad idea - unless you favor bigger government.

And I’ve already added my two cents to the tax debate between Senator Coburn and Grover Norquist regarding the desirability of higher taxes.

So it won’t surprise anyone to know that I fully agree with this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which offers seven reasons why higher taxes are a bad idea.

The video is narrated by Piyali Bhattacharya of Young Americans for Liberty, and here are her seven reasons.

  1. Tax increases are not needed
  2. Tax increases encourage more spending
  3. Tax increases harm economic performance
  4. Tax increases foment social discord
  5. Tax increases almost never raise as much revenue as projected
  6. Tax increases encourage more loopholes
  7. Tax increases undermine competitiveness

I think reasons #1, #2, #3, and #5 are the most powerful.

To a considerable degree, my video on balancing the budget makes the same point as reason #1 about why higher taxes are unnecessary. Simply stated, balancing the budget merely requires a modest degree of fiscal discipline, such as capping spending so it only grows 2 percent per year.

And if tax increases are not needed to balance the budget, then the only purpose they serve is to facilitate a bigger burden of government spending, which is why I like reason #2.

And reason #3 is standard economic analysis, making the common-sense point that if you punish something, you get less of it. This is why it is so misguided to impose higher tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Last but not least, reason #5 is just another way of saying that the Laffer Curve is real, as I explain in this tutorial.

Obama’s Tax Increase Trigger: Punishing Taxpayers with Automatic Tax Hikes When Politicians Overspend

Responding to widespread criticism of his AWOL status on the budget fight, President Obama today unveiled a fiscal plan. It already is being criticized for its class warfare approach to tax policy, but the most disturbing feature may be a provision that punishes the American people with higher taxes if politicians overspend.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”

Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

In other words, they play and we pay. The last thing we need is a perverse incentive for even more reckless spending from Washington.