Tag: income tax rates

Memo to Robert Reich: Rewrite Your Brief

Robert Reich posted a letter in June 20 Wall Street Journal responding to my article of June 16, “Why 70% Tax Rates Won’t Work.”

He argues that I distort his proposal (though I wasn’t talking about his proposal) and ignore his argument that, “Giving the middle class more purchasing power by lowering its rates while raising the rates at the top will help spur [economic] growth.”

This strikes me as a futile effort to change the subject.  Since I proved that past tax rates of 50-70% on relatively modest incomes raised less revenue than a top tax rate of 28%, how could Reich’s proposal of 50-70% rates at incomes above $500,000 raise more revenue?   And if 50-70% tax rates would not raise more revenue, then how could he possibly promise “substantial rate reductions [actually a refundable tax credit] for people with incomes under $100,000”?  

The original draft of my article was not focused on Reich, but included others − including two of his Berkeley colleagues (Brad DeLong and Emmanuel Saez) who recently suggested a tax rate of 70% would be “revenue-maximizing.”  The details of Reich’s proposal were not in the blog I quoted, but such details have no relevance to any points I made.

Only after top tax rates came down, I noted, were we able to afford very substantial reductions in taxes for people with incomes under $100,000.  Since President Reagan took office the average income tax rates have become negative for the bottom 40% and were cut in half for the “middle class.”   In 1980, when top tax rates were 70% and nearly 40% on capital gains, such rates brought in so little revenue that the Feds were compelled to tax low and middle-income families quite heavily to bring revenues up to the normal 8% of GDP.

At his blog, Reich argues that, “Reynolds bends the facts to make his case. The most important variable explaining the rise and fall of tax revenues as a percent of GDP has been the business cycle, not the effective tax rate. In periods when the economy is growing briskly, tax revenues have risen as a percent of GDP, regardless of effective rates; in downturns, revenues have fallen.”

For that to work as an explanation of why individual tax revenues were higher when the top tax rate was 28% than when it was 70-91%, Reich is logically obligated to argue that the economy was growing more briskly when the top tax rate was 28% than when the top tax rate was 70-91%.  Contradicting his own logic, however, Reich instead claims that “Giving the middle class more purchasing power by lowering its rates while raising the rates at the top will help spur growth.”

Reich is not proposing to add new tax rates to 50-70% on salaries, dividends and capital gains because he believes it will raise more revenue (my data show otherwise), but because he believes it will raise the growth of real GDP.   This is breathtaking. Reich should be glad that I ignored his “central argument” about super-high tax rates boosting economic growth by taking income from those who earned and giving it to those more likely to squander it.   I was just being too polite.

Within his hyper-Keynesian lawyer’s brief, Reich is logically required to argue that top tax rates of 70-91% (1) raised revenue, and that (2) this imaginary added revenue allowed imaginary tax reductions on poorer people with a lower propensity to save.  He must then arrive at the logical conclusion, which is that (3) the average savings rate must have been much lower when top tax rates were 70-91% than since 1988 when to tax rates have frequently been 28-35% and as low as 15% on capital gains and dividends. A low savings rate, in Reichian theory, is what makes the economy grow.

My article proved the first two premises are false.  High statutory tax rates on the rich generated less revenue, and the poor and middle classes paid much higher taxes as a result.

The third premise of Reich’s brief is key to the Keynesian fable about growth depending to incentives to consume rather than incentives to produce.  Once again, the facts are the exact opposite of what Reich imagines. The personal savings rate was 9% from 1959 to 1981 when top tax rates were 70-91%, and 4.5% from 1988 to 2007 when top tax rates were 28-39.6%.

Reich’s comment that “the richest 1% of Americans got 10% of total [pretax, pretransfer] income in 1980, and get more than 20% now” refers to income reported on individual tax returns, assembled by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.   When top tax rates went way down, particularly in 1988, 1997 and 2003, the amount of reported income and capital gains went way up.  As Saez explained in the 2004 issue of Tax Policy and The Economy (MIT Press, p.120): “Top income shares … show striking evidence of large and immediate responses to the tax cuts of 1980s, and the size of those responses is largest for the topmost income groups.”   That is why revenues from high-income households went way up rather than down, and why it then became feasible to hand out refundable credits to the bottom 40% and cut tax bills in half for those earning less than $100,000.

Reich would apply his 50-70 % tax rates to reported capital gains and dividends, which is a surefire way to make taxable capital gains and dividends vanish from tax returns.  No high-income taxpayer can be compelled to sell property or financial assets for the sheer joy of paying 50-70 % of the gain to the IRS.  No investor can be compelled to hold dividend-paying stock rather than tax-free bonds.  

With the enormous amount of revenues lost under the Reich tax proposal, we would have no choice but to revert to the pre-1986 stingy personal exemptions and standard deductions while also repealing the Bush child credit and the vastly expanded earned income tax credit.

Federal Spending: Ryan vs. Obama

House Budget Committee Chairman, Paul Ryan, introduced his budget resolution for fiscal 2012 and beyond today entitled “The Path to Prosperity.” The plan would cut some spending programs, reduce top income tax rates, and reform Medicare and Medicaid. The following two charts compare spending levels under Chairman Ryan’s plan and President Obama’s recent budget (as scored by the Congressional Budget Office).

Figure 1 shows that spending rises more slowly over the next decade under Ryan’s plan than Obama’s plan. But spending rises substantially under both plans—between 2012 and 2021, spending rises 34 percent under Ryan and 55 percent under Obama.

Figure 2 compares Ryan’s and Obama’s proposed spending levels at the end of the 10-year budget window in 2021. The figure indicates where Ryan finds his budget savings. Going from the largest spending category to the smallest:

  • Ryan doesn’t provide specific Social Security cuts, instead proposing a budget mechanism to force Congress to take action on the program. It is disappointing that his plan doesn’t include common sense reforms such raising the retirement age.
  • Ryan finds modest Medicare savings in the short term, but the big savings occur beyond 10 years when his “premium support” reform is fully implemented. I would rather see Ryan’s Medicare reforms kick in sooner, which after all are designed to improve quality and efficiency in the health care system.
  • Ryan adopts Obama’s proposed defense (security) savings, but larger cuts are called for. After all, defense spending has doubled over the last decade, even excluding the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Ryan includes modest cuts to nonsecurity discretionary spending. Larger cuts are needed, including termination of entire agencies. See DownsizingGovernment.org.
  • Ryan makes substantial cuts to other entitlements, such as farm subsidies. Bravo!
  • Ryan would turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants. That is an excellent direction for reform, and it would allow Congress to steadily reduce spending and ultimately devolve these programs to the states.
  • Ryan would repeal the costly 2010 health care law. Bravo!

To summarize, Ryan’s budget plan would make crucial reforms to federal health care programs, and it would limit the size of the federal government over the long term. However, his plan would be improved by adopting more cuts and eliminations of agencies in short term, such as those proposed by Senator Rand Paul.

Medicare for Everyone?

According to The Hill, House Democrats are considering re-branding their new government-run health insurance program.  A “public option” evidently isn’t catchy enough.  Now they’re thinking, “Medicare Part E” as in, Medicare for Everyone.

By all means, model a new government program after Medicare, which:

Pleeeeease don’t throw me into that briar patch.

More Evidence on America’s Socialism

KPMG has released its annual survey of personal income tax rates around the world. The survey covers 86 countries, including all the high-income nations and many middle- and lower-income nations, such as Brazil, China, and India.

The chart shows the top personal income tax rates in 2009 for national governments, per the KPMG study. The current top U.S. rate is 35 percent, which is substantially above the 86-country average of 28.9 percent. The Obama administration plans to let the U.S. rate jump to 39.6 percent in 2011, which would be almost 11 points higher than the international average.

Worse still, the United States has state income taxes with rates up to 10 percent that are piled on top of the federal tax. Some of the nations in the survey (e.g. Canada) also have subnational income taxes, but many, or  most, of them do not.

Finally, note that supporters of government health care expansion have been eyeing further increases in the top U.S. tax rate above 40 percent. Alas, we need more of the Global Tax Revolution to sweep across our shores.

British Economic Suicide

A Bloomberg story on one cause of the ongoing British economic disaster under Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

Andrew Wesbecher moved to London from New York in 2006 to sell software to banks and hedge funds. This month he joined the exodus of American expatriates fleeing high taxes and the city’s shrinking financial industry … Americans are heading home as Britain plans a 50 percent tax rate for those who earn more than 150,000 pounds ($248,000) a year and employers cut benefits for workers living abroad, reducing the allure of London. That comes a year after the U.K. said foreigners who have lived in the country for more than seven years must pay 30,000 pounds annually or give up the special status that shields overseas income from British taxes.

Since the 1980s, London has boomed as an international city open to the world’s entrepreneurs and their wealth, and perhaps home to more billionaires than any other city. The British economy as a whole has done quite well, pulled ahead by London and driven by a new free-market spirit in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts. Thatcher rightly argued that her cuts to income tax rates “provided a huge boost to incentives, particularly for those talented, internationally mobile people so essential to economic success.”  High tax rates at the top end were a “symbol of socialism” that she wanted to scrap.

Brown is killing the free-market goose that laid the golden eggs of Britain’s success. I really don’t understand the vision of such politicians – don’t they know what they are doing? I want people to be successful. I want entrepreneurs to create wealth. I love growing, vibrant cities.  Why do some people want to destroy all that?

Half for the Government

The Democrat’s latest plan to raise money for federal health care expansion is to impose surtaxes ranging from 1 percent to 3 percent on higher-income earners.

Currently, the United States is in the middle of the pack of industrial nations when it comes to imposing punitive tax rates on higher earners. The chart shows the top statutory personal income tax rates for the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The current top U.S. rate is 42 percent (including state taxes), which is the same as the 30-nation average. The data is from the OECD.

With the top federal rate scheduled to jump 5 percentage points in 2011, plus the new 3-percent surtax, the top U.S. rate would hit 50 percent. Fifty percent! Half of all additional income earned by the nation’s most productive workers and entrepreneurs would be confiscated by the government. America’s 50 percent tax rate would be tied with three other nations and would be topped only by the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark.

Obama Adopts the Mikulski Principle

Economists have advanced many theories of taxation. But as usual, the one that seems to explain the policies of the Obama administration best is what I call the Mikulski Principle, the theory most clearly enunciated in 1990 by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D, Md.):

Let’s go and get it from those who’ve got it.

Just take a look at the myriad taxes proposed or publicly floated by President Obama and his aides and allies:

As the links will indicate, not all of these taxes have been formally proposed, and some have already run into sufficient criticism to have become unlikely. But together they illustrate the mindset of an administration and a Congress determined to extract as much money as they can from Americans rather than cut back on expenditures, which have doubled in about eight-and-a-half years.

Indeed, the administration’s programs remind us that today is July 2, the 233rd anniversary of the day on which the Continental Congress voted for American independence, issuing a document that declared, among other things,

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.