Tag: IRS

Real World Evidence for the Laffer Curve from the Government of Washington, DC

President Obama is proposing a series of major tax increases. His budget envisions higher tax rates on personal income, increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains, and a big increase in the death tax. And his health care plan includes significant tax hikes, including perhaps the imposition of the Medicare payroll tax on capital income – thus exacerbating the tax code’s bias against saving and investment. It is unclear why the White House is pursuing these punitive policies. The President said during the 2008 campaign that he favored soak-the-rich taxes even if they did not raise revenue, but his budget predicts the proposals will raise lots of money.

Because of the Laffer Curve, it is highly unlikely that all of this additional revenue will materialize if the President’s budget is approved. The core insight of the Laffer Curve is not that all tax increases lose money and that all tax cuts raise revenues. That only happens in rare circumstances. Instead, the Laffer Curve simply reveals that higher tax rates will lead to less taxable income (or that lower tax rates will lead to more taxable income) and that it is an empirical matter to figure out the degree to which the change in tax revenue resulting from the shift in the tax rate is offset by the change in tax revenue caused by the shift in the other direction for taxable income. This should be an uncontroversial proposition, and these three videos explain Laffer Curve theory, evidence, and revenue-estimating issues. Richard Rahn also gives a good explanation in a recent Washington Times column.

Interestingly, the DC government (which certainly is not a bastion of free-market thinking) has just acknowledged the Laffer Curve. As the excerpt below illustrates, an increase in the cigarette tax did not raise the amount of revenue that local politicians expected. The evidence is so strong that the city’s budget experts warn that a further increase will reduce revenue:

One of the gap-closing measures for the FY 2010 budget was an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes from $2.00 to $2.50 per pack. The 50 cent increase in the cigarette tax rate was projected to increase revenue but also reduce volume. Collections year-to-date point to a more severe drop in volumes than projected. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Maryland smokers who were purchasing in DC in FY 2008, because the tax rate in the District was less than the tax rate in Maryland, have shifted purchases back to Maryland now that the tax rate in the District is higher. Virginia analyzed the impact of demand when the federal rate went up by $0.61 in April and has been surprised that demand is much stronger than they had projected–raising the possibility that purchasing in DC has moved across the river.  Whatever the actual cause, because of the lower than anticipated collections, the estimate for cigarette tax revenue is revised downwards by $15.4 million in FY 2010 and $15.2 million in FY 2011. Given that cigarette tax rates in neighboring jurisdictions are now lower than that of the District, future increases in the tax rate will likely generate less revenue rather than more.

Political Alchemy, Part I: Turning Spending Increases into Tax Cuts

Politicians in Washington have come up with something far more impressive than turning lead into gold or water into wine. Using self-serving budget rules, they can increase the burden of government spending and say they are cutting taxes instead.

This bit of legerdemain is made possible, thanks to the convolutions of the personal income tax, by adopting or expanding refundable tax credits. But in this case, “refundable” does not mean the government is returning money to taxpayers. Instead, it means that money is being redistributed to people who do not earn enough to be subject to the income tax.

This is hardly a trivial issue. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the amount of income redistribution being laundered through the tax code is now so large that the bottom 40 percent of the population has a negative “effective” income tax rate. In simple terms (though perhaps with profound political implications), the income tax is a revenue generator for a big share of the population.

And the problem is going to get worse if the President’s budget is approved. Buried in the fine print, on pages 188-189 of the Analytical Perspective of the Budget, you will see that the President is proposing to increase this hidden form of spending by more than $152 billion over the next 10 years.

It is worth noting that proponents argue that it is OK to classify this new spending as tax cuts because it somehow offsets other tax payments, especially the payroll tax. I’m sympathetic to lower taxes on everybody, including the poor, but surely it is better to be honest and simply cut the taxes that people pay. The current methodology, by contrast, is open to abuse. Heck, I’m surprised politicians don’t classify other forms of spending as tax cuts. Maybe corporate welfare can be reclassified as a corporate tax cut. (I better stop lest I give the political class any ideas.)

Defenders also assert that some so-called refundable tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit, are designed to encourage work. That is partly true, but credits like the EITC are withdrawn as income climbs, and this means poor people face punitive marginal tax rates, so the overall effect on hours worked may be negligible.

The right approach, of course, is to get the federal government out of the racket of redistributing income.

A Victory for Fiscal Sovereignty and Human Rights

A Swiss court just threw a wrench in the gears of an IRS effort to impose bad U.S. tax law on an extraterritorial basis, ruling that Switzerland-based UBS does not have to hand over data to the American tax authorities. This ruling nullifies an agreement that the Swiss government was coerced into making with the U.S. government last year.

In typical arrogant fashion, the IRS already has indicated that it still expects acquiescence, notwithstanding Switzerland’s strong human rights policy on personal privacy. The Bloomberg story excerpted below has the details, but it’s worth noting that this entire fight exists solely because the Internal Revenue Code imposes double taxation on income that is saved and invested, and imposes that bad policy on economic activity outside America’s border. But just as other governments should not have the right to impose their laws on things that happen in America, the United States should not have the right to trample the sovereignty of other nations:

The failure by U.S. citizens to complete certain tax forms or declare income doesn’t constitute “tax fraud” that would require Switzerland to disclose account data, the country’s Federal Administrative Court ruled in a judgment released today. …“The prosecutors at the Justice Department are not going to be happy with this opinion,” Namorato said in an interview in Washington. …U.S. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment. …The Internal Revenue Service said in a statement that while the agency hadn’t reviewed the ruling it “had every expectation that the Swiss government will continue to honor the terms of the agreement.” …Switzerland distinguishes between tax fraud, which is a crime, and tax evasion, which is a civil offense.

This battle is part of a broader effort by uncompetitive nations to persecute “tax havens.” Creating a tax cartel for the benefit of greedy politicians in France, Germany, and the United States would be a mistake. An “OPEC for politicians” would pave the way for higher taxes, as explained here, here, and here.

But this also is a human rights issue. Look at what happened recently in the thugocracy known as Venezuela, where Chavez began a new wave of expropriation. The Venezuelans with money in Cayman, Miami, and Switzerland were safe, but the people with assets inside the country have been ripped off by a criminal government. Or what about people subjected to persecution, such as political dissidents in Russia? Or Jews in North Africa? Or ethnic Chinese in Indonesia? Or homosexuals in Iran? And how about people in places such as Mexico where kidnappings are common and successful people are targeted, often on the basis of information leaked from tax departments. This world needs safe havens, jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands that offer oppressed people the protection of honest courts, financial privacy, and the rule of law. Heck, even the bureaucrat in charge of the OECD’s anti-tax competition campaign admitted to a British paper that “tax havens are essential for individuals who live in unstable regimes.” With politicians making America less stable with each passing day, let’s hope this essential freedom is available in the future.

Credit Card Dementia and Boundary Cases

credit cardsThe most interesting libertarian-related conversation I’ve read today comes from Rortybomb, by way of Andrew Sullivan, with commentary by Megan McArdle. Here’s a challenge to libertarians from Rortybomb, aka Mike Konczal:

I want to pitch to the credit card and financial industry a new innovative online survey. It is targeted for older, more mature long-time users of our services. We’ll give a $10 credit for anyone who completes it. Here is a sense of what the questions will look like:

- 1) What is your age?
- 2) What day of the week are you taking this survey?
- 3) Many rewards offered are for people with more active lifestyles: vacations, flights, hotels, rental cars. Do you find that your rewards programs aren’t well suited for your lifestyle?
- 4) What is the current season where you live? Are any seasons harder for you in getting to a branch or ATM machine?
- 5) Would rewards that could be given as gifts to others, especially younger people, be helpful for what you’d like to do with your benefits?
- 6) Would replacing your rewards program with a savings account redeemable for education for your grandchildren be something you’d be interested in?
- 7) Write a sentence you’d like us to hear about anything, good or bad!
- 8 ) How worried are you you’ll leave legal and financial problems for your next-of-kin after your passing?

Did you catch it? Questions 1,2,4,7 are taken from the ‘Mini-mental State Examination’ which is a quick test given by medical professionals to see if a patient is suffering from dementia. (It’s a little blunt, but we can always hire some psychologist and marketers for the final version. They’re cheap to hire.) We can use this test to subtly increase limits, and break out the best automated tricks and traps mechanisms, on those whose dementia lights up in our surveys. Anyone who flags all four can get a giant increase in balance and get their due dates moved to holidays where the Post Office is slowest! We’d have to be very subtle about it, because there are many nanny-staters out there who’d want to coddle citizens here…

I smell money – it’s like walking down a sidewalk and turning a corner and then there is suddenly money all over the sidewalk. One problem with hitting up sick people, single mothers, college kids who didn’t plan well and the cash-constrained poor with fees and traps is that they’re poor. Hitting up people with a lifetime of savings suffering from dementia is some real, serious money we can tap as a revenue source.

Clearly, only an evil person (or a libertarian!) would allow a scam like this one. Megan responds, I think rightly:

I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a hard question for libertarians. I mean, I might argue that preventing people from ripping off the marginally mentally impaired would, in practice, be too difficult. Crafting a rule that prevented companies from identifying people who are marginally impaired might well be impossible – I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to, I could devise subtler tests than “What day of the week is it?” And while the seniors lobby is probably in favor of not ripping off seniors, they’re resolutely against making it harder for seniors to do things like drive or get credit, which is the result that any sufficiently strong rule would probably have.

But it’s pretty much standard libertarian theory that you shouldn’t take advantage of people who do not have the cognitive ability to make contracts. Marginal cases are hard not because we think it’s okay, but because there is disagreement over what constitutes impairment, and the more forcefully you act to protect marginal cases, the more you start treating perfectly able-minded adults like children.

The elderly are a challenge precisely because there’s no obvious point at which you can say: now this previously able adult should be treated like a child. Either you let some people get ripped off, or you infringe the liberty, and the dignity, of people who are still capable of making their own decisions.

I’d add two responses of my own.

First, I can’t believe there’s all that much money to be had here. Anyone who wanders into Tiffany’s and back out again without remembering what they bought is, generally speaking, a bad credit risk. Mildly irresponsible people – those who slightly overspend, then have to make it up later – those are probably great for creditors. Lesson learned: If you’re not demented, don’t be irresponsible. (If you are demented, you’re not going to follow my advice anyway.)

Second, I am always amazed at how border cases are dragged out, again and again, as if they proved something against libertarianism. Border cases – How old before you can vote? How demented before a contract doesn’t bind? – are a problem in all political systems, because all systems start with a presumed community of citizens and/or subjects. We always have to draw boundaries between the in-group and the outliers before we have a polity in the first place.

What makes the classical liberal/libertarian approach so valuable is in fact that it draws so few boundaries. Where other systems depend on class boundaries, race boundaries, religious boundaries, and so forth – with annoying boundary issues at every stop along the way – libertarians make it as simple as I think it can be. We presume that all mentally competent adults are worthy of liberty until they prove themselves otherwise.

The boundary cases are still there, but they are fewer and more tractable. Konczal just wandered into one of them. It proves much less than he thinks.

H&R Block and the IRS: An Unholy Alliance to Ransack Taxpayers

The late George Stigler, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, is famous in part because of his work on “regulatory capture,” which occurs when interest groups use the coercive power of government to thwart competition and undeservedly line their own pockets. A perfect (and distasteful) example of this can be found in today’s Washington Post, which reports that the IRS plans to impose new regulations dictating who can prepare tax returns. Not surprisingly, the new rules have the support of big tax preparation shops such as H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt, which see this as an opportunity to squeeze smaller competitors out of the market. The IRS and the big firms claim more regulations are needed to protect consumers from shoddy work, but this is the usual rationale for licensing laws and other government-imposed barriers to entry and the Institute for Justice has repeatedly shown such rules are designed to benefit insiders rather than consumers.

Tax preparers do make many mistakes, to be sure, but that is a reflection of a nightmarish tax code, and the annual tax test conducted by Money magazine showed that even the most-skilled professionals – such as CPAs, tax lawyers, and enrolled agents – were unable to figure out how to correctly fill out a hypothetical family’s tax return. But since the IRS routinely makes major mistakes as well, perhaps the moral of the story is that we need fundamental tax reform, not IRS rules to create a cartel for the benefit of H&R Block and other big firms. Would any of this be an issue if we had a flat tax or national sales tax?

Merry Christmas from the IRS

Here are a few stories to bring holiday cheer for taxpayers. First, we have an Associated Press report that several hundred thousand federal bureaucrats have serious tax delinquencies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development always ranks high on the list of government entities that should be abolished, so it’s interesting to see that HUD bureaucrats are most likely to be dodging their taxes:

More than 276,000 federal employees and retirees owed back income taxes as of Sept. 30, 2008, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service. The $3.04 billion owed was up from $2.7 billion owed by federal employees and retirees in 2007. Among cabinet agencies, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had the highest delinquency rate, at just over 4 percent.

This rampant nonpayment is especially outrageous since federal bureaucrats “earn” twice as much compensation, on average, as those of us laboring in the productive sector of the economy. One might think they would go out of their way to comply since their bloated salaries come from tax collections. Speaking of outrage, the internal watchdogs at the Treasury have just published a report showing that it is almost impossible to verify eligibility for the special interest tax breaks in the so-called stimulus. As Investor’s Business Daily opines, this is an invitation to fraud:

A new report from the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration counts 56 tax provisions in the bill having a potential cost of $325 billion. Of those, 20 are tax breaks for individuals and 36 are for businesses. The problem, the Inspector General says, is the IRS can’t verify taxpayer eligibility “for the majority of Recovery Act tax benefits and credits.” For individual taxpayers, 13 of the 20 benefits and credits can’t be verified; for businesses, it’s 26 of 36. …To suggest, as Treasury does, that the biggest chunk of the $325 billion in stimulus package tax breaks can’t be adequately followed violates the pledges of openness and fairness made when the stimulus was passed last February. As the government-stimulus-oversight Web site, recovery.gov, notes, last year’s package “requires that taxpayer dollars spent under the Act be subject to unprecedented accountability.” We wouldn’t call being unable to verify upwards of two-thirds of the $325 billion handed out as “unprecedented accountability.” Sounds more like an invitation to fraud, all at the expense of the taxpayers.

To be fair, even a competent government agency might have trouble making a bad law work, and the $787 boondoggle was rushed through the legislative process with very little – if any – attention paid to anything other than funneling other people’s money to special interest groups. That being said, the IRS has trouble even with routine tasks. According to another IG report, the agency has a staggering 70 percent error rate in its processing of taxpayer identification numbers for individual taxpayers:

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) today publicly released its review of the IRS’s processing of applications for Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs). TIGTA reviewed a sample of ITIN applications and found that almost 70% contained significant errors and/or raised concerns that should have prevented the issuance of an ITIN. The IRS estimates that it has issued more than 14 million ITINs as of December 2008. ITINs are intended to provide tax identification numbers to resident and nonresident alien individuals who may have U.S. tax reporting or filing obligations but do not qualify for Social Security Numbers, which generally are only issued to U.S. citizens and individuals legally admitted to the U.S. …”The number of individual income tax returns filed using ITINs and reporting wage income has increased by 247 percent from 2001 to 2008,” commented J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. “If the IRS continues to issue ITINs without proper verification, the risk of fraudulently filed returns – along with fraudulently claimed refunds – will continue to rise,” added Inspector General George.

Just think how much fun it will be when the IRS is in charge of determining those of us who should get fined or jailed for noncompliance with government-run healthcare! No wonder so many taxpayers put a flat tax or national sales tax on their Christmas lists.

Last Minute Christmas Shopping?

This is the last week to buy presents, so for those of you who can’t find zhu zhu pets, here are a couple of options sure to bring a smile. The first option is a long-sleeved t-shirt honoring the Secretary of the Treasury.

Geithner shirt

If t-shirts are not high on the list for your friends and family, here’s something everyone can use. There are more than 70,000 pages of tax law and IRS regulation, and although there are not that many squares in this roll, all taxpayers will enjoy creating their own “performance art” with this gift (sadly, does not include a grant from the NEA).

IRS TP