Tag: laffer curve

The Common-Sense Case for Dynamic Scoring

As regular readers know, one of my great challenges in life is trying to educate policy makers about the Laffer Curve, which is simply a way of illustrating that government won’t collect any revenue if tax rates are zero, but also won’t collect much revenue if tax rates are 100 percent. After all, very few people will be willing to earn and report income if the government steals every penny.

In other words, you can’t estimate changes in tax revenues simply by looking at changes in tax rates. You also have to consider changes in taxable income. Only a fool, for instance, would assume that you can double tax revenue by doubling tax rates.

But how do you explain this to the average person? Or, if you want a bigger challenge, how do you get this point across to a politician?

More Compelling Evidence that America’s Corporate Tax System Is Pointlessly Destructive

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the United States has the world’s worst corporate tax system.

We definitely have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world, and we may have the highest corporate tax rate in the entire world depending on how one chooses to classify the tax regime in an obscure oil Sheikdom.

But America’s bad policy goes far beyond the rate structure. We also have a very punitive policy of “worldwide taxation” that forces American firms to pay an extra layer of tax when competing for market share in other nations.

And then we have rampant double taxation of both dividends and capital gains, which discourages business investment.

No wonder a couple of German economists ranked America 94 out of 100 nations when measuring the overall treatment of business income.

So if you’re an American company, how do you deal with all this bad policy?

Well, one solution is to engage in a lot of clever tax planning to minimize your taxable income. Although that’s probably not a successful long-term strategy because the Obama Administration is supporting a plan by European politicians to create further disadvantages for American-based companies.

Can You Spell L-A-F-F-E-R C-U-R-V-E?

I’m thinking of inventing a game, sort of a fiscal version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Only the way my game will work is that there will be a map of the world and the winner will be the blindfolded person who puts his pin closest to a nation such as Australia or Switzerland that has a relatively low risk of long-run fiscal collapse.

That won’t be an easy game to win since we have data from the BIS, OECD, and IMF showing that government is growing far too fast in the vast majority of nations.

We also know that many states and cities suffer from the same problems.

A handful of local governments already have hit the fiscal brick wall, with many of them (gee, what a surprise) from California.

The most spectacular mess, though, is about to happen in Michigan.

The Washington Post reports that Detroit is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

After decades of sad and spectacular decline, it has come to this for Detroit: The city is $19 billion in debt and on the edge of becoming the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. An emergency manager says the city can make good on only a sliver of what it owes—in many cases just pennies on the dollar.

This is a dog-bites-man story. Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And the problems of Illinois.

Question of the Week: What’s the Right Point on the Laffer Curve?

Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled “What’s the Ideal Point on the Laffer Curve?

Except I didn’t answer my own question. I simply pointed out that revenue maximization was not the ideal outcome.

I explained that policy makers instead should seek to maximize prosperity, and that this implied a much lower tax rate.

But what is that tax rate, several people have inquired?

The simple answer is that the tax rate should be set to finance the legitimate functions of government.

But that leads to an obvious follow-up question. What are those legitimate functions?

According to my anarcho-capitalist friends, there’s no need for any public sector. Even national defense and courts can be shifted to the private sector.

In that case, the “right” tax rate obviously is zero.

But what if you’re a squishy, middle-of-the-road moderate like me, and you’re willing to go along with the limited central government envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers?

That system operated very well for about 150 years and the federal government consumed, on average, only about 3 percent of economic output. And even if you include state and local governments, overall government spending was still less than 10 percent of GDP.

Moreover, for much of that time, America prospered with no income tax.

But this doesn’t mean there was no tax burden. There were federal excise taxes and import taxes, so if the horizontal axis of the Laffer Curve measured “Taxes as a Share of GDP,” then you would be above zero.

Or you could envision a world where those taxes were eliminated and replaced by a flat tax or national sales tax with a very low rate. Perhaps about 5 percent.

So I’m going to pick that number as my “ideal” tax rate, even though I know that 5 percent is just a rough guess.

For more information about the growth-maximizing size of government, watch this video on the Rahn Curve.

There are two key things to understand about my discussion of the Rahn Curve.

First, I assume in the video that the private sector can’t provide core public goods, so the discussion beginning about 0:33 will irk the anarcho-capitalists. I realize I’m making a blunt assumption, but I try to keep my videos from getting too long and I didn’t want to distract people by getting into issues such as whether things like national defense can be privatized.

Second, you’ll notice around 3:20 of the video that I explain why I think the academic research overstates the growth-maximizing size of government. Practically speaking, this seems irrelevant since the burden of government spending in almost all nations is well above 20 percent-25 percent of GDP.

But I hold out hope that we’ll be able to reform entitlements and take other steps to reduce the size and scope of government. And if that means total government spending drops to 20 percent-25 percent of GDP, I don’t want that to be the stopping point.

At the very least, we should shrink the size of the state back to 10 percent of economic output.

And if we ever get that low, then we can have a fun discussion with the anarcho-capitalists on what else we can privatize.

P.S. If a nation obeys Mitchell’s Golden Rule for a long enough period of time, government spending as a share of GDP asymptotically will approach zero. So perhaps there comes a time where my rule can be relaxed and replaced with something akin to the Swiss debt brake, which allows for the possibility of government growing at the same rate as GDP.

The Laffer Curve Bites Ireland in the Butt

Cigarette butt, to be specific.

All over the world, governments impose draconian taxes on tobacco, and then they are surprised when projected revenues don’t materialize. We’ve seen this in Bulgaria and Romania, and we’ve seen this Laffer Curve effect in Washington, DC, and Michigan.

Even the Government Accountability Office has found big Laffer Curve effects from tobacco taxation.

And now we’re seeing the same result in Ireland.

Here are some details from an Irish newspaper.

[N]ew Department of Finance figures showing that tobacco excise tax receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased and the number of people smoking has remained constant… [T]he latest upsurge in [cigarette] smuggling … is costing the state hundreds of millions in lost revenue. Criminal gangs are openly selling smuggled cigarettes on the streets of central Dublin and other cities, door to door and at fairs and markets. Counterfeit cigarettes can be brought to the Irish market at a cost of just 20 cents a pack and sold on the black market at €4.50. The average selling price of legitimate cigarettes is €9.20 a pack. …Ireland has the most expensive cigarettes in the European Union, meaning that smugglers can make big profits by offering them at cheaper prices.

I had to laugh at the part of the article that says, “receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased.”

French Thief Complains that Victims Are Running Away

Atlas is shrugging and Dan Mitchell is laughing.

I predicted back in May that well-to-do French taxpayers weren’t fools who would meekly sit still while the hyenas in the political class confiscated ever-larger shares of their income.

But the new President of France, Francois Hollande, doesn’t seem overly concerned by economic rationality and decided (Obama must be quite envious) that a top tax rate of 75 percent is fair. And patriotic as well!

French Prime Minister: “I’m upset that the wildebeest aren’t remaining still for their disembowelment.”

So I was pleased - but not surprised - when the news leaked out that France’s richest man was saying au revoir and moving to Belgium.

But he’s not the only one. The nation’s top actor also decided that he doesn’t want to be a fatted calf. Indeed, it appears that there are entire communities of French tax exiles living just across the border in Belgium.

Best of all, the greedy politicians are throwing temper tantrums that the geese have found a better place for their golden eggs.

France’s Prime Minister seems particularly agitated about this real-world evidence for the Laffer Curve. Here are some excerpts from a story in the UK-based Telegraph.

France’s prime minister has slammed wealthy citizens fleeing the country’s punitive tax on high incomes as greedy profiteers seeking to “become even richer”. Jean-Marc Ayrault’s outburst came after France’s best-known actor, Gerard Dépardieu, took up legal residence in a small village just over the border in Belgium, alongside hundreds of other wealthy French nationals seeking lower taxes. “Those who are seeking exile abroad are not those who are scared of becoming poor,” the prime minister declared after unveiling sweeping anti-poverty measures to help those hit by the economic crisis. These individuals are leaving “because they want to get even richer,” he said. “We cannot fight poverty if those with the most, and sometimes with a lot, do not show solidarity and a bit of generosity,” he added.

In the interests of accuracy, let’s re-write Monsieur Ayrault’s final quote from the excerpt. What he’s really saying is: “We cannot buy votes and create dependency if those that produce, and sometimes produce a lot, do not act like morons and let us rape and pillage without consequence.”

So what’s going to happen? Well, I wrote in September that France was going to suffer a fiscal crisis, and I followed up in October with a post explaining how a bloated welfare state was a form of economic suicide.

Yet French politicians don’t seem to care. They don’t seem to realize that a high burden of government spending causes economic weakness by misallocating labor and capital. They seem oblivious  to basic tax policy matters, even though there is plenty of evidence that the Laffer Curve works even in France.

So as France gets ever-closer to fiscal collapse, part of me gets a bit of perverse pleasure from the news. Not because of dislike for the French. The people actually are very nice, in my experience, and France is a very pleasant place to visit. And it was even listed as the best place in the world to live, according to one ranking.

But it helps to have bad examples. And just as I’ve used Greece to help educate American lawmakers about the dangers of statism, I’ll also use France as an example of what not to do.

P.S. France actually is much better than the United States in that rich people actually are free to move across the border without getting shaken down with exit taxes that are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.

P.P.S. This Chuck Asay cartoon seems to capture the mentality of the French government.

In World Bank’s New Tax Report Card, ‘High Effort’ Is a Very Bad Thing

Remember when you were a kid and your parents would either be happy or angry depending on whether your report card said you were trying hard or being a slacker? No matter whether your grades were good or bad, it helped to get an “A for Effort.”

But sometimes a high level of effort isn’t a good thing.

The World Bank has a new study that measures national tax burdens. But instead of using conventional measures, such as top tax rates or tax collections as a share of GDP, the international bureaucracy has developed an index that measures “tax effort” and “tax capacity” after adjusting for variables such as per-capita GDP, corruption, and demographics.

One goal of the study is to develop an apples-to-apples way of comparing tax burdens for nations at various levels of development. Poor nations, for instance, tend to have low levels of tax revenue even though they often have high tax rates. This is partly because of Laffer Curve reasons, but perhaps even more so because of corruption and incompetence. Rich nations, by contrast, usually have much greater ability to enforce their tax codes. So if you want to compare the tax system of Paraguay with the tax system of Sweden, you need to take these factors into account.

Here’s a description of how the authors addressed this issue.

Measuring taxation performance of countries is both theoretically and practically challenging. …tax economists have attempted to deal with this problem by applying an empirical approach to estimate the determinants of tax collection and identify the impact of such variables on each country’s taxable capacity. The development of a tax effort index, relating the actual tax revenues of a country to its estimated taxable capacity, provides us with a tempting measure which considers country specific fiscal, demographic, and institutional characteristics. …Tax effort is defined as an index of the ratio between the share of the actual tax collection in GDP and the taxable capacity.

This is a worthwhile project. There sometimes are big differences between nations and those should be part of the equation when comparing tax policies. Indeed, this is why my recent post on the rising burden of the value-added tax looked at data for nations at different levels of development.

But I’m irked by the World Bank study because it’s really measuring “tax onerousness.” I’m not even sure onerousness is a word, but I sure don’t like the term “tax effort” because it implies that a higher tax burden is a good thing. After all, we learned from our report cards that it’s good to demonstrate high effort and not be a slacker.

And just so you know I’m not just imagining things, the authors explicitly embrace the notion that bigger tax burdens are desirable. They assert (without any evidence, of course) that higher levels of tax promote “development” and that more money for politicians is “desirable.”

The international development community is increasingly recognizing the centrality of effective taxation to development. …higher tax revenues are important to lower the aid dependency in low-income countries. They also encourage good governance, strengthen state building and promote government accountability. …many developing countries experience a chronic gap between the actual and desirable levels of tax revenues. Taxation reforms are needed to close this gap.

If the authors of the study looked at economic history, they would understand that they have things backwards. “Effective taxation” doesn’t lead to “development.” It’s the other way around. The western world became rich when the burden of government was very small and most nations didn’t even have income tax regimes. It was only after nations because prosperous that politicians figured out how to extract significant shares of economic output.

But let’s set that aside and see which nations have the most and least onerous tax systems. Here’s a table from the report and it seems that Papua New Guinea has the world’s worst tax system and Bahrain has the best tax system. Among developed nations, New Zealand is the worst and Japan is the best. The United States (circled in red) gets a decent score. We’re not nearly as good as Switzerland and we’re slightly worse than Canada, but our politicians expend less “effort” than their counterparts in nations such as France, Italy, and Belgium.

By the way, I’m not endorsing either the methodology or the results. I like what the authors are trying to do (at least in terms of creating an apples-to-apples measure), but some of the results seem at odds with reality. New Zealand’s tax system isn’t great, but it certainly doesn’t seem as bad as the French tax code. And I have a hard time believing that Japan’s tax code is less onerous than the Swiss system.

The World Bank study also breaks down the data so that countries can be put into a matrix based on how much money they collect and how much “effort” they expend.

Here’s where the authors let their bias show. In their descriptions of the various boxes, they reflexively assume that higher tax collections are a good thing. Here is some of what they wrote in that section of the study.

The collection of taxes in this group of countries is currently low and lies below their respective taxable capacity. These countries have potential to succeed in deepening comprehensive tax policy and administration reforms focusing on revenue enhancement. …Botswana and Chile were originally in the low-effort, low-collection group, but they made it to the high-effort, high-collection group after recent improvements in revenue performance. …Although countries in this [high collection, low effort] group have already achieved a high tax collection, fiscally they still have the potential to implement reforms to reduce distortions and reach a higher level of efficiency of tax collection, since their tax effort index is low.

Very Orwellian, wouldn’t you say? We’re supposed to conclude that it’s bad if nations are “below their respective taxable capacity” because they can “succeed in deepening comprehensive tax policy” for purposes of “revenue enhancement.” Other nations, though, got gold stars because of “improvements in revenue performance.” And others were encouraged to try harder, even if they already collected a lot of revenue, in order to “reach of a higher level of efficiency of tax collection.”

But, to be fair, the study does include some semi-sensible comments acknowledging that there are limits to the greed of the political class. For all intents and purposes, the authors warn that there will be Laffer Curve effects if “high effort” nations seek to make their tax systems even more onerous.

Given that the level of tax intake in this group of countries is already high and stays above their respective taxable capacity, a further increase in tax revenue collection may lead to unintended economic distortions. …low-income countries with a low level of tax collection but high tax effort have less opportunity to increase tax revenues without possibly creating distortions or high compliance costs.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the lingo, “distortion” refers to the economic damage caused by high tax rates. This can be because high tax rates lead to a reduction in work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, and other productive behaviors. Or it can be because high tax rates encourage people to make economically inefficient choices solely for tax planning purposes.

So the fact that the World Bank recognizes that taxes can hurt economic performance in at least some circumstances puts them ahead of the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation. That’s damning with faint praise, to be sure, but I wanted to close on an upbeat note.

P.S. If you peruse the matrix, you’ll notice that New Zealand is considered a developing country. I’m sure that will be the source of amusement to my friends in Australia.