Tag: laffer curve

Five Lessons from Ireland

The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counter-productive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

Debunking White House Pro-Tax Increase Propaganda

The White House recently released a video, narrated by Austan Goolsbee of the Council of Economic Advisers, asserting that higher tax rates on the so-called rich would be a good idea.

Since Goolsbee’s video made so many unsubstantiated assertions and was guilty of so many sins of omission, here’s a rebuttal video, narrated by yours truly.

This new Center for Freedom and Prosperity video includes the full footage of the White House production, so viewers can decide for themselves which side is correct.

Obama’s Wants a 23.9% Capital Gains Tax, but the Rate Actually Will Be Much Higher Because of Inflation

Thanks to the Obamacare legislation, we already know there will be a new 3.9 percent payroll tax on all investment income earned by so-called rich taxpayers beginning in 2013. And the capital gains tax rate will jump to 20 percent next year if the President gets his way. This sounds bad (and it is), but the news is even worse than you think. Here’s a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that exposes the atrociously unfair practice of imposing this levy on inflationary gains.

The mini-documentary uses a simple but powerful example of what happens to an investor who bought an asset 10 years ago for $5,000 and sold it this year for $6,000. The IRS will want 15 percent of the $1,000 gain (Obama wants the tax burden on capital gains to climb to 23.9 percent, but that’s a separate issue). Some people may think that a 15 percent tax is reasonable, but how many of those people understand that inflation during the past 10 years was more than 27 percent, and $6,000 today is actually worth only about $4,700 after adjusting for the falling value of the dollar? I’m not a math genius, but if the government imposes a $150 tax (15 percent of $1,000) on an investor who lost nearly $300 ($5,000 became $4,700), that translates into an infinite tax rate. And if Obama pushed the tax rate to almost 24 percent, that infinite tax rate gets…um…even more infinite.

The right capital gains tax, of course, is zero.

A Debate Between John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama

Here’s a clever video produced by the Winston Group, comparing the tax policies of two Democratic Presidents. Having previously highlighted Kennedy’s tax-cutting approach, it is painful for me to observe the class warfare approach of the Obama Administration.

What’s especially fascinating is that JFK intuitively understood the Laffer Curve, particularly the insight that deficits usually are the result of slow growth, not the cause of slow growth.

The Laffer Curve Strikes Again

In the private sector, no business owner would be dumb enough to assume that higher prices automatically translate into proportionately higher revenues. If McDonald’s boosted hamburger prices by 30 percent, for instance, the experts at the company would fully expect that sales would decline. Depending on the magnitude of the drop, total revenue might still climb, but by far less than 30 percent. And it’s quite possible that the company would lose revenue. In the public sector, however, there is very little understanding of how the real world works. Here’s a Reuters story I saw on Tim Worstall’s blog, which reveals that Bulgaria and Romania both are losing revenue after increasing tobacco taxes.

Cash-strapped Bulgaria and Romania hoped taxing cigarettes would be an easy way to raise money but the hikes are driving smokers to a growing black market instead. Criminal gangs and impoverished Roma communities near borders with countries where prices are lower – Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine – have taken to smuggling which has wiped out gains from higher excise duties. Bulgaria increased taxes by nearly half this year and stepped up customs controls and police checks at shops and markets. Customs office data, however, shows tax revenues from cigarette sales so far in 2010 have fallen by nearly a third. …Overall losses from smuggling will probably outweigh tax gains as Bulgaria struggle to fight the growing black market, which has risen to over 30 percent of all cigarette sales and could cost 500 million levs in lost revenues this year, said Bezlov at the Center for the Study of Democracy. While the government expected higher income from taxes in 2010 it has already revised that to the same level as last year. “However, this (too) looks unlikely at present,” Bezlov added. Romania, desperately trying to keep a 20 billion-euro International Monetary Fund-led bailout deal on track, has a similar problem after nearly doubling cigarette prices in 2009 then hiking value added tax. Romania’s top three cigarette makers – units of British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris – contributed roughly 2 billion euros to the budget in taxes in 2009, or just under 2 percent of GDP. They estimate about a third of cigarettes in Romania are smuggled and say this could cost the state over 1 billion euros.

What’s the Ideal Point on the Laffer Curve?

There’s been a bit of chatter in the blogosphere about a recent post on Ezra Klein’s blog, featuring estimates from various economists about the revenue-maximizing tax rate. It won’t come as a surprise that people on the right tended to give lower estimates and folks on the left had higher guesses. Donald Luskin of National Review estimated 19 percent, for instance, while Emmanuel Saez, Dean Baker, Bruce Bartlett, and Brad DeLong all gave answers around 70 percent.

There are two things that are worth noting.

First, every single answer is to the right of the Joint Committee on Taxation. The revenue-estimators on Capitol Hill assume that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance. As such, even confiscatory tax rates have very little impact on taxable income. The JCT operates in a totally non-transparent fashion, so it is difficult to know whether they would say the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 90 percent, 95 percent, or 100 percent, but it is remarkable that a mini-bureaucracy with so much power is so far out of the mainstream (it’s even more remarkable that Republicans controlled Congress for 12 years, yet never fixed this problem, but that’s a separate story).

Second, very few of the respondents made the critically important observation that it should not be the goal of tax policy to maximize revenue. After all, the revenue-maximizing point is where the damage to the overall economy is so great that taxable income falls enough to offset the impact of the higher tax rates. Greg Mankiw of Harvard and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal indicated they understood this point since they both explained that the long-run revenue-maximizing rate was lower than the short-run revenue-maximizing rate. But Martin Feldstein of Harvard explicitly addressed this issue and hit the nail on the head.

Why look for the rate that maximizes revenue? As the tax rate rises, the “deadweight loss” (real loss to the economy) rises. So as the rate gets close to maximizing revenue the loss to the economy exceeds the gain in revenue…. I dislike budget deficits as much as anyone else. But would I really want to give up say $1 billion of GDP in order to reduce the deficit by $100 million? No. National income is a goal in itself. That is what drives consumption and our standard of living.

For more information, I think my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve is a good summary of the key issues. I posted them in May 2009, but Cato-at-Liberty has been growing rapidly and many people have not seen them. Part I addresses the theory, and explicitly notes that policy makers should target the growth-maximizing tax rate rather than the revenue-maximizing tax rate. Part II reviews some of the evidence, including analysis of the huge increase in taxable income and tax revenue from upper-income taxpayers following the Reagan tax-rate reductions. Part III looks at the Joint Committee on Taxation’s dismal performance.


The Joint Committee on Taxation’s Voodoo Economics

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial this morning on the obscure – but critically important – issue of measuring what happens to tax revenue in response to changes in tax policy. This is sometimes known as the dynamic scoring versus static scoring debate and sometimes referred to as the Laffer Curve controversy.

The key thing to understand is that the Joint Committee on Taxation (which produces revenue estimates) assumes that even big changes in tax policy have zero macroeconomic impact. Adopt a flat tax? The JCT assumes no effect on the economic performance. Double tax rates? The JCT assumes no impact on growth.

The JCT does include a few microeconomic effects into its revenue-estimating models (an increase in gas taxes, for instance, would reduce gasoline consumption), but it is quite likely that they underestimate the impact of high tax rates on incentives to work, save, and invest. We don’t know for sure, though, because the JCT refuses to make its methodology public. This raises a rather obvious question: Why is the JCT so afraid of transparency? Here’s some of what the WSJ had to say about the issue, including some comparisons of what the JCT predicted and what happened in the real world.

…it’s worth reviewing whether Joint Tax estimates are accurate. This is especially important now, because President Obama and Democrats in Congress want to allow the 2003 tax cuts to expire on January 1 for individuals earning more than $200,000. The JCT calculates that increasing the tax rates on capital gains, dividends and personal income will raise nearly $100 billion a year. …we are not saying that every tax cut “pays for itself.” Some tax cuts—such as temporary rebates—have little impact on growth and thus they may lose revenue more or less as Joint Tax predicts. Cuts in marginal rates, on the other hand, have substantial revenue effects, as economic studies have shown. …So how well did Joint Tax do when it predicted a giant revenue decline from the 2003 investment tax cuts? Not too well. We compared the combined Congressional Budget Office and Joint Tax estimate of revenues after the 2003 tax cuts were enacted with the actual revenues collected from 2003-2007. In each year total federal revenues came in substantially higher than Joint Tax predicted—$434 billion higher than forecast over the five years. …As for capital gains tax receipts, they nearly tripled from 2003 to 2007, even though the capital gains tax rate fell to 15% from 20%. Yet the behavioral models that Mr. Barthold celebrates predicted that the capital gains cuts would cost the government just under $10 billion from 2003-07 when the actual capital gains revenues over five years were $221 billion higher than JCT and CBO predicted. …Estimating future federal tax revenues is an inexact science to be sure. Our complaint is that Joint Tax typically overestimates the revenue gains from raising tax rates, while overestimating the revenue losses from tax rate cuts. This leads to a policy bias in favor of higher tax rates, which is precisely what liberal Democrats wanted when they created the Joint Tax Committee.

All of the revenue-estimating issues are explained in greater detail in my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve. Part I looks at the theory. Part II looks at the evidence. Part III, which can be watched below, analyzes the role of the Joint Committee on Taxation and speculates on why the JCT refuses to be transparent.