Tag: Supply-side economics

Laffer Curve Explains Why Obama’s Class-Warfare Tax Policy Won’t Work

My main goal for fiscal policy is shrinking the size and scope of the federal government and lowering the burden of government spending. But I’m also motivated by a desire for better tax policy, which means lower tax rates, less double taxation, and fewer corrupting loopholes and other distortions.

One of the big obstacles to good tax policy is that many statists think that higher tax rates on the rich are a simple and easy way of financing bigger government. I’ve tried to explain that soak-the-rich tax policies won’t work because upper-income taxpayers have considerable ability to change the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Simply stated, when the tax rate goes up, their taxable income goes down. And that means it’s not clear whether higher tax rates lead to more revenue or less revenue. This is the underlying principle of the Laffer Curve.For more information, here’s a video from Prager University, narrated by UCLA Professor of Economics Tim Groseclose:

Groseclose does an excellent job, and I particularly like the data showing that the rich paid more to the IRS following Reagan’s tax cuts.

Progress on the Laffer Curve*

The title of this piece has an asterisk because, unfortunately, we’re not talking about progress on the Laffer Curve in the United States.

Instead, we’re discussing today how lawmakers in other nations are beginning to recognize that it’s absurdly inaccurate to predict the revenue impact of changes in tax rates without also trying to measure what happens to taxable income (if you want a short tutorial on the Laffer Curve, click here).

But I’m a firm believer that policies in other nations (for better or worse) are a very persuasive form of real-world evidence. Simply stated, if you’re trying to convince a politician that a certain policy is worth pursuing, you’ll have a much greater chance of success if you can point to tangible examples of how it has been successful.

That’s why I cite Hong Kong and Singapore as examples of why free markets and small government are the best recipe for prosperity. It’s also why I use nations such as New Zealand, Canada, and Estonia when arguing for a lower burden of government spending.

And it’s why I’m quite encouraged that even the squishy Tory-Liberal coalition government in the United Kingdom has begun to acknowledge that the Laffer Curve should be part of the analysis when making major changes in taxation.

UK Laffer CurveI don’t know whether that’s because they learned a lesson from the disastrous failure of Gordon Brown’s class-warfare tax hike, or whether they feel they should do something good to compensate for bad tax policies they’re pursuing in other areas, but I’m not going to quibble when politicians finally begin to move in the right direction.

 

The Wall Street Journal opines that this is a very worthwhile development.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has cut Britain’s corporate tax rate to 22% from 28% since taking office in 2010, with a further cut to 20% due in 2015. On paper, these tax cuts were predicted to “cost” Her Majesty’s Treasury some £7.8 billion a year when fully phased in. But Mr. Osborne asked his department to figure out how much additional revenue would be generated by the higher investment, wages and productivity made possible by leaving that money in private hands.

By the way, I can’t resist a bit of nit-picking at this point. The increases in investment, wages, and productivity all occur because the marginal corporate tax rate is reduced, not because more money is in private hands.

I’m all in favor of leaving more money in private hands, but you get more growth when you change relative prices to make productive behavior more rewarding. And this happens when you reduce the tax code’s penalty on work compared to leisure and when you lower the tax on saving and investment compared to consumption.

A Laffer Curve Warning about the Economy and Tax Revenue for President Obama and other Class Warriors

Being a thoughtful and kind person, I offered some advice last year to Barack Obama. I cited some powerful IRS data from the 1980s to demonstrate that there is not a simplistic linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

In other words, just as a restaurant owner knows that a 20-percent increase in prices doesn’t translate into a 20-percent increase in revenue because of lost sales, politicians should understand that higher tax rates don’t mean an automatic and concomitant increase in tax revenue.

This is the infamous Laffer Curve, and it’s simply the common-sense recognition that you should include changes in taxable income in your calculations when trying to measure the impact of higher or lower tax rates on tax revenues.

No, it doesn’t mean lower tax rates “pay for themselves” or that higher tax rates lead to less revenue. That only happens in unusual circumstances. But it does mean that lawmakers should exercise some prudence and judgment when deciding tax policy.

Moreover, even though I’m a strong believer in the importance of good tax policy, it’s also important to understand that taxation is just one of many factors that determine economic performance. So lower tax rates, by themselves, are no guarantee of economic vitality, and higher tax rates don’t necessarily mean the world is coming to an end.

With those caveats in mind, take a look at this table from the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent Budget and Economic Outlook. Taken from page 109, it shows what will happen if the economy grows just a tiny bit less than the baseline projection. Not a recession, by any means, just a drop in the projected growth rate of just 1/10th of 1 percent.

As you can see, the 10-year impact is $314 billion, mostly due to lower tax receipts, though there is some impact on outlays because of higher interest costs and a bit of additional entitlement spending.

So why am I sharing these numbers? Because let’s now think about President Obama’s proposed class-warfare tax hike. He wants higher tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners and other “rich” taxpayers. And he wants more double taxation of dividends and capital gains. And a higher death tax rate, even higher than the ones imposed by France and Venezuela.

I think some opponents are exaggerating when they claim that this tax hike will cause a recession and cripple the economy. But I do think that it’s reasonable to contemplate the degree to which the Obama tax hikes will slow growth. More than 1/10th of 1 percent? Less than that? Would the damage occur in the first few years? Would it be spread out over time?

Those questions are hard to answer. Ask five economists and you’ll get nine answers, but there is compelling evidence that higher tax rates do have a negative impact.

But some people assume that taxes don’t matter at all. Using models that, for all intents and purposes, naively assume a simplistic linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue, the number-crunching bureaucrats in Washington estimate that Obama’s proposed tax hikes will generate about $800 billion over 10 years.

I’m not going to pretend I know the economic impact of those higher tax rates, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the impact is minor. Indeed, let’s assume that it’s only 1/10th of 1 percent. Based on the CBO sensitivity analysis above, that means that about 40 percent of the projected deficit reduction will fail to materialize.

And that’s not even considering the fact that politicians will probably increase the burden of government spending because of the expectation of additional tax revenue.

Just something to keep in mind as this debate unfolds.

P.S. I actually shared this exact same data when testifying to the Senate Budget Committee earlier this year. Needless to say,  in some cases I think my testimony went in one ear and out the other.

P.P.S. The revenue-maximizing tax rate is not the ideal point on the Laffer Curve.

Dissecting Obama’s Record on Tax Policy

The folks at the Center for Freedom and Prosperity have been on a roll in the past few months, putting out an excellent series of videos on Obama’s economic policies.

Now we have a new addition to the list. Here’s Mattie Duppler of Americans for Tax Reform, narrating a video that eviscerates the President’s tax agenda.

I like the entire video, as you can imagine, but certain insights and observations are particularly appealing.

1. The rich already pay a disproportionate share of the total tax burden - The video explains that the top-20 percent of income earners pay more than 67 percent of all federal taxes even though they earn only about 50 percent of total income. And, as I’ve explained, it would be very difficult to squeeze that much more money from them.

2. There aren’t enough rich people to fund big government - The video explains that stealing every penny from every millionaire would run the federal government for only three months. And it also makes the very wise observation that this would be a one-time bit of pillaging since rich people would quickly learn not to earn and report so much income. We learned in the 1980s that the best way to soak the rich is by putting a stop to confiscatory tax rates.

3. The high cost of the death tax - I don’t like double taxation, but the death tax is usually triple taxation and that makes a bad tax even worse. Especially since the tax causes the liquidation of private capital, thus putting downward pressure on wages. And even though the tax doesn’t collect much revenue, it probably does result in some upward pressure on government spending, thus augmenting the damage.

4. High taxes on the rich are a precursor to higher taxes on everyone else - This is a point I have made on several occasions, including just yesterday. I’m particularly concerned that the politicians in Washington will boost income tax rates for everybody, then decide that even more money is needed and impose a value-added tax.

The video also makes good points about double taxation, class warfare, and the Laffer Curve.

Please share widely.

The Laffer Curve Wreaks Havoc in the United Kingdom

Back in 2010, I excoriated the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, noting that David Cameron was increasing tax rates and expanding the burden of government spending (including an increase in the capital gains tax!).

I also criticized Cameron for leaving in place the 50 percent income tax rate imposed by his feckless predecessor, and was not surprised when experts began to warn that this class-warfare tax hike might actually result in less revenue because the reduction in taxable income could be more significant than the increase in the tax rate.

In other words, bad policy might lead to a turbo-charged version of the Laffer Curve.

Allow me to elaborate. In most cases, punitive tax hikes do raise revenue, but not as much as politicians predict. As explained in this three-part video series, this is because it takes a very significant reduction in taxable income to offset the revenue-generating impact of the higher tax rate.

But if a tax increase imposes a lot of damage and taxpayers have enough flexibility in their financial affairs, then it’s possible that a tax hike can lose revenue (or, as we saw with Reagan’s “tax cuts for the rich,” a well-designed reduction in tax rates can actually generate higher revenue).

With that background knowledge, let’s now take a closer look at David Cameron’s tax increases. They’ve been in place for a while, so we can look at some real-world data. Allister Heath of City AM has the details.

Something very worrying is happening to the UK’s public finances. Income tax and capital gains tax receipts fell by 7.3 per cent in May compared with a year ago, according to official figures. Over the first two months of the fiscal year, they are down by 0.5 per cent. This is merely the confirmation of a hugely important but largely overlooked trend: income and capital gains tax (CGT) receipts were stagnant in 2011-12, edging up by just £414m to £151.7bn, from £151.3bn, a rise of under 0.3 per cent. By contrast, overall tax receipts rose 3.9 per cent.

Is this because the United Kingdom is cutting tax rates? Nope. As we mentioned in the introduction, Cameron is doing just the opposite.

…overall taxes on labour and capital have been hiked: the 50p tax was introduced from April 2010 (and will fall to a still high 45p in April 2013), those earning above £150,000 have lost their personal allowance, CGT has risen to 28 per cent, many workers have been dragged into higher tax thresholds, and so on. In theory, if one were to believe the traditional static model of tax, beloved of establishment economists, this should have meant higher receipts, not lower revenues.

So what’s the problem? Well, it seems that there’s thing called the Laffer Curve.

…there is a revenue-maximising rate of tax – and that if you set rates too high, you raise less because people work less, find ways of avoiding tax or quit the country. The world isn’t static, it is dynamic; people respond to tax rates, just as they respond to other prices. Laffer told a gathering at the Institute of Economic Affairs that this is definitely true in the UK today – and the struggling tax take revealed in the official numbers suggest that he is right. Tax rates and levels are so high as to be counterproductive: slashing capital gains tax would undoubtedly increase its yield, for example. Many self-employed workers are delaying incomes as much as possible until the new, lower top rate of tax kicks in.

Allister’s column also makes the critical point that not all taxes are created equal.

…higher VAT is also damaging growth, though it is still yielding more. Some taxes can still raise more – but try doing that with income tax, CGT or corporation tax and the result is now clearly counter-productive. These taxes are maxed out; they have been pushed beyond their ability to raise revenues.

Last but not least, he makes an essential point about the role of bad spending policy.

The problem is that spending is too high – central government current expenditure is up by 3.7 per cent year on year in April-May – not that taxes are too low. The result is that the April-May budget deficit reached £30.7bn, some £6.2bn higher than a year ago.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman has been whining about “spending cuts” in the United Kingdom, even though the burden of the public sector has been climbing. But given his outlandish errors about Estonia, we shouldn’t be surprised.

But that’s not the point of this post. The relevant question is why do politicians pursue bad policy and why do some economists aid and abet bad policy?

For politicians, I think the answer is easy. They simply care about getting elected and holding power. So if they think class-warfare tax policy is the way of achieving those narcissistic goals, they’ll push higher tax rates. Even if it means lower revenue, notwithstanding their usual desire to have more money so they can buy more votes.

I’m more mystified by the behavior of economists. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Justin Wolfers and Mark Thoma recently cited some survey data to claim that the Laffer Curve was universally rejected by the profession.

But as James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute explained, the survey actually showed just the opposite, with economists by a margin of nearly 5-1 agreeing that lower tax rates could boost GDP (and therefore taxable income).

Those economists did say that a reduction in tax rates, based on current levels, would not cause taxable income to jump by a large enough amount to fully offset the revenue-losing impact of the lower tax rate. But the Laffer Curve says that only happens in extreme circumstances, so there’s zero contradiction.

So why did Wolfers and Thoma create a straw man in an attempt to discredit the Laffer Curve?

I have no idea, but Republican politicians probably deserve some of the blame. Too many of them make silly claims that “all tax cuts pay for themselves,” even when talking about new credits and deductions that have no positive impact on economic performance.

To the extent that Wolfers, Thoma, and others think that’s what the Laffer Curve is all about, then their skepticism is warranted.

But if that’s the case, they should read what Art Laffer actually wrote so they can be more accurate in the future. Or they can watch these three videos.

Part I describes the theory.

Part II describes the evidence.

And Part III explains the sloppy and inaccurate revenue-estimating methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

But if they think I’m too biased or that Art is similarly misguided, then they should look at some of the evidence produced by other economists.

The sooner they get up to speed on these issues, the sooner they can help give politicians good advice so that the Laffer Curve doesn’t cause more unpleasant surprises.

The Laffer Curve Shows that Tax Increases Are a Very Bad Idea – even if They Generate More Tax Revenue

The Laffer Curve is a graphical representation of the relationship between tax rates, tax revenue, and taxable income. It is frequently cited by people who want to explain the common-sense notion that punitive tax rates may not generate much additional revenue if people respond in ways that result in less taxable income.

Unfortunately, some people misinterpret the insights of the Laffer Curve. Politicians, for instance, tend to either pretend it doesn’t exist, or they embrace it with excessive zeal and assume all tax cuts “pay for themselves.”

Another problem is that people assume that tax rates should be set at the revenue-maximizing level. I explained back in 2010 that this was wrong. Policy makers should strive to set tax rates at the growth-maximizing level. But since a growth-generating tax is about as common as a unicorn, what this really means is that tax rates should be set to produce enough revenue to finance the growth-maximizing level of government - as illustrated by the Rahn Curve.

That’s the theory of the Laffer Curve. What about the evidence? Where are the revenue-maximizing and growth-maximizing points on the Laffer Curve?

Well, ask five economists and you’ll get nine answers. In part, this is because the answers vary depending on the type of tax, the country, and the time frame. In other words, there is more than one Laffer Curve.

With those caveats in mind, we have some very interesting research produced by two economists, one from the Federal Reserve and the other from the University of Chicago. They have authored a new study that attempts to measure the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve for the United States and several European nations. Here’s an excerpt from their research.

Figure 6 shows the comparison for the US and EU-14. …Interestingly, the capital tax Laffer curve is affected only very little across countries when human capital is introduced. By contrast, the introduction of human capital has important effects for the labor income tax Laffer curve. Several countries are pushed on the slippery slope sides of their labor tax Laffer curves. …human capital turns labor into a stock variable rather than a flow variable as in the baseline model. Higher labor taxes induce households to work less and to acquire less human capital which in turn leads to lower labor income. Consequently, the labor tax base shrinks much more quickly when labor taxes are raised.

There’s a bit of jargon in this passage, so here are the charts from Figure 6. They look complex, but here are the basic facts to make them easy to understand.

The top chart shows the Laffer Curve for labor taxation, and the bottom chart shows the Laffer Curve for capital taxation. And both charts show different curves for the United States and an average of 14 European nations. Last but not least, the charts show how the Laffer Curves change is you add some real-world assumptions about the role of human capital.

Some people will look at these charts and conclude that there should be higher tax rates. After all, neither the U.S. or E.U. nations are at the revenue-maximizing  point (though the paper explains that some European nations actually are on the downward-sloping portion of the curve for capital taxes).

But let’s think about what higher tax rates imply, and we’ll focus on the United States. According to the first chart, labor taxes could be approximately doubled before getting to the downward-sloping portion of the curve. But notice that this means that tax revenues only increase by about 10 percent.

This implies that taxable income would be significantly smaller, presumably because of lower output, but also perhaps due to some combination of tax avoidance and tax evasion.

The key factoid (assuming my late-at-night, back-of-the-envelope calculations are right) is that this study implies that the government would reduce private-sector taxable income by about $20 for every $1 of new tax revenue.

Does that seem like good public policy? Ask yourself what sort of politicians are willing to destroy so much private sector output to get their greedy paws on a bit more revenue.

What about capital taxation? According to the second chart, the government could increase the tax rate from about 40 percent to 70 percent before getting to the revenue-maximizing point.

But that 75 percent increase in the tax rate wouldn’t generate much tax revenue, not even a 10 percent increase. So the question then becomes whether it’s good public policy to destroy a large amount of private output in exchange for a small increase in tax revenue.

Once again, the loss of taxable income to the private sector would dwarf the new revenue for the political class. And the question from above bears repeating. What should we think about politicians willing to make that trade?

And that’s the real lesson of the Laffer Curve. Yes, the politicians usually can collect more revenue, but the concomitant damage to the private sector is very large and people have lower living standards. So that leaves us with one final question. Do we think government spending has a sufficiently high rate-of-return to justify that kind of burden? This Rahn Curve video provides the answer.

A Victory for the Laffer Curve, a Defeat for England’s Economy

A new study from the Adam Smith Institute in the United Kingdom provides overwhelming evidence that class-warfare tax policy is grossly misguided and self-destructive. The authors examine the likely impact of the 10-percentage point increase in the top income tax rate, which was imposed as an election-year stunt by former prime minister Gordon Brown and then kept in place by his feckless successor, David Cameron.

They find that boosting the top tax rate to 50 percent will slow economic performance. And because of both macroeconomic and microeconomic responses, tax revenues over the next 10 years are likely to drop by the equivalent of more than $550 billion. Here’s a key paragraph from the executive summary of the new study.

The country is suffering from a 50%-­plus marginal tax rate which even its architect admits was imposed without economic purpose. Now our analysis shows that the policy is set for failure: at best leading to flat growth for a decade and £350bn of lost revenue. The Chancellor should seize the occasion of the 2011 budget to reverse this disaster promptly, for the benefit of public revenues, economic growth, the government’s standing with domestic wealth-creators, and the UK’s reputation with world business.

The authors urge Prime Minister Cameron to reverse this disastrous policy, but the odds of that happening are very slight. I hope I’m wrong, but I have repeatedly noted that Cameron almost always makes the wrong choice when deciding between liberty and statism.

President Obama wants to impose similar policies in the United States and there is every reason to expect similarly poor results. I’ve already posted evidence from IRS data showing that the rich paid much more tax following the Reagan tax cuts, so it shouldn’t shock anybody when the reverse happens if Obama is successful in moving America back toward a 1970s-style tax system.

To emphasize these critical points, let’s close with two videos. This first video explains the Laffer Curve and why politicians are foolish if they assume that there is a fixed linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

This second video debunks the notion of class-warfare tax policy.

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