Tag: Tax Complexity

New Academic Study Confirms Previous IMF Analysis, Shows that Lower Tax Rates Are the Best Way to Reduce Tax Evasion

Leftists want higher tax rates and they want greater tax compliance. But they have a hard time understanding that those goals are inconsistent.

Simply stated, people respond to incentives. When tax rates are punitive, folks earn and report less taxable income, and vice-versa.

In a previous post, I quoted an article from the International Monetary Fund, which unambiguously concluded that high tax burdens are the main reason people don’t fully comply with tax regimes.

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that international studies find that the jurisdictions with the highest rates of tax compliance are the ones with reasonable tax systems, such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Now there’s a new study confirming these findings. Authored by two economists, one from the University of Wisconsin and the other from Jacksonville University, the new research cites the impact of tax burdens as well as other key variables.

Here are some key findings from the study.

According to the results provided in Table 2, the coefficient on the average effective federal income tax variable (AET) is positive in all three estimates and statistically significant for the overall study periods (1960-2008) at beyond the five percent level and statistically significant at the one percent level for the two sub-periods (1970-2007 and 1980-2008). Thus, as expected, the higher the average effective federal income tax rate, the greater the expected benefits of tax evasion may be and hence the greater the extent of that income tax evasion. This finding is consistent with most previous studies of income tax evasion using official data… In all three estimates, [the audit variable] exhibits the expected negative sign; however, in all three estimates it fails to be statistically significant at the five percent level. Indeed, these three coefficients are statistically significant at barely the 10 percent level. Thus it appears the audit rate (AUDIT) variable, of an in itself, may not be viewed as a strong deterrent to federal personal income taxation [evasion].

Translating from economic jargon, the study concludes that higher tax burdens lead to more evasion. Statists usually claim that this can be addressed by giving the IRS more power, but the researchers found that audit rates have a very weak effect.

The obvious conclusion, as I’ve noted before, is that lower tax rates and tax reform are the best way to improve tax compliance - not more power for the IRS.

Incidentally, this new study also finds that evasion increases when the unemployment rate increases. Given his proposals for higher tax rates and his poor track record on jobs, it almost makes one think Obama is trying to set a record for tax evasion.

The study also finds that dissatisfaction with government is correlated with tax evasion. And since Obama’s White House has been wasting money on corrupt green energy programs and a failed stimulus, that also suggests that the Administration wants more tax evasion.

Indeed, this last finding is consistent with some research from the Bank of Italy that I cited in 2010.

…the coefficient of public spending inefficiency remains negative and highly significant. …We find that tax morale is higher when the taxpayer perceives and observes that the government is efficient; that is, it provides a fair output with respect to the revenues.

And I imagine that “tax morale” in the United States is further undermined by an internal revenue code that has metastasized into a 72,000-page monstrosity of corruption and sleaze.

On the other hand, tax evasion apparently is correlated with real per-capita gross domestic product. And since the economy has suffered from anemic performance over the past three years, that blows a hole in the conspiratorial theory that Obama wants more evasion.

All joking aside, I’m sure the President wants more tax compliance and more prosperity. And since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to help him out. Mr. President, this video outlines a plan that would achieve both of those goals.

Given his class-warfare rhetoric, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation that he will follow my sage advice.

The IRS: Even Worse Than You Think

Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

Narrated by Hiwa Alaghebandian of the American Enterprise Institute, the mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden - sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

Two things from the video are worth highlighting.

First, we should make sure to put most of the blame on Congress. As Ms. Alaghebandian notes, the IRS is in the unenviable position of trying to enforce Byzantine tax laws. Yes, there are examples of grotesque IRS abuse, but even the most angelic group of bureaucrats would have a hard time overseeing 70,000-plus pages of laws and regulations (by contrast, the Hong Kong flat tax, which has been in place for more than 60 years, requires less than 200 pages).

Second, we should remember that compliance costs are just the tip of the iceberg. The video also briefly mentions three other costs.

  1. The money we send to Washington, which is a direct cost to our pocketbooks and also an indirect cost since the money often is used to finance counterproductive programs that further damage the economy.
  2. The budgetary burden of the IRS, which is a staggering $12.5 billion. This is the money we spend to employ an army of tax bureaucrats that is larger than the CIA and FBI combined.
  3. The economic burden of the tax system, which measures the lost economic output from a tax system that penalizes productive behavior.
  4. The way to fix this mess, needless to say, is to junk the entire tax code and start all over.

    I’ve been a big proponent of the flat tax, which would mean one low tax rate, no double taxation of savings, and no corrupt loopholes. But I’m also a big fan of national sales tax proposals such as the Fair Tax, assuming we can amend the Constitution so that greedy politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and impose both an income tax and a sales tax.

    But the most important thing we need to understand is that bloated government is our main problem. If we had a limited federal government, as our Founding Fathers envisioned, it would be almost impossible to have a bad tax system. But if we continue to move in the direction of becoming a European-style welfare state, it will be impossible to have a good tax system.

Republicans Are Right to Cut the IRS Budget

One of my many frustrations of working in Washington is dealing with perpetual-motion-machine assertions. The classic example is Keynesian economics, which is based on the notion that you magically create additional economic activity by having the government spend money instead of allowing the private sector to decide how it gets spent (in an especially bizarre display of this thinking, Nancy Pelosi actually said that subsidizing unemployment was the best way to create jobs).

Another example of this backwards analysis can be found in the debate over the IRS budget. The President is resisting a GOP proposal to modestly trim the IRS’s gargantuan $12.5 billion budget and his argument is that we should actually boost funding for the tax collection bureaucracy since that will mean more IRS agents squeezing more money out of more taxpayers.

Here are some excerpts from an Associated Press report about the controversy.

Every dollar the Internal Revenue Service spends for audits, liens and seizing property from tax cheats brings in more than $10, a rate of return so good the Obama administration wants to boost the agency’s budget.House Republicans, seeing the heavy hand of a too-big government, beg to differ. They’ve already voted to cut the IRS budget by $600 million this year and want bigger cuts in 2012. …IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman told the committee Tuesday that the $600 million cut in this year’s budget would result in the IRS collecting $4 billion less through tax enforcement programs. The Democrat-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass a budget cut that big. But given the political climate on Capitol Hill, Obama’s plan to increase IRS spending is unlikely to pass, either. Obama has already increased the IRS budget by 10 percent since he took office, to nearly $12.5 billion. The president’s budget proposal for 2012 would increase IRS spending by an additional 9 percent — adding 5,100 employees. …Obama’s 2012 budget proposal for the IRS includes $473 million and 1,269 new positions to start implementing the health care law.

Unlike Keynesian economics, there actually is some truth to Obama’s position. The fantasy estimate of $10 of new revenue for every $1 spent on additional bureaucrats is clearly ludicrous, but it is equally obvious that many Americans would send less money to Washington if they didn’t have to worry about a coercive and powerful tax-collection bureaucracy that had the power to throw them in jail.

This is an empirical question, at least with regards to the narrow issue of whether more IRS agents “pay for themselves” by shaking down sufficient numbers of taxpayers. Reducing the number of IRS bureaucrats by 90 percent, from about 100,000 to 10,000, for instance, surely would be a net loss to the government since the money saved on IRS compensation would be trivial compared to the loss of tax revenue.

But that doesn’t mean that a reduction of 10,000 or 20,000 also would lead to a net loss. And it certainly does not mean that adding 10,000 or 20,000 more IRS agents will result in enough new revenue to compensate for the salaries and benefits of a bigger bureaucracy. Even left-wing economists presumably understand the concept of diminishing returns.

But let’s assume that the White House is correct and that more IRS agents would be a net plus from the government’s perspective. The Administration would like us to reflexively endorse a bigger and more aggressive IRS, but public policy should not be based on what is a “net plus” for the government.

There are two ways to promote better tax compliance. The Obama approach, as we’ve read above, is to expand the size and power of the IRS. Up to a point, this policy can be “successful” in extracting additional money from the productive sector of the economy.

The alternative approach, by contrast, seeks better compliance by lowering tax rates and reforming/simplifying tax systems. This course of action boosts compliance by making evasion and avoidance less attractive. People are much less likely to cheat if the government isn’t being too greedy, and they’re also more likely to comply if they think there is less waste, fraud, corruption, and favoritism in the tax code.

Let’s now put this discussion in context. Obama wants more IRS agents in large part to enforce his new scheme for government-run healthcare. Yet that’s a perfect example of what I modestly call Mitchell’s Law - politicians doing one bad thing (expanding the IRS) only because they did another bad thing (enacting a health care bill that made the tax code even more convoluted and punitive).

So instead of making the IRS bigger in response to a bad healthcare law, why not repeal that bad law and shrink the size of the IRS? Even better, why not junk the entire tax code so we can replace the IRS with a system that is honest and fair?

And if these big steps are not immediately feasible, at least cut the IRS budget so that awful laws are enforced in a less destructive manner.

This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video has additional details about the national nightmare we call the IRS.

Tax Lawyers, Tax Complexity, and the Broader Problem of a Self-Serving Legal Profession

The Internal Revenue Code is nightmarishly complex, as illustrated by this video. Americans spend more than 7 billion hours each year in a hopeless effort to figure out how to deal with more than 7 million words of tax law and regulation.

Why does this mess exist? The simple answer is that politicians benefit from the current mess, using their power over tax laws to raise campaign cash, reward friends, punish enemies, and play politics. This argument certainly has merit, and it definitely helps explain why the political class is so hostile to a simple and fair flat tax.

But a big part of the problem is that tax lawyers dominate the tax-lawmaking process. Almost all the decision-making professionals at the tax-writing committees (Ways & Means Committee in the House and Finance Committee in the Senate) are lawyers, as are the vast majority of tax policy people at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, some lawyers are needed if for no other reason than to figure out how new loopholes, deductions, credits, and other provisions can be integrated into Rube-Goldberg monstrosity of existing law.

But part of me has always wondered whether lawyers deliberately or subconsciously make the system complex because it serves their interests. I know many tax lawyers who are now getting rich in private practice by helping their clients navigate the complicated laws and regulations that they helped implement. For these people, the time they spent on Capitol Hill, in the Treasury, or at the IRS was an investment that enables today’s lucrative fees.

I freely admit that this is a sour perspective on how Washington operates, but it certainly is consistent with the “public choice” theory that people in government behave in ways that maximize their self interest.

There’s now an interesting book that takes a broader look at this issue, analyzing the extent to which the legal profession looks out for its own self interest. Written by Benjamin H. Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, The Lawyer-Judge Bias in the American Legal System explains that the legal profession has self-serving tendencies.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, interviews Professor Barton about his new book.

I freely confess that I’m looking at this issue solely through my narrow prism of tax policy. But since Barton’s thesis meshes with my observations that tax lawyers benefit from a corrupt tax system, I’m sympathetic to the notion that the problem is much broader.

One of the most qoted lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” But rather than making lawyer jokes, it would be a better idea to figure out how to limit the negative impact of self-serving behavior - whether by lawyers or any other profession that might misuse the coercive power of government.

This is one of many reasons why decentralization is a good idea. If people and businesses have the freedom to choose the legal system with the best features, that restrains the ability of an interest group - including lawyers - to manipulate any one system for their private advantage. This new study by Professors Henry Butler and Larry Ribstein is a good explanation of why allowing “choice of law” yields superior results.

The Joy of Tax Serfdom

Like a good peasant, I have already filed an extension, so I am at least temporarily compliant with the friendly people at the IRS. But since it is tax day, perhaps a slight bit of criticism of the tax code is warranted. I have already posted my video on the flat tax and warned about the risks of adding a value-added tax on top of the income tax in another video. I also posted a very successful video narrated by a former Cato intern about the harsh compliance costs of the internal revenue code. So it is time to reach into the archives and post this classic video produced by Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg of the Cato Institute.

P.S. Not that I would ever want to put my thumb on the scale of any contest, but I am defending the flat tax in an online debate for U.S. News & World Report with someone who favors the current system. You can cast a vote if you have an opinion on the matter.

P.P.S. Caleb has independently produced a video on the meaning of free enterprise. With politicians acting as if the business community is an ATM machine to finance a bigger welfare state, Caleb’s video puts a human face on what it means to be a risk-taking entrepreneur.

New Video Exposes Nightmare of IRS Complexity

My former intern, Hiwa Alaghebandian, has just narrated a new Economics 101 video about the cost of the tax code. I won’t spoil the surprise by giving the details, but you if you’re not angry now, you will be after watching.

In the video, Ms. Alaghebandian notes that a study from 1996 (back when the tax code was not nearly as complex) estimated that a flat tax would reduce the compliance burden of the income tax by 94 percent. In my video on the flat tax, I mostly focused on how a single-rate, consumption-base system would boost growth and competitiveness, but simplicity also would be a remarkable achievement. Not only would real tax reform reduce compliance costs by hundreds of billions of dollars, it would also put a big dent in the corrupt practice of distorting economic choices with deductions, exemptions, credits, preferences, shelters, and other loopholes. That’s a profitable game for politicians and lobbyists, but the rest of us pay the price because the tax code is even more of a nightmare.

There is also an under-appreciated connection between simplicity and fairness. My colleague Will Wilkinson sagely observed that “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.” The tax code is a good example. Many leftists want the tax system to penalize success with high tax rates. I’ve explained why this is economically misguided in a video on class-warfare tax policy, but it’s also worth pointing out that a simple and fair tax system like the flat tax makes it much more difficult for the well-connected to take advantage of complexity. Simply stated, the tax system should not punish the rich with high rates (notwithstanding the neurotic views of self-loathing trust-fund heirs), and it shouldn’t reward them with special deals.

The good news is that we know the policies that will fix the current system. The bad news is that politicians keep making the system worse. Putting the IRS in charge of enforcing key parts of Obamacare is just the latest example of why America needs a tax revolt.

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.