Tag: taxation

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.


When Keynesians Attack, Part II

I’m still dealing with the statist echo chamber, having been hit with two additional attacks for the supposed sin of endorsing Reaganomics over Obamanomics (my responses to the other attacks can be found here and here). Some guy at the Atlantic Monthly named Steve Benen issued a critique focusing on the timing of the recession and recovery in Reagan’s first term. He reproduces a Krugman chart (see below) and also adds his own commentary.

Reagan’s first big tax cut was signed in August 1981. Over the next year or so, unemployment went from just over 7% to just under 11%. In September 1982, Reagan raised taxes, and unemployment fell soon after. We’re all aware, of course, of the correlation/causation dynamic, but as Krugman noted in January, “[U]nemployment, which had been stable until Reagan cut taxes, soared during the 15 months that followed the tax cut; it didn’t start falling until Reagan backtracked and raised taxes.”

This argument is absurd since the recession in the early 1980s was largely the inevitable result of the Federal Reserve’s misguided monetary policy. And I would be stunned if this view wasn’t shared by 90 percent-plus of economists. So it is rather silly to say the recession was caused by tax cuts and the recovery was triggered by tax increases.

But even if we magically assume monetary policy was perfect, Benen’s argument is wrong. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just call attention to my previous blog post which explained that it is critically important to look at when tax cuts (and increases) are implemented, not when they are enacted. The data is hardly exact, because I haven’t seen good research on the annual impact of bracket creep, but there was not much net tax relief during Reagan’s first couple of years because the tax cuts were phased in over several years and other taxes were going up. So the recession actually began when taxes were flat (or perhaps even rising) and the recovery began when the economy was receiving a net tax cut. That being said, I’m not arguing that the Reagan tax cuts ended the recession. They probably helped, to be sure, but we should do good tax policy to improve long-run growth, not because of some misguided effort to fine-tune short-run growth.

The second attack comes from some blog called Econospeak, where my newest fan wrote:

I’m scratching my head here as I thought the standard pseudo-supply-side line was that the deficit exploded in the 1980’s because government spending exploded. OK, the truth is that the ratio of Federal spending to GDP neither increased nor decreased during this period. Real tax revenues per capita fell which is why the deficit rose but this notion that the burden of government fell is not factually based.

Those are some interesting points, and I might respond to them if I wanted to open a new conversation, but they’re not germane to what I said. In my original post (the one he was attacking), I commented on the “burden of government” rather than the “burden of government spending.” I’m a fiscal policy economist, so I’m tempted to claim that the sun rises and sets based on what’s happening to taxes and spending, but such factors are just two of the many policies that influence economic performance. And with regard to my assertion that Reagan reduced the “burden of government,” I’ll defer to the rankings put together for the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The score for the United States improved from 8.03 to 8.38 between 1980 and 1990 (my guess is that it peaked in 1988, but they only have data for every five years). The folks on the left may be unhappy about it, but it is completely accurate to say Reagan reduced the burden of government. And while we don’t yet have data for the Obama years, there’s a 99 percent likelihood that America’s score will decline.

This is not a partisan argument, by the way. The Economic Freedom of the World chart shows that America’s score improved during the Clinton years, particularly his second term. And the data also shows that the U.S. score dropped during the Bush years. This is why I wrote a column back in 2007 advocating Clintonomics over Bushonomics. Partisan affiliation is not what matters. If we want more prosperity, the key is shrinking the burden of government.

Last but not least, I try to make these arguments to the folks watching MSNBC.

Are These Examples of Washington Corruption?

The “appearance of impropriety” is often considered the Washington standard for corruption and misbehavior. With that in mind, alarm bells began ringing in my head when I read this Washington Times report about Jacob Lew, Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. A snippet:

President Obama’s choice to be the government’s chief budget officer received a bonus of more than $900,000 from Citigroup Inc. last year — after the Wall Street firm for which he worked received a massive taxpayer bailout. The money was paid to Jacob Lew in January 2009, about two weeks before he joined the State Department as deputy secretary of state, according to a newly filed ethics form. The payout came on top of the already hefty $1.1 million Citigroup compensation package for 2008 that he reported last year. Administration officials and members of Congress last year expressed outrage that executives at other bailed-out firms, such as American International Group Inc., awarded bonuses to top executives. State Department officials at the time steadfastly refused to say if Mr. Lew received a post-bailout bonus from Citigroup in response to inquiries from The Washington Times. But Mr. Lew’s latest financial disclosure report, provided by the State Department on Wednesday, makes clear that he did receive a significant windfall. …The records show that Mr. Lew received the $944,578 payment four days after he filed his 2008 ethics disclosure.

Why did Citigroup decide to hire Lew, a career DC political operator, for $1.1 million? As a former political aide, lobbyist, lawyer, and political appointee, what particular talents did he have to justify that salary to manage an investment division? Did the presence of Lew (as well as other Washington insiders such as Robert Rubin) help Citigroup get a big bucket of money from taxpayers as part of the TARP bailout? Did Lew’s big $900K in 2009 have anything to do with the money the bank got from taxpayers? Is it a bit suspicious that he received his big windfall bonus four days after filing a financial disclosure?

See if you can draw any conclusion other than this was a typical example of the sleazy relationship of big government and big business.

Lest anyone think I’m being partisan, let’s now look at another story featuring Senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Republican and his former aides have a nice relationship that means more campaign cash for him, lucrative fees for them, and lots of our tax dollars being diverted to such recipients as the state’s university system. Here are some of the sordid details:

Since 2008, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby has steered more than $250 million in earmarks to beneficiaries whose lobbyists used to work in his Senate office — including millions for Alabama universities represented by a former top staffer. In a mix of revolving-door and campaign finance politics, the same organizations that have enjoyed Shelby’s earmarks have seen their lobbyists and employees contribute nearly $1 million to Shelby’s campaign and political action committee since 1999, according to federal records. …Shelby’s earmarking doesn’t appear to run afoul of Senate rules or federal ethics laws. But critics said his tactics are part of a Washington culture in which lawmakers direct money back home to narrow interests, which, in turn, hire well-connected lobbyists — often former congressional aides — who enjoy special access on Capitol Hill.

Some people think the answer to such shenanigans is more ethics laws, corruption laws, and campaign-finance laws, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Besides, it is quite likely that no laws were broken, either by Lew, Citigroup, Shelby, or his former aides. This is just the way Washington works, and the beneficiaries are the insiders who know how to milk the system. The only way to actually reduce both legal and illegal corruption in Washington is to shrink the size of government. The sleaze will not go away until politicians have less ability to steer our money to special interests — whether they are Wall Street banks or Alabama universities. This video elaborates:

Taxes Are for the Little People, not John Kerry

In the future, dictionary publishers should get rid of their existing definitions for “hypocrisy” and replace them with a photo of Massachusetts Sen.ator John Kerry. He’s just been caught committing the horrible sin of saving his family more than $500,000 by domiciling his new yacht in Rhode Island (which is a tax haven for such luxuries) rather than his home state. Or at least Senator Kerry says that tax planning is a horrible sin when conducted by “Benedict Arnold” companies and facilitated by those wicked tax havens. But I guess that it’s not such a bad thing when Senator Kerry is protecting his wealth. For the rest of us peasants, it’s our job to meekly get in line and submit to whatever taxes Senator Kerry graciously decides to impose.

The Boston Herald reports:

Sen. John Kerry, who has repeatedly voted to raise taxes while in Congress, dodged a whopping six-figure state tax bill on his new multimillion-dollar yacht by mooring her in Newport, R.I. Isabel — Kerry’s luxe, 76-foot New Zealand-built Friendship sloop with an Edwardian-style, glossy varnished teak interior, two VIP main cabins and a pilothouse fitted with a wet bar and cold wine storage — was designed by Rhode Island boat designer Ted Fontaine. But instead of berthing the vessel in Nantucket, where the senator summers with the missus, Teresa Heinz, Isabel’s hailing port is listed as “Newport” on her stern. Could the reason be that the Ocean State repealed its Boat Sales and Use Tax back in 1993, making the tiny state to the south a haven — like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Nassau — for tax-skirting luxury yacht owners? Cash-strapped Massachusetts still collects a 6.25 percent sales tax and an annual excise tax on yachts. Sources say Isabel sold for something in the neighborhood of $7 million, meaning Kerry saved approximately $437,500 in sales tax and an annual excise tax of about $70,000. …[S]tate Department of Revenue spokesguy Bob Bliss confirmed the senator “is under no obligation to pay the commonwealth sales tax.”

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.


Americans Voting with their Feet

The Financial Times reports that the number of Americans giving up their citizenship to protect their families from America’s onerous worldwide tax system has jumped rapidly. Even relatively high-tax nations such as the United Kingdom are attractive compared to the class-warfare system that President Obama is creating in the United States.

I run into people like this quite often as part of my travels. They are intensely patriotic to America as a nation, but they have lots of scorn for the federal government.

Statists are perfectly willing to forgive terrorists like William Ayres, but they heap scorn on these “Benedict Arnold” taxpayers. But the tax exiles get the last laugh since the bureaucrats and politicians now get zero percent of their foreign-source income. You would think that, sooner or later, the left would realize they can get more tax revenue with reasonable tax rates. But that assumes that collectivists are motivated by revenue maximization rather than spite and envy.

From the FT article:

The number of wealthy Americans living in the UK who are renouncing their US citizenship is rising rapidly as more expatriates seek to escape paying tax to the US on their worldwide income and gains and shed their “non-dom” status, accountants say. As many as 743 American expatriates made the irreversible decision to discard their passports last year, according to the US government – three times as many as in 2008. …There is a waiting list at the embassy in London for people looking to give up citizenship, with the earliest appointments in February, lawyers and accountants say. …“The big disadvantage with American citizens is they catch you on tax wherever you are in the world. If you are taxed only in the UK, you have the opportunity of keeping your money offshore tax free.”

To grasp the extent of this problem, here are blurbs from two other recent stories. Time magazine discusses the unfriendly rules that make life a hassle for overseas Americans:

For U.S. citizens, cutting ties with their native land is a drastic and irrevocable step. …[I]t’s one that an increasing number of American expats are willing to take. According to government records, 502 expatriates renounced U.S. citizenship or permanent residency in the fourth quarter of 2009 — more than double the number of expatriations in all of 2008. And these figures don’t include the hundreds — some experts say thousands — of applications languishing in various U.S. consulates and embassies around the world, waiting to be processed. …[T]he new surge in permanent expatriations is mainly because of taxes. …[E]xpatriate organizations say the recent increase reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the way the U.S. government treats its expats and their money: the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that taxes its overseas citizens, subjecting them to taxation in both their country of citizenship and country of residence. …Additionally, the U.S. government has implemented tougher rules requiring expatriates to report any foreign bank accounts exceeding $10,000, with stiff financial penalties for noncompliance. “This system is widely perceived as overly complex with multiple opportunities for accidental mistakes, and life-altering penalties for inadvertent failures,” Hodgen says. These stringent measures were put into place to prevent Americans from stashing undeclared assets in offshore banks, but they also make life increasingly difficult for millions of law-abiding expatriates. “The U.S. government creates conflict and abuses me,” says business owner John. “I feel under duress to understand and comply with laws that have nothing to do with me and are constantly changing — almost never in my favor.” …Many U.S. expats report being turned away by banks and other institutions in their countries of residence only because they are American, according to American Citizens Abroad (ACA), a Geneva-based worldwide advocacy group for expatriate U.S. citizens. “We have become toxic citizens,” says ACA founder Andy Sundberg. Paradoxically, by relinquishing their U.S. citizenship, expats can not only escape the financial burden of double taxation, but also strengthen the U.S. economy, he says, adding, “It will become much easier for these people to get a job abroad, and to set up, own and operate private companies that can promote American exports.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, delves into the misguided policies that are driving Americans to renounce their citizenship.

Amid mounting frustration over taxation and banking problems, small but growing numbers of overseas Americans are taking the weighty step of renouncing their citizenship. …[F]rustrations over tax and banking questions, not political considerations, appear to be the main drivers of the surge. Expat advocates say that as it becomes more difficult for Americans to live and work abroad, it will become harder for American companies to compete. American expats have long complained that the United States is the only industrialized country to tax citizens on income earned abroad, even when they are taxed in their country of residence, though they are allowed to exclude their first $91,400 in foreign-earned income. One Swiss-based business executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitive family issues, said she weighed the decision for 10 years. She had lived abroad for years but had pleasant memories of service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Yet the notion of double taxation — and of future tax obligations for her children, who will receive few U.S. services — finally pushed her to renounce, she said. …Stringent new banking regulations — aimed both at curbing tax evasion and, under the Patriot Act, preventing money from flowing to terrorist groups — have inadvertently made it harder for some expats to keep bank accounts in the United States and in some cases abroad. Some U.S.-based banks have closed expats’ accounts because of difficulty in certifying that the holders still maintain U.S. addresses, as required by a Patriot Act provision.

“Rahn Curve” Video Shows Government Is Far Too Big

There is considerable academic research on the growth-maximizing level of government spending. Based on a good bit of research, I’m fairly confident that Cato’s Richard Rahn was the first to popularize this concept, so we are going to make him famous (sort of like Art Laffer) in this new video explaining that there is a spending version of the Laffer Curve and that it shows how government is far too large and that this means less prosperity.