Tag: taxation

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.

Targeting Multinationals, the OECD Launches New Scheme to Boost the Tax Burden on Business

I’ve been very critical of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most recently, I criticized the Paris-based bureaucracy for making the rather remarkable assertion that a value-added tax would boost growth and employment.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now the bureaucrats have concocted another scheme to increase the size and scape of government. The OECD just published a study on “Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” that seemingly is designed to lay the groundwork for a radical rewrite of business taxation.

In a new Tax & Budget Bulletin for Cato, I outline some of my concerns with this new “BEPS” initiative.

…the BEPS report…calls for dramatic changes in corporate tax policy based on the presumption that governments are not seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD essentially argues that it is illegitimate for businesses to shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have more favorable tax laws. …The core accusation in the OECD report is that firms systematically—but legally—reduce their tax burdens by taking advantage of differences in national tax policies.

Ironically, the OECD admits in the report that revenues have been trending upwards.

…the report acknowledges that “… revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of gross domestic product have increased over time. …Other than offering anecdotes, the OECD provides no evidence that a revenue problem exists. In this sense, the BEPS report is very similar to the OECD’s 1998 “Harmful Tax Competition” report, which asserted that so-called tax havens were causing damage but did not offer any hard evidence of any actual damage.

To elaborate, the BEPS scheme should be considered Part II of the OECD’s anti-tax competition project. Part I was the attack on so-called tax havens, which began back in the mid- to late-1990s.

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.”

Jack Lew’s Cayman Adventure

Every so often you get a “teaching moment” in Washington. We now have one excellent example, as President Obama’s nominee for treasury secretary has been caught with his hand in the “tax haven” cookie jar. Mr. Lew not only invested some of his own money in a Cayman-based fund, he also was in charge of a Citi Bank division that had over 100 Cayman-domiciled funds. This provides an opportunity to educate lawmakers about the “offshore” world.

As you can imagine, Republicans are having some fun with this issue. Mitt Romney was subjected to a lot of class warfare demagoguery during the 2012 campaign because he had invested some of his wealth in a Cayman fund. GOPers are now hoisting Lew on a petard and grilling him about the obvious hypocrisy of a “progressive” utilizing—both personally and professionally—a jurisdiction that commits the unforgivable crime of not imposing income tax.

In a sensible world, Lew would be able to say what everyone in the financial world already understands: the Cayman Islands are an excellent, fully legal, tax-neutral platform for investment funds because 1) there’s no added layer of tax, 2) there’s good rule of law, and, 3) foreigners can invest in the American economy without creating any nexus with the IRS. But we don’t live in a sensible world, so Lew instead wants us to believe he didn’t realize that the funds were domiciled in Cayman.

I guess all the other wealthy progressives with offshore-based investments were probably also unaware, right?

Anyhow, I’m taking a glass-half-full perspective on this kerfuffle since it gives me an opportunity to educate more people on why tax havens are a liberalizing and positive force in the global economy.

The 100th Anniversary of the Income Tax…and the Lesson We Should Learn from that Mistake

What’s the worst thing about Delaware?

No, not Joe Biden. He’s just a typical feckless politician and the butt of some good jokes.

Instead, the so-called First State is actually the Worst State because almost exactly 100 years ago, on February 3, 1913, Delaware made the personal income tax possible by ratifying the 16th Amendment.

Though, to be fair, I suppose the 35 states that already had ratified the Amendment were more despicable since they were even more anxious to enable this noxious levy.

But let’s not get bogged down in details. The purpose of this post is not to re-hash history, but to instead ask what lessons we can learn from the adoption of the income tax.

The most obvious lesson is that politicians can’t be trusted with additional powers. The first income tax had a top tax rate of just 7 percent and the entire tax code was 400 pages long. Now we have a top tax rate of 39.6 percent (even higher if you include additional levies for Medicare and Obamacare) and the tax code has become a 72,000-page monstrosity.

But the main lesson I want to discuss today is that giving politicians a new source of money inevitably leads to much higher spending.

The Great Hillsdale College Debate: Flat Tax or Fair Tax?

I’m at Hillsdale College in Michigan for a conference on taxation. The event is called “The Federal Income Tax: A Centenary Consideration,” though I would have called it something like “100 Years of Misery from the IRS.”

I’m glad to be here, both because Hillsdale proudly refuses to take government money (which would mean being ensnared by government rules) and also because I’ve heard superb speeches by scholars such as Amity Shlaes (author of The Forgotten Man, as well as a new book on Calvin Coolidge that is now on my must-read list) and George Gilder (author of Wealth and Poverty, as well as the forthcoming Knowledge and Power).

My modest contribution was to present “The Case for the Flat Tax,” and I was matched up - at least indirectly, since there were several hours between our presentations - against former Congressman John Linder, who gave “The Case for the Fair Tax.”

I was very ecumenical in my remarks.  I pointed out the flat tax and sales tax (and even, at least in theory, the value-added tax) all share very attractive features.

  • A single (and presumably low) tax rate, thus treating taxpayers equally and minimizing the penalty on productive behavior.
  • No double taxation of saving and investment since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth.
  • Elimination of all loopholes (other than mechanisms to protect the poor from tax) to promote efficiency and reduce corruption.
  • Dramatically downsize and neuter the IRS by replacing 72,000 pages of complexity with simple post-card sized tax forms.

For all intents and purposes the flat tax and sales tax are different sides of the same coin. The only real difference is the collection point. The flat tax takes a bite of your income as it is earned and the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent.

That being said, I do have a couple of qualms about the Fair Tax and other national sales tax plans.

First, I don’t trust politicians. I can envision the crowd in Washington adopting a national sales tax (or VAT) while promising to phase out the income tax over a couple of years. But I’m afraid they’ll discover some “temporary” emergency reason to keep the income tax, followed by another “short-term” excuse. And when the dust settles, we’ll be stuck with both an income tax and a sales tax.

As we know from the European VAT evidence, this is a recipe for even bigger government. That’s a big downside risk.

I explore my concerns in this video.

To be sure, there are downside risks to the flat tax. It’s quite possible, after all, that we could get a flat tax and then degenerate back to something resembling the current system (though that’s still better than being France!).

My second qualm is political. The Fair Tax seems to attract very passionate supporters, which is admirable, but candidates in competitive states and districts are very vulnerable to attacks when they embrace the national sales tax.

On dozens of occasions over the past 15-plus years, I’ve had to explain to reporters that why anti-sales tax demagoguery is wrong.

So I hope it’s clear that I’m not opposed to the concept. Heck, I’ve testified before Congress about the benefits of a national sales tax and I’ve debated on C-Span about how the national sales tax is far better than the current system.

I would be delighted to have a national sales tax, but what I really want is a low-rate, non-discriminatory system that isn’t biased against saving and investment.

Actually, what I want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax, but that’s an issue for another day.

Returning to the issue of tax reform, there’s no significant economic difference between the flat tax and the sales tax debate. What we’re really debating is how to replace the squalid internal revenue code with something worthy of a great nation.

And if there are two paths to the same destination and one involves crossing an alligator-infested swamp and the other requires a stroll through a meadow filled with kittens and butterflies, I know which one I’m going to choose. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but I think you get my point.

Bloomberg: ObamaCare Doubling Premiums for Individuals & Firms Spurs Talk of Delaying Rollout

Bloomberg reports:

Health insurance premiums may as much as double for some small businesses and individual buyers in the U.S. when the Affordable Care Act’s major provisions start in 2014, Aetna Inc. (AET)’s chief executive officer said.

While subsidies in the law will shield some people, other consumers who make too much for assistance are in for “premium rate shock,” Mark Bertolini, who runs the third-biggest U.S. health-insurance company, told analysts yesterday at a conference in New York. The prospect has spurred discussion of having Congress delay or phase in parts of the law, he said.

“We’ve shared it all with the people in Washington and I think it’s a big concern,” the CEO said. “We’re going to see some markets go up as much as as 100 percent.”…

Premiums are likely to increase 25 percent to 50 percent on average in the small-group and individual markets, he said, citing projections by his Hartford, Connecticut-based company.

Industry analyst Robert Laszewski comments:

[F]or the vast majority of states there will be rate shock.

I can also tell you that, so far, I have detected no serious effort on the part of Democrats to delay anything. Frankly, I think hard core supporters of the new health law and the administration are in denial about what is coming.

I expect more health insurers to be echoing the Aetna comments in coming weeks.