Tag: taxation

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 IRS Overstepped Its Bounds and Lacked the Power to Rewrite the Law’

Of course, that is just Reuters paraphrasing me:

Under the new healthcare law, individuals can shop and purchase health insurance through government-created exchanges. If a state refuses to set up its own exchange, the law allows the federal government to set one up instead. Due to a glitch in the original statute, individuals are only eligible for a tax credit if they buy insurance through a state exchange, not a federal one. That allows states to disrupt the system by refusing to set up their own exchanges. To fix this technical problem, the Internal Revenue Service issued a new rule, making the tax credit available for people who purchase insurance on federal exchanges. Conservative watchdogs, including Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, say the IRS overstepped its bounds and lacked the power to rewrite the law. While no lawsuit has been filed yet, “we’re watching the whole exchange issue now,” said Diane Cohen of the Goldwater Institute.

One addition and three corrections.

  1. By spending that money illegally and issuing those illegal tax credits, the IRS is also triggering an illegal tax against employers (i.e., ObamaCare’s employer mandate).
  2. It’s not a “glitch.” It is a deliberate design feature.
  3. When the IRS lacks statutory authority to tax people or spend taxpayer dollars, but does both anyway, that lack of authority is not “technical problem.” It is called “taxation without representation.” And it is a very bad thing.
  4. I am not a conservative.

ObamaCare Lost on the Medicaid Mandate & Commerce Power. It May Yet Lose on the Tax Power.

Supporters of the Obama health law are incorrectly reading the Supreme Court’s ruling as a victory.

First, the ruling severely limited the Obama health law’s Medicaid expansion, effectively giving states the green light to refuse to expand their Medicaid programs. Coupled with the fact that the statute already enables states to block the other half-trillion dollars of new entitlement spending, the law is in a very precarious position.

Second, the Court ruled 5-4 that the individual mandate is not a legitimate use of the Commerce Power. That too is a defeat for the government, even if it is of no immediate consequence.

Third, while the Court upheld the individual mandate as a tax, that ruling may be vulnerable to legal challenge.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “The Federal Government ‘is acknowledged by all to be one of enumerated powers,’” and, “The Constitution’s express conferral of some powersmakes clear that it does not grant others.” So it is interesting that Roberts did not specify exactly what type of constitutionally authorized tax the mandate is.

As Cato chairman Bob Levy wrote in 2011, that’s not an easy thing to do:

Assume, however, the Supreme Court ultimately disagrees and finds that the penalty for not purchasing health insurance is indeed a tax. Nevertheless, say opponents of PPACA, the tax would be unconstitutional. They underscore that taxes are of three types—income, excise, or direct. Each type must meet specified constitutional constraints. Because the mandate penalty under PPACA does not satisfy any of the constraints, it is not a valid tax.

Income taxes, authorized by the Sixteenth Amendment, must (by definition) be triggered by income. Yet the mandate penalty is triggered by the nonpurchase of insurance. Except for an exemption available to low-income families, the amount of the penalty depends on age, family size, geographic location, and smoking status. So the penalty is not an income tax.

Excise taxes are assessed on selected transactions. Because the penalty arises from a nontransaction, perhaps it qualifies as a reverse excise tax. If so, it has to be uniform across the country (U.S. Const., Art. I, sec. 8). But the penalty varies by location, so it cannot be a constitutional excise tax.

Direct taxes are assessed on persons or their property. Because the penalty is imposed on nonownership of property, perhaps it could be classified as a reverse direct tax. But direct taxes must be apportioned among the states by population (U.S. Const., Art. I, sec. 2). The mandate penalty is assessed on individuals without regard to any state’s population. Hence, it is not a lawful direct tax.

On the last point, Roberts agreed: ”A tax on going without health insurance does not fall within any recognized category of direct tax.” But then what kind of constitutionally authorized tax is it?

The dissent suggests the Court has given this issue scant attention:

Finally, we must observe that rewriting [the mandate] as a tax in order to sustain its constitutionality would force us to confront a difficult constitutional question: whether this is a direct tax that must be apportioned among the States according to their population. Art. I, §9, cl. 4. Perhaps it is not (we have no need to address the point); but the meaning of the Direct Tax Clause is famously unclear, and its application here is a question of first impression that deserves more thoughtful consideration than the lick-and-a-promise accorded by the Government and its supporters. The Government’s opening brief did not even address the question—perhaps because, until today, no federal court has accepted the implausible argument that [the mandate] is an exercise of the tax power. And once respondents raised the issue, the Government devoted a mere 21 lines of its reply brief to the issue…At oral argument, the most prolonged statement about the issue was just over 50 words…One would expect this Court to demand more than fly-by-night briefing and argument before deciding a difficult constitutional question of first impression.

There is even less discussion about what type of constitutionally authorized tax the mandate is.

I’m not a lawyer. But it seems to me there may be room here for the same individual citizens who brought this case to again file suit against the federal government for trying to impose an unconstitutional tax. It may seem unlikely that Roberts would reverse himself on the Tax Power issue. Then again, since he never specified what type of constitutionally permissible tax the mandate is, perhaps voting to strike the mandate would not be reversing himself.

Yes, the Federal Government Has a Broad Power to Tax, but That’s Different from Having a Green Light to Spend

I’m not a lawyer, or an expert on the Constitution, though I sometimes play one on TV.

But I can read, and I’ll agree with my friends on the left that the federal government has a broad power to tax. I wish the 16th Amendment had never been ratified, but its language gives the federal government a green light to rape and pillage.

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

That being said, the power to tax is not the same as the power to spend. And at the risk of sounding old fashioned, my big objection to the Obamacare decision is that health care is not listed as one of the federal government’s enumerated powers in Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution.

Sadly, that horse got out of the barn many decades ago, culminating in a horrible 1942 Supreme Court decision that said a man couldn’t grow crops on his own land to feed his own animals for consumption by his own family.

But let’s look at the bright side. Even though the Obamacare case was decided incorrectly, at least the judiciary is beginning to reconsider these issues, thanks in large part to the work of the Cato Institute’s legal scholars and adjunct legal scholars.

P.S. While the federal government has a broad power to tax, I should add that this doesn’t - or at least shouldn’t - vitiate other provisions of the Constitution. This is why it is so disappointing that we’ve seen the erosion of key civil liberties such as the presumption of innocence and the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

P.P.S. This Michael Ramirez cartoon about Obamacare and the Constitution is amusing, though that’s not much solace given what happened. And here’s another one of his cartoons, this one on the broader theme of Obama vs. the Founding Fathers.

P.P.S. Speaking of cartoons, this one seems especially appropriate today.

If you like that one, you can see another Breen cartoon here.

The IRS’s Illegal Employer Tax

With all eyes on the Supreme Court, whose ruling on ObamaCare’s individual mandate could come as early as today, almost no one noticed that last month the IRS imposed an illegal tax on employers of up to $3,000 per worker.

Jonathan Adler and I explain in today’s USA Today that this illegal tax is the indirect but very real result of the IRS offering ObamaCare’s tax credits and subsidies in health insurance “exchanges” created by the federal government, even though ObamaCare restricts those entitlements – explicitly, laboriously, and unambiguously – to Exchanges established by states.

That illegal action has the effect of imposing ObamaCare’s $2,000-$3,000 per worker tax (i.e., the “employer mandate”) on employers who otherwise would be exempt (i.e., employers in states that do not create an Exchange). Perhaps President Obama thought “taxation without representation” would be a winning campaign slogan.

If the Supreme Court fails to strike down ObamaCare’s employer mandate, Exchanges, and health insurance tax credits and subsidies, this thoroughly unconstitutional IRS rule will begin illegally taxing employers in 2014.

Reps. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) and Phil Roe (R-TN) have introduced a resolution under the Congressional Review Act that would block the rule. Barring that, expect more angry employers to haul ObamaCare into federal court.

Adler discusses the IRS rule here:

Notwithstanding David Cameron’s Statolatry, Tax Avoidance Is Both Legal and Moral

I’m not a fan of David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister.

Even though he belongs to the Conservative Party that produced the great Margaret Thatcher, Cameron seems to be a bit of guilt-ridden statist with his finger always in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. The policy results are not pretty.

Now I have another reason to dislike Cameron. He just condemned a comedian for legally seeking to minimize the amount of his income that is seized - and then wasted - by the U.K. government. Here are some of the details from The Telegraph.

Prime Minister David Cameron today branded the tax arrangement of comedian Jimmy Carr “morally wrong” after it emerged he was using a scheme which allows the wealthy to pay as little as one per cent of their income. …Speaking at the G20 summit the Prime Minister told ITV News: “I think some of these schemes - and I think particularly of the Jimmy Carr scheme - I have had time to read about and I just think this is completely wrong. “People work hard, they pay their taxes, they save up to go to one of his shows. They buy the tickets. He is taking the money from those tickets and he, as far as I can see, is putting all of that into some very dodgy tax avoiding schemes. …some of these schemes we have seen are quite frankly morally wrong.” …Lawyers for the comedian have…categorically denied any wrongdoing, saying the scheme had been disclosed to the relevant authorities in line with the law. …Chancellor George Osborne has claimed he was left “shocked” after finding the extent to which multi-millionaires were exploiting tax loopholes and vowed to take “action”.

 I have no idea whether the specific “tax avoiding scheme” used by Carr is good tax policy (protecting against double taxation, for instance) or bad policy (such as a loophole that creates favoritism for a specific behavior), but that’s not the point of this post.

Instead, this is a moral question about whether people have some sort of obligation to pay extra tax, merely to get some sort of pat on the head from politicians. The same politicians, by the way, that squander the money on varying vote-buying schemes that undermine prosperity and create dependency.

I’d be willing to condemn Carr if I found out he’s some sort of statist who wants higher taxes for everybody else, but then (like John Kerry) takes steps to minimize his personal tax bill.

But I’d be condemning Carr for hypocrisy, not criticizing the idea of tax avoidance.

The United Kingdom has become a bloated welfare state (with horribly depressing implications, as you can read here and here). If people want to be moral, they should strive to pay the least amount possible to this corrupt and wasteful enterprise. The United States is not quite as bad (yet), but the same principle applies.

Politicians, needless to say, will violently disagree with this ethical viewpoint. So we can all expect more taxes, higher taxes, and additional draconian enforcement measures.

The only good news is that the Laffer Curve will prevent these greedy thugs from collecting nearly as much money as they think.

P.S. To get an idea of how the Conservative Party has declined, compare Cameron’s statist rhetoric to Margaret Thatcher’s comments that “there is no such thing as public money.”

What Does It Mean When Obama and His Former Top Economist both Reject Obamanomics?

To answer the question in the title, it means you need to read the fine print.

This is because we have a president who thinks the government shouldn’t confiscate more than 20 percent of a company’s income, but he only gives that advice when he’s in Ghana.

And the same president says it’s time to “let the market work on its own,” but he only says that when talking about China’s economy.

Now we have more evidence that the president understands the dangers of class-warfare taxation and burdensome government spending. At least when he’s not talking about American fiscal policy.

After the Greek elections, which saw the defeat of the pro-big government Syriza coalition and a victory for the supposedly conservative New Democracy Party, here’s some of what Politico reported.

President Barack Obama on Monday called the results of Greece’s election a “positive prospect” with the potential to form a government willing to cooperate with Europe.  “I think the election in Greece yesterday indicates a positive prospect for not only them forming a government, but also them working constructively with their international partners in order that they can continue on the path of reform and do so in a way that also offers the prospects for the Greek people to succeed and prosper,” Obama said after a meeting with the G-20 Summit’s host, Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

In other words, it’s “positive” when other nations reject big government and vote for right-of-center parties, but Heaven forbid that this advice apply to the United States.

Interestingly, it’s not just Obama who is rejecting (when talking about other nations) the welfare-state vision of bigger government and higher taxes.

Check out this remarkable excerpt from a Washington Post column by Larry Summers, the former chairman of the president’s National Economic Council.

… it is far from clear, especially after the French election, that there is any kind of majority or even plurality support for responsible policies.

Remarkable. Larry Summers is dissing French president Francois Hollande and the French people by implying they want irresponsible policies, even though the Hollande’s views about Keynesian economics and soak-the-rich taxation are basically identical to the nonsense Summers was peddling while in the White House.

It’s almost enough to make you cynical about America’s political elite. Perish the thought!