Tag: taxation

Warren Buffett’s Fiscal Innumeracy

Warren Buffett’s at it again. He has a column in the New York Times complaining that he has been coddled by the tax code and that “rich” people should pay higher taxes.

My first instinct is to send Buffett the website where people can voluntarily pay extra money to the federal government. I’ve made this suggestion to guilt-ridden rich people in the past.

But I no longer give that advice. I’m worried he might actually do it. And even though Buffett is wildly misguided about fiscal policy, I know he will invest his money much more wisely than Barack Obama will spend it.

But Buffett goes beyond guilt-ridden rants in favor of higher taxes. He makes specific assertions that are inaccurate.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

His numbers are flawed in two important ways.

  1. When Buffett receives dividends and capital gains, it is true that he pays “only” 15 percent of that money on his tax return. But dividends and capital gains are both forms of double taxation. So if he wants honest effective tax rate numbers, he needs to show the 35 percent corporate tax rate.

    Moreover, as I noted in a previous post, Buffett completely ignores the impact of the death tax, which will result in the federal government seizing 45 percent of his assets. To be sure, Buffett may be engaging in clever tax planning, so it is hard to know the impact on his effective tax rate, but it will be significant.

  2. Buffett also mischaracterizes the impact of the Social Security payroll tax, which is dedicated for a specific purpose. The law only imposes that tax on income up to about $107,000 per year because the tax is designed so that people “earn” a corresponding  retirement benefit (which actually is tilted in favor of low-income workers).

    Imposing the tax on multi-millionaire income, however, would mean sending rich people giant checks from Social Security when they retire. But nobody thinks that’s a good idea. Or you could apply the payroll tax to all income and not pay any additional benefits. But this would turn Social Security from an “earned benefit” to a redistribution program, which also is widely rejected (though the left has been warming to the idea in recent years because their hunger for more tax revenue is greater than their support for Social Security).

If we consider these two factors, Buffett’s effective tax rate almost surely is much higher than the burden on any of the people who work for him.

But this entire discussion is a good example of why we should junk the corrupt, punitive, and unfair tax code and replace it with a simple flat tax. With no double taxation and a single, low tax rate, we would know that rich people were paying the right amount, neither too much based on class-warfare tax rates nor too little based on loopholes, deduction, preferences, exemptions, shelters, and credits.

So why doesn’t Buffett endorse this approach? Tim Carney offers a very plausible answer.

For more information about why class-warfare taxes are misguided, this video may be helpful.

Deconstructing the Revenue Side of the Debt-Ceiling Deal: Yes, There’s a Real Threat of Higher Taxes

Politicians last night announced the framework of a deal to increase the debt limit. In addition to authorizing about $900 billion more red ink right away, it would require immediate budget cuts of more than $900 billion, though “immediate” means over 10 years and “budget cuts” means spending still goes up (but not as fast as previously planned).

But that’s the relatively uncontroversial part. The fighting we’re seeing today revolves around a “super-committee” that’s been created to find $1.5 trillion of additional “deficit reduction” over the next 10 years (based on Washington math, of course).

And much of the squabbling deals with whether the super-committee is a vehicle for higher taxes. As with all kiss-your-sister budget deals, both sides can point to something they like.

Here’s what Republicans like:

The super-committee must use the “current law” baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the super-committee therefore can’t use repeal of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich” as a revenue raiser.

Here’s what Democrats like:

There appears to be nothing in the agreement to preclude the super-committee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table (notwithstanding GOP claims that it is “impossible for Joint Committee to increase taxes”).

In other words, there is a risk of tax hikes, just as I warned last week. Indeed, the five-step scenario I outlined last week needs to be modified because now a tax-hike deal would be “vital” to not only “protect” the nation from alleged default, but also to forestall the “brutal” sequester that might take place in the absence of an agreement.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just read the fact sheet distributed by the White House, which is filled with class warfare rhetoric about “shared sacrifice.”

This doesn’t mean there will be tax increases, of course, and this doesn’t mean Boehner and McConnell gave up more than Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

But as someone who assumes politicians will do the wrong thing whenever possible, it’s always good to identify the worst-case scenario and then prepare to explain why it’s not a good idea.

Debunking the Left’s Tax Burden Deception

I testified yesterday before the Joint Economic Committee about budget process reform. As part of the Q&A session after the testimony, one of the Democratic members made a big deal about the fact that federal tax revenues today are “only” consuming about 15 percent of GDP. And since the long-run average is about 18 percent of GDP, we are all supposed to conclude that a substantial tax hike is needed as part of what President Obama calls a “balanced approach” to red ink.

But it’s not just statist politicians making this argument. After making fun of his assertion that Obama is a conservative, I was hoping to ignore Bruce Bartlett for a while, but I noticed that he has a piece on the New York Times website also implying that America’s fiscal problems are the result of federal tax revenues dropping far below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.

In a previous post, I noted that federal taxes as a share of gross domestic product were at their lowest level in generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects revenue to be just 14.8 percent of G.D.P. this year; the last year it was lower was 1950, when revenue amounted to 14.4 percent of G.D.P. But revenue has been below 15 percent of G.D.P. since 2009, and the last time we had three years in a row when revenue as a share of G.D.P. was that low was 1941 to 1943. Revenue has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since 1970 and a little more than that in the postwar era.

To be fair, both the politician at the JEC hearing and Bruce are correct in claiming that tax revenues this year are considerably below the historical average.

But they are both being a bit deceptive, either deliberately or accidentally, in that they fail to show the CBO forecast for the rest of the decade. But I understand why they cherry-picked data. The chart below shows, rather remarkably, that tax revenues (the fuschia line) are expected to be back at the long-run average (the blue line) in just three years. And that’s even if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent and the alternative minimum tax is frozen.

It’s also worth noting the black line, which shows how the tax burden will climb if the Bush tax cuts expire (and also if millions of new taxpayers are swept into the AMT). In that “current law” scenario, the tax burden jumps considerably above the long-run average in just two years. Keep in mind, though, that government forecasters assume that higher tax rates have no adverse impact on economic performance, so it’s quite likely that neither tax revenues nor GDP would match the forecast.

The Gang of Six Is Back from the Dead: Contemplating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Their Budget Plan

The on-again, off-again “Gang of Six” has come back on the scene and is offering a “Bipartisan Plan to Reduce Our Nation’s Deficits.”

The proposal is quite similar to the one put forth by the President’s Simpson-Bowles Commission, which isn’t too surprising since some of the same people are involved.

At this stage, all I’ve seen is this summary (A BIPARTISAN PLAN TO REDUCE OUR NATIONS DEFICITS v7), so I reserve the right to modify my analysis as more details emerge (and since I fully expect the plan to look worse when additional information is available, the following is an optimistic assessment.

The Good

  • Unlike President Obama, the Gang of Six is not consumed by class-warfare resentment. The plan envisions that the top personal income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent.
  • The corporate income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent as well, something that is long overdue since the average corporate tax rate in Europe is now down to 23 percent.
  • The alternative minimum tax (which should be called the mandatory maximum tax) will be repealed.
  • The plan would repeal the CLASS Act, a provision of Obamacare for long-term-care insurance that will significantly expand the burden of federal spending once implemented.
  • The plan targets some inefficient and distorting tax preference such as the health care exclusion.

The Bad

  • The much-heralded spending caps do not apply to entitlement programs. This is like going to the doctor because you have cancer and getting treated for a sprained wrist.
  • A net tax increase of more than $1 trillion (I expect that number to be much higher when further details are divulged).
  • The plan targets some provisions of the tax code – such as IRAs and 401(k)s) – that are not preferences, but instead exist to mitigate against the double taxation of saving and investment.
  • There is no Medicare reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.
  • There in no Medicaid reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.

The Ugly

  • The entire package is based on dishonest Washington budget math. Spending increases under the plan, but the politicians claim to be cutting spending because the budget didn’t grow even faster.
  • Speaking of spending, why is there no information, anywhere in the summary document, showing how big government will be five years from now? Ten years from now? The perhaps-all-too-convenient absence of this critical information should set off alarm bells.
  • There’s a back-door scheme to change the consumer price index in such a way as to reduce expenditures (i.e., smaller cost-of-living-adjustments) and increase tax revenue (i.e., smaller adjustments in tax brackets and personal exemptions). The current CPI may be flawed, but it would be far better to give the Bureau of Labor Statistics further authority, if necessary, to make changes. A politically imposed change seems like nothing more than a ruse to impose a hidden tax hike.
  • A requirement that the internal revenue code maintain the existing bias against investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers. This “progressivity” mandate implies very bad things for the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

This quick analysis leaves many questions unanswered. I particularly look forward to getting information on the following:

  1. How fast will discretionary spending rise or fall under the caps? Will this be like the caps following the 1990 tax-hike deal, which were akin to 60-mph speed limits in a school zone? Or will the caps actually reduce spending, erasing the massive increase in discretionary spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. What does it mean to promise Social Security reform “if and only if the comprehensive deficit reduction bill has already received 60 votes.” Who defines reform? And why does the reform have to focus on “75-year” solvency, apparently to the exclusion of giving younger workers access to a better and more stable system?
  3. Will federal spending under the plan shrink back down to the historical average of 20 percent of GDP? And why aren’t those numbers in the summary? The document contains information of deficits and debt, but those figures are just the symptoms of excessive spending. Why aren’t we being shown the data that really matters?

Over the next few days, we’ll find out what’s really in this package, but my advice is to keep a tight hold on your wallet.

I’m Willing to Go Along with President Obama’s ‘Balanced Approach’ to Deficit Reduction, but Only if We Use Honest Math

The President has issued an ultimatum that more tax revenue must be part of budget negotiations. Indeed, he endlessly repeats his desire for a “balanced approach,” implying that as much as 50 percent of the deficit reduction in any agreement should come from higher revenues.

Because I am a thoughtful, middle-of-the-road, pragmatic guy, I’m willing to accept the President’s ultimatum. I do have one tiny request, however, and that is for any such deal to be based on honest math.

What I mean by this is that I don’t want politicians to approve a budget that results in more spending, but then claim that they “cut spending” because the budget didn’t grow even faster. I want a spending cut to mean less spending (gee, what a novel idea).

And when they talk about new revenue, I want to see how much revenue the IRS is collecting this year, and measure revenue increases against that number. After all, the crowd in Washington should be happy to get more money, even if it is the result of benign factors such as more jobs being created, companies earning higher profits, and people getting more pay.

I assume these are reasonable requests. After all, this is how businesses and households operate their budgets, and I’m sure the political insiders wouldn’t want to use dishonest numbers to mislead voters (perish the thought!).

So what would a balanced approach look like, assuming we want to use honest math? The answer isn’t that complicated. I started with the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for spending and revenues for this fiscal year (FY2011). I then assume, in the interest of a “balanced approach,” that spending should be cut by 5 percent each year and that revenues should climb by 5 percent each year.

The results, as illustrated by the graph, are remarkable. If we use a 50-50 deal of higher revenue and lower spending, we balance the budget in just five years. The President is right!

Taxpayers will be happy to know the “balanced approach” gets rid of red ink and also leaves enough room to make the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. Heck, there would be enough left-over revenue to enact additional tax cuts. After all, since we’re looking for balance, there’s no need to let revenues grow by 7 percent or 8 percent each year.

So, Mr. President, do we have a deal? Should we use your “balanced approach” and eliminate today’s big deficit by cutting spending and raising revenue by equal amounts? You were serious about your request, right? Hello, is anybody there?

As you already realize, I don’t think the President actually means what he says about a “balanced approach.” Or, to be more specific, I think he’s happy to do a 50-50 deal, but only if “spending cuts” and “revenue increases” are defined in ways that enable the growth of government.

Inside the beltway, this is known as “baseline budgeting” or “current services budgeting.” But whatever it’s called, it is a dishonest way of presenting information to the American people, as explained in this video.

CAP Leftists Have Accidental Encounter with the Laffer Curve, Learn Nothing

The big-government advocates at the Center for American Progress recently released a series of charts designed to prove America is a low-tax nation. I wish this was the case.

The United States does have a lower overall tax burden than Europe, which is shown in one of the CAP charts, but that doesn’t exactly demonstrate that taxes are low in America. Unless, of course, you think weighing less than an offensive lineman in the NFL is proof of being skinny.

But the one chart that jumped out at me was the one showing that the United States collects less corporate tax revenue than other developed nations. The CAP document states, with obvious disapproval, that “Corporate income tax revenue in the United States is about 25 percent below the OECD average.”

The obvious implication, at least for the uninformed reader, is that the United States should increase the corporate tax burden.

But here’s some information that CAP didn’t bother to include in the study. The U.S. corporate tax rate is more than 39 percent and the average corporate tax rate in Europe is less than 25 percent.

So let’s ponder these interesting facts. CAP is right that the U.S. collects less tax revenue from corporations, but even they would be forced to admit (though they omit the info from their report) that the U.S. corporate tax rate is much higher. Let’s see…higher tax rate-lower revenue…lower tax rate-higher revenue…this seems vaguely familiar.

Could this possibly be an example of that “crazy” concept of (gasp!) a Laffer Curve? To be sure, it is only in rare cases, when tax rates get very high, that researchers find that high tax rates lose revenue. In most cases, the Laffer Curve simply implies that higher tax rates won’t raise as much money as politicians want.

But have our friends at CAP inadvertently identified one of those cases where a tax cut (i.e., a lower corporate tax rate) would “pay for itself”?

There certainly is strong evidence for this proposition. In a 2007 study, Alex Brill and Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute found that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is about 25 percent (click chart to enlarge).

Somehow, I suspect this wasn’t their intention, but I want to thank the statists at CAP for reminding us about the self-destructive impact of high tax rates. 

For those who want to learn more about the Laffer Curve, these three videos will make you more knowledgeable than 99 percent of people in Washington (not a big achievement, I realize, but the information is still useful).

 

The “Tax Expenditure” Con Job

For both political and policy reasons, the left is desperately trying to maneuver Republicans into going along with a tax increase. And they are smart to make this their top goal. After all, it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to increase the burden of government spending without more revenue coming to Washington.

But how to make this happen? President Obama is mostly arguing in favor of class-warfare tax increases, but that’s a non-serious gambit driven by 2012 political considerations. Moreover, there’s presumably zero chance that Republicans would surrender to higher tax rates on work, saving, and investment.

The real threat is back-door hikes resulting from the elimination and/or reduction of so-called tax breaks. The big spenders on the left are being very clever about this effort, appealing to anti-spending and pro-tax reform sentiments by arguing that it is important to get rid of “tax expenditures” and “spending in the tax code.”

recently warned, however, that GOPers shouldn’t fall for this sophistry, noting that “If legislation is enacted that results in more money coming into Washington, that is a tax increase.” I also explained that tax breaks are not spending, stating that “When politicians tax (or borrow) money from one person and give it to another, that’s government spending. But if politicians allow a person keep more of their own money, that’s a tax cut.”

To be sure, the tax code is riddled with inefficient and corrupt loopholes. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of fundamental tax reform, such as a flat tax. More specifically, every penny of revenue generated by shutting down tax preferences should be used to lower tax rates. This is a win-win situation that would make America more prosperous and competitive.

It’s also important to understand what’s a loophole and what isn’t. Ideally, you determine special tax breaks by first deciding on the right benchmark and then measuring how the current tax system deviates from that ideal. That presumably means all income should be taxed, but only one time.

So what can we say about the internal revenue code using this neutral benchmark? Well, there are lots of genuine loopholes. The government completely exempts compensation in the form of employer-provided health insurance, for instance, and everyone agrees that’s a special tax break. There’s also the standard deduction and personal exemptions, but most people think it’s appropriate to protect poor people from the income tax (though perhaps we’ve gone too far in that direction since only 49 percent of households now pay income tax).

Sometimes the tax code goes overboard in the other direction, however, subjecting some income to double taxation. Indeed, because of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, personal income tax, and death tax, it’s possible for some types of income to be taxed as many of three or four times.

Double taxation is a special tax penalty, which is the opposite of a special tax break. The good news is that there are some provisions in the tax code, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, that reduce these tax penalties.

The bad news is that these provisions get added to “tax expenditure” lists, and therefore get mixed up with the provisions that provide special tax breaks. This may sound too strange to be true, but here’s a list of the biggest so-called tax expenditures from the Tax Policy Center (which is a left-leaning organization, but their numbers are basically the same as the ones found at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

Since this post already is too long, I’ll close by simply noting that items 2, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12 are not loopholes. They are not “tax expenditures.” And they are not “spending in the tax code.” Every one of those provisions is designed to mitigate a penalty in the tax code.

So even if lawmakers have good motives (i.e., pursuing real tax reform such as the flat tax) when looking to get rid of special tax breaks, they need to understand what’s actually a loophole.

But since politicians rarely have good motives, there’s a real threat that they will take existing tax penalties and make them even worse. That’s another reason why tax increases should be a non-starter.