Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

The Mikulski Principle

Politicians are circling around hedge funds like vultures. They want to raise taxes on hedge funds, maybe by treating their capital gains as normal income. Why? Because hedge funds are mysterious — do you know what they really do? — and they have a lot of money. Make billion-dollar profits, get headlines, attract taxers — it’s as certain as ants at a picnic.

There are whole books on the correct theory of taxation. I’ve always assumed that Democratic members of Congress operate on the theory most clearly enunciated in 1990 by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D, Md.):

Let’s go and get it from those who’ve got it.

There are many theories of taxation, such as Haig-Simons, the Tiebout model, and the Ramsay Principle. But I’d bet that the Mikulski Principle explains actual taxation best.

You Mean It Could Get Worse?

The House Agriculture Committee yesterday released its preliminary discussion draft of the commodity section of the Farm Bill (the section that deals with the subsidy programs). But the changes proposed by Rep. Colin Peterson (D, Minn.), House Agriculture Committee chairman, are precisely the wrong sort of changes needed to avoid legal challenges to its farm programs and inject life into the Doha round of global trade talks.

Chairman Peterson has suggested increasing most of the price-linked subsidies, and paying for the increase out of the money currently allocated for direct subsidies that farmers receive regardless of production or market prices.

When farmers are paid according to the amount they produce, this encourages overproduction and depresses world market prices. That infuriates our trade partners, and we can expect more of the type of legal challenge to U.S. farm programs as the cotton case (more here) and the new case against U.S. farm subsidies brought by Canada (background here).

While paying farmers “money for nothing” may be fiscally irresponsible, it is less market distorting than the types of subsidies that Chairman Peterson is proposing to increase. It makes no sense to increase the types of payments that are causing legal trouble. And if commodity prices fall from the current historic highs, then these subsidies would have a necessarily higher budgetary impact than the current setup.

My colleage Dan Griswold and I have proposed bribing farmers to let us scrap the whole thing altogether.

Maine House Approves Flat Tax — Over GOP Objections

Maine has one of the country’s highest income tax rates, which stifles growth and undermines competitiveness. But this may soon be a relic of the past, as the state House has approved a flat tax. The supposed revenue loss from lower income tax collections will be offset by broadening the base of the sales tax, which currently applies to only a narrow range of products.

Interestingly, Republicans in the statehouse are opposing the proposal, though it is not clear whether they are being partisans and reflexively opposing a Democratic plan or whether there are some genuinely objectionable features of what otherwise seems to be a pro-growth reform. This story in the (Brunswick, ME) Times Record, for instance, does not reveal whether the tax plan is designed to raise more money for government:

The House voted largely along party lines Wednesday to support a tax restructuring plan that expands the sales tax base to lower the income tax rate — a plan Republicans warned would cause a revolt back home when people realize how it affects their day-to-day purchases.

…[I]t gives tax relief to Mainers of all income-levels and stabilizes the tax system that currently relies on sales in just 24 categories. That limited base makes sales tax revenue very volatile and leaves the state short on cash when the economy slows. On the other hand, the state has the seventh highest income tax rate in the country and that discourages businesses from moving here and retirees from making the state their full-time home. The plan would rebalance that system. “This plan will provide a tremendous economic boost to the state of Maine,” [state Rep. John] Piotti said. “It will be a huge stimulus for people in state who want to expand and for people out of state looking to do business….”

The proposal would raise more than $230 million in sales-related revenue by expanding the 5 percent sales tax base to a long list of currently exempt services; raising the meals and lodging tax from 7 to 8 percent; increasing the real estate transfer tax on a sliding scale based on the property’s selling price; and doubling the excise tax on beer and wine. That money, in turn, would be used to lower the state’s graduated income tax to a flat tax of 6 percent.

Tax Revenues Hit All-Time Highs

While Democrats plot to raise taxes (and Republicans indirectly help them by failing to push for smaller government), Investor’s Business Daily provides a useful service by pointing out that inflation-adjusted tax revenues have reached record levels. And even when measured as a share of economic output, tax collections have risen above their long-term average (though the assumption that politicians automatically deserve a slice of additional economic output is a pernicious notion):

Tax revenues will be about 18.5% of GDP this year — above the average of 18.2% since 1960. As for inflation-adjusted tax revenues — a little-used but equally telling statistic — they’ll reach an all-time high of $2.013 trillion. That’s higher even than in the last year of the dot-com boom. And by the way, it’s an astounding 26% gain since 2003 — after inflation. What about the claim that tax cuts “lose” revenues for the government? Also not true. What is true is that by creating a dynamic of powerful economic growth, lower taxes expand the economy and, therefore, overall tax revenues. They do this by giving people more incentives to work, save, invest and innovate — all drivers of long-term economic growth.

Democrats Push French Tax Plan

The House Democrats want to mitigate the impact of the alternative minimum tax on taxpayers with incomes of less than $250,000 by dramatically raising tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors. As the Wall Street Journal explains, the proposal would boost the top tax rate by 4.3 percentage points. But the plan conveniently neglects to extend the Bush tax cuts, and the editorial calculates that this will push to top rate to about 44 percent. And since the AMT will still exist for the so-called rich, marginal tax rates could reach 80 percent or more (and pity the entrepreneurs and investors who live in high-tax states such as California and New York). The proposal is a good recipe for making America less competitive. As fiscal policy, though, it is a disaster:

Tax rates are falling all over the globe – even in Sweden. The exception is the U.S. Congress, which is scrambling to find some way, any way, to raise them. Last week, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee released a draft of their tax plan that would raise the highest income tax rate by 4.3 percentage points to 39.3% immediately. And because the proposal doesn’t extend the Bush tax cuts, the highest income tax rate would rise to the neighborhood of 44% after 2010. This would lift the top federal income tax rate higher than it was even under Bill Clinton. And get this: For families with incomes between $250,000 and $500,000, the “marginal” tax rate paid on the next dollar of earned income could soar to 80%, or in some cases even above 100%. Why? Because when income rises above $250,000, some taxpayers would be kicked into the Alternative Minimum Tax – which means that they lose tens of thousands of dollars of write-offs for state and local tax deductions, marriage penalty relief, certain child credits, and so on. The value of the lost deductions can exceed the value of the extra income earned. So some Americans could pay more than $1 in taxes for every $1 they earn under the House tax plan. …The wealthiest 1% of Americans already pay more than one of every three income tax dollars into the Treasury. Under the Ways and Means proposal, the share of all income taxes paid by the top 1% would rise to nearly 40%. The top 2% would pay roughly as much as the bottom 98% of all taxpayers. …A 44% top marginal rate would reduce U.S. competitiveness by reducing the after-tax return on investment. Less investment means fewer jobs and lower wages.

Furman on Inequality

Following in my illustrious footsteps as an Economist.com guest blogger, Brookings senior fellow Jason Furman writes thusly of rising income inequality

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s income inequality data, the top 1 percent of households have seen their incomes go up by 7 percent and the bottom 80 percent have seen their income shares go down by 7 percent.  In total that is a $664 billion increase in inequality, representing $7,000 for each household in the bottom 80 percent and nearly $600,000 for each household in the top 1 percent.

That number motivates a Hamilton Project tax strategy paper co-authored by Larry Summers, Jason Bordoff and myself that is being released today.

It is far from obvious what has caused the change; in just the last month alone the National Bureau of Economic Research has released three working papers with divergent explanations:  a reduction in the bargaining power of workers, an increased reward for skills and worker productivity, and the destruction of good jobs by trade.

Regardless of the cause of rising inequality, lefties, utilitarians, Rawlsians and anyone with a deep-seated reverence for markets and the capitalist system should all be concerned.  As Alan Greenspan memorably stated, “income inequality is where the capitalist system is most vulnerable.  You can’t have the capitalist system if an increasing number of people think it is unjust.”

Well, I consider myself a sort of Rawlsian (a Rawlsekian!) with a deep-seated reverence for markets and the capitalist system. Should I be concerned? I agree with the sainted Greenspan that capitalism cannot survive a widespread conviction that it is unjust. And I agree that income inequality is one of those things that some thinkers like wheel out to try to convince us that capitalism is unjust, at least around the edges, in order to build popular support for such things as more steeply “progressive taxes combined with expanded benefits like health insurance,” like Furman wants. But I’m not so worried by rising income inequality as I am by Furman’s facile slide from income inequality numbers, which are meaningless by themselves, to the possibility of a crisis of legitimacy.

It is worth repeatedly and forcefully emphasizing that income inequality may or may not be symptomatic of injustice. The three hypotheses for rising inequality Furman mentions are perfectly consistent with advances in justice. And if they are generating income inequality, then it may vindicate capitalism. For example, the loss of jobs, a decrease in wages, or a decrease in bargaining power for some workers may be a consequence of lifting coercive restrictions on voluntary exchange across borders – restrictions that are themselves a form of injustice. Furman himself notes that protectionist policies could decrease inequality, though he advises against them, and rightly so, since they are unjust. But if protectionist policies are lifted, and inequality increases, that uptick in inequality is a side-effect of justice, not a symptom of injustice.

Inequality may reflect real injustice in our culture and institutions, and some portion of it probably does. But then our focus ought to be on rooting out those injustices, not papering them over with confiscatory redistribution which, in the absence of a reason to do it other than arbitrarily reducing measured inequality, is straightforwardly immoral.

Let’s set aside the matter of the intelligibility of “shares” of “national income” as a subject of justice for another time.  

Another Government Shakedown

Politicians are agitating for a big tax hike on the private equity industry, but the motive for this talk may involve more than just a desire to have more money to spend. Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal explains that politicians threaten an industry in order to extract campaign contributions. The column suggests this is what spurred the attack on the so-called junk-bond industry in the 1980s. Another good example would be the assaults on Microsoft and Intel. This does not mean politicians are like mobsters. Mobsters, after all, don’t add insult to injury by trying to rationalize their protection rackets as being for the public good:

Being a shrewd bunch, the private equity industry presumably has gotten the message: When vast new fountains of wealth open up in the economy, Congress must receive its ransom in campaign donations. Delivering the wagged finger were none other than Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, who’ve taken to musing aloud about how the tax code’s treatment of private equity’s lately fabulous profits might be revised. The bipartisan nature of the initiative should reassure readers that there’s no philosophical issue here. It’s purely bidness. You, private equity, have been remiss in your patriotic duty. Cough up. Anyone who recalls the junk bond wars of the 1980s will notice a pattern. Then too, Congress was awash in proposals for taxing the takeover industry: by eliminating the interest deduction for junk bond interest, by imposing an excise tax on assets acquired in a hostile takeover, etc. These ideas came to naught, not least because of the fright the proposals put into the stock market. But the endless debate unlimbered a delicious flow of campaign dollars from all concerned. …the message has been received. Private equity has now set up a Washington trade group and has opened its pockets to politicians, with Barack Obama being a special heartthrob. Oh, happy day for members of the House and Senate tax committees, who lived for years off the junk bond wars and now will live for years off the private equity plutocrats.