Will Higher Tax Rates in 2011 Cause an Economic Collapse?

Art Laffer has a compelling column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where he makes the case that future tax rate increases will cause considerable economic damage because people have an incentive to maximize income this year to take advantage of current tax rates – resulting in an artificial drop in economic activity next year. In effect, this will be a reverse version of the experiment in the early 1980s, when entrepreneurs and investors had an incentive to postpone economic activity since Reagan’s tax rate reductions were phased in over several years. I am reluctant to endorse Art’s prediction that the “economy will collapse,” since even good economists are lousy forecasters. But we certainly will see a large degree of tax planning, which will lead to less revenue than expected next year. And the higher tax rates will inhibit growth, though it is impossible to predict whether this means 2.1 percent growth instead of 2.3 percent growth, for instance, or 0.5 percent growth instead of 0.6 percent growth.

On or about Jan. 1, 2011, federal, state and local tax rates are scheduled to rise quite sharply. …the highest federal personal income tax rate will go 39.6% from 35%, the highest federal dividend tax rate pops up to 39.6% from 15%, the capital gains tax rate to 20% from 15%, and the estate tax rate to 55% from zero. …Tax rates have been and will be raised on income earned from off-shore investments. Payroll taxes are already scheduled to rise in 2013 and the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will be digging deeper and deeper into middle-income taxpayers. And there’s always the celebrated tax increase on Cadillac health care plans. State and local tax rates are also going up in 2011 as they did in 2010. Tax rate increases next year are everywhere. …if people know tax rates will be higher next year than they are this year, what will those people do this year? They will shift production and income out of next year into this year to the extent possible. As a result, income this year has already been inflated above where it otherwise should be and next year, 2011, income will be lower than it otherwise should be. …In 1981, Ronald Reagan—with bipartisan support—began the first phase in a series of tax cuts passed under the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA), whereby the bulk of the tax cuts didn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 1983. Reagan’s delayed tax cuts were the mirror image of President Barack Obama’s delayed tax rate increases. For 1981 and 1982 people deferred so much economic activity that real GDP was basically flat (i.e., no growth), and the unemployment rate rose to well over 10%. But at the tax boundary of Jan. 1, 1983 the economy took off like a rocket, with average real growth reaching 7.5% in 1983 and 5.5% in 1984. It has always amazed me how tax cuts don’t work until they take effect. Mr. Obama’s experience with deferred tax rate increases will be the reverse. The economy will collapse in 2011. …The result will be a crash in tax receipts once the surge is past. If you thought deficits and unemployment have been bad lately, you ain’t seen nothing yet.