Tag: Higher Taxes

A Laffer Curve Warning about the Economy and Tax Revenue for President Obama and other Class Warriors

Being a thoughtful and kind person, I offered some advice last year to Barack Obama. I cited some powerful IRS data from the 1980s to demonstrate that there is not a simplistic linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

In other words, just as a restaurant owner knows that a 20-percent increase in prices doesn’t translate into a 20-percent increase in revenue because of lost sales, politicians should understand that higher tax rates don’t mean an automatic and concomitant increase in tax revenue.

This is the infamous Laffer Curve, and it’s simply the common-sense recognition that you should include changes in taxable income in your calculations when trying to measure the impact of higher or lower tax rates on tax revenues.

No, it doesn’t mean lower tax rates “pay for themselves” or that higher tax rates lead to less revenue. That only happens in unusual circumstances. But it does mean that lawmakers should exercise some prudence and judgment when deciding tax policy.

Moreover, even though I’m a strong believer in the importance of good tax policy, it’s also important to understand that taxation is just one of many factors that determine economic performance. So lower tax rates, by themselves, are no guarantee of economic vitality, and higher tax rates don’t necessarily mean the world is coming to an end.

With those caveats in mind, take a look at this table from the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent Budget and Economic Outlook. Taken from page 109, it shows what will happen if the economy grows just a tiny bit less than the baseline projection. Not a recession, by any means, just a drop in the projected growth rate of just 1/10th of 1 percent.

As you can see, the 10-year impact is $314 billion, mostly due to lower tax receipts, though there is some impact on outlays because of higher interest costs and a bit of additional entitlement spending.

So why am I sharing these numbers? Because let’s now think about President Obama’s proposed class-warfare tax hike. He wants higher tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners and other “rich” taxpayers. And he wants more double taxation of dividends and capital gains. And a higher death tax rate, even higher than the ones imposed by France and Venezuela.

I think some opponents are exaggerating when they claim that this tax hike will cause a recession and cripple the economy. But I do think that it’s reasonable to contemplate the degree to which the Obama tax hikes will slow growth. More than 1/10th of 1 percent? Less than that? Would the damage occur in the first few years? Would it be spread out over time?

Those questions are hard to answer. Ask five economists and you’ll get nine answers, but there is compelling evidence that higher tax rates do have a negative impact.

But some people assume that taxes don’t matter at all. Using models that, for all intents and purposes, naively assume a simplistic linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue, the number-crunching bureaucrats in Washington estimate that Obama’s proposed tax hikes will generate about $800 billion over 10 years.

I’m not going to pretend I know the economic impact of those higher tax rates, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the impact is minor. Indeed, let’s assume that it’s only 1/10th of 1 percent. Based on the CBO sensitivity analysis above, that means that about 40 percent of the projected deficit reduction will fail to materialize.

And that’s not even considering the fact that politicians will probably increase the burden of government spending because of the expectation of additional tax revenue.

Just something to keep in mind as this debate unfolds.

P.S. I actually shared this exact same data when testifying to the Senate Budget Committee earlier this year. Needless to say,  in some cases I think my testimony went in one ear and out the other.

P.P.S. The revenue-maximizing tax rate is not the ideal point on the Laffer Curve.

For the Sake of Intellectual Integrity, Republicans Should Not Cite the CBO When Arguing against Obama’s Proposed Fiscal-Cliff Tax Hike

I’ve commented before how the fiscal fight in Europe is a no-win contest between advocates of Keynesian deficit spending (the so-called “growth” camp, if you can believe that) and proponents of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp, which almost never seems to mean spending restraint).

That’s a left-vs-left battle, which makes me think it would be a good idea if they fought each other to the point of exhaustion, thus enabling forward movement on a pro-growth agenda of tax reform and reductions in the burden of government spending.

That’s a nice thought, but it probably won’t happen in Europe since almost all politicians in places such as Germany and France are statists. And it might never happen in the United States if lawmakers pay attention to the ideologically biased work of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO already has demonstrated that it’s willing to take both sides of this left-v-left fight, and the bureaucrats just doubled down on that biased view in a new report on the fiscal cliff.

For all intents and purposes, the CBO has a slavish devotion to Keynesian theory in the short run, which means more spending supposedly is good for growth. But CBO also believes that higher taxes improve growth in the long run by ostensibly leading to lower deficits. Here’s what it says will happen if automatic budget cuts are cancelled.

Eliminating the automatic enforcement procedures established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that are scheduled to reduce both discretionary and mandatory spending starting in January and maintaining Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services at the current level would boost real GDP by about three-quarters of a percent by the end of 2013.

Not that we should be surprised by this silly conclusion. The CBO repeatedly claimed that Obama’s faux stimulus would boost growth. Heck, CBO even claimed Obama’s spending binge was successful after the fact, even though it was followed by record levels of unemployment.

But I think the short-run Keynesianism is not CBO’s biggest mistake. In the long-run, CBO wants us to believe that higher tax burdens translate into more growth. Check out this passage, which expresses CBO’s view the economy will be weaker 10 years from now if the tax burden is not increased.

…the agency has estimated the effect on output that would occur in 2022 under the alternative fiscal scenario, which incorporates the assumption that several of the policies are maintained indefinitely. CBO estimates that in 2022, on net, the policies included in the alternative fiscal scenario would reduce real GDP by 0.4 percent and real gross national product (GNP) by 1.7 percent. …the larger budget deficits and rapidly growing federal debt would hamper national saving and investment and thus reduce output and income.

In other words, CBO reflexively makes two bold assumption. First, it assumes higher tax rates generate more money. Second, the bureaucrats assume that politicians will use any new money for deficit reduction. Yeah, good luck with that.

To be fair, the CBO report does have occasional bits of accurate analysis. The authors acknowledge that both taxes and spending can create adverse incentives for productive behavior.

…increases in marginal tax rates on labor would tend to reduce the amount of labor supplied to the economy, whereas increases in revenues of a similar magnitude from broadening the tax base would probably have a smaller negative impact or even a positive impact on the supply of labor. Similarly, cutting government benefit payments would generally strengthen people’s incentive to work and save.

But these small concessions do not offset the deeply flawed analysis that dominates the report.

But that analysis shouldn’t be a surprise. The CBO has a track record of partisan and ideological work.

While I’m irritated about CBO’s bias (and the fact that it’s being financed with my tax dollars), that’s not what has me worked up. The reason for this post is to grouse and gripe about the fact that some people are citing this deeply flawed analysis to oppose Obama’s pursuit of class warfare tax policy.

Why would some Republican politicians and conservative commentators cite a publication that promotes higher spending in the short run and higher taxes in the long run? Well, because it also asserts - based on Keynesian analysis - that higher taxes will hurt the economy in the short run.

…extending the tax reductions originally enacted in 2001, 2003, and 2009 and extending all other expiring provisions, including those that expired at the end of 2011, except for the payroll tax cut—and indexing the alternative minimum tax (AMT) for inflation beginning in 2012 would boost real GDP by a little less than 1½ percent by the end of 2013.

At the risk of sounding like a doctrinaire purist, it is unethical to cite inaccurate analysis in support of a good policy.

Consider this example. If some academic published a study in favor of the flat tax and it later turned out that the data was deliberately or accidentally wrong, would it be right to cite that research when arguing for tax reform? I hope everyone would agree that the answer is no.

Yet that’s precisely what is happening when people cite CBO’s shoddy work to argue against tax increases.

It’s very much akin to the pro-defense Republicans who use Keynesian arguments about jobs when promoting a larger defense budget.

To make matters worse, it’s not as if opponents lack other arguments that are intellectually honest.

So why, then, would anybody sink to the depths necessary to cite the Congressional Budget Office?

Higher Taxes on the Rich Are a Precursor to Higher Taxes on the Rest of Us

President Obama repeatedly assures us that he only wants higher taxes on the rich as part of his class-warfare agenda.

But I don’t trust him. In part because he’s a politician, but also because there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government (not to mention that the rich easily can alter their financial affairs to avoid higher tax rates).

Honest leftists are beginning to admit that their real target is the middle class. Here are a few examples.

In other words, politicians often say they want to tax the rich, but the real target is the middle class. Indeed, this is the history of tax policy. In a post earlier this year, warning the folks in the Cayman Islands not to impose an income tax, I noted how the U.S. income tax began small and then swallowed up more and more people.

[T]he U.S. income tax began in 1913 with a top rate of only 7 percent and it affected less than 1 percent of the population. But that supposedly benign tax has since become a monstrous internal revenue code that plagues the nation today.

The same thing is true elsewhere in the world.

Allister Heath explains for London’s City A.M. newspaper.

The introduction of income taxes around the world have tended to follow a very similar pattern over the past couple of centuries. First, we get generally low income tax rates, with most people exempt and with the highest rate only affecting a few people relatively lightly. Eventually, tax rates shoot up for everybody – including to crippling levels for top earners – and millions more are caught by income tax. The next stage is that the ultra-high tax rates for top earners are reduced to manageable levels – but ever more people are brought into the tax system, with the higher brackets also catching vastly more folk.

By the way, you can see that Allister makes a reference to tax rates being reduced for top earners. That’s largely because many politicians learned an important lesson about the Laffer Curve. Sometimes, the best way to “soak the rich” is by lowering their tax rates. Unfortunately, President Obama still needs some remedial education on this topic.

Allister then looks at some specific United Kingdom data revealing how more and more middle class people are now subject to higher tax rates.

The biggest change in the UK has been the number of people paying what is now the 40p tax rate: up six-fold in thirty years, from 674,000 in 1979-80, 2.5m in 1999-2000 to 4.048m in 2011-12. This number will jump again to around 5m in 2014, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, just 2.6 per cent of taxpayers paid the top rate; by the time of the next election, 16.7 per cent will.

If Obama and other statists get their way, we’ll see similar statistic in the United States. Higher income tax rates for the rich will mean higher income tax rates for the rest of us. Though I’m even more worried about a value-added tax, which would be a huge burden on ordinary people and a revenue machine for greedy politicians.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the American tax code actually is more “progressive” than the tax codes of Europe’s welfare states. This is largely because we don’t pillage poor and middle-class taxpayers with a VAT.

P.S.: Since I mentioned the Laffer Curve above, I should emphasize that the goal of good tax policy should be to maximize growth, not to maximize tax revenue.

P.P.S.: And don’t forget that poor and middle-income taxpayers also will be hurt because slower growth is an inevitable consequence when tax rates climb and the burden of government spending increases.

France’s Fiscal Suicide

I try to be self aware, so I realize that I have the fiscal version of Tourette’s. Regardless of the question that is asked, I’m tempted to blurt out that the answer is to reduce the burden of government spending.

But sometimes that’s exactly the right prescription, particularly for an economy weighed down by a bloated public sector. And, as you can see from this chart, the French welfare state is enormous.

Only Denmark has a bigger burden of government spending, but at least the Danes are astute enough to compensate with hyper-free market policies in other areas.

So is France also trying to offset the damage of excessive spending with good policy in other areas? Au contraire, President Hollande is compounding the damage with huge class-warfare tax hikes.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal says about Hollande’s fiscal proposal—including the key revelation that spending will go up rather than  down.

Remember all that euro-babble before the French election about fiscal “austerity” harming growth? Well, meet the new austerity, same as the old austerity, which means higher taxes on the private economy and token discipline for the state. Growth is an afterthought. That’s the lesson of French President François Hollande’s new “fighting” budget, which is supposed to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP from 4.5% and represent the country’s toughest belt-tightening in three decades. …More telling is that two-thirds of the €30 billion in so-called savings is new tax revenue, and one-third comes from slowing spending growth. Total public expenditure—already the second most lavish in Europe—will increase by €6 billion to 56.3% of GDP.

The spending cuts are fictional, but the tax increases are very, very real.

The real austerity will be imposed on taxpayers, and not only on the rich. Income above €150,000 will now be taxed at 45%, up from the current 41%. Mr. Hollande’s 75% tax rate on income over €1 million comes into effect for two years, reaping expected (and predictably paltry) revenue of €200 million. That’s dwarfed by the €1 billion from reducing the threshold for the “solidarity” tax on wealth to €800,000 from €1.3 million. The French Socialists will also now tax investment income at the same high rates as regular income. The rates have been 19% for capital gains, 21% for dividends and 24% for interest income. If Mr. Hollande’s goal is to send capital out of France, that should help.

Anybody want to take bets, by the way, on whether the “temporary” two-year 75 percent tax rate still exists three years from now?

I say yes, in large part because the tax almost surely will lose revenue because of Laffer Curve effects. But rather than learn the right lesson and repeal the tax, Hollande will argue it needs to be maintained because revenues are “unexpectedly” sluggish.

It’s also remarkable that Hollande wants to dramatically increase tax rates on capital gains, dividends, and interest. These are all examples of double taxation.

And when you factor in the taxes at both the personal and business level, these charts show that France already has the highest tax on dividends in the developed world and the third-highest tax on capital. And Hollande wants to make a terrible system even worse. Amazing.

I’ve already predicted that France will be the next major economy to suffer a fiscal crisis. I was too clever to give a date, but Hollande’s policies are accelerating the day of reckoning.

P.S. The WSJ also takes some well-deserved potshots at the latest fiscal plan in Spain. Since I endorsed Hollande in hopes that he would engage in suicidal fiscal policy, this post is focused on the French fiscal plan. But Spain also is a disaster.

If Tax Policy Is any Indication, Birthers Should Accuse Obama of Being Born in Denmark

I’m not a big fan of government conspiracy theories, largely because the people in Washington are too bloody incompetent to do anything effectively. Heck, sometimes they can’t even waste money properly even though they have lots of practice.

But it recently crossed my mind that maybe President Obama was born in Denmark. Not in a serious way, of course, but you’ll understand my thought process when you read this passage from a report by the government-appointed Danish Economic Council. It doesn’t mention the Laffer Curve, but the report openly states that an increase in the top tax rate would lose revenue because of changes in taxpayer behavior.

…increased taxation on high income earners in Denmark at best is revenue neutral, and may even reduce total tax revenue. This result applies whether one considers the top 10, the top 5 or the top 1 per cent income group. …Using the base estimate of the elasticity of taxable labour income of 0.2, the conclusion is thus that the existing Danish tax system implies an effective tax rate on high income earners that is above - though close to - the tax rate that generates the highest tax revenue. …As an example, the revenue effect of an increase in the marginal tax rate by 6 percentage points for high-income earners is calculated. Using the base estimate of the behavioural response to taxation, this leads to a revenue loss of about ½ billion DKK. …Overall, the scope for acquiring extra tax revenue from high income earners in Denmark is very limited.

Yet there are some politicians in Denmark who want to raise tax rates, even though the damage to the economy will be so significant that the government loses revenue!

If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you probably remember President Obama’s infamous statement during the 2008 campaign that he wanted to raise the capital gains tax rate for reasons of “fairness” regardless of whether tax revenues decreased (if you think I’m somehow exaggerating or distorting his words, just go to the 4:20 mark of this video).

By the way, the Danish study probably understates how much revenue the government would lose. Their base estimate about the elasticity of taxable labor income (economist jargon for how sensitive labor income is to changes in tax rates) is much lower than Alan Reynolds reported in his recent Wall Street Journal column.

Rich people, unlike the rest of us, have tremendous ability to change the timing, composition, and level of their income, which is a big reason why upper-income taxpayers paid much more to the IRS in the 1980s after President Reagan slashed the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

I’m constantly amazed - in a bad way - that politicians and bureaucrats have been so successful in resisting the insights of the Laffer Curve. The U.S. Treasury Department, for instance, is to the left of the Danish Economic Council and basically assumes that tax policy has no impact on economic performance. The same can be said about the Joint Committee on Taxation on Capitol Hill.

This has to be a case of leftist ideology trumping reality, because the evidence for the Laffer Curve is quite powerful - some of it even being produced by international bureaucracies.

None of this is to suggest that “all tax cuts pay for themselves.” That only happens in unusual cases where a group of taxpayers - such as wealthy entrepreneurs and investors - have considerable flexibility in their economic affairs.

In most cases, the government will collect more revenue when tax rates increase. This is because the impact of the change in the tax rate is larger than the impact of the change in taxable income.

But the real question is whether it is ever a good idea to reduce private economic output in order to give politicians more money to spend. To sensible people, that’s the most important insight of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. While this discussion has focused on the foolishness of setting tax rates so high that the government loses revenue, this does not mean politicians should seek the revenue-maximizing tax rate. The ideal point on the Laffer Curve is the growth-maximizing tax rate.

Jonah Goldberg’s Good Advice for the GOP: Confess Your Spending Sins and Repent

In a post last week, I explained that Obama has been a big spender, but noted his profligacy is disguised because TARP outlays caused a spike in spending during Bush’s last fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008). Meanwhile, repayments from banks in subsequent years count as “negative spending,” further hiding the underlying trend in outlays.

When you strip away those one-time factors, it turns out that Obama has allowed domestic spending to increase at the fastest rate since Richard Nixon.

I then did another post yesterday in which I looked at total spending (other than interest payments and bailout costs) and showed that Obama has presided over the biggest spending increases since Lyndon Johnson.

Looking at the charts, it’s rather obvious that party labels don’t mean much. Bill Clinton presided during a period of spending restraint, while every Republican other than Reagan has a dismal track record.

President George W. Bush, for instance, scores below both Clinton and Jimmy Carter, regardless of whether defense outlays are included in the calculations. That’s not a fiscally conservative record, even if you’re grading on a generous curve.

This leads Jonah Goldberg to offer some sage advice to the GOP:

Here’s a simple suggestion for Mitt Romney: Admit that the Democrats have a point. Right before the Memorial Day weekend, Washington was consumed by a debate over how much Barack Obama has spent as president, and it looks like it’s picking up again.

…[A]ll of these numbers are a sideshow: Republicans in Washington helped create the problem, and Romney should concede the point. Focused on fighting a war, Bush—never a tightwad to begin with—handed the keys to the Treasury to Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert, and they spent enough money to burn a wet mule. On Bush’s watch, education spending more than doubled, the government enacted the biggest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society (Medicare Part D), and we created a vast new government agency (the Department of Homeland Security).

…Nearly every problem with spending and debt associated with the Bush years was made far worse under Obama. The man campaigned as an outsider who was going to change course before we went over a fiscal cliff. Instead, when he got behind the wheel, as it were, he hit the gas instead of the brakes—and yet has the temerity to claim that all of the forward momentum is Bush’s fault.

…Romney is under no obligation to defend the Republican performance during the Bush years. Indeed, if he’s serious about fixing what’s wrong with Washington, he has an obligation not to defend it. This is an argument that the Tea Party—which famously dealt Obama’s party a shellacking in 2010—and independents alike are entirely open to. Voters don’t want a president to rein in runaway Democratic spending; they want one to rein in runaway Washington spending.

Jonah’s point about “fixing what’s wrong with Washington” is not a throwaway line. Romney has pledged to voters that he won’t raise taxes. He also has promised to bring the burden of federal spending down to 20 percent of GDP by the end of a first term.

But even those modest commitments will be difficult to achieve if he isn’t willing to gain credibility with the American people by admitting that Republicans helped create the fiscal mess in Washington. Especially since today’s GOP leaders in the House and Senate were all in office last decade and voted for Bush’s wasteful spending.

It doesn’t take much to move fiscal policy in the right direction. All that’s required is to restrain spending so that it grows more slowly than the private sector. (With the kind of humility you only find in Washington, I call this “Mitchell’s Golden Rule.”) The entitlement reforms in the Ryan budget would be a good start, along with some much-needed pruning of discretionary spending.

And if you address the underlying problem by limiting spending growth to about 2 percent annually, you can balance the budget in about 10 years. No need for higher taxes, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the fiscal frauds in Washington who salivate at the thought of another failed 1990s-style tax hike deal.