Tag: laffer curve

What’s the Ideal Point on the Laffer Curve?

There’s been a bit of chatter in the blogosphere about a recent post on Ezra Klein’s blog, featuring estimates from various economists about the revenue-maximizing tax rate. It won’t come as a surprise that people on the right tended to give lower estimates and folks on the left had higher guesses. Donald Luskin of National Review estimated 19 percent, for instance, while Emmanuel Saez, Dean Baker, Bruce Bartlett, and Brad DeLong all gave answers around 70 percent.

There are two things that are worth noting.

First, every single answer is to the right of the Joint Committee on Taxation. The revenue-estimators on Capitol Hill assume that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance. As such, even confiscatory tax rates have very little impact on taxable income. The JCT operates in a totally non-transparent fashion, so it is difficult to know whether they would say the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 90 percent, 95 percent, or 100 percent, but it is remarkable that a mini-bureaucracy with so much power is so far out of the mainstream (it’s even more remarkable that Republicans controlled Congress for 12 years, yet never fixed this problem, but that’s a separate story).

Second, very few of the respondents made the critically important observation that it should not be the goal of tax policy to maximize revenue. After all, the revenue-maximizing point is where the damage to the overall economy is so great that taxable income falls enough to offset the impact of the higher tax rates. Greg Mankiw of Harvard and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal indicated they understood this point since they both explained that the long-run revenue-maximizing rate was lower than the short-run revenue-maximizing rate. But Martin Feldstein of Harvard explicitly addressed this issue and hit the nail on the head.

Why look for the rate that maximizes revenue? As the tax rate rises, the “deadweight loss” (real loss to the economy) rises. So as the rate gets close to maximizing revenue the loss to the economy exceeds the gain in revenue…. I dislike budget deficits as much as anyone else. But would I really want to give up say $1 billion of GDP in order to reduce the deficit by $100 million? No. National income is a goal in itself. That is what drives consumption and our standard of living.

For more information, I think my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve is a good summary of the key issues. I posted them in May 2009, but Cato-at-Liberty has been growing rapidly and many people have not seen them. Part I addresses the theory, and explicitly notes that policy makers should target the growth-maximizing tax rate rather than the revenue-maximizing tax rate. Part II reviews some of the evidence, including analysis of the huge increase in taxable income and tax revenue from upper-income taxpayers following the Reagan tax-rate reductions. Part III looks at the Joint Committee on Taxation’s dismal performance.


The Joint Committee on Taxation’s Voodoo Economics

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial this morning on the obscure – but critically important – issue of measuring what happens to tax revenue in response to changes in tax policy. This is sometimes known as the dynamic scoring versus static scoring debate and sometimes referred to as the Laffer Curve controversy.

The key thing to understand is that the Joint Committee on Taxation (which produces revenue estimates) assumes that even big changes in tax policy have zero macroeconomic impact. Adopt a flat tax? The JCT assumes no effect on the economic performance. Double tax rates? The JCT assumes no impact on growth.

The JCT does include a few microeconomic effects into its revenue-estimating models (an increase in gas taxes, for instance, would reduce gasoline consumption), but it is quite likely that they underestimate the impact of high tax rates on incentives to work, save, and invest. We don’t know for sure, though, because the JCT refuses to make its methodology public. This raises a rather obvious question: Why is the JCT so afraid of transparency? Here’s some of what the WSJ had to say about the issue, including some comparisons of what the JCT predicted and what happened in the real world.

…it’s worth reviewing whether Joint Tax estimates are accurate. This is especially important now, because President Obama and Democrats in Congress want to allow the 2003 tax cuts to expire on January 1 for individuals earning more than $200,000. The JCT calculates that increasing the tax rates on capital gains, dividends and personal income will raise nearly $100 billion a year. …we are not saying that every tax cut “pays for itself.” Some tax cuts—such as temporary rebates—have little impact on growth and thus they may lose revenue more or less as Joint Tax predicts. Cuts in marginal rates, on the other hand, have substantial revenue effects, as economic studies have shown. …So how well did Joint Tax do when it predicted a giant revenue decline from the 2003 investment tax cuts? Not too well. We compared the combined Congressional Budget Office and Joint Tax estimate of revenues after the 2003 tax cuts were enacted with the actual revenues collected from 2003-2007. In each year total federal revenues came in substantially higher than Joint Tax predicted—$434 billion higher than forecast over the five years. …As for capital gains tax receipts, they nearly tripled from 2003 to 2007, even though the capital gains tax rate fell to 15% from 20%. Yet the behavioral models that Mr. Barthold celebrates predicted that the capital gains cuts would cost the government just under $10 billion from 2003-07 when the actual capital gains revenues over five years were $221 billion higher than JCT and CBO predicted. …Estimating future federal tax revenues is an inexact science to be sure. Our complaint is that Joint Tax typically overestimates the revenue gains from raising tax rates, while overestimating the revenue losses from tax rate cuts. This leads to a policy bias in favor of higher tax rates, which is precisely what liberal Democrats wanted when they created the Joint Tax Committee.

All of the revenue-estimating issues are explained in greater detail in my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve. Part I looks at the theory. Part II looks at the evidence. Part III, which can be watched below, analyzes the role of the Joint Committee on Taxation and speculates on why the JCT refuses to be transparent.


Top House Democrat Calls for Middle-Class Tax Hikes (and the real reason why)

Smart statists understand that there are very strong Laffer Curve effects at the top of the income scale since investors and entrepreneurs have considerable ability to control the timing, level, and composition of their income. So if higher tax rates on upper-income taxpayers don’t collect much revenue, why is the left so insistent on class-warfare taxation? The answer, I think, is that soak-the-rich taxes are a “loss-leader” that politicians impose in order to pave the way for higher taxes on the middle class. Indeed, I made this point in my video on class warfare taxation, and noted that are not enough rich people to finance big government. As such, politicians that want to tax the middle class hope to soften opposition among ordinary people by first punishing society’s most productive people. We already know that tax rates on the so-called rich will jump next January thanks to higher income tax rates, higher capital gains tax rates, more double taxation of dividends, and higher death taxes. Now the politicians are preparing to drop the other shoe. Excerpted below is a blurb from the Washington Post about a member of the House Democratic leadership urging middle-class tax hikes, and let’s not forgot all the politicians salivating for a value-added tax.

Tax cuts that benefit the middle class should not be “totally sacrosanct” as policymakers try to plug the nation’s yawning budget gap, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Monday, acknowledging that it would be difficult to reduce long-term deficits without breaking President Obama’s pledge to protect families earning less than $250,000 a year. Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said in an interview that he expects Congress to extend middle-class tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration that are set to expire at the end of this year. But he said the extension should not be permanent. Hoyer said he plans to call for a “serious discussion” about the affordability of the tax breaks. …The overarching point in Hoyer’s remarks is the need for a bipartisan plan that includes spending cuts and tax increases, in the tradition of deficit-reduction deals cut under former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Drafting such a plan would require a reexamination of tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003, Hoyer says – cuts that benefited most taxpayers.

Will ‘Hauser’s Law’ Protect Us from Revenue-Hungry Politicians?

David Ranson had a good column earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal explaining that federal tax revenues historically have hovered around 19 percent of gross domestic product, regardless whether tax rates are high or low. One reason for this relationship, as he explains, is that the Laffer Curve is a real-world constraint on class warfare tax policy. When politicians boost tax rates, that motivates taxpayers to earn and/or report less income to the IRS:

The feds assume a relationship between the economy and tax revenue that is divorced from reality. Six decades of history have established one far-reaching fact that needs to be built into fiscal calculations: Increases in federal tax rates, particularly if targeted at the higher brackets, produce no additional revenue. For politicians this is truly an inconvenient truth. …tax revenue has grown over the past eight decades along with the size of the economy. It illustrates the empirical relationship first introduced on this page 20 years ago by the Hoover Institution’s W. Kurt Hauser—a close proportionality between revenue and GDP since World War II, despite big changes in marginal tax rates in both directions. “Hauser’s Law,” as I call this formula, reveals a kind of capacity ceiling for federal tax receipts at about 19% of GDP. …he tax base is not something that the government can kick around at will. It represents a living economic system that makes its own collective choices. In a tax code of 70,000 pages there are innumerable ways for high-income earners to seek out and use ambiguities and loopholes. The more they are incentivized to make an effort to game the system, the less the federal government will get to collect.

Several people have asked my opinion about the piece. I like the column, of course, but I’m not nearly so optimistic that 19 percent of GDP represents some sort of limit on the federal government’s taxing power. There are many nations in Europe with tax burdens closer to 50 percent, for instance, so governments obviously have figured how to extract much higher shares of national output. Part of the difference is because America has a federal system, and state and local governments collect taxes of about 10 percent of GDP. That still leaves a significant gap in total tax collections, though, so the real question is why American politicians are not as proficient as their European cousins at confiscating money from the private sector?

One reason is that European countries have value-added taxes, which are a disturbingly efficient way of generating more revenue. So does this mean that “Hauser’s Law” will protect us if politicians are too scared to impose a nationwide sales tax? That’s certainly a necessary condition for restraining government, but probably not a sufficient condition. If you look at the table, which is excerpted from the OECD’s annual Revenue Statistics publication, you can see that nations such as New Zealand and Denmark have figured out how to extract huge amounts of money using the personal and corporate income tax.

In some cases, tax rates are higher in other nations, but the main factor seems to be that the top tax rates in other nations are imposed at much lower levels of income. Americans don’t get hit with the maximum tax rate until our incomes are nine times the national average. In other nations, by contrast, the top tax rates take effect much faster, in some cases when taxpayers have just average incomes. In other words, European nations collect a lot more money because they impose much higher tax rates on ordinary people. Here’s a chart I put together a few years ago for a paper I wrote for Heritage (you can find updated numbers in Table 1.7 of this OECD website, but the chart will still look the same).

Europeans also sometimes impose high tax rates on rich people, but this is not the reason that tax receipts consume nearly 50 percent of GDP in some nations. Rich people in Europe, like their counterparts in America, have much greater ability to control the amount of taxable income that is earned and/or reported. These “Laffer Curve” responses limit the degree to which politicians can finance big government on the backs of a small minority.

But class-warfare tax rates on the rich do serve a very important political goal. Politicians understand that ordinary people will be less likely to resist oppressive tax rates if they think that those with larger incomes are being treated even worse. Simply stated, higher tax rates on the rich are a necessary precondition for higher tax rates on average taxpayers.

For “Hauser’s Law” to be effective, this means proponents of limited government need to fight two battles. First, they need to stop a VAT. Second, they need to block higher tax rates on the so-called rich in order to prevent higher tax rates on the middle class.

What’s the Future for Supply-Side Economics?

Kevin Williamson has a long-overdue piece in National Review making two essential points about supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve. First, he explains that tax cuts are not the fiscal equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Simply stated, too many Republicans have fallen into very sloppy habits. They oftentimes fail to understand the difference between “supply-side” tax rate reductions that actually improve incentives to engage in productive behavior and social-engineering tax cuts that simply allow people to keep more money, regardless of whether they create more wealth. This does not necessarily mean the latter form of tax cuts are bad, but they definitely do not boost economic performance and generate revenue feedback. Moreover, even when GOPers are talking about supply-side tax cuts, they frequently exaggerate the positive effects by claiming that lower tax rates “pay for themselves.” I certainly think that can happen, and I give real-world examples in this video on the Laffer Curve (including Reagan’s lower tax rates on those evil rich people), but self-financing tax cuts are not common.

Williamson’s second point is that the true fiscal burden is best measured by looking at how much government is spending. I might quibble with his description of deficits as a form of deferred taxation since technically debt can be rolled over in perpetuity, but his main point is right on the mark. There is no doubt that most forms of government spending – regardless of the means of financing – harm growth by diverting money from the productive sector of the economy (technically, the economic damage occurs because capital and labor are misallocated and incentives are diminished, but let’s not get too wonky). Here are some excerpts from Williamson’s article:

Properly understood, there were no Reagan tax cuts. In 1980 federal spending was $590 billion and in 1989 it was $1.14 trillion; you don’t get Reagan tax cuts without Tip O’Neill spending cuts. Looked at from the proper perspective, we haven’t really had any tax cuts to speak of — we’ve had tax deferrals. …even during periods of strong economic growth, there has been nothing to indicate that our economy is going to grow so fast that it will surmount our deficits and debt without serious spending restraint. This should be a shrieking klaxon of alarm for conservatives still falling for happy talk about pro-growth tax cuts and strategic Laffer Curve optimizing. …The exaggeration of supply-side effects — the belief that tax-rate cuts pay for themselves or more than pay for themselves over some measurable period — is more an article of faith than an economic fact. But it’s a widespread faith: George W. Bush argued that tax cuts would serve to increase tax revenues. So did John McCain. …It is true that tax cuts can promote growth, and that the growth they promote can help generate tax revenue that offsets some of the losses from the cuts. …The problem with magical supply-siderism is that it gives Republicans a rhetorical and intellectual framework in which to ignore spending — just keep cutting taxes, the argument goes, and somebody else will eventually have to cut spending. The results speak for themselves: Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott and Bill Frist all know how to count, but, under their leadership, Republicans spent all the money the country had and then some.

Now that we’ve chastised Republicans, it’s time to turn our attention to the Democrats. We know they are bad on spending (I often joke that Republicans expand government out of stupidity, while Democrats do it for reasons of malice), so let’s focus on their approach to Laffer Curve issues. If the GOP is guilty of being too exuberant, the Democrats and their allies at the Joint Committee on Taxation (the bureaucracy on Capitol Hill that estimates the revenue impact of tax policy changes) are guilty of deliberate blindness. The current methodology used by the JCT (with the full support of the Democrats) is to assume that changes in tax policy – regardless of magnitude – have zero impact on economic performance. If you double tax rates, the JCT assumes the economy is unaffected and people earn just as much taxable income. If you replace the IRS with a flat tax, the JCT assumes there is no effect on macroeconomic performance. Sounds unbelievable, but this video has the gory details, including when my former boss, Senator Bob Packwood was told by JCT that revenues would rise year after year even if the government imposed a 100 percent tax rate.

Interestingly, the European Central Bank just released a new study showing that there are substantial Laffer Curve affects and that lower tax rates generate large amounts of revenue feedback. In a few cases (Sweden and Denmark), the researchers even conclude that some lower tax rates would be in that rare category of self-financing tax cuts. But the key point from this ultra-establishment institution is that changes in tax rates do lead to changes in taxable income. This means it is an empirical question to determine the revenue impact. Here’s a key excerpt from the study’s conclusion:

We show that there exist robust steady state Laffer curves for labor taxes as well as capital taxes. …EU-14 countries are much closer to the slippery slopes than the US. More precisely, we find that the US can increase tax revenues by 30% by raising labor taxes but only 6% by raising capital income taxes, while the same numbers for EU-14 are 8% and 1% respectively. …We find that for the US model 32% of a labor tax cut and 51% of a capital tax cut are self-financing in the steady state. In the EU-14 economy 54% of a labor tax cut and 79% of a capital tax cut are self-financing. We therefore conclude that there rarely is a free lunch due to tax cuts. However, a substantial fraction of the lunch will be paid for by the efficiency gains in the economy due to tax cuts.

Contrary to over-enthusiastic Republicans and deliberately-dour Democrats, the Laffer Curve/supply-side economics debate is not a binary choice between self-financing tax cuts and zero-impact tax cuts. Yes, there are examples of each, but the real debate should focus on which types of tax reforms generate the most bang for the buck. In the 1980s, the GOP seems to have the right grasp of this issue, focusing on lowering tax rates and reducing the discriminatory tax bias against saving and investment. This approach generated meaningful results. As Nobel laureate Robert Lucas wrote, “The supply side economists, if that is the right term for those whose research we have been discussing, have delivered the largest genuinely free lunch that I have seen in 25 years of this business, and I believe we would be a better society if we followed their advice.”

But identifying and advocating pro-growth tax reforms, as Williamson notes, is just part of the battle. The real test of fiscal responsibility if controlling the size of government. Republicans miserably failed at this essential task during the Bush year. If they want to do the right thing for the nation, and if they want to avert a Greek-style fiscal collapse, they should devote most of their energies to reducing the burden of government spending.

Real World Evidence for the Laffer Curve from the Government of Washington, DC

President Obama is proposing a series of major tax increases. His budget envisions higher tax rates on personal income, increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains, and a big increase in the death tax. And his health care plan includes significant tax hikes, including perhaps the imposition of the Medicare payroll tax on capital income – thus exacerbating the tax code’s bias against saving and investment. It is unclear why the White House is pursuing these punitive policies. The President said during the 2008 campaign that he favored soak-the-rich taxes even if they did not raise revenue, but his budget predicts the proposals will raise lots of money.

Because of the Laffer Curve, it is highly unlikely that all of this additional revenue will materialize if the President’s budget is approved. The core insight of the Laffer Curve is not that all tax increases lose money and that all tax cuts raise revenues. That only happens in rare circumstances. Instead, the Laffer Curve simply reveals that higher tax rates will lead to less taxable income (or that lower tax rates will lead to more taxable income) and that it is an empirical matter to figure out the degree to which the change in tax revenue resulting from the shift in the tax rate is offset by the change in tax revenue caused by the shift in the other direction for taxable income. This should be an uncontroversial proposition, and these three videos explain Laffer Curve theory, evidence, and revenue-estimating issues. Richard Rahn also gives a good explanation in a recent Washington Times column.

Interestingly, the DC government (which certainly is not a bastion of free-market thinking) has just acknowledged the Laffer Curve. As the excerpt below illustrates, an increase in the cigarette tax did not raise the amount of revenue that local politicians expected. The evidence is so strong that the city’s budget experts warn that a further increase will reduce revenue:

One of the gap-closing measures for the FY 2010 budget was an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes from $2.00 to $2.50 per pack. The 50 cent increase in the cigarette tax rate was projected to increase revenue but also reduce volume. Collections year-to-date point to a more severe drop in volumes than projected. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Maryland smokers who were purchasing in DC in FY 2008, because the tax rate in the District was less than the tax rate in Maryland, have shifted purchases back to Maryland now that the tax rate in the District is higher. Virginia analyzed the impact of demand when the federal rate went up by $0.61 in April and has been surprised that demand is much stronger than they had projected–raising the possibility that purchasing in DC has moved across the river.  Whatever the actual cause, because of the lower than anticipated collections, the estimate for cigarette tax revenue is revised downwards by $15.4 million in FY 2010 and $15.2 million in FY 2011. Given that cigarette tax rates in neighboring jurisdictions are now lower than that of the District, future increases in the tax rate will likely generate less revenue rather than more.

The Fox Butterfield Effect and the Laffer Curve

A former reporter for the New York Times, Fox Butterfield, became a bit of a laughingstock in the 1990s for publishing a series of articles addressing the supposed quandary of how crime rates could be falling during periods when prison populations were expanding. A number of critics sarcastically explained that crimes rates were falling because bad guys were behind bars and invented the term “Butterfield Effect” to describe the failure of someone to put 2 + 2 together. We now have a version of the Butterfield Effect in tax policy.

Recent IRS data show that rich people earned a record amount of income in 2007 and also faced their lowest effective tax rate in almost two decades. Proponents of soak-the-rich tax policy complain about these developments, as seen in the Bloomberg excerpt below, but they seem oblivious to the Laffer Curve insight that rich people earned more income in part because tax rates were lower. So if they penalize the rich with higher tax rates, as President Obama is proposing, they will be disappointed to discover that they collect considerably less revenue than predicted for the simple reason that wealthy taxpayers will respond by earning less taxable income.

The 400 highest-earning U.S. households reported an average of $345 million in income in 2007, up 31 percent from a year earlier, IRS statistics show. The average tax rate for the households fell to the lowest in almost 20 years. …The statistics underscore “two long-term trends: that income at the very top has exploded and their taxes have been cut dramatically,” said Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group that supports increasing taxes on high-income individuals.

As an aside, it’s also worth noting that the IRS tax-rate numbers are very misleading. The tax burden on the rich has dropped largely because of lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains. But when the IRS says upper-income taxpayers had an average tax rate of 16.6 percent, this does not include the other layers of tax that are imposed. The corporate income tax is 35 percent (just counting the federal level), for instance, so the actual average tax rate on these forms of income is far higher. Double taxation is counterproductive to growth and competitiveness, though, which is why the correct tax rate on dividends and capital gains is zero. For more on the Laffer Curve, this three-part video series addresses theory, evidence, and the biased revenue-estimating process.