The Laffer Curve is one of my favorite issues (see here, here, here, here, here, etc). But it is a very frustrating topic. Half my time is spent trying to convince left-leaning people that the Laffer Curve exists. I use common-sense explanations. I cite historical examples. I even use information from left-of-center institutions in hopes that they will be more likely to listen.
The other half of my time is spent trying to educate right-leaning people that the Laffer Curve does not mean that “all tax cuts pay for themselves.” I relentlessly try to make them understand that there is a big difference between pro-growth tax cuts that increase incentives for productive behavior and therefore lead to more taxable income and other tax cuts such as child credits that have little or no impact on economic performance.
Given my focus on this issue (some would say I’m tenacious, others that I’m bizarrely fixated), I was excited to see a column from the editor of a business paper in the United Kingdom about a tax increase that backfired in a truly spectacular fashion. It deals with the taxation of rich foreigners, called “non-doms,” who often choose to live in London because the U.K. government does not tax them on their foreign income. But then the Labor Party, with the support of spineless Tories, imposed an annual fee of £30,000 (about $45,000-$50,000) on these highly productive people.
The rest, as they say, is history. Here’s a long extract, but you should read the entire article.
Figures out last night confirmed yet again that crippling tax hikes are driving people and economic activity away from Britain. Rather than raising extra tax receipts to plug Britain’s budget deficit, there is growing evidence that the raids are actually reducing the amount of money collected by the taxman, thus inflicting even greater debt on the rest of us. Our predicament is depressing almost beyond words. The number of non-doms living in the UK collapsed by 16,000 in 2008-09, the most recent year for which data is available, according to yesterday’s figures. This is a dramatic decline: an 11.6 per cent drop from 139,000 in 2007-08 to 123,000. When in April 2008 Labour – egged on by the Conservatives – introduced an annual levy of £30,000 for those who had claimed non-dom status for seven years, pundits dismissed the tax as too low to make a difference. …Non-doms are people who originated overseas and pay UK tax on their UK earnings but no tax on their foreign income. The original non-doms were Greek shipping moguls who fled their socialist country to base themselves (and their businesses) in London. Until recently, the UK fought to attract such people; they pay a lot of UK tax and are often employers or high spenders. Yesterday’s figures actually underplay the true extent of the exodus: the departure of non-doms is bound to have accelerated in 2009-10 and will continue in the coming years as a result of the 50p tax rate, the hike in capital gains tax, the extra national insurance contributions and the near-hysterical war on financiers and myriad other attacks on wealth-creators and foreign investors that are now routine in this country. …The Treasury told us 5,400 non-doms opted to pay the fee. This means that the taxman raised an extra £162m. The Treasury wouldn’t or couldn’t give us any more information, so I’ve made a few guesstimates to work out the net cost of the tax raid. Being over-generous to the government, it might be that half the missing non-doms are now full taxpayers. Let’s assume they are paying an extra £15,000 in tax each. That would make another £120m in tax, taking the total to £282m. Let’s then assume that the 8,000 missing non-doms would have paid £50,000 each in UK income tax, capital gains tax, VAT and stamp duty – the gross loss jumps to £400m, which means that the Treasury is £118m worse off. The real loss is almost certainly much higher.
In other words, this is one of those rare cases where a tax increase is so punitive that the government winds up losing money. In a logical world, this should be an opportunity for the left and right to unite for lower taxes. The left would get more money to spend and the right would get the satisfaction of better tax policy. This assumes, however, that the left is more motivated by revenue maximization than it is by a class-warfare impulse to punish the rich. As Obama said during a Democratic debate in 2008, he didn’t care whether higher taxes raised more revenue.
In Britain, the coalition government of David Cameron hopes to stimulate much-needed hiring by reducing state interference with private employers’ right to choose their own workforces. Per the Telegraph, Cameron “hopes that relaxed employment laws will help to boost the private sector and encourage firms to take on thousands of new workers.”
For all the high hopes, the changes are in fact quite modest. Newly hired workers will wait two years, rather than one, before obtaining the power to challenge later firings before official tribunals. To discourage doomed or trivial claims, disgruntled workers will be charged a fee for resorting to a tribunal. The smallest employers will be exempted from some portions of the law, and so forth.
Judged by the “employment at will” principle that best exemplifies liberty of individual contract, Britain’s job market will remain far too highly regulated. But the direction of change is interesting. Despite the frequent impression that “Eurosclerosis” (and its equivalents elsewhere) puts the patient on a one-way course of decline, nations around the globe have repeatedly sought to shake off economic malaise by pulling back from labor regulation toward liberty of contract. Often these steps have stimulated exactly the economic expansions hoped for, as with Margaret Thatcher’s reforms in Britain in the 1980s and with New Zealand’s less famous yet more radical 1991 reforms. Alas, in both Britain and New Zealand, later Labour governments reimposed some (not all) of the previous types of regulation in deference to their union and Left constituencies.
What of the United States? For the most part, we’ve resisted the worst Euro labor-market practices — which has required us to ignore prevailing opinion among labor and employment specialists in our law schools, most of whom (as I’ve argued at book length in the past, and mention again in my forthcoming book on the influence of law schools) tend to support a great many bad proposals to restrict private employers’ liberty to hire and fire. Yet in our own distinctive way — which owes more to lawsuits and less to administrative tribunals — we keep edging toward European-style notions of workplace tenure. Newly released numbers show that federal complaints of employment bias surged to record levels last year, up 7 percent, led by a 17 percent spike in disability-discrimination claims, which now represent one-quarter of the nearly 100,000 total.
The newly activist posture of the Obama Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may have contributed to the trend a bit, and so may the state of the economy: laid-off workers may be more willing to pursue lawsuits when job prospects are bleak. But the main responsibility goes to the ADA Amendments Act passed by Congress in 2008 and signed by none other than Republican President George W. Bush, in this respect continuing his father’s tradition of uncritically endorsing almost any measure labeled as a matter of disabled rights. Among its other provisions, the 2008 ADA Amendments Act reversed a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that had tended to limit the scope of coverage of the ADA to persons with more severe disabilities. It also bestowed new rights to sue on persons “regarded as” disabled whether or not their actual medical condition so qualifies. The overall effect of the changes is to make it hard if not impossible to argue that a disability is too minor to deserve accommodation: “Challenging the employee’s ‘disability’ status is a waste of time with the new expanded definition of ‘disability’,” per one employer advisor. Karen Harned and Katelynn McBride have much more on the amendments in a new article in the Federalist Society publication “Engage.”
Once again, both major political parties pave the way to excessive regulation. And that makes it harder politically for an equivalent of Cameron’s reforms to come along here.
We’ve been spending too much time on elections, so let’s get back to pointing out inane, foolish, and destructive government policies. Our latest example comes from the United Kingdom, where politicians are pushing airline ticket taxes to punitive levels and harming the tourism industry. But the real lesson from this story is that it is very dangerous to give politicians a new revenue source.
The airline ticket tax was first imposed by a (supposedly) Conservative Party government in 1994 at a maximum rate of 10 pounds. During the Blair/Brown Labor Party reign, the tax was boosted to a maximum rate of 50 pounds. Now, the new government, led by ostensible Conservative David Cameron, is pushing the maximum tax up to 75 pounds (more than $120) per ticket.
Here’s an excerpt from the story in the Telegraph.
Families are avoiding holidays in Egypt and the Caribbean because of the high cost of air taxes — even before the hike in passenger duty that comes into place on Monday.
…The duty, which is paid by all travellers on leaving Britain and added automatically to the price when a ticket is booked, is to increase by 50 per cent to some destinations. It is the second significant rise in two years, and figures show that previous hikes have already influenced people’s choice of holiday destinations.
…Bob Atkinson, travel expert at Travelsupermarket.com, said: “Families looking to book for this winter and summer next year will be faced with tax rises of up to 54 per cent on their family holidays. This tax rise is completely out of line with inflation and bears no relation to the original purpose of the tax.”
…The tax was introduced in 1994 at the rate of £10 on long-haul flights, but increased by the previous Government, which said it was a necessary “green measure”.
…The increases mean a family of four flying to the Caribbean will pay £300 in duty compared with the old rate of £200 or £160 last year. Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, has branded the higher taxes a “disaster”. Earlier this month, he called the duty a “disgrace”.
No wonder families are choosing not to travel. But, more important, imagine what American politicians will do if they ever succeed in imposing a value-added tax. The rate initially will be low (just as the original income tax had a top rate of just 7 percent), but nobody should delude themselves into thinking the rate won’t quickly climb as greedy politicians get hooked on a new form of revenue to feed their spending addictions.
Here are a handful of the posters being used in the United Kingdom to fight the perversely-destructive proposal to increase tax rates on capital gains. (for an explanation of why the tax should be abolished, see here)
Which one is your favorite? I’m partial to the last one because of my interest in tax competition.
But this isn’t just a popularity contest. With Obama pushing for higher capital gains rate in America, it’s important to find the most persuasive ways of educating people about the damage of class-warfare tax policy.
By the way, “CGT” is capital gains tax, and “Vince” and “Cable” refers to Vince Cable, one of the politicians pushing this punitive class-warfare scheme.
Our tax system in America is an absurd nightmare, but at least we have some ability to monitor what is happening. We can’t get too aggressive (nobody wants the ogres at the IRS breathing down their necks), but at least we can adjust our withholding levels and control what gets put on our annual tax returns. The serfs in the United Kingdom are in much worse shape. To a large degree, the tax authority (Inland Revenue) decides everyone’s tax liability, and taxpayers have no role other than to meekly acquiesce. But now the statists over in London have decided to go one step farther and have proposed to require employers to send all paychecks directly to the government. The politicians and bureaucrats that comprise the ruling class then would decide how much to pass along to the people actually earning the money. Here’s a CNBC report on the issue.
The UK’s tax collection agency is putting forth a proposal that all employers send employee paychecks to the government, after which the government would deduct what it deems as the appropriate tax and pay the employees by bank transfer. The proposal by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) stresses the need for employers to provide real-time information to the government so that it can monitor all payments and make a better assessment of whether the correct tax is being paid. …George Bull, head of Tax at Baker Tilly, told CNBC.com. “If HMRC has direct access to employees’ bank accounts and makes a mistake, people are going to feel very exposed and vulnerable,” Bull said. And the chance of widespread mistakes could be high, according to Bull. HMRC does not have a good track record of handling large computer systems and has suffered high-profile errors with data, he said. …the cost of implementing the new system would be “phenomenal,” Bull pointed out. …The Institute of Directors (IoD), a UK organization created to promote the business agenda of directors and entreprenuers, said in a press release it had major concerns about the proposal to allow employees’ pay to be paid directly to HMRC.
This is withholding on steroids. Politicians love pay-as-you-earn (as it’s called on the other side of the ocean), largely because it disguises the burden of government. Many workers never realize how much of their paychecks are confiscated by politicians. Indeed, they probably think greedy companies are to blame when higher tax burdens result in less take-home pay. This new system could have an even more corrosive effect. It presumably would become more difficult for taxpayers to know how much government is costing them, and some people might even begin to think that their pay is the result of political kindness. After all, zoo animals often feel gratitude to the keepers that feed (and enslave) them.
According to news coverage, United Kingdom Prime Minister Cameron is imposing deep and savage budget cuts. I was interviewed by the BBC recently, for instance, and asked whether 25 percent spending reductions were too harsh. And here’s an excerpt from a New York Times story that is very representative of the news coverage.
Like a shipwrecked sailor on a starvation diet, the new British coalition government is preparing to shrink down to its bare bones as it cuts expenditures by $130 billion over the next five years and drastically scales back its responsibilities. The result, said the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a research group, will be “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending” since World War II. …Public-sector unions are planning a series of strikes. Charities — which Mr. Cameron has said should take over some of the responsibilities now held by the state — say that they are at risk of collapse because they are so dependent on government money. And the chief executive of the Supreme Court, the country’s highest, said she did not know whether the court would be able to function at all if its budget were cut by 40 percent.
To be blunt, this type of analysis is completely false. There are no budget cuts in the United Kingdom, at least in terms of total government spending. Instead, the politicians are measuring cuts against some imaginary baseline, which is the same scam that happens in Washington. So if spending increases by 4 percent instead of 7 percent, that is characterized as a 3 percent budget reduction. The chart shows what is happening with overall government spending in the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding phony stories about budget cuts, spending in Prime Minister Cameron’s first year is climbing by more than 4 percent – twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.
This doesn’t mean that Cameron isn’t doing anything right. There is a two-year pay freeze for bureaucrats, for instance, which is at least a small step in the right direction. But the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition is not a good role model for those who want limited government and fiscal responsibility. There are promises of spending restraint in future years, but those belong in the I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it category. Spending is supposed to increase by less than 1 percent in next year’s budget, for instance, but politicians are very good with tough talk of fiscal discipline in future years. But if we judge them by what they’re doing today rather than what they’re claiming will happen in the future, Cameron’s policies leave much to be desired.
The tax side of the fiscal equation is even more depressing. There is small reduction in the corporate tax rate, but otherwise there is considerable bad news. The new government is leaving in place the new 50 percent top tax rate imposed by Gordon Brown as an election-year class-warfare gimmick. It is boosting the capital gains tax rate from 18 percent to 28 percent. And it increased the VAT rate from 17.5 percent to 20 percent.
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