Archive for the 'Taxes' Category

In Defense Of A Low Investment Tax

Matthew Yglesias gives the basics:

The main reason Romney’s effective rate is so low is that the American tax code contains a lot of preferences for investment income over labor income. That’s something that strikes many people as unfair on its face, and particularly unfair since it often means very low rates for extremely rich people like Rommey. And Rommey himself as a rich guy who’s also a member of the political party seen as favoring the rich, and who’s been recorded as whining that the working poor are undertaxed is perhaps not an ideal messenger for a defense of this policy.

But this is definitely an issue where the conservative position is in line with what most experts think is the right course, and Democrats are outside the mainstream.

The reasoning is basically this. You imagine two prosperous but not outrageously so working people living somewhere—two doctors, say, living in nearby small towns. They’re both pulling in incomes in the low six figures. One doctor chooses to spend basically 100 percent of his income on expensive non-durables. He goes on annual vacations to expensive cities and eats in a lot of fancy restaurants. The other doctor is much more frugal, not traveling much and eating modestly. Instead, he spends a lot of his money on hiring people to build buildings around town. Those buildings become houses, offices, retail stores, factories, etc. In other words, they’re capital. And capital earns a return, so over time the second doctor comes to have a much higher income than the first doctor.

So then there are too different scenarios:

— In the world where investment income isn’t taxed, the second doctor says to the first doctor “all those fancy vacations may be fun, but I’m being much more prudent. By saving for the future, I’ll be comfortable when it comes time to retire and will have plenty left over to give to my kids.”

— In the world where investment income is taxed like labor income, the first doctor says to the second “man you’re a sucker—not only are you deferring enjoyment of the fruits of your labor (boring) but when the money you’ve saved comes back to you, it gets taxed all over again. Live in the now.”

And the thinking is that world number one where people with valuable skills take a large share of their labor income and transform it into capital goods is ultimately a richer world than the world in which such people just go out to a lot of fancy dinners.

Quote Of The Day

“Suppose you start a new charity to provide free haircuts for hippies. You only manage to raise the money to pay for three haircuts a year. The Prisoners’ Dilemma might explain why people aren’t more generous with their money in general. But the Prisoners’ Dilemma doesn’t explain why the other charities raise so much more money than yours. If you ask “Why don’t people give more money to my charity?,” the best answer is that people hold your charity in low esteem. Similarly, if total donations to the U.S. government add up to a few million dollars a year, the best explanation is that people see lots of better ways to spend not just their dollars, but their charitable dollars.” – Bryan Caplan, on what people giving so little of their charity money to government says about their views on government efficiency

The Argument For Zero Capital Gains Taxes

If you care about maximizing government revenue that is:

Most of the discussion by economists of the appropriate capital gains tax rate is about a very narrow criterion: the effect of capital gains tax rates on capital gains tax revenues. But in a 2009 study done for the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation (IRET), Ohio State University economist Paul D. Evans considers a broader criterion: the effect of capital gains tax rates on overall federal tax revenues.

What’s the difference? Because capital gains taxes discourage capital formation, they also cause other tax revenues to be lower. If there’s less capital formation, workers have less capital to work with and, therefore, are less productive. If they’re less productive, the government collects less tax revenue from them.

Professor Evans looks at data from the overall economy from 1976 to 2004, a period in which there was a lot of variation in the marginal tax rate on capital gains. He concludes that in 2004, the tax rate on capital gains that would have maximized overall federal government revenues was 9.69 percent. But if the government taxes to maximize revenues, the deadweight loss from the last epsilon of tax increase is infinity. Therefore, if the revenue-maximizing capital gains tax rate was 9.69 percent, the optimal tax rate was even lower. So a greedy, grasping government that wants to maximize tax revenues should cut the marginal tax rate on capital gains and if that government cares at all about taxpayers, it should cut the rate even further.

The Rationale Behind Low Capital Gains Taxes

University Of Chicago economist John Cochrane writes:

Intuitively, this is related to the theorem that you shouldn’t tax intermediate goods, or have tariffs for moving goods around the country.  Romney’s income was taxed once, when he made it. It’s not efficient to tax it again, because he chose to save it rather than spend it immediately on an orgy of houses, private jets, and a big vacation for his extended family.

If you made money in dollars, paid taxes, then went to Canada and got $1.20 Canadian, it would make no sense to say “you made 20 cents of income, we’ll tax it.” It makes no more sense to pay taxes again on money that is moved over time. We decry that Americans don’t save enough, the Chinese, the trade deficit and so on. Well, if you want people to save more, stop taxing it.

For this reason, the U.S. Tax code has been slowly reducing the taxation of rates of return. Capital gains and dividends are now taxed less than ordinary income. IRAs, 401(k), 526, and a welter of other devices allow people to save and invest without paying taxes on the rates of return. (It would be much simpler to just eliminate taxes on rates of return, but then the lawyers and accountants would have nothing to do.) Dividends are finally taxed at the same rate as capital gains. Estate taxes have been slowly and chaotically lowered. 

Full post can be found here.

Quote Of The Day

“Indeed, the share of top incomes coming from capital is much lower now than it has been historically. According to Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, for the richest Americans — those in the top 0.01 percent of the distribution — the percentage of income derived from capital fell to 25 percent in 2004 from 70 percent in 1929. If your image of the typical rich person is someone who collects interest and dividend checks and spends long afternoons relaxing on his yacht, you are decades out of date. The leisure class has been replaced by the working rich.” — Greg Mankiw,  Harvard Economist in an old NY Times post responding to Buffett’s claims then

Quote Of The Day

“BTW, progressives like Yglesias often point out that no matter what they say, the GOP is devoted single-mindedly to one goal, and one goal only—lower tax rates for the rich.  And I have to agree that that is an obsession of many GOP economists.  But then why the strange pattern of state income taxes around the country?  Income taxes are often higher in conservative Republican states in the South, than in liberal Massachusetts.  Even more surprisingly, the rich in the South are especially likely to be Republicans (as compared to the rich in Boston, NY and LA.)  Yes, there are some GOP states with no income tax (Texas, Tennessee and South Dakota.)  But there are also swing states (Nevada, New Hampshire and Florida) and even one liberal state (Washington.)  Why don’t the southern and Rocky Mountain GOP states at least cut the top rate down to Massachusetts levels (5.3%)?” –Scott Sumner, Economist

Quote Of The Day

Now we learn that on an income of $1.7 million, the Obamas paid $450,773 in taxes, taking full advantage of the Bush tax cuts. I think it is fair to ask: If the President believes that people like him ought to be paying more, then why didn’t he pay more? There is absolutely no rule against sending in more money than you owe.” – Steven Landsburg, professor of economics on Obama and Taxes

Update: For readers interested, more on this discussion here.

Quote Of The Day

“Not only is Smith not endorsing a progressive income tax, he isn’t endorsing any sort of income tax. Reading further into the passage, he successively rejects taxes on income from capital, taxes on wages, and taxes on the income of professionals. The only income he approves of taxing is the income of government officials. What he is arguing for is a system of taxation whose effect is proportional to income, not a tax on income.” — David Friedman, rebutting the claim that Adam Smith endorsed a progressive income tax

Mortgage Interest Deduction

For the record, I support Obama’s plan to reduce the mortgage interest deduction for the wealthy:

As the part of the new budget, the personal itemized deduction phaseout would be re-instated for high-earning individuals.  The phaseout is pretty complex, and essentially means that itemized deductions are phased-out at higher income levels.  (I am not a tax expert and don’t want to get bogged down in tax talk.  Here is a pretty good article by Mary Gallagher that explains the issue in more depth if you are interested in further information).  The takeaway is that homeowners with mortgages that make over $250,000 as a household, or $200,000 as an individual would see their mortgage interest deductions decreased under the plan.

Does this make me anti-rich? On the contrary, since I support the complete elimination of the mortgage interest deduction for everybody – rich and poor. It is simply bad economics that economists from both sides agree should be removed. See here for a good primer on why.

The Left vs Right Economic Model (aka Europe vs United States model)

My good friend Jon asked an important question: why not prefer the European economic model vs the United States economic model? I didn’t want to bog down his comments section with a long response, so I thought I’d post my longer response here.

Basically, there are two paradigms, two “visions” of an economy. The first, is generally considered left (or European): an economy with a large safety net, strong unions, and generally high taxes. The second, and my preferred, is considered right (or USA model): an economy with a large percentage of immigration, weak unions, weak safety net, and generally low taxes. The leftist economy tends to grow slowly. The rightwing economy tends to grow in a boom and bust way, with higher average growth than the leftist economy.So which one is better? Well that depends on personal preferences. The answer will be different for each person, depending on their personality (It would be like asking someone if they should join a union – it depends). If you are ambitious, entrepreneur minded, and generally a high achiever, you would prefer the United States model economy, where it’s easier to strike it rich (and, similarly, you would tend to oppose union membership). If you are someone who, for example, prefers small gains over large risks, and doesn’t have any ambitions to be CEO one day, you just want a steady pay with little growth – then the leftist economy is better for you (and, similarly, you would probably tend to favor union membership).

It’s kinda like asking someone should you invest their money in stocks or bonds? There is no right answer…it depends on the personality. Stocks give you better long term gains, but they are a lot riskier and volatile. Bonds are safer, but you sacrifice long term growth. It depends on the person (and age group – which is why the young around the world tend to prefer the USA, while the older Canada, see here).

Here is the important thing you have to notice about these two economies: they are mutually exclusive (please, click on the link and read the blog, it’s very pertinent to this discussion ). You can’t have a large safety net, for example, and a large immigration class. And you don’t need high taxes if you don’t have a large safety net. And you don’t get high growth with high taxes. etc. It’s all a domino.

So for example, in the United States, you have a dynamic corporate sector with one company rising to prominence in one decade, and going bankrupt in the next decade. Whereas in Europe, it’s usually the same companies, decade after decade (see here and here). Again, the United States model gives you boom and bust, with more growth, while the European model gives you steady growth, with less long term growth.

Or take immigration. Germany, for example, is not very friendly to the immigrant Turks (only recently, beginning to change, see here). And Germany – like the Scandinavian countries – is generally homogeneous (White).

More importantly,  these dynamics feed off of each other. Because safety nets are indeed zero sum – your welfare gain really is my loss – large safety nets foster an ant-immigrant culture (it’s the same reason that during a recession, anti-immigration sentiment increases – the people feel that in a time of scarce jobs, immigrants are “stealing” their job).

Matthew Yglesias, who lived in Europe, writes on the cultural difference between Europe and the United States:

There’s often a kind of conventional idea on the left that the United States is an unusually racist society. And I think there’s also often a kind of image of Europe as a place where more of the progressive agenda has been achieved than in the USA. But I think that you’ll find if you look at Europe through the eyes of the liberal agenda that while the German left has certainly been more successful than the American left at securing universal health care, it’s been much less successful at promoting a tolerant, integrated, multicultural society. And allowing for the errors implicit in making any kind of sweeping generalization, I’d say that’s pretty generally the case across Europe. …

In the US, in other words, racial problems have been more salient for a long time since we’ve been a racially diverse society for a long time. But by the same token, for all the problems we have with us today, we’ve made enormous progress over the years. Racial and ethnic tensions are a common problem in the world, and the United States manages diversity pretty well in comparison with other places (not just in Europe) even if we fall short in some absolute terms. Just look at Barack Obama. I think we’ll be waiting a while yet before someone of non-European ancestry is elected head of government in a European country. Denmark has some great public policy ideas, but it’s also kind of made itself into the gated community of nations in a way I don’t find particularly appealing.

Just look at this youtube video on Black soccer players to see how different race relations are in Europe compared to the United States.

The United States is much more tolerant of immigrants not because we are inherently different than Europeans, but precisely because of our smaller safety nets. Because immigrants that come here are largely excluded from our safety nets, we don’t feel that they come to steal our piece of the pie – instead they are viewed as coming here to enlarge the pie for everyone (unless of course, you are a poor Black person – in that case you do feel threatened from immigration, and rightly so – which helps explain the high anti-immigration sentiment in the poor Black communities) .

That is not to say that the European economic model is bad for everyone. I agree that some people probably are better off under the European model. If you are a White, not very ambitious member of the middle to lower upper class (think liberal arts university professors, or White union members), the European model probably is better for you than the United States model.

But liberals often speak as if all that mattered were White union members (another example of this is in the minimum wage debate), but immigrants and minorities count as well and so do the non union members (White or not) and the very poor and even the very rich. And so the question is: are they better off under the European economic model?  And on that I would say no. In addition to the exceptions mentioned above, the unemployment rate is significantly higher in European than in the United States (and especially higher if you have the bad luck of being a minority in Europe). And strong welfare nets notwithstanding, having a job counts for a lot (Highly recommended article here). It’s a source of self respect, pride and happiness. Furthermore, the unhappiness associated with being unemployed swamps out any happiness gains from the slightly higher job security gains of others.

And don’t say that ‘a couple percentage points of unemployment is worth it’, since even a couple points of unemployment could have a drastic affect on happiness levels. An economist explains: ‘Think about how hard it was to find a job back in January 2009 when our unemployment rate was 7.2%. The plight of the job-seeker wasn’t 30% worse than it was in May, 2008,  when the unemployment rate was 5.5%.  It was probably more like two or three times worse. Now imagine turning 7.2% unemployment into a way of  life.  It’s pretty awful to imagine, isn’t it?  Well, you don’t just  have to imagine it, because in France and Germany, 7.2% is normal.  The horror!”

So to summarize: the European economic model is better for low ambition White union prone citizens. It’s worse for immigrants and minorities of all  stripes. White non-union members. The United States model is better for those at the bottom and top of the economic ladder, and those who prefer risk and growth over stability.

Quote Of The Day

“This is sort of impressive:  Paul Krugman simultaneously castigates Republicans for the fiscal irresponsibility of wanting to extend tax cuts for the rich that cost about $700 billion–and for irresponsibly threatening the extension of tax cuts for the middle class which cost three times as much.  Yet you could read the entire column and not realize that it’s the middle class tax cuts which are the really expensive, budget-busting bit.” — Megan McArdle

Its A Spending Problem

The WSJ reports:

Even if all Bush tax cuts are extended and the AMT is patched, tax revenues will rebound to 18.2% of GDP by 2020—slightly above the historical average. They will continue growing afterwards…

CBO figures show spending…which has averaged 20.3% of GDP over the past 50 years… surging to a peacetime record 26.5% of GDP by 2020 and also rising steeply thereafter.

Putting this together, the budget deficit, historically 2.3% of GDP, is projected to leap to 8.3% of GDP by 2020 under current policies. This will result from Washington taxing at 0.2% of GDP above the historical average but spending 6.2% above its historical average.

Link via Goodman.

The Next Fiscal Stimulus

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser gives his recommendation:

But if America does embrace another stimulus round, we should limit the government’s role to being the big borrower rather than the big spender. Cutting payroll taxes for lower-income workers who have just been unemployed is an example of stimulus through borrowing, rather than spending. The government isn’t actually spending money on government services; it’s just borrowing the money and giving it to newly employed workers.

The most orthodox models, derived from the logic of  David Ricardo, suggest that this kind of inter-temporal shuffling of taxes has limited downside risk, as long as the government isn’t at risk of default. Consumers can prepare for expected future taxes by saving today’s tax cuts. Moreover, reducing the payroll tax has the added advantage of increasing the incentives to work during a downturn.

The case for more complicated tax tweaks that affect other behavior is weaker….

The case for more government spending on tangible government products is most problematic.

While it is easy to get all misty-eyed about the  Tennessee Valley Authority, public spending on roads or  high-speed rail can be enormously wasteful. At the extreme, spending a billion dollars on a bridge to nowhere may temporarily increase employment and gross domestic product, but it does so by burning a billion dollars on something no one wants. Infrastructure is serious business, and it is impossible to spend quickly and wisely.

While wading in ignorance, it’s best to avoid the paths near the most dangerous depths.

There is little downside to giving a tax break to previously unemployed low-income workers. Those dollars are being given to people who value them. Building a bunch of unneeded highways, conversely, is a road to waste. The political and economic case for a second stimulus is strongest if that stimulus means a temporary tax reduction and weakest if the package is yet another increase in the size of the public sector.

Full post can be found here.

How Tax Cuts Changed Pro Boxing

From The Atlantic article “How Taxes Changed Boxing“:

“The 1950s was the era of the 90 percent top marginal tax rate, and by the end of that decade live gate receipts for top championship fights were supplemented by the proceeds from closed circuit telecasts to movie theaters. A second fight in one tax year would yield very little additional income, hardly worth the risk of losing the title. And so, the three fights between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson stretched over three years (1959-1961); the two between Patterson and Sonny Liston over two years (1962-1963), as was also true for the two bouts between Liston and Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) (1964-1965).

Then, the Tax Reform Act of 1964 cut the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent effective in 1965. The result: two heavyweight title fights in 1965, and five in 1966.”

Quote Of The Day

A recent survey by Pew revealed that 86 percent of conservatives agree that “not reporting all income on your taxes is morally wrong” compared to only 68 percent of liberals. Conservatives want lower taxes but feel they should pay what they owe. Liberals want you to pay more but don’t stress about paying their own.” — Ron Guhname

Quote Of The Day

“Here’s the $64 dollar question for which I’ve never seen progressives provide a satisfactory answer.  Why is per capita GDP in Western Europe so much lower than in the US?  Mankiw seems to imply that high tax rates may be one of the reasons.  I don’t know if that’s the answer, but if it’s not my hunch is that the factors that would explain the difference are other government policies that the left tends to favor (strong unions, higher minimum wages, more regulation, generous unemployment insurance, etc.)  So I think Mankiw is saying that if we adopt the European model, there really isn’t a lot of evidence that we’d end up with any more revenue than we have right now.  Further evidence for this hypothesis is that the few developed countries that do have much lower tax rates than the US (Hong Kong and Singapore) now have much higher per capita GDPs (PPP) than Western Europe.  Yes, they are small and urban, but Western Europe is full of small countries of about 6 million people that have less than 5% of the population in farming.”  — Scott Sumner, professor of economics at Bentley University, discussing a post by Mankiw that Yglesias responded to