International Comparisons of Capital Tax Burdens by Dan Mitchell

International Comparisons of Capital Tax Burdens

There are three important principles for sensible tax policy.

  1. Low marginal tax rates on productive behavior
  2. No tax bias against capital (i.e., saving and investment)
  3. No tax preferences that distort the economy

Today, let’s focus on #2.

I’ve written many times about why double taxation is a bad idea. This occurs when governments – thanks to capital gains taxes, dividend taxes, death taxes, etc – impose harsher tax burdens on income that is saved and invested compared to income that is immediately consumed.

Which is a bad idea since wages for workers are linked to productivity, which is linked to the amount of capital.

Which countries imposes the heaviest tax burdens on capital? According to a new report from the Tax Foundation, Canada is the worst of the worst (somewhat surprising), followed by Denmark (no surprise) and France (also no surprise).

The nations of Eastern Europe, along with Ireland, win the prize for the lowest tax burdens on capital.

The authors of the report, Jacob Lundberg and Johannes Nathell, make a much-needed point about why governments should not penalize saving and investment.

…capital should not be taxed at all. Taxing capital distorts individuals’ savings decisions. By reducing the return on savings, capital taxes penalize those who postpone their consumption rather than consuming their income as it is earned. Due to compounding interest, capital taxation penalizes saving more the longer the saving horizon is. For long saving horizons, the distortion is very large. This leads to lower saving, a lower capital stock, and lower GDP. Therefore, not taxing capital is in the interest of everyone, even those who spend everything they earn.

The report also contains this fascinating map comparing capital taxation in European nations.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s better to be a lighter-colored nation.

This is fascinating data for tax wonks, but it might not perfectly capture the relative attractiveness (or unattractiveness) of various countries. I think two caveats are warranted.

First, it’s quite likely that some Western European nations accumulated lots of capital and generated lots of wealth back in the 1800s and early 1900s when the burden of government was very small and taxes were very low. If some of the capital from that period is still generating returns (and thus tax revenue), it may overstate the tax burden on current saving and investment.

Second, the methodology looks at capital revenues as a percentage of capital income. This perfectly reasonable approach overlooks the fact that tax rates have an effect on the amount of income that is both earned and reported. This is the core insight of the Laffer Curve and it could mean that some countries show high levels of revenue in part because tax burdens are modest (and vice-versa).

That being said, I wouldn’t expect major changes in the rankings, even if there was a way to address these concerns.

The bottom line is that we know how to define good tax policy, but very few governments have an interest in maximizing liberty and prosperity. The challenge is that politicians 1) usually want more money so they can buy more votes, but 2) sometimes let envy trump their desire for more revenue.

Prosperity and Taxation: What Can We Learn from the 1930s

The United States conducted an experiment in the 1980s. Reagan dramatically lowered the top tax rate on households, dropping it from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Folks on the left bitterly resisted Reagan’s “supply-side” agenda, arguing that “the rich won’t pay enough” and “the government will be starved of revenue.”

Fortunately, we can look at IRS data to see what happened to tax payments from those making more than $200,000 per year.

Lo and behold, it turns out that Reaganomics was a big success. Uncle Sam collected five times as much money when the rate was slashed.

As I’ve previously written, this was the Laffer Curve on steroids. Even when you consider other factors (population growth, inflation, other reforms, etc), there’s little doubt that we got a big “supply-side effect” from Reagan’s tax reforms.

Now Biden wants to run this experiment in reverse.

Based on basic economics, his approach won’t succeed. But let’s augment theory by examining what actually happened when Hoover and Roosevelt raised tax rates in the 1930s.

Alan Reynolds reviewed tax policy in the 1920s and 1930s, but let’s focus on what he wrote about the latter decade. He starts with some general observations.

Large increases in marginal tax rates on incomes above $50,000 in the 1930s were almost always matched by large reductions in the amount of high income reported and taxed…An earlier generation of economists found that raising tax rates on incomes, profits, and sales in the 1930s was inexcusably destructive. In 1956, MIT economist E. Cary Brown pointed to the “highly deflationary impact” of the Revenue Act of 1932, which pushed up rates virtually across the board, but notably on the lower‐​and middle‐​income groups.

He then gets to the all-important issue of higher tax rates leading to big reductions in taxable income.

In Figure 1, the average marginal tax rate is an unweighted average of statutory tax brackets applying to all income groups reporting more than $50,000 of income. After President Hoover’s June 1932 tax increase (retroactive to January) the number of tax brackets above $50,000 quadrupled from 8 to 32, ranging from 31 percent to 63 percent. The average of many marginal tax rates facing incomes higher than $50,000 increased from 21.5 percent in 1931 to 47 percent in 1932, and 61.9 percent in 1936. One of the most striking facts in Figure 1 is that the amount of reported income above $50,000 was almost cut in half in a single year—from $1.31 billion in 1931 to $776.7 million in 1932.

Here’s the aforementioned Figure 1. You can see that taxable income soared when tax rates were slashed in the 1920s.

But when tax rates were increased in the 1930s, taxable income collapsed and never recovered.

What’s the lesson from this chart? As Alan explained, the lesson is that high tax rates lead to rich people earning and declaring less taxable income (they still have that ability today).

In the eight years from 1932 to 1939, the economy was in cyclical contraction for only 28 months. Even in 1940, after two huge increases in income tax rates, individual income tax receipts remained lower ($1,014 million) than they had been in the 1930 slump ($1,045 million) when the top tax rate was 25 percent rather than 79 percent. Eight years of prolonged weakness in high incomes and personal tax revenue after tax rates were hugely increased in 1932 cannot be easily brushed away as merely cyclical, rather than a behavioral response to much higher tax rates on additional (marginal) income. Just as income (and tax revenue) from high‐​income taxpayers rose spectacularly after top tax rates fell from 1921 to 1928, high incomes and revenue fell just as spectacularly in 1932 when top tax rates rose.

One big takeaway is that Hoover and FDR were two peas in a pod.

Both imposed bad tax policy.

From 1930 to 1937, unlike 1923–25, virtually all federal and state tax rates on incomes and sales were repeatedly increased, and many new taxes were added, such as the Smoot‐​Hawley tariffs in 1930, taxes on alcoholic beverages in December 1933, and a Social Security payroll tax in 1937. Annual growth of per capita GDP from 1929 to 1939 was essentially zero. …To summarize: all the repeated increases in tax rates and reductions of exemptions enacted by presidents Hoover and Roosevelt in 1932–36 did not even manage to keep individual income tax collections as high in 1939–40 (in dollars or as a percent of GDP) as they had been in 1929–30. The experience of 1930 to 1940 decisively repudiated any pretense that doubling or tripling marginal tax rates on a much broader base proved to be a revenue‐​maximizing plan.

Alan closes with an observation that should raise alarm bells.

It turns out that the higher tax rates on the rich were simply the camel’s nose under the tent. The real agenda was extending the income tax to those with more modest incomes.

The most effective and sustained changes in personal taxes after 1931 were not the symbolic attempts to “soak the rich,” but rather the changes deliberately designed to convert the income tax from a class tax to a mass tax. The exemption for married couples was reduced from $3,500 to $2,500 in 1932, $2,000 in 1940, and $1,500 in 1941. Making more low incomes taxable quadrupled the number of tax returns from 3.7 million in 1930 to 14.7 million in 1940… The lowest tax rate was also raised from 1.1 percent to 4 percent in 1932, 4.4 percent in 1940, and 10 percent in 1941.

The same thing will happen today if Biden succeeds in raising taxes on the rich. Those tax hikes won’t collect much revenue, but politicians will increase spending anyhow. They’ll then use high deficits as an excuse for higher taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers (some of the options include financial taxes, carbon taxes, and value-added taxes).

Lather, rinse, repeat. Until the United States is Europe. And that will definitely be bad news for ordinary people.

P.S. Here’s what we can learn about tax policy in the 1920s. And the 1950s.

P.P.S. The 1920s and 1930s also can teach us an important lesson about growth and inequality.

Sloppy or Dishonest Fiscal Analysis from the Washington Post

Good fiscal policy means low tax rates and spending restraint.

And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of Reaganomics.

Unlike other modern presidents (including other Republicans), Reagan successfully reduced the tax burden while also limiting the burden of government spending.

President Biden wants to take the opposite approach.

A few days ago, Dan Balz of the Washington Post provided some “news analysis” about Biden’s fiscal agenda. Some of what he wrote was accurate, noting that the president wants to increase spending by an additional $6 trillion over the next 10 years.

…the scope and implications of his domestic agenda have come sharply into focus. Together they represent the most dramatic shift in federal economic and social welfare policy since Ronald Reagan was elected 40 years ago.…The politics of redistribution, which are at the heart of what Biden is proposing, could test decades of assumptions that Democrats should be afraid of being tagged as the party of big government. …Together, the already approved coronavirus relief plan, the infrastructure proposal that was unveiled a few weeks ago and the newly proposed plan to invest in social welfare programs would total roughly $6 trillion.

But Mr. Balz then decided to be either sloppy or dishonest, writing that we’ve had decades of Reagan-style policies that have squeezed domestic spending and disproportionately lowered tax burden for rich people.

Reagan’s small-government philosophy resulted in a decades-long squeeze on the federal government, especially domestic spending, and on tax policies that mainly benefited the wealthiest Americans. …Government spending on social safety-net programs has been reduced compared with previous years.

Balz is wrong, wildly wrong.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a chart, taken from an October 2020 report by the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see, people in the lowest income quintile have been the biggest winners,, with their average tax rate dropping from about 10 percent to about 2 percent..

Here’s a chart showing marginal tax rates from a January 2019 CBO report. As you can see, Reagan lowered marginal tax rates for everyone, but Balz’s assertion that the rich got the lion’s share of the benefits is hard to justify considering that people in the bottom quintile now have negative marginal tax rates.

Balz’s mistakes on tax policy are significant.

But his biggest error (or worst dishonesty) occurred when he wrote about a “decades-long squeeze” on domestic spending and asserted that “spending on social safety-net programs has been reduced.”

A quick visit to the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables is all that’s needed to debunk this nonsense. Here’s a chart, based on Table 8.2, showing the inflation-adjusted growth of entitlements and domestic discretionary programs.

Call me crazy, but I’m seeing a rapid increase in domestic spending after Reagan left office.

P.S. There’s a pattern of lazy/dishonest fiscal reporting at the Washington Post.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist noting that Balz wrote how Biden wants to “invest” in social welfare programs, as if there’s some sort of positive return from creating more dependency. Reminds me of this Chuck Asay cartoon from the Obama years.

March 3, 2021

President Biden c/o The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

______________________________

Dan Mitchell shows how ignoring the Laffer Curve is like running a stop sign!!!!

I’m thinking of inventing a game, sort of a fiscal version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Only the way it will work is that there will be a map of the world and the winner will be the blindfolded person who puts their pin closest to a nation such asAustralia or Switzerland that has a relatively low risk of long-run fiscal collapse.

That won’t be an easy game to win since we have data from the BISOECD, and IMF showing that government is growing far too fast in the vast majority of nations.

We also know that many states and cities suffer from the same problems.

A handful of local governments already have hit the fiscal brick wall, with many of them (gee, what a surprise) from California.

The most spectacular mess, though, is about to happen in Michigan.

The Washington Post reports that Detroit is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

After decades of sad and spectacular decline, it has come to this for Detroit: The city is $19 billion in debt and on the edge of becoming the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. An emergency manager says the city can make good on only a sliver of what it owes — in many cases just pennies on the dollar.

This is a dog-bites-man story. Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And theproblems of Illinois.

I could continue with a long list of profligate governments, but you get the idea. Some of these governments are collapsing at a quicker pace and some at a slower pace. But all of them are in deep trouble because they don’t follow my Golden Rule about restraining the burden of government spending so that it grows slower than the private sector.

Detroit obviously is an example of a government that is collapsing sooner rather than later.

Why? Simply stated, as the size and scope of the public sector increased, that created very destructive economic and political dynamics.

More and more people got lured into the wagon of government dependency, which puts an ever-increasing burden on a shrinking pool of producers.

Meanwhile, organized interest groups such as government bureaucrats used their political muscle to extract absurdly excessive compensation packages, putting an even larger burden of the dwindling supply of taxpayers.

But that’s not the main focus of this post. Instead, I want to highlight a particular excerpt from the article and make a point about how too many people are blindly – perhaps willfully – ignorant of the Laffer Curve.

Check out this sentence.

Property tax collections are down 20 percent and income tax collections are down by more than a third in just the past five years — despite some of the highest tax rates in the state.

This is a classic “Fox Butterfield mistake,” which occurs when someone fails to recognize a cause-effect relationship. In this case, the reporter should have recognized that tax collections are down because Detroit has very high tax rates.

The city has a lot more problems than just high tax rates, of course, but can there be any doubt that productive people have very little incentive to earn and report taxable income in Detroit?

And that’s the essential insight of the Laffer Curve. Politicians can’t – or at least shouldn’t – assume that a 20 percent increase in tax rates will lead to a 20 percent increase in tax revenue. They also have to consider the degree to which a higher tax rate will cause a change in taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will discourage people from earning more taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will discourage people from reporting all the income they earn.

In some cases, higher tax rates will encourage people to utilize tax loopholes to shrink their taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will encourage migration, thus causing taxable income to disappear.

Here’s my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve. Much of this is common sense, though it needs to be mandatory viewing for elected officials (as well as the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

The Laffer Curve, Part I: Understanding the Theory

Uploaded by  on Jan 28, 2008

The Laffer Curve charts a relationship between tax rates and tax revenue. While the theory behind the Laffer Curve is widely accepted, the concept has become very controversial because politicians on both sides of the debate exaggerate. This video shows the middle ground between those who claim “all tax cuts pay for themselves” and those who claim tax policy has no impact on economic performance. This video, focusing on the theory of the Laffer Curve, is Part I of a three-part series. Part II reviews evidence of Laffer-Curve responses. Part III discusses how the revenue-estimating process in Washington can be improved. For more information please visit the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s web site: http://www.freedomandprosperity.org

Part 2

Part 3

P.S. Just in case it’s not clear from the videos, we don’t want to be at the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

P.P.S. Amazingly, even the bureaucrats at the IMF recognize that there’s a point when taxes are so onerous that further increases don’t generate revenue.

P.P.P.S. At least CPAs understand the Laffer Curve, probably because they help their clients reduce their tax exposure to greedy governments.

P.P.P.P.S. I offered a Laffer Curve lesson to President Obama, but I doubt it had any impact.

___________________________

Thank you so much for your time. I know how valuable it is. I also appreciate the fine family that you have and your commitment as a father and a husband.

Sincerely,

Everette Hatcher III, 13900 Cottontail Lane, Alexander, AR 72002, ph 501-920-5733,

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By WALTER WILLIAMS

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