3 Reasons to be suspicious of the inequality debate

My concerns with the inequality debate are twofold:

  1. The poor are seldom rescued from poverty by redistribution. Raising taxes on the rich to bolster welfare payments increases dependence of the latter on government. While this may be a sound political strategy to garner votes, dependence on handouts robs people of their self-respect and foments other social issues. The welfare system should focus more on assisting the disadvantaged to become independent: teaching skills, improving access to higher education, and providing support for those striving to achieve autonomy.
  2. Progressive taxes on the rich foster resentment at the unequal treatment and encourage tax evasion/avoidance. Raising income taxes also acts as a disincentive to produce further income. Any tax acts as a disincentive, but income taxes are particularly inefficient as the following chart from the Henry Review shows. Taxes collected from raising income tax rates often fall short of expectations, with higher taxes acting as a handbrake on economic growth. Past attempts at taxes on wealth, on the other hand, have proved largely impractical.

Marginal welfare loss from a small increase in selected Australian taxes

Marginal welfare loss is the loss in consumer welfare per dollar of revenue raised for a small increase in each tax (the extent of compensation required to restore consumer satisfaction reflects the distorting effect of the tax on the economy). Taxes at the top of the graph are the most inefficient in terms of outcomes, while those at the bottom achieve the greatest net benefit.

I should explain that my attitude to welfare is shaped by my own experience. My mother was widowed when I was four and faced the daunting prospect of raising children on her own. She went back to work and, because of her circumstances, was offered a partial interest rate subsidy (on a mortgage) by the local municipality. This enabled her to build a modest home and raise four children, who (apart from myself) grew up to make a useful contribution to society. Without assistance, I shudder to think how we would have fared. But I appreciate that the help offered was to restore our independence, rather than foster ongoing dependency and a sense of entitlement.

When I hear President Obama talk of the top 1%’s share of “our income” or their share of “our nation’s wealth” I do a double-take. It is not “our” income or wealth, but “theirs”. We have not earned it and have no claim to the income or assets of others other than that they pay their fair share of taxes. And shifting a disproportionate share of taxes onto them is just as misguided and immoral, in my opinion, as exploiting the less fortunate. For an economy to succeed you need a healthy partnership between the haves and have-nots, where both will benefit from prosperity. Not like the present tug-of-war, with abuses and mistrust on both sides. Raising taxes would drive a further wedge between the two sides rather than restore trust and cooperation. We need to seek a win-win outcome, rather than an outcome where all of us will lose.

In my opinion the inequality debate and higher taxes are a red herring, designed to distract the public from the real issue: globalization and the insidious partnership between large corporations and their Asian suppliers. Globalization opened up new export markets for corporations while lowering input costs through access to cheap labor. On its own, globalization is manageable, but politicians turn a blind eye to currency manipulation by Asian exporters like China. By saying much but doing little, they allow a continual drain of jobs to offshore markets. Many corporations silently welcome a weak RMB because it lowers the cost of imports while enabling others to make offshore investments and acquisitions cheaply with the strong Dollar.

Corporate profits as a percentage of GNP have soared…

Corporate Profits/GNP

…while manufacturing workers suffer from a shrinking job market and lower wages.

Employee Compensation/Value Added

If you want to fix inequality, don’t raise taxes. Instead, reduce progressive tax rates while closing many of the loopholes to create a level playing field. But, most importantly, end currency manipulation to ensure that the Dollar trades at a fair, market-clearing rate. That should help regain international competitiveness, go some way to revive a struggling manufacturing sector…

Employee Compensation/Value Added

… and restore jobs lost over the last two decades.

No Alan, more income tax is not the answer | MacroBusiness

Leith van Onselen comments on Alan Kohler’s support for a proposed debt levy:

The first best solution is to shift Australia’s tax base away from productive enterprise (both individuals and companies) towards more efficient sources, such as land, resources and consumption. According to the Henry Tax Review, the marginal excess burden (i.e. the loss in consumer welfare relative to the net gain in government revenue) from the GST is just 8%, whereas it is near zero for taxes on land and resources. They also compare very favourably against the two biggest current sources of tax revenue – personal income tax (24% marginal excess burden) and company taxes (40% marginal excess burden) – offering the nation large productivity pay-offs from fundamental tax reform.

Read more at No Mr Kohler, more income tax is not the answer | | MacroBusiness.

It’s Time to Levy the Land | naked capitalism

There are growing calls for increased use of land value taxes to replace income taxes and corporations taxes as a major source of government revenue. Yves Smith points out:

Income and sales taxes add to the price of doing business, and hence reduce their supply and competitiveness. Most economists – even Milton Friedman – recommend that the more efficient tax burden is one that collects economic rent – property rent, fees charged for using the airwaves, monopoly rent, and other income that is basically an access charge. If you tax land rent, for instance, this doesn’t raise the price of housing or office space. The rent-of-location is set by the market place……

I agree with Michael Hudson that our income tax system encourages the use of debt, over-use of which was one of the primary causes of the recent GFC:

Our tax system favors debt rather than equity financing. By encouraging debt it has prompted a tax shift onto the “real” economy’s labor and capital. The resulting interest charge and tax shift mean that we’re not as efficient and low-cost producers as we used to be…..

But I have two concerns:

  1. Introducing new taxes without abolishing the old leaves scope for government to increase tax revenues as a percentage of GDP over time. And few things are more inefficient — and more harmful to growth — than government spending.
  2. Focus on land value taxes alone, while neglecting other rent-producing assets such as patents, copyright ownership, rights to airwaves, and even brand ownership may skew investment towards, and inflate the price of, these lower taxed assets.

Read more at It’s Time to Levy the Land | naked capitalism.

Something has to be done about income taxes

Years ago I worked in structured finance for an investment bank, creating tax-efficient structures for large corporations. That left me with the lasting impression that income taxes are inefficient — both in terms of equity and collection — and should be levied at low flat rates if they cannot be avoided altogether.

Any tax acts as a disincentive. The impact of flat taxes at low rates is mild. We don’t often think of GST/VAT as deterring consumption. But income tax, with progressive tax rates, acts as a massive disincentive on production. If there was no income tax, we would all be encouraged to work harder. Doctors might not play golf on Wednesdays, but the average worker would also seek more income because they aren’t giving half of it back in taxes. This would give a significant boost to GDP. Interest would also not be taxed, creating an incentive to increase savings.

The problem with all taxes is they tend to increase over time. Flat rate taxes such as GST are the exception because of political fall-out from a rate increase. It is too easy with progressive taxes, like income tax, for politicians to introduce increases by stealth or simply to allow inflation to push taxpayers into higher tax brackets over time. Flat taxes allow politicians less wiggle room as any tax increases are evident to all.

Substituting a combination of land taxes, resource taxes and sales taxes (GST/VAT) for income taxes, or even just reducing income taxes to a low flat rate, would boost both economic growth and savings while making politicians more accountable to their electorate.

Raising taxes: 73% of nothing is nothing

President Francois Hollande recently increased the top income tax rate in France to 75 percent — for incomes in excess of €1 million. This is part of a wider trend with President Obama targeting the wealthy in his election campaign, promising to raise taxes on incomes in excess of $1 million. Shifting the tax burden onto the wealthy might be clever politics, but does it make economic sense? To gauge the effectiveness of this strategy we need to study tax rates and their effect on incomes in the 1920s and 1930s.

By the end of the First World War, Federal government debt had soared to $25.5 billion, from $3 billion in 1915. Income taxes were raised to repay public debt: 60 percent on incomes greater than $100,000 and a top rate of 73 percent on incomes over $1 million. When Andrew Mellon was appointed Treasury Secretary in 1921, he inherited an economy in sharp recession. Falling GDP and declining income tax receipts led Mellon to observe that “73% of nothing is nothing”. He understood that high income taxes discourage entrepreneurs, leading to lower incomes and lower tax receipts — what we now refer to as the Laffer curve. By 1925, under President Coolidge, Mellon had slashed income taxes to a top rate of 25 percent — on incomes greater than $100,000. The economy boomed, tax collections recovered despite lower rates, and Treasury returned budget surpluses throughout the 1920s.

US Income Taxes and GDP 1920 to 1940

Interestingly, Veronique de Rugy points out that taxes paid by those with incomes over $100,000 more than doubled by the end of the decade.

US Income Tax Rates and Tax Receipts in the 1920s

Andrew Mellon was a wealthy banker and investor: in the mid-1920s he was the third highest taxpayer in the US. His strategy of cutting income tax rates may appear self-interested, but showed an understanding of how taxes can stimulate or impede economic growth, and succeeded in rescuing the economy from prolonged recession in the 1920s.

A decade later, President Herbert Hoover spent liberally on infrastructure programs in an attempt to shock the economy out of recession following the 1929 Wall Street crash. By 1932 Hoover and Mellon raised income taxes to rein in the growing deficit. Tax on incomes greater than $100,000 was increased to 56 percent and the top rate lifted to 63 percent — on incomes over $1 million.

The budget deficit continued to grow. Higher tax rates were maintained throughout the 1930s, under FDR, but failed to achieve their stated aim and may have contributed to the severity of the Great Depression.

US Income Taxes and Budget Surplus 1920 to 1940

GDP rose steeply after 1934. Income tax receipts recovered to pre-crash levels but declined again after 1937, when President Roosevelt introduced payroll taxes. Increased taxes reduced the fiscal deficit but caused a double-dip recession: GDP contracted, income tax receipts fell and the deficit grew.

US Income Taxes and GDP 1920 to 1940

Comparing the 1920s to the 1930s it is evident that Barack Obama and Francois Hollande threaten to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s. Increasing taxes in the middle of a recession does not reduce the deficit. It merely prolongs the recession.

Cato Institute: 1920s Income Tax Cuts Sparked Economic Growth and Raised Federal Revenues by Veronique de Rugy
National Debt History
Wikipedia: Andrew W Mellon
Wikipedia: Laffer Curve
The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal by Robert Murphy

Dems Lay Trap for GOP with Buffett Rule

Do Top Earners Pay Too Little?

Taxpayers earning more than $1 million a year pay an average U.S. income tax rate of nearly 19 percent, according to the Tax Policy Center. The top individual tax rate is 35 percent. Loopholes and other deductions help lower that rate so that most Americans pay a much lower effective rate. A middle-income earner making between $50,000 and $75,000 pays an average 5.7 percent effective rate, while a low-income worker making between $10,000 and $20,000 pays no income tax. Effective rates vary wildly within income groups, however, with some people paying far less than average and some far more.

Critics say this underscores the need for a minimum tax….

via Dems Lay Trap for GOP with Buffett Rule.

Comment:~ I would say this underscores the need to scrap the income tax model which ends up with “some people paying far less than average and some far more” and to impose a flat value-added tax (consumption tax) of around 15%. Impact on the poor could be reduced through subsidies — not tax exemptions which are an administrative nightmare — of basic foodstuffs and other necessities.

Interesting that the proposed “Buffett Tax” would only raise $47 billion if imposed on taxpayers earning more than $1 million. Less than 4 percent of the annual $1.2 trillion federal budget deficit that it is supposed to solve.

Bruce Bartlett: How to Really Simplify the Tax Code – NYTimes.com

BRUCE BARTLETT: Prof. Michael Graetz of Columbia Law School has proposed what I believe is a MacArthur-like solution to tax reform. He would abolish the income tax for the vast bulk of Americans and replace the revenue with a 12.5 percent value-added tax. People would pay their taxes when they buy things and wouldn’t need to worry about keeping records or filing tax returns at all.

The brilliance of the Graetz plan is that no tax expenditures need to be repealed. He would simply give every family a tax exemption of $100,000, which would eliminate the income tax for 90 percent of those now filing returns.

via Bruce Bartlett: How to Really Simplify the Tax Code – NYTimes.com.

Comment:~ Why not abolish the income tax entirely? Retaining a partial system would leave taxpayers vulnerable to bracket creep as inflation pushes them into higher tax brackets. Income tax is a highly inefficient tax to administer and collect compared to broad-based taxes such as VAT. The argument that VAT increases the burden on the poor can be overcome by a subsidy (not an exemption) on basic foodstuffs and other essentials. Switching to a VAT-based system also makes the issues of income-splitting and use of tax havens redundant. One of the few negatives I can think of is that replacing income tax with a VAT may encourage offshore consumption — taking an overseas holiday for example rather than holidaying locally — in order to avoid consumption tax. I would welcome suggestions as to how this could be countered, as well as any further negatives you may think of.