Jul

8

 I think Ms. Shelton's odds for surviving the attacks by CNBC et. al. will improve significantly if she adjusts her Lafferite theology. In a old C-SPAN interview I watched this morning I saw her making the same claim that Boris Johnson made this week on his hustings tour: "lowering taxes raises more revenue".

Clearly, it doesn't; taxes are the government's revenue, and lowering them means that the government has less to spend. This confusion has been a chronic problem for "conservatives" ever since Professor Laffer first scribbled on his napkin. It seems to have created a fog even for Laffer. How else can one explain his support for a single tax rate across all income levels? As a policy and political platform "lowering taxes" is a pure folly equal only to the defense of "capitalism". (Ms. Shelton commits that sin as well; she is an advocate of "democratic capitalism" which is itself an oxymoron.)

Where the progressives are instinctively right is in their belief that the rates should increase as income brackets go up. Where the progressives are and always will be disastrously wrong is to believe that the fundamental purpose of a tax system is to inflict punishment on the rich, to be a collective act of revenge against those who make the most.

A flat tax rate ignores the common sense truth we all see around us: the successful are much better than the poor at making money and the rich are much better at making money on their money. All the babble about the American dream ignores the obvious fact that the power law applies to enterprise just as it applies to the ability to hit baseballs 400 ft. All of us who love the sport can play the game, but only a very few can make the All-Star Game roster. What produces more wealth for both the government and the people who pay taxes is the lowering of TAX RATES if you get the proper shape for the stair-step of brackets and rates. The current tax code has gone a long way towards achieving that result; that may explain the seemingly inexplicable–how both net wages and tax collections can continue to grow in the United States even as they flatten out elsewhere.

Rudolf Hauser writes: 

The Laffer curve idea that lowering marginal tax rates increases revenues only works to the extend that it makes it cheaper to pay the tax than the costs and losses incurred in trying to avoid the high tax rates. In regard to the incentive impact on growth, it is best not to focus on how much the tax rate is reduced than on how much after tax income is increased. The incentive impact of reducing the tax rate five percentage points is a lot more important when the initial marginal rate is 90%, thereby increasing after tax income by 50%, than it is when the initial rate is 50 and the increase in after tax income is only 10%. When the cut applies to the capital gains tax rate, there might initially be a larger increase in tax revenues, as many long term investors might tax advantage to sell their stocks that they only held for so long because of the tax consequences of selling and/or to repurchase the shares to establish a higher cost base should the tax rate be increased again in the future.

But beyond that, there is a conflict of interest between the wealth of the nation and the wealth of the government. Lowering rates does increase the incentive for greater growth. But if the average tax rate is only 20%, the growth in the economy has to increase five-fold for the tax cut to result in more revenues. That is unlikely in most cases. It also has to be remembered that many people are by nature game players, that is they are very competitive and like to win. Why would a billionaire have any incentive to work hard? After all, he has more money than he could ever need to satisfy his consumption needs? It's because gaining the most money is like winning the most points in the game. So even when the government takes a large share of the gain, there is still the competition to have the most points, that is after tax profits and wealth, even with the reduced incentives. Naturally, that only applies to some people. Many will behave like the British aristocracy of old and become a leisure class. But it does explain why we were still able to have economic growth when marginal tax rates were so high in the 1950's, along with the fact that the various loopholes, etc. reduced the actual tax rates that were paid. 

Stefan Jovanovich replies: 

I hate to disagree with RH, especially this week when I am enjoying a biography of Gresham that I owe to his recommendation. My view may be distorted by my experiences as a low-rent criminal, both with and without a law license. My direct observation of both clients and customers is that they all followed the Gompers rule where taxes and penalties were concerned. ("What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.") Taxpayers want to pay LESS at every possible rate. When rates are confiscatory - at the rates that Democrats have traditionally favored - taxpayers literally stop being taxpayers. They find ways to categorize their wealth and income so that it is not subject to any rate at all. They don't look for marginal reductions; they look for escape.

The ability to escape explains the seeming paradox of the 1950s when private incomes and wealth grew even though the legacy tax rates of WW II remained in place. Thanks to the magic of non-recourse debt financing, the effective tax rates paid in the 1950s were no higher than they were in the 1980s after Reagan's tax cut. The 1954 Tax Act became the bible of the 1950s whiz kids in Beverly Hills whom I was lucky enough to go to work for in the 1970s and it made their fortunes. (The reference is deliberate: Tex Thornton's Litton Industries offices were just down the block on Little Santa Monica.) 

When Jerry Ford, the economic moron who succeeded those other economic morons Johnson and Nixon, signed the 1976 tax reform act, he not only did me out of a job (no more 8-1 write-offs on real estate, oil & gas and movie deals); he also raised the effective tax rates on the wealthy to where they had been in the late 1940s. It produced exactly the same kind of inflation that Truman's vetoes and price freezes had done. The Federal government collects roughly 21% of the national income. The individual income and employment tax share is about 17%. It is rumored that Kevin Hassett's magic calculator at CEA produced a Laffer ziggurat (it is never a curve) that begins at 5% and ends at 30% for all personal incomes; its output was 20% of the national income - 3% more than the current collections. The result was never published because it would be the ruin of the Republican Party.

Integrating Social Security and income taxes would be even worse than Bush's "privatization"; and they would never be able to get it through the Rich's brains that their loss of exemptions and carve-outs would be more than offset by a simple 30% top rate. But, to be fair to the Rich, they know - from long experience that a simple stair-step is a Congressional impossibility. What would Representatives do is they could not offer special rules for wool growers and weavers? Still, as a thought experiment, it is intriguing. 

Alex Forshaw writes: 

Getting back to Stefan's original post, I don't understand how anybody can take seriously someone who for tight money in 2011-13 who's simultaneously in favor of loose monetary policy today. (Stephen Moore, Shelton, others) You can be for one or the other but not both, unless you 'evolved' to a completely different philosophy… which rarely happens honestly in my observation.

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

Let's go back to RH's point as well. If monetarists think that "money supply" is both the fulcrum and the lever for Archimedesian economics, we taxistas tend to have the same certainty that tax rates move everything. They don't.

For me Ms. Shelton's heresy is the belief that legal tender in any form can be a "store of value". I also find her giving Jefferson and Madison credit for putting the U.S. dollar on "the gold standard" the worst kind of Ron Paul historical fiction. If credit is to be given to Virginia Presidents for fixing the dollar by weight and measure, it has to go to the first and last of the Founders - Washington and Monroe.

Rudolf Hauser writes: 

The monetarist point is simply that an excess of money ( the accepted means of exchange and those liquid assets held that are considered reasonable means of quickly obtaining the means of exchange at minimal cost) results in an attempt to dispose of the excess, which initially results in more nominal purchases of other assets and goods and services and subsequently inflation as the sellers of those goods and services realize that the increased production was not really economical. When there is a deficit of such liquidity, the opposite happens. If income and nominal wealth gains go to those who have a low propensity to consume, the increase may mainly be reflected in higher prices of existing asset, both physical and those financial claims behind such assets. If monetary policy is erratic and causing erratic inflation, the increased uncertainty as to the future might deter future real economic growth potential. Aside from that, monetary policy has negligible impact, if any, on real growth potential. Another mechanism is the increase in money driving up prices of financial assets, thereby lowering interest rates. That in turn can shift some purchases of durable goods financed on credit and investments likewise financed on credit to be shifted forward, whereas a deficiency of money can work in the opposite direction. Stefan believes that the central bank can control interest rates. But a central bank can only keep interest rates low when it has created an inflationary situation by continuing to accelerate the rate of monetary growth. When that stops or the public expectations catch up with what is really happening, those interest rate will rise. As the central bank is not the only creator of near forms of money, the demand for money created by the banking system can change for numerous reasons such as opportunity costs, the speed of transaction settlements, inflation expectations, and financial uncertainty. One impact of financial uncertainty is reduced access to quick credit and less confidence in the ability to convert such assets as commercial paper into money that can be used to settle transactions quickly and at minimal cost is diminished. Shifts in the demand for money depend on public desires for the amount of money they wish to hold and are not well understood or necessarily constant.

In contrast the main impact of tax policy is on economic growth potential. There are both temporary shifts as changes and expectation of changes in tax policy can drive income recognition forward or backward and the far more important permanent effects. To the extend producers try to pass on tax increases to consumers, it might have some inflationary impact as industry shifts the tax burden on to consumers, but since the income of consumers is not increased, eventually it should mainly have a real impact on the purchases of goods and services.


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