Archive for the ‘Taxes’ Category
There is general agreement that the economy is not growing fast enough to boost employment. The question: What to do about it?
The response, at all levels of government, seems to be: increase corporate subsidies and lower corporate taxes in hopes that corporations will boost investment and, by extension, employment. Those who promote this response no doubt reason that corporations must be struggling along with workers and need additional incentives and support to become successful “job-creators.”
The chart below, taken from a Paul Krugman blog post, certainly raises questions about this rationale and response. It shows trends in corporate profits (in red) and business investment (in blue), both measured as shares of GDP.
As you can see, profits have clearly been trending upwards over time, especially during our current recovery. At the same time, business investment, although improving, remains historically quite low. It is hard to see a poor profit performance as the root cause of our slow growth and job creation.
Moreover, banks are sitting on record amounts of money. The chart below, from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, shows that banks are holding approximately $1.5 trillion in excess reserves. In the past, excess reserves averaged roughly $20 billion. In other words, our banks just aren’t motivated to make loans. And, instead of taxing these excess reserves to encourage loan activity, the Federal Reserve is actually paying the banks interest on their holdings.
Now, as noted above, it would not be fair to say that governments are not actively trying to create jobs. It is just that they are going about it in the wrong way, the wrong way that is, if their aim is to actually create jobs.
Governments continue to shovel huge subsidies and tax breaks at our major corporations. This, despite the fact that most studies find little evidence that they help promote investment or employment. What they do, of course, is enhance corporate profits. They also force cutbacks in public spending, which does have negative effects on the economy and social welfare. Ironically, these negative effects then cause corporations to shy away from investing.
The New York Times recently ran a good series on state and local tax deals and subsidies written by Louise Story. She wrote:
A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. The beneficiaries come from virtually every corner of the corporate world, encompassing oil and coal conglomerates, technology and entertainment companies, banks and big-box retail chains.
The cost of the awards is certainly far higher. A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid. . . .
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.
Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.
These subsidies can dominate state budgets. The Times reports that they were equal to approximately one-third the budgets of Oklahoma and West Virginia and almost one-fifth of the budget of Maine.
Here in Oregon, we continue to struggle with budget shortfalls. And, fearful of losing corporate investment, the state legislature is doing what it can to keep corporate costs down. In December 2012, Governor John Kitzhaber called the state legislature into special session to pass a bill specially designed to help Nike.
Nike had privately told the Governor that it planned to spend at least $150 million in an expansion which it claimed would create at least 500 jobs over a five year span. If the state wanted that expansion and those jobs to be in Oregon, it had to reassure the company that its current favorable tax treatment would remain unchanged far into the future.
Although state legislators were not pleased to be presented with a major tax bill with little if any time to study its terms, they passed it. The new bill guarantees Nike that the state of Oregon will not change how it calculates the company’s state taxes for the next 30 years, regardless of any future changes in the state’s tax policy. More specifically, it gives the Governor power to offer such a deal to any major company that plans to invest at least $150 million and create at least 500 jobs over a five year span. It just so happened that Nike is the only company, at least for the moment, receiving this benefit.
To appreciate what is at stake in this deal a little background on how Oregon taxes multi-state corporations like Nike is helpful. Prior to 1991, Oregon taxed Nike using a formula that considered the state’s share of Nike’s total property, payroll, and sales, with each weighted equally. In 1991, Oregon double weighted the sales component. This greatly reduced Nike’s state tax bill, since while its property and payroll are concentrated in Oregon, only a small share of its sales are made in the state.
Then in 2001, Oregon began introducing a “single-sales factor” formula. As Michael Leachman of the Oregon Center for Public Policy explains:
Under this formula, only in-state sales relative to all US sales matter in determining how much of a company’s profits are apportioned to and thus taxable by Oregon; it doesn’t matter how much of their property or payroll is based in Oregon. The Legislative Assembly in 2005 cut short the phase-in process and fully phased-in the “single-sales” formula for tax years starting on or after July 1, 2005.
The Oregon Department of Revenue estimates that using the single-sales factor formula instead of the double-weighted sales formula is costing Oregon $77.6 million in the current 2005-07 budget cycle, and will cost another $65.6 million in the upcoming 2007-09 budget cycle. The projected decline in the cost of “single-sales” in the upcoming budget cycle is temporary. It is due primarily to a corporate kicker that will slash corporate tax payments by two-thirds this year. In subsequent budget cycles, the revenue hit from “single-sales” will return to a higher level. . . .
Take Nike, for example. Nike lobbied for the switch to single-sales factor apportionment and it’s easy to see why. At the Oregon Center for Public Policy, we conservatively estimate that Nike’s 2006 tax cut from “single-sales” was over $16 million. Other prominent, profitable firms such as Intel also received a massive tax break from “single-sales.”
As Michael Munk points out:
The governor’s deal is also particularly cynical when at a time of declining public services desperate politicians are dragging out a regressive sales tax out of mothballs and The Oregonian’s “fact checker finds “mostly true” a finding that Oregon’s existing tax breaks (including almost $900B a year in corporate welfare) exceed tax collections.
Of course, this stance towards the needs of Oregonians is nothing new for Nike. In 2010, Oregonians voted in favor of two measures (66 and 67) which temporarily raised taxes on the very wealthy and corporations. Phil Knight, the Nike CEO, not only gave $100,000 to the anti-Measures campaign, he also wrote an article published in the Oregonian newspaper in which he said:
Measures 66 and 67 should be labeled Oregon’s Assisted Suicide Law II.
They will allow us to watch a state slowly killing itself.
They are anti-business, anti-success, anti-inspirational, anti-humanitarian, and most ironically, in the long run, they will deprive the state of tax revenue, not increase it.
The current state tax codes are all of those things as well. Measures 66 and 67 just take it up and over the top.
Knight even threatened to leave the state. He didn’t, but I guess the last laugh is his, now that his company’s tax situation is secure for the next 30 years.
So—what lies ahead—more counterproductive state policies and head scratching about why things are going poorly for working people, or a change in strategy?
Considering the enormous time spent debating tax policy, it is easy to imagine that the U.S. must have one of the high tax rates in the world. Well, that is not the case.
The following graph is one of them. It shows the personal tax rate paid by people making the equivalent of $100,000 a year in 2012. The U.S. is the 55th ranked country out of 114 in terms of tax rates.
The next graph shows the same thing but for those earning the equivalent of $300,000 a year. The U.S. ranking is similar for this upper income group, 53rd highest out of 114.
Moreover, as Derek Thompson, the author of the Atlantic post, notes:
But these numbers might understate how low taxes have been in the U.S. Unlike most advanced economies, the U.S. don’t supplement personal income taxes with a national sales tax, or value-added tax (VAT). Consumption taxes accounted for about a fifth of total U.S. revenue in 2008 (mostly at the state and local level) compared to an OECD average of 32 percent. In other words, the U.S. relies uniquely on personal tax rates to raise revenue — and we have relatively low personal tax rates.
Finally, here is a look at the U.S. ranking among OECD countries for taxes as a share of GDP in 2008.
So, given that the U.S. doesn’t seem to be a high-tax rate country, why is tax policy so contentious? No doubt the answer has a lot to do with who actually pays the taxes and, perhaps even more importantly, what the revenue is used for.
The media continues to direct out attention to deficits and debt as our main problems. Yet, it does little to really highlight the causes of these deficits and debts.
The following two figures from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities help to clarify the causes. It is important to note that the projections underlying both figures were made before the recent vote making permanent most of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Figure 1, below, shows the main drivers of our large national deficits: the Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our economic crisis and responses to it. Without those drivers our national deficits would have remained quite small.
Figure 2, below, shows the main drivers of our national debt. Not surprisingly they are the same as the drivers of our deficits.
Significantly, the same political leaders that scream the loudest about our deficits and debt have little to say about stopping the wars or reducing military spending and are the most adamant about maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts. That is because, at root, their interest is in reducing spending on non-security programs rather than reducing the deficit or debt.
Some of these leaders argue that the tax cuts will help correct our economic problems and thereby help reduce the deficit and debt. However, multiple studies have shown that tax cuts are among the least effective ways to stimulate employment and growth. In contrast, the most effective are sustained and targeted government efforts to refashion economic activity by spending on green conversion, infrastructure, health care, education and the like.
While Republicans and Democrats debate the extent to which taxes should be raised, both sides appear to agree on the need to reign in federal government spending in order to achieve deficit reduction. In fact, federal government spending has been declining both absolutely and, as the following figure from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows, as a share of GDP.
In reality, our main challenge is not reducing our deficit or debt but rather strengthening our economy, and cutting government spending is not going to help us overcome that challenge. As Peter Coy, writing in BusinessWeek explains:
It pains deficit hawks to hear this, but ever since the 2008 financial crisis, government red ink has been an elixir for the U.S. economy. After the crisis, households strove to pay down debt and businesses hoarded profits while skimping on investment. If the federal government had tried to run balanced budgets, there would have been an enormous economy wide deficit of demand and the economic slump would have been far worse. In 2009 fiscal policy added about 2.7 percentage points to what the economy’s growth rate would have been, according to calculations by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. But since then the U.S. has underutilized fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool. The economic boost dropped to just half a percentage point in 2010. Fiscal policy subtracted from growth in 2011 and 2012 and will do so again in 2013, to the tune of about 1 percentage point, Zandi estimates.
If we were serious about tackling our economic problems we would raise tax rates and close tax loopholes on the wealthy and corporations and reduce military spending, and then use a significant portion of the revenue generated to fund a meaningful government stimulus program. That would be a win-win proposition as far as the economy and budget is concerned.
The New York Times published a very interesting article on taxes. Most importantly it is accompanied by great graphics illustrating the changing tax burden of households by income bracket over the period 1980 to 2010. The taxes covered include federal taxes, payroll taxes, state and local taxes, and corporate taxes.
The screen shot below highlights the share of yearly income paid in combined federal and state and local taxes by households in different income brackets. As one can see, the tax burden fell for every income bracket, with those at the top enjoying the greatest reduction. There is no getting around the fact that tax rates, at least for the wealthy, must go up if we are to adequately fund necessary programs.
This combined view of our tax burden masks a striking difference between the trends in federal and state and local tax burdens. While the federal tax burden went down over the period 1980 to 2010 for households in every income group, the state and local tax burden rose for households in every income group.
Significantly, and perhaps explaining the strength of the anti-tax movement, state and local tax burdens rose most for households in the lowest income brackets. The same is true for the payroll taxes. The screen shot below shows the trends in both state and local and payroll tax burdens for all income groups.
As the Times article notes, “Public debate over taxes has typically focused on the federal income tax, but that now accounts for less than a third of the total tax revenues collected by federal, state and local governments.” Clearly, tax reform needs to take place at all levels of government. But that is only one side of the picture. Attention must also be given to the pattern and beneficiaries of government spending.
With the election over, the news is now focused, somewhat hysterically, on the threat of the fiscal cliff.
The fiscal cliff refers to the fact that at the end of this calendar year several temporary tax cuts are scheduled to expire (including those that lowered rates on income and capital gains as well as payroll taxes) and early in the next year spending cuts are scheduled for military and non-military federal programs. See here for details on the taxes and programs.
Most analysts agree that if tax rates rise and federal spending is cut the result will be a significant contraction in aggregate demand, pushing the U.S. economy into recession in 2013.
The U.S. economy is already losing steam. GDP growth in the second half of 2009, which marked the start of the recovery, averaged 2.7% on an annualized basis. GDP growth in 2010 was a lower 2.4%. GDP growth in 2011 averaged a still lower 2.0%. And growth in the first half of this year declined again, to an annualized rate of 1.8%.
With banks unwilling to loan, businesses unwilling to invest or hire, and government spending already on the decline, there can be little doubt that a further fiscal tightening will indeed mean recession.
So, assuming we don’t want to go over the fiscal cliff, what are our choices?
Both Republicans and Democrats face this moment in agreement that our national deficits and debt are out of control and must be reduced regardless of the consequences for overall economic activity. What they disagree on is how best to achieve the reduction. Most Republicans argue that we should renew the existing tax cuts and protect the military budget. Deficit reduction should come from slashing the non-military discretionary portion of the budget, which, as Ethan Pollack explains, includes:
safety net programs like housing vouchers and nutrition assistance for women and infants; most of the funding for the enforcement of consumer protection, environmental protection, and financial regulation; and practically all of the federal government’s civilian public investments, such as infrastructure, education, training, and research and development.
The table below shows the various programs/budgets that make up the non-security discretionary budget and their relative size. The chart that follows shows how spending on this part of the budget is already under attack by both Democrats and Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Democrat’s response to the fiscal cliff is only marginally better than that of the Republicans. President Obama also wants to shrink the deficit and national debt, but in “a more balanced way.” He wants both tax increases and spending cuts. He is on record seeking $4 trillion in deficit reduction over a ten year period, with a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.
The additional revenue in his plan will come from allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, raising the tax rate on the top income tax bracket, and limiting the value of tax deductions. While an important improvement, President Obama is also committed to significant cuts in non-military discretionary spending. Although his cuts would not be as great as those advocated by the Republicans, reducing spending on most of the targeted programs makes little social or economic sense given current economic conditions.
So, how do we scale the fiscal cliff in a responsible way?
We need to start with the understanding that we do not face a serious national deficit or debt problem. As Jamie Galbraith notes:
. . . is there a looming crisis of debt or deficits, such that sacrifices in general are necessary? No, there is not. Not in the short run – as almost everyone agrees. But also: not in the long run. What we have are computer projections, based on arbitrary – and in fact capricious – assumptions. But even the computer projections no longer show much of a crisis. CBO has adjusted its interest rate forecast, and even under its “alternative fiscal scenario” the debt/GDP ratio now stabilizes after a few years.
Actually, as the chart below shows, the deficit is already rapidly falling. In fact, the decline in government spending over the last few years is likely one of the reasons why our economic growth is slowing so dramatically.
As Jed Graham points out:
From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012, the deficit shrank 3.1 percentage points, from 10.1% to 7.0% of GDP. That’s just a bit faster than the 3.0 percentage point deficit improvement from 1995 to ’98, but at that point, the economy had everything going for it.
Other occasions when the federal deficit contracted by much more than 1 percentage point a year have coincided with recession. Some examples include 1937, 1960 and 1969.
In short, we do not face a serious problem of growing government deficits. Rather the problem is one of too fast a reduction in the deficit in light of our slowing economy.
As to the challenge of the fiscal cliff—here we have to recognize, as Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse explain, that:
the budget impact and the economic impact are not necessarily the same. Some policies that are expensive in budgetary terms have only modest economic impacts (for example, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts aimed at high-income households are costly but do not have much economic impact). Conversely, other policies with small budgetary costs have big economic impacts (for example, extended unemployment insurance benefits).
In other words, we should indeed allow the temporary tax rate deductions for the wealthy to expire, on both income and capital gains taxes. These deductions cost us dearly on the budget side without adding much on the economic side. As shown here and here, the evidence is strong that the only thing produced by lowering taxes on the wealthy is greater income inequality.
Letting existing tax rates rise for individuals making over $200,000 and families making over $250,000 a year, raising the top income tax bracket for both couples and singles that make more than $388,350, and limiting tax deductions will generate close to $1.5 trillion dollars over ten years as highlighted below in a Wall Street Journal graphic .
However, in contrast to President Obama’s proposal, we should also support the planned $500 billion in cuts to the military budget. We don’t need the new weapons and studies are clear that spending on the military (as well as tax cuts) is a poor way to generate jobs. For example, the table below shows the employment effects of spending $1 billion on the military versus spending the same amount on education, health care, clean energy, or tax cuts.
And, we should also oppose any cuts in our non-security discretionary budget. Instead, we should take at least half the savings from the higher tax revenues and military spending cuts–that would be a minimum of $1 trillion–and spend it on programs designed to boost our physical and social infrastructure. Here I have in mind retrofitting buildings, improving our mass transit systems, increasing our development and use of safe and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and expanding and strengthening our social services, including education, health care, libraries, and the like.
Our goal should be a strong and accountable public sector, good jobs for all, and healthy communities, not debt reduction. The above policy begins to move us in the right direction.
A big debate is underway about fiscal multipliers. Sounds esoteric but it is not—it reveals that economics is far from an exact science and the outcome appears to confirm what most working people thought, which is that government spending can help an economy grow.
A fiscal multiplier is an estimate of the economic impact of a change in government spending. The debate was triggered, surprisingly enough, by a small box in the International Monetary Fund’s annual publication, World Economic Outlook. There, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) admitted that its previous estimates of fiscal multipliers were too low.
Here is what the IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard wrote:
The main finding, based on data for 28 economies, is that the multipliers used in generating growth forecasts have been systematically too low since the start of the Great Recession, by 0.4 to 1.2, depending on the forecast source and the specifics of the estimation approach. Informal evidence suggests that the multipliers implicitly used to generate these forecasts are about 0.5. So actual multipliers may be higher, in the range of 0.9 to 1.7.
As part of the attack on the role of government in the economy, many economists, prior to the Great Recession, argued that fiscal multipliers were roughly equal to 1. That meant a 1% reduction in government spending would likely cause a 1% decline in GDP, and a 1% increase in government spending would likely generate a 1% increase in GDP.
As the Great Recession got under way, many economists, including those at the IMF, began arguing for substantially lower multipliers, on the order of 0.5%. On the basis of this reduced value, many forecasters argued for the benefits of austerity. Debt was seen as a major problem and if fiscal multipliers were only 0.5%, a $1 cut in government spending would reduce debt by $1 but GDP by only 50 cents.
Well, after watching how austerity policies collapsed many economies around the world, especially in Europe, the IMF acknowledged that it had badly misjudged the size of the fiscal multiplier. As Cornel Ban explains:
In contrast [to its previous low estimates], the October 2012 WEO found that in fact [fiscal multipliers] ranged between .9 to 1.7 (the Eurozone periphery is closer to the higher end of the range), an error that explained the IMF’s extremely optimistic growth projections for countries who front-loaded fiscal consolidation. Assuming the multiplier was 1.5, a fiscal adjustment of 3 percent of GDP-as much as Spain has to do next year- would lead to a GDP contraction of 4.5 percent. It was momentous finding and those who had been skeptical of the virtues of austerity felt vindicated.
Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H O’Rourke provide additional evidence for large fiscal multipliers, in fact for larger multipliers than those proposed by the IMF. According to them:
The problem is that standard theory doesn’t tell us much about the precise magnitude of the multiplier under [current] conditions. The IMF’s analysis, moreover, relies on observations for only a handful of national experiences. It is limited to the post-2009 period. And it has been criticized for its sensitivity to the inclusion of influential outliers.
Fortunately, history provides more evidence on the relevant magnitudes. In a paper written together with Miguel Almunia, Agustin Bénétrix and Gisela Rua, we considered the experience of 27 countries in the 1930s, the last time when interest rates were at or near the zero lower bound, and when post-2009-like monetary conditions therefore applied (Almunia et al. 2010).
Our results depart from the earlier historical literature. Generalizing from the experience of the US it is frequently said, echoing E Cary Brown, that fiscal policy didn’t work in the 1930s because it wasn’t tried. In fact it was tried, in Japan, Italy, and Germany, for rearmament- and military-related reasons, and even in the US, where a Veterans’ Bonus amounting to 2% of GDP was paid out in 1936. Fiscal policy could have been used more actively, as Keynes was later to lament, but there was at least enough variation across countries and over time to permit systematic quantitative analysis of its effects.
We analyze the size of fiscal multipliers in several ways. First, we estimate panel vector regressions, relying on recursive ordering to identify shocks and using defense spending as our fiscal policy variable. The idea is that levels of defense spending are typically chosen for reasons unrelated to the current state of the economy, so defense spending can thus be placed before output in the recursive ordering. We also let interest rates and government revenues respond to output fluctuations. We find defense-spending multipliers in this 1930s setting as large as 2.5 on impact and 1.2 after the initial year.
Second, we estimate the response of output to government spending using a panel of annual data and defense spending as an instrument for the fiscal stance.
Here too we control for the level of interest rates, although these were low virtually everywhere, reflecting the prevalence of economic slack and ongoing deflation. Using this approach, our estimate of the multiplier is 1.6 when evaluated at the median values of the independent variables.
These estimates based on 1930s data are at the higher end of those in the literature, consistent with the idea that the multiplier will be greater when interest rates do not respond to the fiscal impulse, whether because they are at the lower bound or for other reasons. The 1930s experience thus suggests that the IMF’s new estimates are, if anything, on the conservative side.
Some economists remain unconvinced—in fact, some actually argue that government spending is incapable of creating jobs. The economist Robert J. Samuelson was so upset to read a New York Times editorial which claimed that government spending creates jobs that he had to respond:
In 35 years, I can’t recall ever writing a column refuting an editorial. But this one warrants special treatment because the Times’ argument is so simplistic, the subject is so important and the Times is such an influential institution.
Here is the nub of his argument:
it’s true that, legally, government does expand employment. But economically, it doesn’t — and that’s what people usually mean when they say “government doesn’t create jobs.”
What the Times omits is the money to support all these government jobs. It must come from somewhere — generally, taxes or loans (bonds, bills). But if the people whose money is taken via taxation or borrowing had kept the money, they would have spent most or all of it on something — and that spending would have boosted employment.
In other words, because the government relies on the private sector for the money it spends, the jobs created by its spending cannot be a net addition to the economy. Said differently, jobs supported by public spending are not real jobs. There is a lot that can be said, but here is Dean Baker’s response:
Samuelson tells us that if the government didn’t tax or borrow or the money to pay its workers (he makes a recession exception later in the piece) people “would have spent most or all of it on something — and that spending would have boosted employment.”
Again, this is true, but how does it differ from the private sector? If the new iPhone wasn’t released last month people would have spent most or all of that money on something — and that spending would have boosted employment. Does this mean that workers at Apple don’t have real jobs either?
The confusion gets even greater when we start to consider the range of services that can be provided by either the public or private sector. In Robert Samuelson’s world we know that public school teachers don’t have real jobs, but what about teachers at private schools? Presumably the jobs held by professors at major public universities, like Berkeley or the University of Michigan are not real, but the jobs held at for-profit universities, like Phoenix or the Washington Post’s own Kaplan Inc., are real.
How about health care? Currently the vast majority of workers in the health care industry are employed by the private sector. Presumably these are real jobs according to Samuelson. Suppose that we replace our private health care system with a national health care service like the one they have in the U.K. Would the jobs in the health care no longer be real? . . .
How about when the government finances an industry by granting it a state sanctioned monopoly as when it grants patent monopolies on prescription drugs. Do the researchers at Pfizer have real jobs even though their income is dependent on a government granted monopoly? Would they have real jobs if the government instead paid for research out of tax revenue and let drugs be sold in a free market, saving consumers $250 billion a year?
Robert Samuelson obviously thinks there is something very important about the difference between working for the government and working in the private sector. Unfortunately his column does not do a very good job of explaining why. It would probably be best if he waited another 35 years before again attacking a newspaper editorial.
If people are confused about how our economy works, or doesn’t work, it is no wonder.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s low federal tax rate—14.1%—has called attention to the fact that our tax code favors people who make their money from investments rather than labor. According to the conventional wisdom, this is as it should be. It encourages people, like our job creators, to invest their money, thereby boosting growth and the well-being of all working people. Sounds plausible but the facts don’t support the policy.
BusinessWeek lays out the background and political context for our current low taxation rates on investment income as follows:
Since 1950 capital gains have generally been taxed at a lower rate than income, to spur investment. The rate under President George W. Bush went from 20 percent to 15—the lowest ever—and was billed as a way to stimulate the economy. (If nothing’s done by Jan. 1 to change tax and budget provisions already passed by Congress, the rate will snap back to 20 percent, a scenario both parties hope to avoid.) Mitt Romney wants to ditch capital gains tax altogether for people earning less than $250,000. President Barack Obama, in his Affordable Care Act, increased the rate by 3.8 percent for high earners beginning in 2013, and has proposed the so-called Buffett Rule, which would among other things end an accounting interpretation that allows private equity and hedge fund managers (and Romney) to save money by paying tax on their earnings at the capital gains rate. Neither candidate, though, contests the Bush administration’s basic logic: that a lower capital gains rate encourages investment, which creates jobs and helps the economy grow. That doesn’t mean they’re right.
Leonard E. Burman, a tax expert, took on this issue in recent testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance. A good place to start is with who benefits from lower capital gains taxes.
Not surprisingly, as the figure below (which is taken from Burman’s testimony) shows, the benefits are extremely concentrated. As Burman noted:
In 2010, the highest-income 20 percent realized more than 90 percent of long-term capital gains according to the TaxPolicyCenter. The top 1 percent realized almost 70 percent of gains and the richest 1 in 1,000 households accrued about 47 percent. It is hard to think of another form of income that is more concentrated by income.
Moreover, as the next figure shows, the concentration of capital gains has grown over time. Given that the rich fund political campaigns, this certainly helps to explain why both political parties are so determined to keep the rate low.
But, to the main question—do lower capital gains taxes actually boost growth? This is what Burman had to say in his testimony:
The heated rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no obvious relationship between tax rates on capital gains and economic growth. Figure 4 [below] shows top tax rates on long-term capital gains and real economic growth (measured as the percentage change in real GDP) from 1950 to 2011. If low capital gains tax rates catalyzed economic growth, we’d expect to see a negative relationship–high gains rates, low growth, and vice versa–but there is no apparent relationship between the two time series. The correlation is 0.12, the opposite sign from what capital gains tax cut advocates would expect, and not statistically different from zero. Although not shown, I’ve tried lags up to five years and using moving averages, but there is never a larger or statistically significant relationship.
Burman notes that he posted this figure on his blog and offered the data to anyone interested, challenging readers to find support for lower rates. “A half dozen or so people, including at least one outspoken critic of taxing capital gains, took me up on the offer, but nobody to my knowledge has been able to tease a meaningful relationship between capital gains tax rates and the GDP out of the data.”
As reported in a previous post, Thomes L. Hungerford, writing for the Congressional Research Service, came to the same conclusion about the lack of any relationship between the capital gains tax and GDP. In fact, he concluded raising the top income and capital gains tax rates would likely reduce income inequality without causing harm to the economy.
So, if we are really concerned with the budget deficit, rather than slashing spending on social programs lets raise the top tax rates. Wonder if this will come up during our presidential debates?
There are those that argue that lowering the top marginal tax rates on “ordinary” income (from wages or salary) and capital gains will stimulate economic growth. Thomas L. Hungerford, in a Congressional Research Report, tests and rejects this claim.
He finds no statistical relationship between changes in either of these top tax rates and private savings, investment, productivity, or real per capita GDP growth. However, he does find a strong statistical relationship between changes in these tax rates and income inequality. More specifically, raising top tax rates can be expected to promote greater income equality without causing harm to the economy.
There are two main tax concepts—the marginal tax rate, which is the tax paid on the last dollar of income received, and the average tax rate, which is the proportion of all income that is paid in taxes. How much a person pays on the last dollar received depends on whether it is classified as ordinary income or capital gains.
Most importantly, as the chart below shows, the very top tax payers have enjoyed a steady decline in their average tax rate.
The next chart shows trends in top marginal tax rates on ordinary income and capital gains. The top marginal tax rate on ordinary income has clearly been on the decline: from 91% in the 1950s, 70% in the 1960s and 1970s, to a low of 28% in 1986. It now stands at 35%. The top marginal capital gains tax rate has not changed as much. It was 25% in the 1950s and 1960s, 35% in the 1970s, and is now 15%.
Hungerford used econometric methods to test whether changes in top marginal tax rates affect private savings, investment, productivity, and/or per capita GDP growth. Simply plotting the movement of top tax rates and each of these variables suggests that a decline in top tax rates is associated with a positive movement in each of these economic variables.
However, as Hungerford correctly states, correlation is not the same as causation. Using regression analysis, he found that the relationships were only coincidental or spurious; there was no statistically significant connection between changes in the top tax rates and movements in any of the variables.
Hungerford also tested to see if changes in top marginal tax rates had any effect on the distribution of income. The first chart below shows the scatter plot of top tax rates and the share of income going to the top 0.1% for the years 1945-2010. The second shows the same with the top 0.01% of income earners.
As we can see the fitted lines suggest a very strong relationship between the variables. As before, Hungerford used regression analysis to determine whether the relationships were statistically significant. This time his answer was yes in both cases; changes in top marginal tax rates do affect income concentration. In other words, lowering the top rates increases income inequality, raising them reduces it.
It is time for us to start agitating for raising the top tax rates.
The media has focused on the lack of jobs as a major election issue. But the concern needs to go beyond jobs to the quality of those jobs.
As a report by the National Employment Law Project makes clear, we are experiencing a low wage employment recovery. This trend, the result of an ongoing restructuring of economic activity, has profound consequences for issues of poverty, inequality, and community stability.
The authors of the report examined 366 occupations and divided them into three equally sized groups by wage. The lower-wage group included occupations which paid median hourly wages ranging from $7.69 to $13.83. The mid-wage group range was from $13.84 to $21.13. The higher-wage group range was from $21.14 to $54.55.
The figure below shows net employment changes in each of these groups during the recession period (2008Q1 to 2010Q1) and the current recovery (2010Q1 to 2012Q1). Specifically:
- Lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth.
- Mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.
- Higher-wage occupations were 19 percent of recession job losses, and 20 percent of recovery growth.
The next figure shows the lower-wage occupations with the fastest growth and their median hourly wages. According to the report, three low-wage industries (food services, retail, and employment services) added 1.7 million jobs over the past two years, 43 percent of net employment growth. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections these are precisely the occupations that can be expected to provide the greatest number of new jobs over the next 5-10 years.
As the final figure shows, the decline in mid-wage occupations predates the recession. Since the first quarter of 2001, employment has grown by 8.7 percent in lower-wage occupations and by 6.6 percent in higher-wage occupations. By contrast, employment in mid-wage occupations has fallen by 7.3.
Significantly, as the report also notes, “the wages paid by these occupations has changed. Between the first quarters of 2001 and 2012, median real wages for lower-wage and mid-wage occupations declined (by 2.1 and 0.2 percent, respectively), but increased for higher-wage occupations (by 4.1 percent).”
A New York Times article commenting on this report included the following:
This “polarization” of skills and wages has been documented meticulously by David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A recent study found that this polarization accelerated in the last three recessions, particularly the last one, as financial pressures forced companies to reorganize more quickly.
“This is not just a nice, smooth process,” said Henry E. Siu, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia, who helped write the recent study about polarization and the business cycle. “A lot of these jobs were suddenly wiped out during recession and are not coming back.”
Steady as she goes is just not going to do it and changes in taxes and spending programs, regardless of how significant, cannot compensate for the increasingly negative trends generated by private sector decisions about the organization and location of, as well as compensation for production.
Mainstream economics is largely built on theories that assume that people are best understood as highly competitive and individualistic maximizing agents. In fact, capitalism is said to be the most desirable economic system ever constructed precisely because its laws of motion are in sync with these traits. Capitalism’s desirability is easily called into question, however, if people highly value fairness, cooperation, and relations of solidarity. After all, capitalist imperatives tend to work against the development of social conditions and institutions that promote these values.
Many supporters of capitalism draw upon studies of non-human animal behavior to defend their assumptions about human nature. But, as the Ted Talk by Frans de Waal found here (and below) demonstrates, non-human animals also greatly value fairness, cooperation, and relations of solidarity.
After watching the video take a few moments to imagine an economic system that builds upon these attractive values, then compare the policies that would be helpful to create it with the policies we currently promote to strengthen our existing economic system. For example, how would this foundational shift influence our thinking about how best to organize production, relate production decisions to social and community needs, structure the ownership of society’s productive assets, and so on.