Tax Incidence Revisited, Part 1: The downside of taxes

JDN 2457345 EST 22:02

As I was writing this, it was very early (I had to wake up at 04:30) and I was groggy, because we were on an urgent road trip to Pennsylvania for the funeral of my aunt who died quite suddenly a few days ago. I have since edited this post more thoroughly to minimize the impact of my sleep deprivation upon its content. Actually maybe this is a good thing; the saying goes, “write drunk, edit sober” and sleep deprivation and alcohol have remarkably similar symptoms, probably because alcohol is GABA-ergic and GABA is involved in sleep regulation.

Awhile ago I wrote a long post on tax incidence, but the primary response I got was basically the online equivalent of a perplexed blank stare. Struck once again by the Curse of Knowledge, I underestimated the amount of background knowledge necessary to understand my explanation. But tax incidence is very important for public policy, so I really would like to explain it.

Therefore I am now starting again, slower, in smaller pieces. Today’s piece is about the downsides of taxation in general, why we don’t just raise taxes as high as we feel like and make the government roll in dough.

To some extent this is obvious; if income tax were 100%, why would anyone bother working for a salary? You might still work for fulfillment, or out of a sense of duty, or simply because you enjoy what you do—after all, most artists and musicians are hardly in it for the money. But many jobs are miserable and not particularly fulfilling, yet still need to get done. How many janitors or bus drivers work purely for the sense of fulfillment it gives them? Mostly they do it to pay the bills—and if income tax were 100%, it wouldn’t anymore. The formal economy would basically collapse, and then nobody would end up actually paying that 100% tax—so the government would actually get very little revenue, if any.

At the other end of the scale, it’s kind of obvious that if your taxes are all 0% you don’t get any revenue. This is actually more feasible than it may sound; provided you spend only a very small amount (say, 4% of GDP, though that’s less than any country actually spends—maybe you could do 6% like Bangladesh) and you can still get people to accept your currency, you could, in principle, have a government that funds its spending entirely by means of printing money, and could do this indefinitely. In practice, that has never been done, and the really challenging part is getting people to accept your money if you don’t collect taxes in it. One of the more counter-intuitive aspects of modern monetary theory (or perhaps I should capitalize it, Modern Monetary Theory, though the part I agree with is not that different from standard Keynesian theory) is that taxation is the primary mechanism by which money acquires its value.

And then of course with intermediate tax rates such as 20%, 30%, and 50% that actual countries actually use, we do get some positive amount of revenue.

Everything I’ve said so far may seem pretty obvious. Yeah, usually taxes raise revenue, but if you taxed at 0% or 100% they wouldn’t; so what?

Well, this leads to quite an important result. Assuming that tax revenue is continuous (which isn’t quite true, but since we can collect taxes in fractions of a percent and pay in pennies, it’s pretty close), it follows directly from the Extreme Value Theorem that there is in fact a revenue-maximizing tax rate. Both below and above that tax rate, the government takes in less total money. These theorems don’t tell us what the revenue-maximizing rate is; but they tell us that it must exist, somewhere between 0% and 100%.

Indeed, it follows that there is what we call the Laffer Curve, a graph of tax revenue as a function of tax rate, and it is in fact a curve, as opposed to the straight line it would be if taxes had no effect on the rest of the economy.

Very roughly, it looks something like this (the blue curve is my sketch of the real-world Laffer curve, while the red line is what it would be if taxes had no distortionary effects):

Laffer_curve

Now, the Laffer curve has been abused many times; in particular, it’s been used to feed into the “trickle-down” “supply-sideReaganomics that has been rightly derided as “voodoo economics” by serious economists. Jeb Bush (or should I say, Jeb!) and Marco Rubio would have you believe that we are on the right edge of the Laffer curve, and we could actually increase tax revenue by cutting taxes, particularly on capital gains and incomes at the top 1%; that’s obviously false. We tried that, it didn’t work. Even theoretically we probably should have known that it wouldn’t; but now that we’ve actually done the experiment and it failed, there should be no serious doubt anymore.

No, we are on the left side of the Laffer curve, where increasing taxes increases revenue, much as you’d intuitively expect. It doesn’t quite increase one-to-one, because adding more taxes does make the economy less efficient; but from where we currently stand, a 1% increase in taxes leads to about a 0.9% increase in revenue (actually estimated as between 0.78% and 0.99%).

Denmark may be on the right side of the Laffer curve, where they could raise more revenue by decreasing tax rates (even then I’m not so sure). But Denmark’s tax rates are considerably higher than ours; while in the US we pay about 27% of GDP in taxes, folks in Denmark pay 49% of GDP in taxes.

The fact remains, however, that there is a Laffer curve, and no serious economist would dispute this. Increasing taxes does in fact create distortions in the economy, and as a result raising tax rates does not increase revenue in a one-to-one fashion. When calculating the revenue from a new tax, you must include not only the fact that the government will get an increased portion, but also that the total amount of income will probably decrease.

Now, I must say probably, because it does depend on what exactly you are taxing. If you tax something that is perfectly inelastic—the same amount of it is going to be made and sold no matter what—then total income will remain exactly the same after the tax. It may be distributed differently, but the total won’t change. This is one of the central justifications for a land tax; land is almost perfectly inelastic, so taxing it allows us to raise revenue without reducing total income.

In fact, there are certain kinds of taxes which increase total income, which makes them basically no-brainer taxes that should always be implemented if at all feasible. These are Pigovian taxes, which are taxes on products with negative externalities; when a product causes harm to other people (the usual example is pollution of air and water), taxing that product equal to the harm caused provides a source of government revenue that also increases the efficiency of the economy as a whole. If we had a tax on carbon emissions that was used to fund research into sustainable energy, this would raise our total GDP in the long run. Taxes on oil and natural gas are not “job killing”; they are job creating. This is why we need a carbon tax, a higher gasoline tax, and a financial transaction tax (to reduce harmful speculation); it’s also why we already have high taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

The alcohol tax is one of the great success stories of Pigouvian taxation.The alcohol tax is actually one of the central factors holding our crime rate so low right now. Another big factor is overall economic growth and anti-poverty programs. The most important factor, however, is lead, or rather the lack thereof; environmental regulations reducing pollutants like lead and mercury from the environment are the leading factor in reducing crime rates over the last generation. Yes, that’s right—our fall in crime had little to do with state police, the FBI, the DEA, or the ATF; our most effective crime-fighting agency is the EPA. This is really not that surprising, as a cognitive economist. Most crime is impulsive and irrational, or else born of economic desperation. Rational crime that it would make sense to punish harshly as a deterrent is quite rare (well, except for white-collar crime, which of course we don’t punish harshly enough—I know I harp on this a lot, but HSBC laundered money for terrorists). Maybe crime would be more common if we had no justice system in place at all, but making our current system even harsher accomplishes basically nothing. Far better to tax the alcohol that leads good people to bad decisions.

It also matters whom you tax, though one of my goals in this tax incidence series is to explain why that doesn’t mean quite what most people think it does. The person who writes the check to the government is not necessarily the person who really pays the tax. The person who really pays is the one whose net income ends up lower after the tax is implemented. Often these are the same person; but often they aren’t, for fundamental reasons I’m hoping to explain.

For now, it’s worth pointing out that a tax which primarily hits the top 1% is going to have a very different impact on the economy than one which hits the entire population. Because of the income and substitution effects, poor people tend to work less as their taxes go up, but rich people tend to work more. Even within income brackets, a tax that hits doctors and engineers is going to have a different effect than a tax that hits bankers and stock traders, and a tax that hits teachers is going to have a different effect than a tax that hits truck drivers. A tax on particular products or services will reduce demand for those products or services, which is good if that’s what you’re trying to do (such as alcohol) but not so good if it isn’t.

So, yes, there are cases where raising taxes can actually increase, or at least not reduce, total income. These are the exception, however; as a general rule, in a Pirate Code sort of way, taxes reduce total income. It’s not simply that income goes down for everyone but the government (which would again be sort of obvious); income goes down for everyone including the government. The difference is simply lost, wasted away by a loss in economic efficiency. We call that difference deadweight loss, and for a poorly-designed tax it can actually far exceed the revenue received.

I think an extreme example may help to grasp the intuition: Suppose we started taxing cars at 200,000%, so that a typical new car costs something like $40 million with taxes. (That’s not a Lamborghini, mind you; that’s a Honda Accord.) What would happen? Nobody is going to buy cars anymore. Overnight, you’ve collapsed the entire auto industry. Dozens of companies go bankrupt, thousands of employees get laid off, the economy immediately falls into recession. And after all that, your car tax will raise no revenue at all, because not a single car will sell. It’s just pure deadweight loss.

That’s an intentionally extreme example; most real-world taxes in fact create less deadweight loss than they raise in revenue. But most real-world taxes do in fact create deadweight loss, and that’s a good reason to be concerned about any new tax.

In general, higher taxes create lower total income, or equivalently higher deadweight loss. All other things equal, lower taxes are therefore better.

What most Americans don’t seem to quite grasp is that all other things are not equal. That tax revenue is central to the proper functioning of our government and our monetary system. We need a certain amount of taxes in order to ensure that we can maintain a stable currency and still pay for things like Medicare, Social Security, and the Department of Defense (to name our top three budget items).

Alternatively, we could not spend so much on those things, and that is a legitimate question of public policy. I personally think that Medicare and Social Security are very good things (and I do have data to back that up—Medicare saves thousands of lives), but they aren’t strictly necessary for basic government functioning; we could get rid of them, it’s just that it would be a bad idea. As for the defense budget, some kind of defense budget is necessary for national security, but I don’t think I’m going out on a very big limb here when I say that one country making 40% of all world military spending probably isn’t.

We can’t have it both ways; if you want Medicare, Social Security, and the Department of Defense, you need to have taxes. “Cutting spending” always means cutting spending on something—so what is it you want to cut? A lot of people seem to think that we waste a huge amount of money on pointless bureaucracy, pork-barrel spending, or foreign aid; but that’s simply not true. All government administration is less than 1% of the budget, and most of it is necessary; earmarks are also less than 1%; foreign aid is also less than 1%. Since our deficit is about 15% of spending, we could eliminate all of those things and we’d barely put a dent in it.

Americans don’t like taxes; I understand that. It’s basically one of our founding principles, in fact, though “No taxation without representation” seems to have mutated of late into simply “No taxation”, or maybe “Read my lips, no new taxes!” It’s never pleasant to see that chunk taken out of your paycheck before you even get it. (Though one thing I hope to explain in this series is that these figures are really not very meaningful; there’s no particular reason to think you’d have made the same gross salary if those taxes hadn’t been present.)

There are in fact sound economic reasons to keep taxes low. The Laffer Curve is absolutely a real thing, even though most of its applications are wrong. But sometimes we need taxes to be higher, and that’s a tradeoff we have to make.We need to have a serious public policy discussion about where our priorities lie, not keep trading sound-bytes about “cutting wasteful spending” and “job-killing tax hikes”.

Just give people money!

JDN 2457332 EDT 17:02.

Today is the Fifth of November, on which a bunch of people who liked a Hollywood movie start posting images in support of a fanatical religious terrorist in his plot to destroy democracy in the United Kingdom a few centuries ago. It’s really weird, but I’m not particularly interested in that.

Instead I’d like to talk about the solution to poverty, which we’ve known for a long time—in fact, it’s completely obvious—and yet have somehow failed to carry out. Many people doubt that it even works, not based on the empirical evidence, but because it just feels like it can’t be right, like it’s so obvious that surely it was tried and didn’t work and that’s why we moved on to other things. When you first tell a kindergartner that there are poor people in the world, that child will very likely ask: “Why don’t we just give them some money?”

Why not indeed?

Formally this is called a “direct cash transfer”, and it comes in many different variants, but basically they run along a continuum from unconditional—we just give it to everybody, no questions asked—to more and more conditional—you have to be below a certain income, or above a certain age, or have kids, or show up at our work program, or take a drug test, etc. The EU has a nice little fact sheet about the different types of cash transfer programs in use.

Actually, I’d argue that at the very far extreme is government salaries—the government will pay you $40,000 per year, provided that you teach high school every weekday. We don’t really think of that as a “conditional cash transfer” because it involves you providing a useful service (and is therefore more like an ordinary, private-sector salary), but many of the conditions imposed on cash transfers actually have this sort of character—we want people to do things that we think are useful to society, in order to justify us giving them the money. It really seems to be a continuum, from just giving money to everyone, to giving money to some people based on them doing certain things, to specifically hiring people to do something.

Social programs in different countries can be found at different places on this continuum. In the United States, our programs are extremely conditional, and also the total amount we give out is relatively small. In Europe, programs are not as conditional—though still conditional—and they give out more. And sure enough, after-tax poverty in Europe is considerably lower, even though before-tax poverty is about the same.

In fact, the most common way to make transfers conditional is to make them “in-kind”; instead of giving you money, we give you something—healthcare, housing, food. Sometimes this makes sense; actually I think for healthcare it makes the most sense, because price signals don’t work in a market as urgent and inelastic as healthcare (that is, you don’t shop around for an emergency room—in fact, people don’t even really shop around for a family doctor). But often it’s simply a condition we impose for political reasons; we don’t want those “lazy freeloaders” to do anything else with the money that we wouldn’t like, such as buying alcohol or gambling. Even poor people in India buy into this sort of reasoning. Nevermind that they generally don’t do that, or that they could just shift away spending they would otherwise be making (warning: technical economics paper within) to do those things anyway—it’s the principle of the thing.

Direct cash transfers not only work—they work about as well as the best things we’ve tried. Spending on cash transfers is about as cost-effective as spending on medical aid and malaria nets.

Other than in experiments (the largest of which I’m aware of was a town in Canada, unless you count Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, which is unconditional but quite small), we have never really tried implementing a fully unconditional cash transfer system. “Too expensive” is usually the complaint, and it would indeed be relatively expensive (probably greater than all of what we currently spend on Social Security and Medicare, which are two of our biggest government budget items). Implementing a program with a cost on the order of $2 trillion per year is surely not something to be done lightly. But it would have one quite substantial benefit: It would eliminate poverty in the United States immediately and forever.

This is why I really like the “abolish poverty” movement; we must recognize that at our current level of economic development, poverty is no longer a natural state, a complex problem to solve. It is a policy decision that we are making. We are saying, as a society, that we would rather continue to have poverty than spend that $2 trillion per year, about 12% of our $17.4 trillion GDP. We are saying that we’d rather have people who are homeless and starving than lose 12 cents of every dollar we make. (To be fair, if we include the dynamic economic impact of this tax-and-transfer system it might actually turn out to be more than that; but it could in fact be less—the increased spending would boost the economy, just as the increased taxes would restrain it—and seems very unlikely to be more than 20% of GDP.)

For most of human history—and in most countries today—that is not the case. India could not abolish poverty immediately by a single tax policy; nor could China. Probably not Brazil either. Maybe Greece could do it, but then again maybe not. But Germany could; the United Kingdom could; France could; and we could in the United States. We have enough wealth now that with a moderate increase in government spending we could create an economic floor below which no person could fall. It is incumbent upon us at the very least to justify why we don’t.

I have heard it said that poverty is not a natural condition, but the result of human action. Even Nelson Mandela endorsed this view. This is false, actually. In general, poverty is the natural condition of all life forms on Earth (and probably all life forms in the universe). Natural selection evolves us toward fitting as many gene-packages into the environment as possible, not toward maximizing the happiness of the sentient beings those gene-packages may happen to be. To a first approximation, all life forms suffer in poverty.

We live at a unique time in human history; for no more than the last century—and perhaps not even that—we have actually had so much wealth that we could eliminate poverty by choice. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings toiled in poverty because there was no such choice. Perhaps good policy in Greece could end poverty today, but it couldn’t have during the reign of Pericles. Good policy in Italy could end poverty now, but not when Caesar was emperor. Good policy in the United Kingdom could easily end poverty immediately, but even under Queen Victoria that wasn’t feasible.

Maybe that’s why we aren’t doing it? Our cultural memory was forged in a time decades or centuries ago, before we had this much wealth to work with. We speak of “end world hunger” in the same breath as “cure cancer” or “conquer death”, a great dream that has always been impossible and perhaps still is—but in fact we should speak of it in the same breath as “split the atom” and “land on the Moon”, seminal achievements that our civilization is now capable of thanks to economic and technological revolution.

Capitalism also seems to have a certain momentum to it; once you implement a market economy that maximizes wealth by harnessing self-interest, people seem to forget that we are fundamentally altruistic beings. I may never forget that economist who sent me an email with “altruism” in scare quotes, as though it was foolish (or at best imprecise) to say that human beings care about one another. But in fact we are the most altruistic species on Earth, without question, in a sense so formal and scientific it can literally be measured quantitatively.

There are real advantages to harnessing self-interest—not least, I know my own interests considerably better than I know yours, no matter who you are—and that is part of how we have achieved this great level of wealth (though personally I think science, democracy, and the empowerment of women are the far greater causes of our prosperity). But we must not let it forget us why we wanted to have wealth in the first place: Not to concentrate power in a handful of individuals who will pass it on to their heirs; not to “maximize work incentives”; not to give us the fanciest technological gadgets. The reason we wanted to have wealth was so that we could finally free ourselves from the endless toil that was our lot by birth and that of all other beings—to let us finally live, instead of merely survive. There is a peak to Maslow’s pyramid, and we could stand there now, together; but we must find the will to give up that 12 cents of every dollar.