Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Times on Taxes

The New York Times' Sunday lead editorial (12/30) is simply breathtaking. The title is "Why the economy needs tax reform." It starts well,
Over the next four years, tax reform, done right, could be a cure for much of what ails the economy...
OK, say I, the sun is out, the birds are chirping, my coffee is hot, and for once I'm going to read a sensible editorial from the Times, pointing out what we all agree on, that our tax system is horrendously chaotic, corrupt, and badly in need of reform. Let's go -- lower marginal rates, broaden the base, simplify the code.

That mood lasts all of one sentence.
Higher taxes,...
Words matter. "Reform" twice, followed by paragraphs of "higher taxes," with no actual "reform" in sight. The Times is embarking on an Orwellian mission to appropriate the word "reform" to mean "higher taxes" not "fix the system."

Let's be specific. What is the Times' idea of tax "reform?"

tax capital gains at the same rates as ordinary income.... a restoration of the estate tax, higher tax rates or surcharges on multimillion-dollar incomes, and higher corporate taxes..
That's just to get started. Since, as the Times refreshingly admits,
..the new revenue would only slow the growth of the debt in the near term..
before the health care entitlement deluge hits,
... Mr. Obama would be wise to instruct the Treasury Department to start work on tax reform now, exploring carbon taxes, both to raise revenue and to protect the environment; a value-added tax,... and a financial transactions tax...
That's "reform?"

What will all those taxes do? The Times has a little bit of deficit reduction on its mind,
 More revenue would also reduce budget deficits, helping to put the nation’s finances on a stable path.
But with "reduce," "help," and "stable path," you can tell that eliminating deficits and paying off the debt are not a real high priority here. The Times has bigger fish to fry, starting with a red herring and ending with a red whale.
Higher taxes, raised progressively, could encourage growth by helping to pay for long-neglected public investment in education, infrastructure and basic research...
We've been spending more and more on education for years. While performance steadily declines. The trouble with schools is not lack of money.

Yes, infrastructure is crumbling, as a few New Yorkers may have figured out when their power went off, while their politicians -- and the Times -- instead of talking about burying electric lines and putting in a modern grid, wished instead to stem the rise of oceans and sugar in their soft drinks. But infrastructure spending is a tiny component of the Federal budget; we could support anyone's wish list without a Federal income tax.  Basic research spending could be doubled on about 10 minutes worth of Federal spending. Red herring.

The whale comes last:
Greater progressivity would reduce rising income inequality, and with it, inequality of opportunity that is both an economic and social scourge. 
The Times is arguing forthrightly for confiscatory taxation of income and wealth, in order simply to  reduce post-tax incomes. This isn't "redistribution," it's "off with their heads!"

Inequality of opportunity? No, President Obama's kids should not go to Sidwell Friends, they should go to DC public schools like everyone else?  Mayor Rahm Emanuel's kids shouldn't go to the University of Chicago Lab school (mine go there too, but I don't preach this stuff), they should have to go to Chicago public schools like everyone else? These are "economic and social advantages" arising from unequal income. Big ones, that motivate a lot of parents to work hard so they can afford the tuition.  French President Francois Hollande has a better idea: ban homework, so kids with smart parents can't get an advantage because they get help on homework. Too bad you can't ban homework in China and India. No concierge medicine either. Stand in line for medicaid like the rest of us.

And to accomplish this leveling, we'll just take money from "the rich" until all are equally impoverished.

Am I being alarmist? No. Read the sentence again, carefully. Words matter. What else can it possibly mean?

It's just astounding. When has a society ever grown, become prosperous, and raised opportunities for its citizens--of any background--by confiscatory taxation, transferring wealth to the State, with the deliberate aim of reducing the opportunities of a segment of its population? The examples I can think of -- French and Russian revolutions, the whole communist world -- ended rather badly.  Even more modest attempts, say postwar Britain, do not augur well. The evidence of Europe's current high-tax "austerity" (another word Orwellianly appropriated to mean "high taxes") and the weight of academic research (most recently from the IMF and Alberto Alesina) stand before us: Fiscal retrenchment led by higher marginal tax rates simply does not work.

Moving from outcome to opportunity, as the Times does, when has a society ever accomplished equal and plentiful opportunities by confiscatory taxation and heavy regulation? I can think of lots of societies that by these means became much less equal, with opportunity dependent on political and family connections, and thus out of reach of even the most talented and industrious people without connections. 

What of us naysayers? On taxing "capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income,"  
That is an indefensible giveaway to the richest Americans. Research shows that the tax breaks do not add to economic growth but do contribute to inequality. Currently, the top 1 percent of taxpayers receive more than 70 percent of all capital gains, while the bottom 80 percent receive only 6 percent.
Three more fish and a whopper.

We might start with the interesting assertion that any tax rate is a "giveaway." Who gives what to whom, dear Times?

"Research shows" is another fascinating choice of words.  "Research shows" means "all research shows," or "the consensus of research shows," without actually saying it. The facts are "some research shows," or in this case, really, "two unpublished papers we found on the web claim."

The links point to a report by the Congressional Research service and a one-page screed from the Urban Institute.  Both pieces of "research" simply plot the usual pointless correlations ignoring the hundreds of other causes, effects, and things not held constant. Aspirin causes colds you know: Look, there is a strong correlation between asprin-taking and colds. Neither one is even submitted let alone published in a refereed journal, which is no guarantee of anything but at least it's the minimum standard for "research." If this were indeed what constitutes "research,"  and "science,"  vast new funding for fundamental research in economics might well be warranted.

Fortunately, that is not the case.  What real research concludes, as much as anything in economics concludes, is that capital gains taxes are about the easiest to avoid (see Buffett, Warren).  Real research shows that when capital gains rates were reduced in the 1980s, revenue increased. Real public finance, the rest of the world's tax systems, and the broad conclusion of just about everybody until the world lost its head in 2008, was that capital gains taxation is a bad idea.

And the whale: "Receive" capital gains? Dear Times, capital gains are not a check sent by great-grandma's trust fund. Let me educate you on where capital gains come from: People work, and earn money, and pay taxes on that money.  Rather than blow it all stimulating consumption demand, they save some of it, invest in stocks, or start businesses. When those investments pay off, they sell, and receive capital gains. A vast swath of retirees lives off capital gains, especially from their houses.Small business owners are "high income" in the one year they sell their businesses.

Words matter, again. "Receive" paints capital gains as passive receipts form a mysterious ill-gotten mountain of gold, ripe for plucking with neither tax avoidance, behavioral change, or economic consequence. That's just not how our world works, but very revealing of the Times' zero-sum, class-warfare worldview.

What about 
...higher corporate taxes..
Once again, one of the few things real "research shows," and  economists agree on pretty heartily, is that corporate taxation -- already higher in the US than the rest of the world -- is a silly idea. All corporate taxes are passed on to people, through higher prices, lower wages, or lower returns to investors, primarily the former two. Tax people when they get the money. And corporations are much better at evasion, lobbying, moving abroad, and structuring operation in silly ways to avoid taxes.

The value added tax -- the economist's favorite, if coupled with elimination of other taxes -- is famously "regressive," the modern term (here are those important little words again) for "everybody pays the same rate."  Value added is, in Europe (along with 30-40% payroll taxes) the middle class tax that pays for middle class benefits. What about that, dear Times?
a value-added tax, coupled with provisions to protect lower-income taxpayers from higher prices, to tax consumption and encourage saving;
This is just incoherent. If you're "protected from higher prices," you're not paying the tax. If we couple the VAT with a vast new income transfer program, adieu revenues.

At least we close with some humor. The VAT is there to encourage saving, while heavy taxation of interest, dividends, capital gains and estates, says just the opposite.

What about spending?
The big obstacle to comprehensive tax reform is the persistent Republican myth that spending cuts alone can achieve economic and budget goals. That notion was sounded rejected by voters during the election. Yet it still has adherents among many Republicans, which will make it that much harder for Congress to grapple with the bigger and more complex issue at the heart of tax reform: how to pay for government in the 21st century.

....All that [long list of taxes] would only be a start, because the new revenue would only slow the growth of the debt in the near term. After 10 years, the pressures of an aging population and health care costs would cause the debt to accelerate again.
Oh those evil Republicans, standing against "reform," and reusing to grapple with "how to pay for government." The size and scope of which is not under discussion. No, dear Times, it's not "the pressures of  an aging population and health care costs." It is the Federal Government's promises to pay for it all. Which are, apparently, fixed stars.

Technical regress in any area is sad. Once upon a time, when we talked about taxes, there was a modicum of economics involved. When we thought about raising or lowering a rate, we thought seriously about the inevitable avoidance and distortions.  The first question was, "if we pass this law, will x actually pay more money, or will he simply change behavior to avoid the tax?" The second question was, "will his change in behavior hurt the economy?" Before we talk about what's "fair" we talked about "what works."

And we knew the sign of the answer: distorting taxation raises less revenue than you think, and reduces economic prosperity. The only question is how much. We did not indulge in magical thinking that appropriating anyone's income would actually improve the economy, all on its own. We understood the damage, and tried to carefully balance the benefits of spending against that damage. This is how we got, for a while, to low marginal rates with a broad base (the latter since loopholed away), low capital gains, estate, and corporate taxes, and were headed messily towards a system that taxed consumption more than rates of return. 

As one glorious counterexample of all the Times' monstrous confusions:
a financial transactions tax, to ensure that the financial sector, whose profits have substantially outpaced those of nonfinancial corporations, pay a fair share
A transactions tax is the easiest thing in the world to avoid with financial engineering.  How do you begin to figure out the "fair share" that financial vs nonfinancial corporations should pay? How about mutual funds whose beneficiaries are impoverished union schoolteachers? 

Orwellian language, blatant mistruths, and magical thinking aside, however, I want to applaud this editorial. No, I'm not kidding.

The Times is saying, out loud, that if we are to have the regulatory and welfare state we have enacted, it must be paid for with huge middle class taxes, as well as confiscatory taxes on anyone who dares to save, invest, or start a business. This is refreshing honesty. Up until about November 3, all we heard from them is that reversing the Bush tax cuts on the rich would pay for it all. At least a few of its readers may wake up and say, "wait, we voted for this?"

Really, my main complaint is that they left out the "if," and its logical consequence, and any doubts that raising tax rates so massively might not produce the needed long-run revenue growth they hope for.

It is a mistake to dismiss this clear editorial. This isn't the Village voice, or the Berkeley Free Press. This is the New York Times. This is how a wide swath of our fellow citizens, and majority of our fellow voters, see the world.   This is the agenda. They could not have been clearer if they had said "first we annex Austria and move against Czechoslovakia. Then we invade Poland and swing North and West." Heed them.