Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fred Thompson's bad idea

It's hardly worth mentioning Fred Thompson's recent tax proposals, although lauded in the Wall Street Journal the other day, given that the dang doggone ol' boy (as this Washington-Hollywood smoothie likes to style himself) is going nowhere fast. He makes my 16-year-old cat Shadow, who sleeps almost all the time, seem like a whirling dynamo by contrast. But I'll briefly discuss ol' Fred's tax plans anyway, as they raise broader points of interest.

What with proposing to end the AMT, extend the Bush tax cuts, and on and on, Fred appears to envision reducing Federal revenues by as much as 5 to 10 trillion dollars for 2008-2017 alone. (This is a wild guess, but the Bush tax cuts alone come in at $2.3 trillion according to the Congressional Budget Office.) This verges on the criminally insane given the overall U.S. fiscal picture and the political unlikelihood of commensurate outlay reductions.

The bad idea I want to emphasize here, however, is his proposal to add a simple flat tax system with fewer deductions to the Code, but not to replace the current system - he would instead make it elective: you get to use whichever system you prefer.

Tax Policy Rule # 12 (I don't have a list, it's just that this one isn't important enough to be Rule # 1): Taxpayer elections are almost always a bad idea. They add complexity while losing revenue, since taxpayers have an incentive to look at all the options and then pick the one under which they pay the least. Plus, the pattern of tax liability you get is bound to be incorrect, given its being a mix-and-match between different systems. No matter which system you prefer, the result is "wrong" for people who pick the other system.

The Wall Street Journal, in its Nov. 28 editorial lauding the plan, was characteristically ignorant and naive. They put it as follows: "Anyone who prefers the current tax code can stick with it. The rest of us can have a better choice."

Does the Journal really think that taxpayer elections will be based on personal affinity as opposed to which system enables one to pay less tax? That is not a very plausible or sophisticated view of taxpayer behavior.

Yes, as the Journal notes, providing the election may ease the politics of adopting a flat tax, which may seem good if that is the tax system you prefer. But it eases enactment by not really enacting the flat tax, given that the other system remains out there, influencing behavior and running up tax planning costs. Making something easier to adopt by not really adopting it is not a very brilliant strategy.

Okay, just for completeness, are taxpayer elections always bad? No. To over-simplify, suppose there were 2 kinds of elections: those that induced the taxpayer to choose whichever option reduced tax liability, and those that induced the taxpayer to choose whichever option lowered her tax planning and compliance costs. The latter type of election would be good, the former bad. In practice, of course, the two effects will generally be mixed together, so it's a question of how much you get of each. But the election Thompson proposes certainly seems likely to be the bad kind, as taxpayers would have strong reason to track, e.g., their home mortgage interest deductions and such (not all that administratively costly a thing to do) in deciding which option they want to use.

6 comments:

C Winters said...

Professor -- I'd love to see your take on the recent WSJ editoral on corporate tax rates (which they have been railing about for some time). With the effect of deductions (including those for stock options), the effective tax rate for US corporations, if I remember correctly, is below 20% on a size-adjusted basis. Your thoughts?

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Corporate Tax War
December 4, 2007; Page A20
Word is that the Bush Administration will soon propose a cut in the U.S. corporate income tax, following House Democrat Charlie Rangel's proposal this fall to cut the rate to 30.5% from 35%. As a new study makes clear, such a reduction would give a lift to the U.S. economy when it really needs it.

The study, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked at corporate taxes in 85 countries from 1996 to 2005. Economists from the World Bank and Harvard University calculated the effective business tax rate for each country, because some nations have so many tax loopholes that the rate paid by companies can be one-half to one-third the statutory tax rate. The study found that corporate taxes have a statistically significant negative effect on economic performance.

High business taxes were found to reduce a nation's domestic capital investment, the amount of foreign investment into that country, and its overall growth in GDP. The authors conclude that "corporate taxation reduces the return on capital and thus discourages investment" and "reduces the cash flow of the firm" in such a way as to reduce the after-tax capital available for reinvestment.

The researchers also found that high corporate levies reduce entrepreneurship, which drives new industries and job growth. In many nations the corporate tax rate is paid both by large corporations and small businesses. In the U.S., small businesses are often organized under Subchapter S of the tax code and thus pay the personal income tax rate. However the tax is imposed, the study found, "a 10 percentage point rise in a nation's effective corporate tax rate causes a decline in the number of firms by 1.8 per 100 people (the average is 5 per 100 population)."

The clear implication is that raising the U.S. personal income tax rates would also stunt small business entrepreneurship. Yet this is precisely what all of the Democratic Presidential candidates, and even Mr. Rangel, propose. In Mr. Rangel's case, the benefits of his cut in the corporate tax for big business to 30% would be offset by the damage he'd do by raising the top marginal tax rate on individuals and small businesses to as high as 44%. The NBER research suggests this could discourage hundreds of thousands of small businesses from being formed in the next few years.

This study supports research earlier this year by economist Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute, which found that high business taxes also result in lower wages for workers. The higher rate means less capital investment in making workers productive, which translates into smaller pay checks.

What American CEOs understand, but most in the media and political class so far refuse to acknowledge, is that the U.S. is far behind the rest of the world in reducing corporate tax rates. The U.S. corporate income tax rate is the world's second highest after Japan's among developed nations. Even Mr. Rangel's proposed reduction would leave the U.S. well above the OECD average of 25%. In recent years, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Poland and Singapore, among many other nations, have either cut or proposed to cut their business tax rates. These lower rates are attracting more investment and capital, and they pose a threat to America's economic competitiveness if Washington fails to act.

The NBER study is a reminder of how out-of-touch America's current political debate is with global economic trends. American politicians are proposing new barriers to trade, as well as new obstacles to capital formation, even as the rest of the world is welcoming more of both. The study is also a reminder that because workers don't see a tax does not mean that they don't feel its impact. If America is going to remain the developed world's leading job creator and economic engine, corporate tax rates are going to have to fall -- and by more than even Mr. Rangel has suggested.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Although I'm loath to trust anything the WSJ op-ed page says, it's plausible that a lower U.S. corporate tax rate, preferably accompanied by base-broadening, would be a positive step for the U.S. economy if part of an overall package that was revenue-neutral or better. And the cited research is by respectable people.

Jeff said...

Professor,

Are you familiar with the "new study" to which the WSJ article refers? I have been trying to find it for the past 24 hours and have been unsuccessful given that the op-ed does not provide authors or a title to the work.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Sorry, don't know what the study is. I guess I assumed respectability as it's an NBER cite, and also applied that adjective to the mention of Kevin Hassett's work.

c winters said...

I get it professor -- but what is the optimal tax rate, then? We've been hearing this same argument since, well, since forever. And since the editorial explicitly links the benefits of a corporate tax cut to cuts in personal income taxes (through their reference to Sub S corps), isn't this just the same old supply-side argument? In a perfect world, it's always more efficient to get rid of all taxes; but at what cost? Isn't the WSJ op-ed page just saying: "reduce taxes and capital formation -- read, supply factors -- will increase, thereby driving overall growth and greater tax receipts." And given the weakness of the government's fiscal position (and the ever-closer possibility of non-cyclical interest rate increases to promote US Treasury borrowing to finance our budget deficit, and to continue rolling over our federal debt), don't we have to compare the revenue lost to the marginal effect on these latter factors?

Daniel Shaviro said...

The special thing about lower corporate tax rates is the competitive interaction between the U.S. and other countries, where corporate residence (unlike individual residence) is close to a meaningless concept, likely to be easily manipulated, and when source-based taxation also works poorly. E.g., one fiscal advantage, at the expense of other countries, that you get from lowering your corporate rate is that companies will change how they do their transfer pricing to your advantage.

Lowering the corporate rate far below the individual rate certainly presents trade-offs, however, especially in an income tax where it can make use of the corporate form to hold your assets & income akin to having a giant IRA.