Wednesday, December 02, 2020

NYU Tax Policy Colloquium, week 14: Erin Scharff's Revisiting Local Income Taxes

 Yesterday at our final colloquium of the year, we discussed the above paper, coauthored by Erin Scharff (who was our presenter) and Darien Shanske. At this stage, it could still go in several different directions. For example, it presents an argument for treating local income taxation (e.g., by cities or counties) as potentially reasonable, at least under specified conditions, despite the fiscal federalism tradition weighing against it. In addition, it addresses how-to questions for a local income tax, and surveys state-level, anti-home rule legal barriers to the enactment of such instruments. Here are some thoughts on two of the paper's main topics.

Addressing the fiscal federalism literature - Over the years, I have written a bit about fiscal federalism  i.e., taxation at subnational levels, although not recently. It's a rich and interesting field, with strong parallels to international taxation. The paper, as it develops, may address two fiscal federalism sub-fields in particular:

1) Tax base specialization - There's been a conventional wisdom in the field (although I don't know to what extent it's been questioned recently), holding that there is a natural logical division between the tax bases that should be used at each of our major levels of government. Under this view, (a) income taxation should be reserved for the federal government, (b) sales taxes should be the province of state governments, and (c) local governments should stick to real property taxes (along with various fees, user charges, etc.).

The arguments for this tripartite division go both to mobility and presumed fields of administrative advantage. Local governments, for example, may both lack the resources to run income taxes and be especially strongly subject to taxpayer mobility issues, but they ostensibly know best how to value the real property that is located right within their bounds. Local income taxation would violate this set of canons - although in fact it is fairly widespread in the US, especially if one counts county-level as well as city-level income taxes. The paper challenges the canon by suggesting that local income taxation can indeed be a reasonable choice, as one within a diversified set of fiscal instruments that a given locality could use. It notes, for example, how fiscally challenged many local governments are these days, especially post-COVID, and argues that using many small taxes may be preferable to using one large tax. (Diversification of various fiscal, administrative, and business cycle risks is one of the reasons for this.)

Even before reading the paper, I had the feeling that an overly strong version of the "one tax base per level of government" had perhaps reached its sell-by date. The diversification arguments are especially important here. And we shouldn't be so US-centric as to forget that ALL peer countries have both income taxes and VATs at the national level. Our not having the latter is simply one more instance of what I call reverse American exceptionalism. There are good reasons for doing this. Thus, for example, I have argued that advocates of a destination-based cash flow tax (DBCFT) were unpersuasive when they apparently argued that countries should have an origin-based corporate income tax or a VAT but not both. (The right argument for them to have made, although I also found it unpersuasive, was that there actually shouldn't be any origin-based corporate income tax.)

Arguments for multiple local tax bases, including income taxation at least in some cases, include not just that for diversification but also the following:

--Sometimes residence or source - whichever (or both) is used in a local income tax - may actually be less tax-responsive than, say, where one shops,

--Local real property taxes are effectively a species of wealth tax with a very narrow base, since they look only at real property holdings. It's rightly assumed that a more broad-based wealth tax would be hard to operate administratively at the local level. Income and consumption taxes can more easily be made broad-based within their realms.

--The informational differences between the levels of government may not be as great as they used to be. For example, local governments could readily be given access not just to W-2s but also to 1099s. And insofar as real property taxes rely on sales data, that should be available to all levels of government. Supposed local knowledge to create nuance in how one adjusts sales data, even insofar as localities purport to use it, may lead to abuse.

--Insofar as localities - be they cities, counties, or groups thereof - have market power such as from local agglomeration amenities, they may have the market power to impose income taxes without overly inducing exit relative to taxpaying. This, by the way, is an argument pertinent not only to income taxes, but also to, say, the proposal in NYC a few years back to tax the value of nonresidents' luxury apartments (reflecting, e.g., foreign billionaires interest in holding such items). This was potentially a great idea, depending on what the marketplace response to the tax would have been.

2) Behavioral Tiebout - The Tiebout model is a hugely important contribution to the fiscal federalism, whether or not one believes that the conditions for applying come close to being met. If one thinks not, it is still a great signpost for analysis, since the reasons for its being empirically false then assume special importance. In this regard, one could compare it, for example, to the Modigliani-Miller (MM) model in which the form that corporate finance takes (e.g., debt or equity) is simply irrelevant under specified conditions. MM provides a valuable orienting device for one's analysis even if one concludes that the preconditions for its empirical truth do not hold.

Under the Tiebout model, state and local governments become, in effect, so many shops competing for mobile customers (i.e., potential residents) by offering tax-benefit packages. This can lead both to efficient provision and to desirable diversification to serve different types of consumers.

In the pure case, this involves lump-sum finance for residents, no spillovers, sufficient mobility, sufficiently robust competition between neighboring jurisdictions, etc. But it is analytically relevant and useful even insofar as these premises fail to hold - although, in that case one must be careful to focus on the relevance of why it doesn't hold, as opposed to assuming with eyes closed that it does.

The paper suggests a contribution to the analysis that one might call "behavioral Tiebout." Since Charles Tiebout's classic article came out 64 years ago, behavioral economics has vastly grown as a mechanism for understanding how consumer markets actually function. "Behavioral Tiebout" as applied to tax and benefit competition between localities might suggest, for example, that the optics of having multiple small taxes, rather than a single large one, might significantly affect people's locational responses.

State law and home rule - Shifting to another topic within the paper's purview, it extensively discusses how various US states, despite any "home rule" provisions that they may adopt empowering local legislation in tax and other areas, disempower localities to impose income taxes, either at all or if they have specific features such as graduated rates.

In defense of such limits, it's conceivable that states may have valid reasons for wanting to resist within-state "tax exportation" by one locality at the expense of others' residents. But that's not to say that it's unreasonable to seek to tax non-voting users, such as commuters or tourists who take advantage of local amenities that are costly to maintain. Who "ought" to get particular tax base may be as normatively elusive here as in the case of international taxation.

Even without regard to how such debates might rightly come out, there is plenty of room for a political economy analysis that might rightly be, in major respects, extremely hostile to state-level limits on effective home rule, whether in tax design or elsewhere.

Consider, for example, state officials' political incentive from mandating, blaming, and under-funding local officials. They say: All localities must provide X. Then they get the credit for saying so, while the locals get the blame for both providing X imperfectly, and levying the taxes to pay for it (which seem to come from them, although actually made necessary by the mandate).

Dominant state-level coalitions may also choose to exclude and even oppress those who are outside the coaltion. Consider, in this regard, the ugly and ongoing history of anti-urban state-level politics, often energized specifically by anti-urban racism.

These days, we live in a country in which one major political party includes open supporters of armed military occupation of large cities. For example, the fascist Tom Cotton, in that infamous NYT editorial, made it clear that he views the residents of places like NYC, Washington, Chicago, Portland, and Seattle, no differently than he viewed armed guerrilla fighters when he was a US solder in Fallujah. Numerous members of his party have also labored in the cause of systematic urban disenfranchisement. And for years (e.g., recall Sarah Palin's hateful rhetoric to this effect in 2008), they have portrayed city-dwellers as not real Americans, and implicitly as not worthy of being regarded as human beings.

Such efforts to destroy both democracy and the right to dissent are aimed not just at non-whites, but also at members of the urban upper middle class, who are these people's Jews even when not actually Jewish. "Owning the libs" can all too easily escalate to wanting to kill them, much as Hitler upped the ante among anti-Semites, and there are already signs that this is happening.

Returning to home rule, state-level control is also an important mechanism, and usually the main one, for rural groups' acting out their anti-urban agenda. Think of what various states in the southeast and southwest have done with regard to issues such as the minimum wage, gun control, and COVID safety - often without regard to such potentially valid grounds for state-level intervention as spillover or the scale of local provision.

To be sure, state-level override that is unjust, inefficient, or even affirmatively malignant is not solely done by any one side. I recall, as a history major in college, learning how opportunistic both the South and New England were, in the years from the founding through the Civil War, with regard to national control vs. states' rights. It seemed (and still seems) like virtually everyone cares more about the substantive outcome - at whatever level they can best, as a political matter, achieve it, than about these federal vs. state vs. local debates. We all can be hypocrites about this.

Still, the story of racist and anti-urban state-level control at the expense of valid home rule is an issue that merits attention these days.


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