Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Laffer Curve Revisited (Part Deux)

In our previous post, we essentially debunked the right-wing talking points about the Laffer Curve.  We showed that, generally speaking, the peak of the curve for the top marginal tax rate is most likely 70% or perhaps even a bit higher.  That is, tax cuts (particularly at the top) can nearly always reasonably be expected to decrease revenue rather than increase it, and vice-versa. We also showed that there is another curve called the Kimel Curve, which illustrates that a top marginal rate of 60-70% maximizes economic growth based on empirical data.

But what about Hauser's Law?  For those who don't know, Hauser's Law (a supposed corollary to the Laffer Curve) postulates that federal tax revenue cannot exceed 19.5% of GDP for long regardless of what the marginal tax rates are.  Indeed, at first glance the empirical data from 1945 to the present do appear to agree, but it really doesn't stand up to closer scrutiny.  Part of it comes from lying with statistics to obscure significant swings in revenues, and part of it comes from omitting key facts about less obvious changes in the tax code over the years that confound the apparent (non)correlation.  Thus anyone who cites Hauser's Law (which it turns out is not really a law at all) is either ignorant or disingenuous at best.  Consider it debunked.

Another important question is whether the Laffer Curve differs depending on the type of income being taxed.  Conservatives frequently argue that the tax rate on long-term capital gains should be significantly lower than the rate on ordinary income, as is currently the case.  For example, they claim that the Laffer Curve peaks at a much lower rate due to the so-called "lock-in" effect (when investors hold onto their underperforming assets longer to avoid taxation) induced by higher tax rates, an effect that allegedly hurts the economy.  However, this appears to be primarily a short-term phenomenon that occurs when investors either anticipate the change in tax rate in advance and/or believe that the rate hike or cut will only be temporary.  Effects on economic growth do not appear to be large in the short or long term, and may even be perverse in the short term.  In fact, rather than encourage investment, one experimental study finds that taxing capital gains at too low a rate may, at least in some circumstances, encourage too much divestment (consumption) of capital at the expense of further investment.  This might be one reason why overall private investment was actually lower on average in the lower-tax 1980s than it was in the higher-tax 1970s.  Also, a lower rate on capital gains is a key part of many tax shelters, and adds unnecessary complexity to the tax code. Thus, taxing long-term capital gains at a lower rate does not appear to be justified.  And to avoid taxing illusory gains due to inflation, it would make more sense to simply allow taxpayers to index the basis for inflation (which is not currently the case) while taxing all forms of income at the same rate. 

In addition, one should also observe how nearly every single time the capital gains tax was cut, an asset bubble of some sort eventually followed.  These include the notorious 1920s stock market bubble (tax cut was in 1922-1925), the late 1970s commodities bubble (cut in 1978), the late 1990s NASDAQ/tech bubble (cut in 1997), and the 2000s housing bubble (cuts in 1997 and 2003).  The one exception was the 1982 tax cut, which occurred during a deliberately-induced (i.e. by the Feral Reserve) recession and was followed by an equally large hike in the capital gains tax five years later that restored the rate back to its 1981 value before another bubble had a chance to form.  (The relatively small stock market correction in 1987 represented only a minor bubble in the market.)  While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, it is uncannily suggestive to say the least.  Though a low tax rate may appear be investor-friendly on the surface, one should keep in mind all of those hapless investors that lost their shirts when the bubbles inevitably burst, and all the damage the fallout did to the general economy.

How about corporations?  It appears that the Laffer Curve for the corporate income tax peaks somewhere between 20-30%, which is significantly lower than is the case for individuals.  However, the current corporate income tax rate of 35% in the USA (supposedly one of the highest in the world) is largely a fraud--due to loopholes, most companies pay nowhere close to that, and two-thirds of them effectively paid zero (or even negative) rates in 2008-2010.  And most estimates of the Laffer Curve simply don't take that into account.  While cutting the rate to 20-25% may very well make America more competitive in the global economy, the loopholes absolutely must be closed, period.

We recently came across a website called EquityScore, which claims that cutting the corporate income tax to zero would actually increase revenue to the point that all other income taxes could also be eliminated except for the capital gains tax.  That is, they claim that taxing corporate profits suppresses market values, and the massive gain in market values would yield enough capital gains tax revenue (when the stocks are sold) from individual shareholders to more than offset the foregone revenue from eliminating the corporate income tax.  While there may be some truth to that, their calculations ignore the fact that the majority of corporations already pay an effective rate of zero (or close to zero) due to loopholes, and that typical corporations used to pay much more in the not-too-distant past than they do now.  A better idea to maximize revenue (and growth) would be to cut the corporate tax rate to 20-25%, close all of the loopholes, tax only the amount of profit left after dividends are paid out, and tax dividends (and capital gains) as ordinary income for individuals.  Not only would that raise more revenue directly, it would also allow companies to pay bigger dividends and attract more investors, thus increasing market values and indirectly raise even more revenue.  It would also make the "double taxation" argument moot as well.

In summary, we have shown that the supply-siders' conception of the Laffer Curve is largely a canard.  And for those who continue to eschew the notion of shared prosperity and still insist on the richest Americans and mega-corporations paying historically low (if any) taxes, we shall leave the reader with the following inspirational quote from a very wealthy businessman of many decades past.  This was the man who founded the famous Filene's department store and also founded the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Why shouldn't the American people take half my money from me? I took all of it from them."

---Edward Albert Filene (1869-1937)

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