Archive for the 'Taxes' Category

The conscience of a modern conservative

November 11, 2009

“In my opinion, we are past the point where tax cuts can fix what ails us. Large tax increases will be necessary to pay for all the promises that have been made. Instead of opposing them entirely, conservatives should use their insights to design a new tax system better able to raise higher revenues at the least possible cost in terms of economic growth and freedom.” That is Bruce Bartlett in his book The New American Economy. It’s a surprising message coming from a leading supply-side advocate of the 1980s, though it won’t shock anyone who has followed Bartlett’s print and online writings over the past few years.

Bartlett argues that successful economic policies tend to be effective only in a specific set of circumstances. Their success, however, encourages supporters to believe their applicability is universal. Eventually they get overused, prove counterproductive, fall out of favor, and get replaced by new ideas.

This, according to Bartlett, is the story of both Keynesianism and supply-side economics. Keynes was a pragmatist. His recommendation to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy was formulated in response to the conditions of the Great Depression. It worked. But then, in Bartlett’s telling, it came to be viewed as an appropriate remedy for all economic downturns. By the 1970s overuse of fiscal stimulus contributed to inflation without reducing unemployment. This led to its abandonment by many economists and policy makers.

Bartlett tells a parallel tale about supply-side economics. Its core thesis is that if marginal tax rates are too high, they discourage innovation, investment, and work effort. Bartlett says this was the situation in the 1970s. The Reagan administration’s sharp reduction of marginal rates in its 1981 and 1986 tax reforms was therefore effective medicine for the American economy. It “laid the foundation for higher real growth well into the 1990s.” But like the use of budget deficits to fight recession, the supply-side strategy of reducing tax rates came to be seen by its backers as an all-purpose cure — the appropriate tonic irrespective of the economy’s ailment.

The chief economic problem we now face, in Bartlett’s view, is not high marginal tax rates. It is the aging of baby boomers to whom we have made Medicare and Social Security commitments. Absent “massive and politically impossible cuts,” this will cause federal government expenditures to rise from 20% of GDP to around 30% over the coming generation. Supply-side dogma leaves Republicans ill-prepared for this challenge. “When the crunch comes and the need for a major increase in revenue becomes overwhelming,” says Bartlett, “I expect that Republicans will refuse to participate in the process. If Democrats have to raise taxes with no bipartisan support, then they will have no choice but to cater to the demands of their party’s most liberal wing. This will mean higher rates on businesses and entrepreneurs, and soak-the-rich policies that would make Franklin D. Roosevelt blush.”

A better result, according to Bartlett, would be to bring government revenues into line with projected expenditures via a value-added tax (VAT), a type of consumption tax. Heavy use of VATs is a key reason, he says, why “many European countries have tax/GDP ratios far higher than here without suffering particularly ill effects. They may not be growing as fast as they would if taxes and spending were lower, but neither are their standards of living significantly below those of the United States. Even strenuous efforts to show that Europeans are poorer than Americans show that the differences are merely trivial.”

I agree with a good bit of what Bartlett says in the book, and I’m particularly sympathetic to this diagnosis and prescription (see here and here). It’s a long way from Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan.

I wish Bartlett had gone further. If modern conservatism is by necessity “big-government” conservatism, what principles should guide it? If conservatives must give up the goal of rolling back the welfare state, if they must acquiesce to government provision of generous cushions and supports, what should they aim for in economic and social policy? David Brooks, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Will Wilkinson, Ron Haskins and Isabell Sawhill, and others have weighed in on this question. I’d be interested to know Bartlett’s take.

Some likely candidates:

A tax system conducive to entrepreneurship, investment, and work (Bartlett’s emphasis)

Employment incentives for able working-age adults

Enhancement of individual opportunity: early intervention, improvements to K-12 schools

Limited regulation of product and labor markets

Competition and choice in public services: charter schools, vouchers for schools and child care, maybe even a public option in health insurance

Decentralized administration of public services to ensure attentiveness to local conditions

Privatization of services where possible

Benefits and services targeted at the most needy rather than the middle class

Data. Many conservatives believe the poor are better off — more affluent and upwardly mobile — than government statistics and social scientists’ analyses tend to suggest. Why not allocate money for a large high-quality panel survey (something like a PSID on steroids) that will allow us to better assess this claim?

As it happens, we have a real-world illustration, albeit on a small scale, of what much of this — all of it except heavy privatization and targeting — looks like. It looks like this.

Where did the Bush tax cuts go?

October 29, 2009

Nice graph in today’s NYT.

How to pay for inequality reduction: follow-up

April 20, 2009

One way to make some progress in reducing income inequality is to significantly increase redistributive transfers and public services. I’ve suggested that it will be difficult to fund that solely by heightening taxes on those at the top of the income distribution. Robert Waldmann asks, quite reasonably: Where’s the math?

Here’s an answer. I’ll use numbers for 2006, since that’s the most recent year for which we have good income and tax data from the Congressional Budget Office.

Suppose we need to increase tax revenues’ share of GDP by 5 percentage points. As the following chart shows, that would still leave us near the bottom among the world’s rich countries. But if the money were used well, it would be a notable advance.

GDP in 2006 was approximately $13 trillion; 5% of that is $0.65 trillion ($650 billion). President Obama has pledged to not increase taxes for the bottom 95% of Americans, so let’s presume the added revenue will come from the top 5%. In 2006 this group, 5.9 million households, had an average pretax income of $564,200. Their total pretax income was thus $3.3 trillion. The $0.65 trillion needed in order to boost tax revenues by 5% of GDP amounts to 20% of that $3.3 trillion in income. Thus, the effective tax rate (taxes paid as a share of pretax income) on the incomes of the top 5% of households would need to be increased by 20 percentage points.

The following chart shows the effective federal tax rate on the top 5% of households going back to 1960. The data from Piketty and Saez begin in 1960; the CBO data begin in 1979. I use the federal rate not only because data are available, but also because these taxes — mainly individual and corporate income — are the ones most likely to enhance the progressivity of the tax system (also included are payroll and excise taxes).

Incomes are higher in the top 1%, so what if we focused on that group? In 2006 the average pretax income among those 1.1 million households was $1,743,700. Their total income was thus $1.9 trillion. The effective federal tax rate on this group would have to be raised by 34 percentage points in order to increase tax revenues by $0.65 trillion, or 5% of GDP. Here’s what that would look like in historical context.

Whether desirable or not, increases of this magnitude strike me as unlikely. It’s worth thinking about additional potential sources of revenue.

Let me emphasize that my aim isn’t to discourage increases in taxation of the richest. I favor doing that. Rather, it’s to encourage the American left to think beyond heightened tax progressivity when considering strategies for inequality reduction.

Note: I’ve corrected an error in the earlier version of this post.

Reducing inequality: how to pay for it

April 17, 2009

The Labour Party returned to power in the U.K. in 1997 based in part on a pledge by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown not to raise taxes’ share of the British economy. In his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to reduce taxes for the bottom 95% of Americans. In both instances this commitment succeeded in insulating the progressive candidate from what had become the right’s most powerful electoral club: stoking fear of tax increases by the left.

But while it may be smart electoral politics, committing not to increase taxes’ share of GDP, as Blair did, or to lower taxes for most of the population, as Obama has done, makes it difficult for a government to make much headway in addressing income inequality. Obama has some leeway; the economic crisis has necessitated increases in government spending that can justifiably excuse some backtracking on his campaign pledge. Fully consistent with his promise, he should increase the tax rate on high-end incomes (beyond simply letting the Bush reductions expire). Two other progressive tax reforms are worth pursuing, though they would affect some in the bottom 95%. One is to reduce or end the homeownership subsidy. More than 80% of the $160 billion in foregone revenues from the deduction for mortgage interest and property tax payments goes to households in the top income quintile. The other is to introduce a modest tax on financial transactions.

But should the focus be confined to steps that make the tax system more progressive? Many on the left view heightened progressivity as the key to inequality reduction. Yet in the United States and other rich countries the tax system overall, including taxes of all types and at all levels of government, is essentially flat; households throughout the income distribution pay roughly similar shares of their market income in taxes. As the following chart shows, inequality reduction is achieved not through taxation but with government transfers (and services).

Taxes help to reduce inequality mainly via their quantity rather than their progressivity. The greater the tax revenues, the more government is able to boost incomes and living standards of those in the lower half of the distribution with transfers and services.

Moderate or high levels of tax revenue can’t come solely from higher rates or new taxes on the rich; the math simply doesn’t work. To significantly increase spending on transfers and/or services, President Obama and/or his successors will need to increase taxes on the middle class. One way to do this would be via a federal consumption tax, such as a value-added tax (VAT). We have state and local consumption (sales) taxes, but we raise less money from consumption taxes than any other rich country. Consumption taxes are regressive, and for that reason they’re often dismissed by the American left. But they can be tweaked to limit the degree of regressivity. And if the money is put to progressive use, the benefits may outweigh this drawback.

Reducing inequality: what to do about the top 1%

April 17, 2009

In my view, raising and indexing the minimum wage, enhancing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and expanding and improving public services ought to be our top priorities for boosting the incomes and living standards of Americans in the lower half of the income distribution. What about the other component of rising inequality: soaring incomes of those in the top 1%?

It’s tempting to want to intervene directly in markets to reverse this trend. One way to do so is to legislate some sort of pay cap — a maximum wage, if you will. I don’t think this is the right way to go. If the value-added by particular individuals — a CEO, financial innovator, top athlete, movie star, or what have you — is sufficient to merit pay above the cap, firms will figure out ways to get around it, for instance by providing non-monetary perks or deferring pay.

Stricter regulation of the financial sector is another possibility. This is a good idea, though mainly to prevent a repeat of the current economic downturn. If doing so has the indirect effect of reducing enormous payouts to financial players, so much the better.

The simplest and best strategy is to let markets largely determine high-end earnings and incomes and use the tax system to redistribute (more here and here). We should increase the top income tax rate and/or add one or more new rates for those with very high incomes.

This would help to reduce income inequality. And it follows logically from the rationale for progressive taxation: the higher your income, the larger the share of it you can afford to pay in taxes. Since high-end pretax incomes have risen sharply in recent decades, those at the top can afford to pay a greater share of those incomes in taxes than they did in the past. So far they haven’t had to do so, as the following data on the top 0.01% of households (about 10,000 households) indicate. This group’s average inflation-adjusted pretax income soared from $7 million in 1979 to $35 million in 2005, but the share of that income they paid in taxes didn’t increase.

What’s the proper effective tax rate on top incomes? It’s the rate that is consistent with fairness norms and produces the most tax revenue without (significantly) reducing work, investment, and innovation. I don’t know what that rate is. Maybe it’s 40%. Perhaps it’s 50% or 60%. It could conceivably be even higher. Figuring this out requires policy adjustment and monitoring.

Tax cuts: a solution for every problem

January 30, 2009

Mark Thoma discusses the remarkable economic cure-all.

How progressive are our taxes? Follow-up

January 8, 2009

In an earlier post I showed a chart that attempted to convey the limited progressivity of the American tax system when not only federal taxes but also state and local ones are taken into account. Here are two additional charts. They’re based on my calculations from data for 2004 in a Tax Foundation report (tables 3 and 4 and figure 1) by Andrew Chamberlain and Gerald Prante.

These charts show effective tax rates for each of the five quintiles of households. The effective tax rate is calculated as taxes paid divided by income. For instance, to get the effective rate for the bottom quintile, I divide the average amount paid in taxes by households in that quintile by the average income of those households.

It turns out that whether taxes are progressive depends on how income is defined.

As the first chart shows, if income is measured as market income — income from employment, investments, and a few other sources, but not including government transfers — the tax system is essentially flat. The effective tax rate is approximately 30% for households throughout the income distribution. This may hide some progressivity, since the effective rate may be higher in the top portion of the top quintile, but we can’t be sure because the Tax Foundation data don’t separate out the top 1% or 0.1% of households.

Adding government transfers (as the Congressional Budget Office does in its calculations of federal tax progressivity) increases the average income in each quintile, but much more for the bottom than for the middle or top. This reduces the effective tax rate more in the lower part of the distribution than the upper, resulting in a progressive structure.

What should we conclude? I think the first chart here better reflects the impact of the U.S. tax system. It does very little to alter the market distribution of income. Redistribution is achieved mainly by government transfers rather than by taxes. We aren’t unusual in this respect, though; it’s the case in most if not all rich countries.

Why Wait to Raise Top Tax Rates?

January 6, 2009

President-elect Obama reportedly has decided to wait on raising the federal income tax rate for the highest-income Americans. The Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire two years from now, at the end of 2010, at which time the top marginal rate will shift from its current level of 35% back to its pre-Bush level of 39.6%. Rather than raise the top rate immediately, the Obama administration plans to allow the tax change to occur as currently scheduled.

I’m puzzled by this choice.

Public sentiment surely is not an obstacle to increasing the top rate right away. And economic considerations favor doing so. It’s unlikely to delay economic recovery by reducing consumer spending, since most of those affected will still have sufficient income to be able to spend as much as they desire. The tax-rate increase is small enough that it should have little or no adverse impact on investment; when the rate was 39.6% in the late 1990s, investment didn’t suffer. And the added tax revenues could be used either to boost the size of the stimulus package or to reduce its impact on the federal deficit.

My guess is that political considerations have won out. The calculation must be that this compromise will improve the odds of Obama’s stimulus package getting through Congress quickly. If this calculation is correct, I would go along. The stimulus is surely needed to help get the economy moving again, and the health of the economy is likely to have a bigger impact on the living standards of ordinary Americans over the next few years than anything else. The stimulus package also includes some tax changes that will directly benefit low- and middle-income households.

Yet it seems to me it would have been more useful to hold onto the timing of the top-end tax rate increase as something to compromise on if necessary, rather than give it up at the outset.

How Progressive Are Our Taxes?

January 5, 2009

Stephen Dubner has a post on the “Freakonomics” blog titled “The next time someone tells you that taxes are not progressive…” He relays information from a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, via Greg Mankiw, which lists effective federal tax rates for households at various points in the income distribution. The rates are higher for those with larger incomes. The implication is that our tax system is quite progressive.

But it doesn’t make much sense to look only at federal taxes. State and local taxes account for about a third of total tax revenues, and they tend to be less progressive than federal taxes.

If we take into account all taxes — federal, state, and local — the effective tax rate for the well-to-do is only a bit higher than for the poor. Here is one way to see this, based on data from the CBO and the Tax Foundation.

Should Congress put a cap on executive pay?

January 4, 2009

Robert H. Frank says no. A wiser approach, he suggests, is to raise tax rates on the highest earners.

I agree. The motivation for limiting executive compensation is understandable. But the logistics of a true cap are problematic, and the merit of singling out executives as opposed to entertainers, athletes, and non-executive financial high-rollers is questionable.

The Obama and McCain Tax Plans

June 24, 2008

Bernard Wasow at the Century Foundation has a nice post on Obama’s and McCain’s tax proposals. He uses estimates by the Tax Policy Center to try to answer two key questions:

  1. What will happen to total tax collections under the two candidates’ proposals?
  2. How will taxes and after-tax income change for households at various points in the income distribution under the proposals?

Tax Progressivity and the Rise in Inequality

April 20, 2008

Income inequality in the United States has increased sharply since the 1970s. How much of this is due to reduced tax progressivity?

A key element of the rise in inequality has been the dramatic jump in incomes among the top 1% of the population. According to calculations from IRS data by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez (available here), this group’s share of total income more than doubled during the 1980s and 1990s.

This is due in part to the fact that in recent decades taxes have done less to reduce the top 1%’s income share. The following chart shows the pretax and posttax income share of this group from 1960 to 2001, according to the Piketty-Saez calculations. Between 1960 and 1979, its posttax income share was 70% of its pretax share. In the period from 1980 to 2001 that increased to 84%.

(Note: The Piketty-Saez data end in 2001, so they don’t reflect the Bush tax cuts. Calculations by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that from 2002 to 2005 the top 1%’s posttax income share was 85% of its pretax share, very similar to what the Picketty-Saez data indicate for 1980-2001. I don’t use the CBO data here because they go back only to 1979.)

What effect has this had on inequality?

The chart makes clear that most of the rise in the top 1%’s posttax income share is due to the increase in its pretax share rather than to changes in tax progressivity. The next chart offers another way to see this. The solid line in the chart shows the top 1%’s share of after-tax income since 1960. The dashed line shows what the top 1%’s share of income would have been had taxes reduced it to the same degree as in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s lower, but not massively so. Changes in taxation have mattered, but they have not been the main reason for the rise in the top 1%’s income share.

If reducing inequality is an aim of the next administration, increasing the progressivity of our tax system would surely help. But this is only one piece of the puzzle.

Bar Tabs and Tax Cuts

March 23, 2008

A parable about the virtue of low tax rates for the rich has circulated on the web for a number of years. It apparently originated as a letter to the editor in the Chicago Tribune in 2001. Here is a recent version:

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
The fifth would pay $1.
The sixth would pay $3.
The seventh would pay $7.
The eighth would pay $12.
The ninth would pay $18.
The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.

So, that’s what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day the owner threw them a curve. “Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20.” Drinks for the ten now cost just $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men — the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his “fair share”? They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer. So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay. And so:

The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33%savings).
The seventh now pay $5 instead of $7 (28%savings).
The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).
The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings.

“I only got a dollar out of the $20,” declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man, “but he got $10!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a dollar, too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more than I!”

“That’s true!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison. “We didn’t get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!”

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.

The parable is misleading in several ways. (For more commentary see this, this, and this.)

First, though it doesn’t matter much, the numbers aren’t right. See here (table 1b) for the actual shares of federal taxes paid by various groups.

Second, and more important, if the government (the bar owner in the story) reduces tax rates (the price of beer) it usually must do one of two things to compensate for the lost revenues. One option is to reduce its expenditures. In the context of the parable, this means the bar owner lays off a bartender or a bouncer; or perhaps she has the bar cleaned less often or forgoes needed repairs. Some customers won’t care, but others will find the bar a less attractive place to spend time in. They might be happy to pay a little more for beer if it means faster service, nicer surroundings, and fewer bar fights. The same applies to government services such as police, military, schools, roads, bridges, subways, and parks.

The other option is that the government borrows money to finance the tax rate (beer price) reduction. If the bar owner does this and it results in a substantial debt, as was the case for our federal government in the 1980s and in the 2000s, a larger share of her revenues will go to her lenders as interest payments. Eventually she may decide it makes sense to raise prices (taxes) again, as did the first president George Bush in the early 1990s — even though it meant reneging on his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge.

But set these issues aside. The most important point is this:

The claim made by proponents of equal-percentage tax cuts is that the rich man (the tenth) will stop coming to the bar and paying for a large share of the tab if he doesn’t get the same percentage price (tax) reduction as the others. (Forget about the others beating him up; that’s a distraction from the real point the parable aims to make.) This could conceivably be true. Or it might not be. Many advocates of tax cuts for the affluent believe it’s true. But that doesn’t mean they’re correct.

In my view it’s equally plausible to hypothesize that the tenth man would keep showing up even if he were asked to continue paying $59 — in other words, even if the others get a beer price (tax) cut while he doesn’t. After all, he wouldn’t be paying any more than before. And he could probably afford it; according to Congressional Budget Office data — see table 1c here — average pretax income among households in the top tenth was $340,000 as of 2005.

How the tenth man will react is an empirical question. There’s some discussion of relevant evidence in previous posts of mine here, here, and here.

Stories resonate with us far more than do impersonal statistics. But in some instances, such as this one, the reason a story resonates is simply that it affirms prior beliefs, rather than because it offers genuine insight.

Taxes and Inequality: Lessons from Abroad

February 10, 2008

For most left-of-center Americans, the paramount concern with respect to taxes is progressivity. The aim: reduce income inequality. The means: raise income tax rates for the rich and/or lower them for the poor.

A look at the experiences of other affluent nations suggests consideration of an alternative — though by no means antithetical — strategy.

The following chart shows the amount of inequality reduction achieved by taxes and by government transfers (social security payments, unemployment benefits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and so on) in the United States and nine other rich countries. The calculations are mine, using data from the Luxembourg Income Study database, which provides the best available comparative data on incomes. Inequality is measured using the Gini coefficient. I calculate inequality in each country using household incomes before and after taxes are subtracted; the difference between the two is the amount of inequality reduction achieved by taxes. I do the same for government transfers. Being farther to the right in the chart indicates greater reduction of inequality.

None of these countries achieves much inequality reduction via taxes. Instead, to the extent inequality is reduced, it is mainly transfers that do the work.

The chief contribution of taxes to inequality reduction is indirect. Taxes provide the money to fund the transfers that reduce inequality. The next chart shows this. On the horizontal axis is a measure of the quantity of taxation: tax revenues as a share of gross domestic product (GDP). On the vertical axis is the measure of inequality reduction via government transfers used in the first chart above. Not surprisingly, countries that significantly reduce inequality via transfers tend to tax more heavily.

The comparative experience thus suggests that for inequality reduction, it is the quantity of taxes rather than the progressivity of the tax system that matters most. Affluent countries that achieve substantial inequality reduction do so with tax systems that are large but no more progressive than ours.

What lesson should Americans draw for tax reform? In my view, the key one is that a national consumption tax — as a supplement to the income tax, not a replacement for it — is worth serious consideration (see more here and here and here).

The drawback is that consumption taxes tend to be regressive; because the poor (by necessity) spend a larger fraction of their income than the rich, they pay a larger share of that income in consumption taxes. Yet the degree of regressivity is a political choice. It can be greater or lesser, depending on whether certain items, such as food, are exempted.

A national consumption tax (we currently have state and local sales taxes) would help to raise revenue. As the following chart shows, one way other affluent nations generate more tax revenues than the United States does is by making greater use of consumption taxes.

One possibility to consider: a national consumption tax on the order of 5% that is earmarked to fund universal health care, universal preschool, and/or high-quality child care. This would reduce the progressivity of the tax system somewhat, but the payoff might well be worth it.

The New Laffer Curve Logic

January 27, 2008

“When you cut the highest tax rates on the highest-income earners, government gets more money from them.”

This sounds like an argument by Arthur Laffer, probably on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page circa 1978. Actually, it is by Arthur Laffer … in the Wall Street Journal … but in 2008 rather than 1978. The piece is titled “The Tax Threat to Prosperity” (here). In it, Laffer reiterates his famous, and famously-influential, claim about the detrimental impact of tax rates on incomes and therefore on tax revenues.

But the argument has changed. The notion at the heart of the original “Laffer curve” argument was that higher marginal tax rates on those making the most money discourage them from investing, starting new businesses, and working hard. The result is less income growth, and hence lower tax revenues. Laffer now argues that the problem with high marginal tax rates is that they encourage high earners to hide and shelter their income. The “supply-side” problem now is said to be tax avoidance.

What is the evidence? Laffer notes that while the top marginal income tax rate has been significantly altered over the past generation, the effective tax rate — the share of income actually paid in taxes — for the top 1% of households has been fairly stable. The chart below shows this. (The data on effective tax rates are from the Congressional Budget Office here.) This, he says, is because when the top marginal rate is increased, high-income taxpayers reduce their taxable reported income via “tax shelters, deferrals, gifts, write-offs, cross income mobility, or any of a number of other measures.” When the top marginal rate is reduced, they increase their taxable reported income.

This is certainly plausible. But it is equally plausible that the effect on tax avoidance, while real, is quite small. Suppose the top marginal tax rate is reduced by 10 percentage points. Is it likely that most of those in the top 1% will call their accountants and instruct them to go easy on the exemptions and deductions?

If changes in the top marginal tax rate in fact have little impact on tax reporting by those with high incomes, what accounts for the fact that the effective rate on the top 1% is far less variable than the top marginal rate? Two things. First, the top marginal rate applies to only the top portion of these households’ incomes. Second, and more important, when Congress and the president have altered the top marginal rate they frequently also have changed the rules about loopholes, exemptions, deductions, and tax compliance.

There are have been four noteworthy changes in the top marginal tax rate since the late 1970s. Let’s consider them in turn.

1. Tax reform in 1981 reduced the top marginal rate from 70% to 50% beginning in 1982. Few exemptions and loopholes were closed. The fact that the effective income tax rate on the top 1% of households fell only slightly in the ensuing years appears to support Laffer’s argument.

But there are two important qualifications. First, the drop in the top marginal rate is misleading. As Eugene Steurle points out in his book, Contemporary U.S. Tax Policy, “Even before 1981, high-income individuals often avoided a top tax rate of 70 percent through a special provision of the tax code that limited the tax rate on earnings, or income from labor, to a maximum of 50 percent.” Furthermore, in 1982, 1983, and 1984 additional tax reforms were enacted that reduced loopholes and enhanced tax compliance and collection via expanded reporting requirements and heightened penalties.

2. Tax reform in 1986 reduced the top marginal rate from 50% to 39% in 1987 and 28% beginning in 1988. The effective rate on the top 1% actually increased slightly in the following years. This, however, is fully explained by the fact that the 1986 reform dramatically reduced loopholes and exemptions. This wasn’t a case of high-income households deciding to hide less of their income because the top marginal tax rate had been lowered. They had no choice.

3. Tax reform in 1993 raised the top marginal rate from 31% to 40%. The effective rate on the top 1% increased from 21% in 1992 to 24% in the latter part of the decade. Did the hike in the marginal rate of 9 percentage points encourage tax avoidance? Possibly, but if tax avoidance increased, it was more likely due to the massive rise in incomes among the top 1% that occurred in the second half of the 1990s. The next chart shows this. Average pretax income in this group nearly doubled between 1993 and 2000, soaring from $750,000 to $1,450,000.

4. Tax reform in the early 2000s reduced the top marginal rate by four percentage points, from 39% in 2002 to 35% in 2003. In this case the effective rate on the top 1% of households fell by exactly the same amount, from 24% in 2002 to 20% in 2003.

None of this is to suggest that tax avoidance doesn’t occur or isn’t worth worrying about. Far from it. But the notion that lowering the top marginal tax rate dramatically reduces such avoidance appears to be wishful thinking.


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