Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Election Story Interlude

In contrast to Mankiw’s attitude (see cactus’s post below*), my favorite election story of the year comes from Ms. Mochi_tsuki:

So they started explaining to me what an absentee ballot is and how to fill one out. I pointed out that I’d spent 11 years of my adult life overseas and was very familiar with the process. One of them pointed to the other and said, “He’s been overseas as well. He’s a retired Admiral.” WTF?

You may know this, but by law, there are never more than about 200 Admirals in service. Really rare creatures, those. This one? Retired last month. And he’s spending his weekends working on the GOTV effort in rural Virginia.

But I guess retired Admirals don’t need the motivations that economics professors do.

*In fairness to Mankiw, he knows his numbers are b.s. The giveaway: “In a sense, putting the various pieces of the tax system together, I would be facing a marginal tax rate of 93 percent. [italics mine]” Not to mention the corporate tax free finesse, and the assumption that r=0.10, but lets sidebar those.

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A Rare Economics Post from Me

Yes, I’m still distracted (and under deadlines), but this is too good to pass up.

Greg Mankiw sends us to “Wisdom from Michael Kinsley.” Which turns out to be this:

There is no need to encourage risk-taking entrepreneurship with special tax breaks. Risk takers will take risks, and if the risks work out they shouldn’t mind paying the same level of taxes as everyone else. If the risks don’t work out, they won’t have to.

I agree completely with Kinsley, but am surprised that Mankiw does as well, especially as Kinsley correctly presents the issue in the process of another of his pox-on-Obama’s-house conclusions:

Obama…proposes exempting the sale of small businesses from the capital gains tax, allowing small businesses to avoid the burdens his health care plan would place on big businesses, and so on.

Michael Kinsley has argued that small businesses should pay capital gains taxes, and that they “shouldn’t mind paying the same level of taxes as everyone else.” By extension, the preferential rate for capital gains should be eliminated.

It’s nice to see that Greg Mankiw calls this “Wisdom.”

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Can we please broaden our thinking in this crisis?

by Divorced one like Bush

February 26, 2008 I posted a question: How are we going to fix a money from money economy. Quoting that post: There is a nice chart. (A few actually). Especially this one.”

And this:

Total financial turnover went from $17,804 billion in 1980 to $508,456 billion in 2000. We’ve seen GDP go from 37.8% of turnover to 1.9% of turnover. That’s how big the money from money train is. Our GDP is only 1.9% of the money from money machine.”

The first response in comments was: “Fix what?”
I think that person has their answer now.

October 6, 2007 I posted: Money from money, not good.

It was about an interview by Bill Moyers of John Bogle. He noted:

JOHN BOGLE: Well, it’s gotten misshapen because the financial side of the economy is dominating the productive side of the economy…We’ve become a financial economy which has overwhelmed the productive economy to the detriment of investors and the detriment ultimately of our society.

I want to come back to the difference between the financial system and the productive system. The productive system adds to the value of our economy. And, by and large, the financial system subtracts. And, yet, it’s growing and growing and growing. And this short term thing where short term orientation in which trading pieces of paper is regarded as a social value. It is not a social value.

Go listen to it. Then listen to Mr. Moyers latest interview with Kevin Philips.

But what’s here that doesn’t get the attention is the United States in the last 20 years undertook an enormous transformation of itself with no attention paid. And what it means is and what makes all this so frightening is the country is at risk because of the size of the financial sector that has never been graded on its competence and behavior in any serious way. They are the economy at this point. And we are now seeing what happens when a 20 to 21 percent of GDP financial sector starts to come unglued.
You had essentially a financial sector that, let’s say, was sort of neck and neck with manufacturing back in the late 1980s. But they got control in a lot of ways in the agenda. Finance has been bailed out. I mean, everybody thinks this is horrible now what we’re seeing in terms of bailouts. Even a lot of the people who do it think it’s bad.

This has been going on since the beginning of the 1980s. Finance has been preferred as the sector that got government support. Manufacturing slides, nobody helps. Finance has a problem, Federal Reserve to the rescue. Treasury to the rescue. Subsidies this, that, and other.

I am certain we have to do something to help the money flow such that it does not take down the entire system. It would be cutting off our noses to spite our faces not to protect ourselves from what a few have done. We have to be adults, suck it up and clean up the alcohol aroma vomit all over our bathroom.

But, we do not have to let it happen again. There is only one solution to this and no one, not anyone is pointing it out: Put the financial sector of the economy back in alignment with the productive sector. What got us in this mess is our (well not all of us) belief that the financial sector can stand on it’s own as a primary wealth/money creator. It can not. Never could. But, believing it put the impetus to the creation of “vehicles” for creating trades. You know all those securitized whatevers, and alphabet monikers, and insurance for insurance for insurance based on alphabet monikers of securitized whatevers. What did people expect would happen when you turn the part of your system that is dependent on activity in an other part for it’s existence into a stand alone money creator. If you are going to keep generating money from money, then you are going to have to keep coming up with new “product”. New designs, new marketing to create an need and want, new packaging, BRANDING.
Again, Mr. Philip put’s it this way:

But we’ve seen the central component of the rise of the financial sector is the rise of the debt industry. Mortgage, credit cards, all these gimmicks that Wall Street sells– just all kinds of products. And, of course, the products are laying an egg all over the world right now.

Get it? We take an industry subservient to the needs of production and turn it into a competitor of production. I can polish and sell rocks without a bank to borrow from. I can accumulate wealth over time. My business may grow slowly and so may my wealth, but I can do it. But, remove all none financial activities and what does financial do to survive? What does it do to survive with no one needing a loan, backing, no desire to produce in a way that increases our productivity such that we have more time to purse happiness (that constitution purpose)? We treat finance as if it is the chicken/egg question. It is not. Finance came second and is dependent.

For those from the 80’s, we have now learned exactly what was being said when we were told our economy was moving toward a service economy. We were told it was just as good, solid and viable as the producer economy so get trained and be ready. Remember that? Remember those who said no way, it can’t work? Have you watched the movie Other People’s Money yet?

Well, all we do now is complain about the cost of the service economy sector known as health care. It cost too much. And, we have now proven that the service economy sector known as finance can’t create any real material wealth as a prime generator. So, why is no one talking about the need and means to realign our economy?

HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO DO THIS? HOW MANY FREAKIN’ TIMES DO WE HAVE TO LEARN THE LESSON?

According to Mr. Philips:

It’s been a bipartisan phenomenon. You can go back to the 1980s and say Reagan and George Bush, Sr., got a bubble started. Clinton got in and got an even bigger bubble going. And then George W. Bush with the biggest bubble of all. But it’s not that the Clintonites didn’t play. They did. Bob Rubin as Secretary of the Treasury — I mean, if he was a Hindu and he was being reincarnated, he’d come back as a pail because this guy bailed out everything you can imagine. They had the Mexican loan bailout. They had the long-term capital management bailout, the Russian Southeast Asian currency bailouts.

Think about any of the concerns voiced here at AB regarding this current “crisis” and read Dean Baker’s list of Principles for Restructuring the Financial System and ask how much of this could be accomplished by simply realigning our economy such that finance is in service to our needs of producing primarily and I guess consume in part. Putting it another way, none of what Mr. Baker is suggesting can come to fruition such that we protect ourself from repeating this experience for a 3rd time (fourth if you count 1987) unless we get our minds back to how true wealth and money are created. Which I happen to post on October 8, 2007: Human Capital is where it’s at. It reports on a World Bank study from 2005 in which I us the quote:

The rest of the story is intangible capital. That encompasses raw labor; human capital, which includes the sum of a population’s knowledge and skills; and the level of trust in a society and the quality of its formal and informal institutions. Worldwide, the study finds, “natural capital accounts for 5 percent of total wealth, produced capital for 18 percent, and intangible capital 77 percent.

All of this relates to some graphs I put up December 12, 2007 in: It’s the big one honey, I know it, showing that personal income for the 99% had fallen below personal outlays since 1996. Something that had not existed since 1941 but was present from 1929 and before. What I found most interesting from that post was that there were only 9 comments. Just 9. Are we going to pretend income distribution is not part of this current crisis? Are we the 3 monkeys of see, hear, speak no income inequality?

So, we can talk about the hundreds of billions, we can total them up, we can debate ethics, we can talk morals and argue who is being partisan and what regulation is needed, what’s fair or….we can face the fact that who we think we are is not who we are; that we have been blowing smoke up our own butts regarding wealth, money, economy and the pursuit of happiness. It’s intervention time folks. Just putting up road blocks to the elixir’s and potions, or setting up games with ourself without changing our world view about what money is and how wealth is created and why we want to create it in the first place won’t cut it.

We use to know all this. It is represented in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. An example of the materialization of our realization was put in place in our tax code as we learned the lessons we are relearning now. For example, an instance of need of integration in our thinking, one issue with the current crisis is the mega pay of those that created the mess. Well, one of the reason’s for having a graduated income tax to the point of 90% at the top was to prevent exactly what we are now discussing as one of the issues that needs to be addressed in the bailouts. It was to prevent economic royalty, to preserve democracy, to assure one voice – one vote, to prevent some from being so powerful that they would be insulated from responsibility for the problems they could create. But we’re not hearing about taxing as a solution. One that worked very well because it addressed many of our goals. No, we now will create an entire new set of rules and paper filing…a new game to address one aspect of a crisis of one aspect of our economy because we have isolated taxation as an issue of personal freedom as oppose to an integrated tool of our economy based on our goals as laid out in our founding documents.

How small the discussion has been during this crisis so far.

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Opus : Finale’ A Discussion On Taxation

“Taxation is in fact the most difficult function of government – and that against which their citizens are most apt to be refractory” Thomas Jefferson

First, I apologize for taking so long to get back to this. But….I needed to work on some leads/songs (it’s not really work), get a new singer up to speed (hope this one stays around, it would be a first), deal with temporarily replacing my office manager (medical leave) and of course Valentines (the other business). Oh yeah, get some tax stuff done: W2’s, fed and state reports, blah, blah, blah.

Well Jeff Beck is playing Going Down, next is Situation on a compilation CD I made so…
I left off with Mr. Avi-Yonah stating:

A society is a community with a shared culture and shared interests that transcend the interests of its individual members and extend back to its historical roots and forward into its future. Thus, it is necessary to look for affirmative reasons for taxing the rich that are rooted in a broader social and historical understanding of the vital function of taxation in maintaining such a community over time.

He list 3 common “excuses” shall we say, for answering the “why”.

A: That is where the money is. A presentation is made of the inequality numbers which I have taken every opportunity to put in front of the AB reader and then states:

While these facts demonstrate the potential for large redistributive gains by increasing taxes at the very top of the income distribution, they also illustrate the importance of the rich to the economy and thus the potential cost of taxing them. Thus, any argument for taxing the rich must depend on more than mere income or wealth distribution numbers.

I could take issue with the first sentence, but I agree, we have to depend on something more than “that’s where the money is”. Although, considering our nations debt and who has benefited from such, it makes a very strong number 2 at least if not a co-number one for the present.

B. “I Took All of It from Them”

Another argument for taxing the rich can be summarized in department store mogul Edward Filene’s explanation of why he approved of the income tax: “Why shouldn’t the American people take half my money from me? I took all of it from them.”

Getting beyond the simplicity of Edward Filene’s argument, Mr. Avi-Yonah presents this as a case of partnership between the individual’s contribution and the government’s contribution thus, taxation is the government receiving it’s share. Government also can do with it’s share as it want including giving it to others. The problems he sees with this are:

First, since it is as focused on individual taxpayers as optimal tax theory, individual taxpayers can object that the partnership does not apply to them. Second, even if one accepts the partnership model, it is still unclear that it justifies progressive taxation of the rich rather than mere proportionate taxation.

I don’t think he captures the error of the argument correctly here. Being that we are the government, we are all in a partnership. That one would argue the partnership does not apply is purely selfish want verses civic understanding and rightly should not be a serious consideration of argument. But as he notes, that still does not get us past the issue of progression over proportion.

C: “Money is the measuring rod of power.”
Mr. Avi-Yonah note it is a quote of Howard Hughes. He develops the argument that the rich go beyond acquiring money for consumption needs and wants and thus pursue wealth for it’s own sake.

Wealth confers power beyond its consumption value.74 This power is economic, social, and political. The economic power of the rich derives primarily from their ability to use their wealth to invest in enterprises that employ thousands of people and can dominate large sectors of the economy. The social element derives from the knowledge other people have of the potential ability of the rich to use their wealth to acquire goods and to contribute to charities, which leads them to court such acquisitions and contributions even without such consumption taking place. Finally, the political power of the rich stems not just from their actual donations or their ability to finance runs for political office, but, more importantly, from politicians knowing that they have the excess funds to donate.

The problem as he views it is:

As the eminent public finance economist Richard Musgrave has stated, a consumption tax is deficient because it “ assumes that consumption, current or future, is the only benefit that income provides. This overlooks the benefits derived from the accumulation and holding of wealth, whether in terms of security, power, or social standing.”

If this analysis is true, what does it imply for taxing the rich? From an optimal tax perspective, arguing that the rich derive added utility from their wealth that is not available to people for whom (because of their lesser means) money only has consumption value is an argument against taxing the rich. That is because any redistribution in the optimal tax model derives from its assumption of the declining marginal utility of money, and the “ riches mean power” model militates against this assumption.

A fine Catch 22.

I have stated that we have to ask: When is enough, enough? I ask this from a reference of consumption. Beyond that, the utility of further acquisition is no longer a need of material wants. It is a need of intangible wants. Considering my post on the World Bank’s finding that true wealth is from intangibles, a reason for progressive taxation has to address the intangible such as power.

Thus the reason for progressive taxation via some history as presented by Mr. Avi-Yonah:

The American Revolution likewise was founded on the conception that while people have natural, Lockean liberal rights to their property, undue concentrations of private power and wealth should be discouraged.81 This view found its expression in the republican creed of civic humanism, which emphasized public virtue as a balance to private rights. A virtuous republic, the Framers believed, was to be free from concentrations of economic power that characterized England in the eighteenth century.82 Therefore, from the beginning of the Republic, federal and state legislators used taxation to restrict privilege and to “ affirm communal responsibilities, deepen citizenship, and demonstrate the fiscal virtues of a republican citizenry.”

The idea of progressive taxation is part and parcel to achieving the ideals set out in our constitution in that our constitution is a formulation for assuring a disbursement of power. Though I wonder if in this “virtuous republic” we are finding the mantra of the Republican’s intrusion into one’s personal life, be it as usual a bastardized use by them.

There is a political lesson presented in the history of how we got our income tax that I was not aware of:

There was another agenda at play as well in the early years of the federal income tax: the desire to use progressive taxation as a way to “ stave off more radical calls for industrial democracy.” 97 This explains why even some high-income Republican groups supported the Sixteenth Amendment.98 Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury in the 1920s and one of the wealthiest Americans, “ believed that keeping tax schedules graduated (albeit flatter) would mitigate radical demands for restructuring the capitalist system.” 9

Interesting. It was a time when those with the economic power were actually feeling threatened of a greater loss. This is a very important aspect of the debate that I don’t believe the citizenry appreciates. Perhaps if the citizenry knew that in the past they were able to instill the fear of greater loss, today the message of change would take on a more definitive tone than just “hope”.

Mr. Avi-Yonah summarized the need to be concerned with the inequality of income/wealth:

There are three arguments why extreme concentrations of wealth are undemocratic.
The first two are obvious: In the American system of government, great wealth can buy political favors (often at minuscule expenditures) and finance runs for office (at somewhat greater but still quite limited costs).114 The third is more subtle—that vast inequality of wealth is socially destructive because it degrades relationships among people (cultural, social, and political) and eventually undermines the sense of community on which a democratic polity must rest.115 This argument is particularly true in a country like the United States, which is not bound together by ties of ethnicity, culture, or language.116

…that extreme concentrations of power resulting from extreme concentrations of wealth in the hands of private individuals who are unaccountable to the majority is an unhealthy phenomenon in a democracy. Such private individuals exercise degrees of power and influence that run counter to the ability of the government of the people to govern the country in accordance with the people’s wishes, as expressed in democratic elections.

As to where the responsibility belongs for presenting this argument:

As Slemrod writes,

The approach of mainstream modern public finance economics to these issues has been to accept, for the sake of argument, the right of government to redistribute income through the tax system (and other means); to sidestep the ethical arguments about assessing the value of a more equal distribution of economic outcomes; and toinstead investigate the implications of various value judgments for the design of the tax system.126

Such an attitude to distributive issues may be fine for public finance economists, although it did not characterize the economics profession before the 1950s and still does not characterize some of it today.127 But it does not excuse the abdication of equity in favor of efficiency by most legal tax academics, especially in some of the elite law schools…It is time for legal tax academics to redress the balance.

As a professional, I can understand the argument to separate the two issues via 2 professions. The concept of a profession is that it is specialized. As a thinking person and a citizen, the public discussion should not allow the issue of efficiency to dominate one profession’s focus while the issue of equity dominates another profession. We have to assure both equity and efficiency are discussed and decided upon in order to stay true to the preamble of the Constitution and minimize Thomas Jefferson’s observation of the citizens response.

Part 1 is here.

Update:
In response to Dmerek question regarding what Thomas Jefferson thought:

“I approved from the first moment of… the power of taxation [in the new Constitution]. I thought at first that [it] might have been limited. A little reflection soon convinced me it ought not to be.” –Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, 1789. ME 7:300

Being that President Jefferson believed in the will of the people and the people passed the 16th amendment, the issue becomes a question of how much for what expenditures and not whether we can tax.
There is much more on what President Jefferson had to say.

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Opus 1, Second movement: On taxation

“Servers, labourers, and workmen of different kinds make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed cloath, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed, and lodged.”

I left off with a statement which suggested taxation for a progressive purpose, for redistribution purposes is an issue of reason and not mechanics. That is not to say understanding the mechanics is not necessary. Such knowledge however can only be the means to achieve the goal but, not the reason for the goal. Mr. Avi-Yonah sets up his second phase of discussion by quoting Does Atlas Shrug editor Mr. Slemrod:

“ [h]ow much and how to tax high-income individuals are questions at the core of many recent proposals for incremental as well as fundamental tax reform. The right answers depend in part on value judgments to which economic analysis has little to contribute.

Let me give a little bit of my philosophy here. A long time ago I figured out that in the end, after all the pros and cons are lined up, the research is done, the discussion had, the reason anyone does anything is because they wanted to do it. Why did I do X? Because that is what I wanted to do – period. Decisions are made based on values held at the time of decision not on changing values during the decision. Secondly, I am only as free as I allow you to be. Before someone starts thinking “libertarian talking here”, I understand that if in my freedom I accumulate enough money such that you have to rent a toilet from me verses buying your own, I’m not free because now I have to make sure the toilet is always available at the time of your need. If I don’t accommodate your timing, then I am at risk of retaliation by you (and maybe a few of your friends).

I have presented in the past that the goal of our economy is defined in the Constitution:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Specifically but not exclusively “domestic tranquility”, “general welfare” and “posterity”. An economy has been developed to serve our purpose. In the crudest terms of economic purpose; to create capital, as in “a company exists to create profit”. But for me, the crude answer begs the question: why create capital? Because I want to… because of my values. I see taxation as how money comes into play in meeting the goals as stated.

Mr Avi-Yonah starts the second part of his argument with a review of other lawyers’ work concerning the question of progressive taxation:

…Walter Blum and Harry Kalven published a classic article entitled The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation. [They] used most of the article to demolish systematically all previous arguments for progressivity made in the name of “ ability to pay” and “ equal sacrifice.” …they concluded that any remaining case for progressivity must be made in the name of redistribution, or an inherent objection to social inequality,…This is the same type of “ aesthetic” argument that motivated Henry Simons’s oft- quoted conclusion in Personal Income Taxation (published in 1938 at the height of New Deal progressivism) that sharply graduated rates are defensible only because there is something inherently “ unlovely” about inequality.

Next up was the introduction in 1987 by Joseph Bankman and Thomas Griffith of optimal tax theory “developed by economist James Mirrlees”. Mr. Avi-Yonah describes the theory as:

“Optimal tax theory seeks to answer the following question: Given that income taxes generate a disincentive effect on work, what is the ideal tax and transfer system if the ultimate goal is to maximize the sum of the utilities of individuals with identical preferences?

As described here, considering the findings suggested in the first post, there is a problem with the assumption. At least as it relates to the tippy top of the earning pile. Googling “optimal taxation theory” will bring up lots of information so I leave more in-depth discussion to you. Surfice-it-to-say, there are issues with the theory when one like Mr. Avi-Yonah is looking for reasoning in support of progressive taxation. He quotes Larry Zelenak and Kemper Moreland:

Regardless of the results of any simulation, optimal tax analysis can never prove that the income tax should have progressive marginal rates. Even if a simulation indicated gradual rates were optimal, and even if the simulation’s factual assumptions were unassailable, an opponent of progression could still dismiss the results by rejecting the philosophical basis of the simulation. If the premises of the simulation are utilitarian or Rawlsian, no amount of sophisticated mathematics will convince someone who objects to those premises.

He continues:

Fundamentally, the problem with optimal tax theory is that, like any welfarist theory, it focuses completely on the well-being of individuals.

Before we go further, let me introduce you to this paper: Taxes and Torts in the Redistribution of Income by David A. Weisbach, THE LAW SCHOOL THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO

He puts the issue of law vs economics as a bases for redistribution discussion thusly:

The thesis is that the presence or absence of the tax system completely changes how one thinks about basic subjects.

The reason why this is so is because the tax system plays a central role in the redistribution of income or wealth. In thinking about legal rules, we must ask whether they should be designed to redistribute or whether they should merely be efficient…Taking these arguments altogether, the double distortion argument and the problems with contracting around and haphazardness, I believe the case against using legal rules to redistribute to the poor becomes almost overwhelming. The tax system is a dedicated system designed to measure the variables relevant to redistribution and act only on those margins. It is hard to imagine that legal rules are likely to do a better job. One key point to note is that I have not argued that legal rules should be efficient. All the argument has shown so far is that legal rules should not be used to redistribute income.

But income is not the only source of inequality. Race, gender, disability, or health all mightbe sources of inequality in our society. If we value equality of all sorts not just income equality, we might want to redistribute based on other sources of inequality.

We are talking 2 different aspects of equality and redistribution as the morality applies to life. One concerns our relationships to each other as individuals exclusive of money. It is nature. It is the place for law. The other concerns our relationship inclusive of money. It is a human added event to nature. Money is based on value which is from our inherent concept of values, but I argue that there is no inherent concept of money. All else being equal, money is the only thing that can create an inequality not found in nature. There is nothing that can substitute for money when trying to equalize the effect of money. This is the place for taxation. I believe the conflating of these two distinct relationships becomes the means to argue against redistribution/progressive policy related to income. The conflation is in denying that collectively we have agreed on, consequently assigned the properties of money within the scheme of life unlike an event of nature.

Mr. Avi-Yonah leads into his reasoning in support of progressive taxation with:

A society is a community with a shared culture and shared interests that transcend the interests of its individual members and extend back to its historical roots and forward into its future. Thus, it is necessary to look for affirmative reasons for taxing the rich that are rooted in a broader social and historical understanding of the vital function of taxation in maintaining such a community over time.

Sounds to me that Mr. Avi-Yonah is talking about the founding ideology manifest in our constitution: We the people…
To be continued…

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Opus 1: A Discussion on taxation

My hunt for Obama’s econ advisor lead me to a paper that incorporates a review of a book: Does Atlas Shrug? The Economic Consequences of Taxing the Rich. It caught my attention because the paper is written by a tax lawyer.: Reuven S. Avi-Yonah, the Irwin I. Cohn Professor of Law and director of the International Tax LL.M. Program… He also served as consultant to the U.S. Treasury on tax competition and OECD on tax competition, and is a member of the Steering Group of the OECD’s International Network for Tax Research and chair of the American Bar Association’s Tax Section Committee on Consumption Taxes.

I never really thought about it, but laws are the means by which we create taxation. They do reflect our reasoning. So, maybe we need to consider law arguments as we discuss taxes?

This will be presented in multiple parts in order to not hog the blog space here (or bore those not interested). My intent in presenting this review is to move the question of taxation beyond the simple rhetoric. We are at a time that is being implied will be a mark on our historical time line of national personality; the coming presidential election. For the best of our personality to come through, we need more than focus group tested conversation about money. We need to do the work to not only understand the physics of money but, also the philosophies of money. We have experienced 3 distinct approaches: pre-income tax, New Deal and Reaganomics. Time we start being responsible for the decisions made and look at what we decided, how we justified them and what those decisions gave us. Now is the time to ask: Just what the hell was I thinking here?

The paper is actually a discussion by Mr. Avi-Yonah that uses a review of Does Atlas Shurg for his lead in to his title: Why Tax the Rich? Efficiency, Equity, and Progressive Taxation. We here at AB have tossed around the short answer “because the richer you are the more benefit you get”. Mr. Avi-Yonah sets up his paper’s question:

“Thus, the question of whether high marginal tax rates come with an unaffordably high cost to the U.S. economy remains unsettled. Does Atlas Shrug?,…attempts to answer this question.

Part I begins with an excellent historical survey by W. Elliot Brownlee of the rates facing the rich from the beginning of the U.S. income tax in 1913 to the present. He indicates that effective rates during the high marginal rate years of World War I reached 15.8%, and that during the high marginal rate years of World War II they reached an astonishing 58.6% in 1944. After the war, while the top marginal rate remained extremely high at 91%, the effective rate for the rich declined to 32.2% in 1952, then 24.6% in 1963, rising to 28.9% when Ronald Reagan took office and declining to 22.1% following the 1986 tax reductions. The conclusion drawn by Brownlee is that the rich can be taxed at very high effective rates during times of national emergency, but that at other times their political clout ensures that effective rates are much lower than marginal rates.”

Well, guess we don’t need to worry about the nominal rates, they mean squat. But the question; do high rates cost us? The summary answer:

“In general, they provide a mixed answer… While there is some evidence of behavioral responses, it is quite limited and seems to depend crucially on the authors’ chosen methodology. Importantly, most of the findings of behavioral response relate to the use of various tax avoidance techniques—and even there the evidence is mixed, with some obvious techniques being used less than they should be in a world in which tax minimization is very important to the rich. Real behaviors, such as labor and saving, seem much less affected by taxation. This distinction is important because while both tax avoidance techniques and real behavioral changes cause deadweight losses, the former can be partially prevented by changing the law, while the latter are less amenable to legal change since one cannot force the rich to work or save more.”

As to the evidence, Mr. Avi-Yonah states that the 9 studies are reported in 3 groups. The first being limitations of past research such as noted by Goolsbee. The second group:

“…support the view that behavioral responses by the rich to taxation are quite limited. A study by Moffitt and Wilhelm investigates the labor supply decisions of the rich based on responses to the 1986 Tax Reform Act and finds essentially no responsiveness of the hours of work of high-income men to tax reductions…But the studies also suggest that high-income men are unlikely to decrease hours worked as tax rates go up…Other studies in this group suggest that even financial behaviors, which are less “ real,” and therefore more likely to be tax-motivated than labor or saving decisions, do not respond much to taxation.”

He specifically notes evidence that portfolio choices do not significantly change, there is not “judicious” sheltering of capital gains and that “inter vivos giving” are “much lower” than would be expected if “households were taking full advantage of this estate tax avoidance technique.”

So far, nominal rates mean squat and the rich don’t really play the tax rate game as has been implied by those offering tax rates as an excuse for our sorry condition. But, they do play:

“The third and final group is made up of studies that do find some behavioral responses to taxation. For example, Auten, Clotfelter, and Schmalbeck find that the current tax system does stimulate some charitable giving by the wealthy, compared with a system in which contributions are not deductible, but that the sensitivity of giving to tax changes is smaller than suggested by previous researchers. They also find that current law does encourage the wealthy to engage in elaborate estate tax arrangements associated with their charitable donations. Alm and Wallace examine a wide range of taxpayer reporting decisions by the rich in the wake of tax law changes and suggest that they show increased responsiveness due to their larger control over the form of their compensation. Finally, Carroll, Holtz-Eakin, Rider, and Rosen investigate the behavior of entrepreneurs in response to tax rate increases and conclude that individual income taxes do have a large negative effect (a five percent increase in marginal tax rates decreases mean capital expenditures by approximately ten percent).”

My theory on this last info, they like to make sure they settle their conscience in the end but only if they get a break and if they earned it with their own business they will sacrifice the business to keep up the income.

“I would also add that most of the evidence for behavioral responses in the book relates to tax avoidance strategies (e.g., charitable giving techniques, shifting income from corporations to individuals, and the timing of receipts), rather than to real activities (labor and saving decisions).”

Mr. Avi-Yonah closes this part of his argument noting that the book did not address the issue of illegal tax avoidance:

“Slemrod is not to be blamed for not focusing on this issue because no recent data exist, but it is high time for Congress to study the question of illegal tax evasion by Americans.”

So, if the nominal rates don’t matter as the tax code is currently set up and the rich don’t respond to higher rates by working less or lower rates by working more and they will cheat the game to the benefit of them self, then the question of “why” and “how much” tax needs a reasoned answer verses a mechanized answer. We have to justify our taxing with words and use the research to tell us if our reasoning is getting us to our goal. We have to accept that money is and does as we say it is and will do. It is the entity created in our own image. It is a medium of personal creative expression.

To be continued…

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