Showing posts with label tax policy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tax policy. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Only Tax Unprofitable Businesses

It is income tax time again. Instead of the usual rant, I have a creative alternative for you to ponder: Only taxing unprofitable businesses. That is if we are stuck on the illogical notion of taxing income per se at all. 

Loyal readers know that we shouldn't tax corporations' profits and that we should not tax incomes in general. Corporations are just fictional middlemen between owners/workers and customers. Taxing their profits or income is just an indirect (inefficient) way to tax those owners, workers, and customers without properly changing their behavior. It would be much, much better to tax businesses as they add value to the production of final goods and services through the use of capital and labor. All of this as being part of a larger scheme to tax resource use rather than resource creation. But I digress.

Let's assume we are going to tax businesses' incomes. How should we do this? 

I propose we reverse the concept and instead of taxing a share of the revenues minus expenses (when R > E) we tax a share of the expenses minus the revenues (when E > R). In other words we only tax unprofitable businesses. 

Here is the reason for the proposal. Revenues are a measure of the benefits that a business has provided. It is an estimate of what value they have brought to the world. Expenses are a measure of the costs they have taken. It is an estimate of what value they have destroyed in an attempt to add value through their business activity. If their expenses exceed their revenues in a given year, for that year at least they have detracted from society by virtue of their activity. 

Perhaps we would need a 3-year average profitability test or carryover provision of 50% of profits from year 1 to year 2 and 25% of profits from year 1 to year 3. I'm open to ideas here. That way we smooth out business cycle and idiosyncratic effects that might otherwise undesirably punish a business in a given year for circumstances beyond its control or for investments made that have long-run payoffs. But let's not lose sight of the goal: taxing firms that cannot turn a profit (i.e., don't add value to the world).

An instant objection is that this would make a startup business unduly expensive potentially stifling economic growth. Just a little understanding of how markets work invalidates this worry. Under this arrangement a tax on an annual net loss simply adds to the cost of capital. If the expected payback is sufficient, the investment will be made. Look at it this way: Is it better that resources are used with tax encouragement (deductibility) on the prospect of future economic value creation (future profitability that would then be taxed) or that resources are used while being taxed (a discouragement to frivolous investment)? The expected return is likely the same in either case*--it is just a matter of when taxes are collected and on whom the burden falls (taxing failure or taxing success). Given that taxes discourage that which is taxed, I know in principle which one I want bearing the burden.

Thus, this method has two key attributes to admire:
  1. It punishes bad investments by taxing failure.
  2. It creates an economic environment that increases the returns to good investments by not taxing success.
A side benefit is that it potentially cleans up accounting--a lot. A great deal of effort (resources) is put into doctoring the books so that a firm looks less profitable than they actually are. This leads to an additional benefit of disincentivizing expenditure that is not actually net profitable. Executive perks, luxury offices, unnecessary equipment, etc. now all carry a burden where once they earned a subsidy. 

Does this have a chance in the hell that is our tax code of coming to fruition? Of course not. And if it did, the later temptation to reverse course would be too great to assume future profits would be tax free. But it is a fun thought experiment that yields a new way to see the economic error in our current taxing ways.

*This is kind of a reverse Ricardian Equivalence whereby known taxes on losses have to be justified by expected profits in the future. As long as the tax rate on losses is not devastatingly high, in which case it would prevent any method of transferring future expected profits to the current day to finance a current tax burden, the tax that would be applied to future profits is instead realized before those profits are themselves realized. This assumption is no different than assuming current tax rates on profits are not so high as to devastate the ability for businesses to earn a profit in our current system. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Losers Don't Pay Taxes

This is just a rambling thought experiment. Feel free to ignore as it probably has vast shortcomings I have not considered in the admittedly short amount of time I have spent on it.

What if we instituted a rule via Constitutional amendment that the voters for a losing Presidential candidate in the general election do not have to pay federal income taxes for the term of office for which their loser was running? Suppose further that this amendment was so firmly established that there would be no question of it being followed (unlike so much of the Constitution) and no question of it being permanent for the foreseeable future.

I can think of lots and lots of problems with this as I'm sure you can too. A chief one is that Congress and not the executive branch determines taxes. Not to sideline those, but let's jump straight into some game theory.

What might some implications be?
  • Any rational potential voter would probably chose to vote given the prospect of tax avoidance.
  • Those votes would likely gravitate at first to candidates who looked very unlikely to win.
  • This seems to help third parties get on to ballots and garner significant vote share.
  • Knowing that everyone else is pursuing this strategy, voters likely would be reluctant to throw their vote for scary candidates. Even if they realize their vote will not affect the outcome of the election (spoiler alert: your vote doesn't matter mathematically), if presented with two similar candidates where one was slightly less objectionable than the other but both rather unlikely to win, the better of the two would tend to get the vote.
  • Candidates would know all this as well. That should push them to be slightly more objectionable at the margin. However, power still matters and is desired. So they would also have an incentive to try to win if they thought they could win. Now what would make them very desirable to getting votes so as to win? hmmm? Promises for very low taxes of course.
  • Could they or would they promise no taxes? I think this is unlikely as everyone knows that there have to be some taxes if there is to be some government spending. What about funding spending exclusively through debt, which is promises of either future taxes or future inflation? While this could be a workaround, it would have problems. The threat of inflation harms current voters as once inflation is suspected and to the degree it is suspected, it arrives immediately, or at least eventually. Future taxes might come soon enough to affect current voters and will likely affect their offspring, a group for which voters care.
  • This is starting to sound like a powerful tool to restrain government. Candidates are encouraged to campaign on small government so as to allow for low taxes. Voters are encouraged to support candidates who pursue small government. It also seems to promote experimentation as candidates are encouraged to be a bit wacky but not too wacky for fear (by voters) that they would actually get elected, and voters are incentivized to vote for marginally more wacky candidates (more than current but less than the wackiest). Here wacky means stuff like: drug legalization, troop withdrawal/de-escalation, privatization, deregulation, etc. Consider me wacky, btw.
  • I would fear it would degenerate into some suboptimal game, though, like where we all pretend to pursue small government and then don't actually do it leading to a need for higher future taxes. This would create a ratchet effect making the next election a competition between greater liars offering lesser improvements. Another BIG problem relates to the issue raised and promptly ignored at the top: Congress. Would Congress be emboldened to spend more? An opposing-party Congress as compared to the President seems likely to. This could not be fixed by changing the amendment to instead be a voter for a losing party in the next Congress since we don't vote for one Congressional position. Would the rule need to be it applies only to straight-party voters? If we went down that road, perhaps we would need another amendment limiting all elections to just two parties--the default situation we have now anyway. Lock in the Democrats and Republicans granting them the oligopoly of two. This might work making them compete along the tax dimension axis almost exclusively with all other policy subservient to it. Now we might be back to strong incentives for small government. Yet another suboptimal result might be one party in each election is always aiming to be the losing party and the other party tacitly agrees to be the winning party. Would this still give a small-government outcome? Maybe. Voters can switch who they vote for, but if there is strong lock-in on policy, they may not be so quick to change their votes. Where does social desirability bias and virtue signaling come it?
  • Who knows? I do like the integrity of only the voters who supported people in power have to pay for the actions of those people. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Fine Art Markets as Taxes on the Rich

I previously explored some of the many problems with art markets and art museums in particular. Let us now turn to the question of the art of taxing art.

The counter to the oft made accusation that lotteries are taxes on the poor might be that fine art is a tax on the rich. What better way for the rich the be relieved of their capital? 

Assuming the rich won't be investing it studiously, using their capital to purchase art at highly inflated prices is preferred to them spending it on goods and services with more tangible resource demands, and perhaps it is preferred to them giving it away to charity. If we don't trust them to invest it well, why would we trust them to donate it any better. 

Of course, we have to think this through. Doesn’t somebody end up using the funds to purchase consumption? Likely in many cases, but as long as they are operating in a closed system (I buy your painting, you buy my sculpture), this needn’t be the case. 

And all the better if the art is fake. Turns out a lot of the art in museums is fake (perhaps +5%), and all the players in the art world are on the take to keep this a secret. If the rich are swapping art at inflated prices that isn't actually authentic art, we have them well occupied spending their wealth, potential demands on resources, on a minimal amount of actual resources. Listen to Michael Lewis' The Hand of Leonardo for more on this. 

Yes, it would push resources into pursuing production/creation of fine art (too many painters and sculptors) but is this really so bad at the margin? 

How should we actually tax it? Tax deductibility for donations to museums is problematic. If I give up a non-income producing asset, why should I necessarily avoid an income tax? And if I give it to an entity exempt from income tax, this is doubly problematic. Should we separate fine art from collectibles (wine vs paintings vs classic cars vs musical instruments, etc.) with the ultimate distinction being those that are value-holding assets (similar to precious metals) versus those that are consumption assets? How much of each quality does a piece of art possess and who decides? This gets pretty fraught pretty quickly. Back to Michael Lewis' podcast above, the compromised ref is very much at risk.

Should we exclude art and collectibles transactions under a consumption tax such as a VAT or national sales tax? These activities aren’t significant resource consumptions. All else equal we want to encourage this swapping as opposed to the funds being spent on actual resources.

If you tax something, you get less of it. My principal is to tax the use of resources and not the creation of resources. A consumption tax does this, but items like art pose problems. Unlike pure capital assets (stocks and bonds for example), collectibles have consumption value and use resources. It looks to me at first glance that most VAT systems distinguish between individuals and firms with only the later subject to the VAT. This makes sense and probably preserves my secondary idea of not unnecessarily discouraging the rich from "taxing" themselves through art.

P.S. Also, see this interesting report.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Time of Biden

Now that all the attempts at election stealing are over I feel compelled to put down in writing some predictions about Biden's presidency. Call it political fatigue from the 400 years of the Trump Presidency, but it is hard for me to muster much energy to do this. Still, here goes . . .


There are two kinds of optimism in the case of Biden--relative and absolute. The relative is in regard to the Trump alternative and perhaps the Biden of politics past. The absolute is more genuine if not also more wishful. 

Trade - This one is quite positive even though it is strongly of the relative variety. Biden was never great on trade and many times poor. Still this has changed as he shifts in the political winds. He both wants/needs to be not Trump and the political base is different for Democrats today than it was when he first ran for president over three decades ago. See my Five Tribes theory for background, but Labor is not the Democratic lock that it was in the past. Just a reset to pre-2018 (actual policy) and pre-2016 (rhetoric) would be a great improvement. 

Immigration - There is a strong chance that Biden will be very good on immigration. The development of Democrats getting better on immigration has been building for some time having only accelerated under Trump. So in this case we have relative and absolute improvement opportunities. 

Drug Policy - My optimism is tempered here, but it is present in an absolute sense. At the very least we should get a more hands-off, non-escalating war on drugs policy. This is a BIG improvement from what we would have expected from a 1990s Biden. My baseline expectation is eventual of decriminalization/legalization of marijuana within the next few years.  

Presidential Prestige - I am optimistic that the tone and style of the office will now be back to a civilized place--very much a relative optimism. The office of the U.S. President should be occupied by a person easily described as a gentleman or lady. Trump never fit this description, and his final days were the icing on the top. Yes, I want that same office to be greatly diminished in terms of power and worship. My hope was Trump would deliver the diminishment without going Game of Thrones. Largely my fear of getting the reverse was realized. 


Unlike the optimism analysis, the pessimism comes basically only in the absolute variety. It is also the areas I tend to be most confident, unfortunately. 

Judicial Appointments - This one is not as pessimistic as one might assume. I don't want judges from the right or the left--that is a silly concept. I want judges that think critically and consistently demonstrating good application of the Law. Certainly I expect Biden's typical nominee will be less desirable than was the typical Trump nominee from my perspective. However, the best judges are impartial and well reasoned, and those include very many Biden will nominate. 

Regulation - The Trump administration was flat out good on regulation compared to any recent president (probably including Reagan!). He didn't as much shrink, though, as he reduced or stopped the growth of the regulatory state. Biden will reverse this trend. There is one area where Trump was certainly bad and Biden will likely continue this just in a different flavor--industrial policy/meddling with individual firms and industries. 

Taxes - Many people are rightfully worried about this for mostly wrong reasons. They don't want their own tax rates to go up. Ignoring the fiscal hypocrisy of this given the spending policies these same people typically demand, it is not a major problem that individual income tax rates (especially at the high end) are likely to increase. What people should be worried about is corporate tax rates increasing and to a lesser degree capital gains rates increasing. These are both much more destructive forms of taxes as they are taxing the creation of resources rather than the use of resources. Additionally, the restoration of the SALT deduction and the reduction in the standard deduction are also bad potential outcomes of coming tax policy.

War - I am hopeful that this ends up being an area like others mentioned where Biden today is different than he has been over the last 40 years. Despite this hope, you'll notice in which category I have placed it. 

Woke Politics and Policies - Think of this item as the inverse of Trump's nationalism. The risks are similar including divisive policies and rhetoric as well as censorship and ostracization. 

Spending - Your first thought should be, "Pessimistic on spending? Have you seen 2020?" True, but in only that limited and aberrational case is the relative comparison optimistic for Biden. The ratchet works in one direction generally, and even the possibility of a republican midterm sweep doesn't leave me optimistic.

Presidential Power & Authority - Here is the other side of presidential prestige from above. Every president in the last 20+ years has looked at the prior administrations' advancement of executive orders and general authority and said simply, "Hold my beer". If we only had another branch of government designed to be the strongest branch and willing to hold presidents accountable and within the bounds of their legal authority . . . 


The Biden years will hopefully be a time of surprise at how good some things are, not so bad other things are, and tolerably bad the balance is. This is how I now view the Clinton presidency. All of it is quite relative of course. Hope aside, I am more optimistic than I would have expected being faced with a Biden administration. Still the pessimistic angles are acute and meaningful. 

P.S. What about COVID-19 and the pandemic? While I expect a lot of theater to emerge and a rewriting of some history in favor of the current winners, the substantive part of this large issue is basically settled. In this way it doesn't matter much who won this election. Most of the decisions to be made are in the same incapable hands of FDA and other government officials along with the capable hands of private firms, organizations, and individuals. And in many ways the die is cast. The trajectory of the virus is set--declining regardless of what comes next but with a trajectory that very much can change depending on policy and actions taken. This is true and basically the same under Biden or Trump and even without vaccines. Vaccines are just a wonderful accelerator of the progress against the virus, which very much means fewer people suffering and dying. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Tax Policy as Explained by DuckTales


It should be no surprise that in this presidential election we yet again hear nothing but nonsense regarding tax policy from those seeking office. Among the many principles being ignored are:

  • You cannot tax wealth more than once--if you can even tax it the one time given tax avoidance and evasion opportunities and incentives.
  • You cannot lower taxes and increase government spending--government spending is taxation (today through taxes or tomorrow through debt).
  • You cannot tax without discouraging that which you tax--there is no tax free lunch.
  • You cannot tax income--it may look like you are taxing income, but you are actually taxing consumption. On this point we have DuckTales and the hero Scrooge McDuck as the perfect illustration.
If you try to tax Scrooge McDuck, you will be unsuccessful. He is tax proof. You are ultimately taxing Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and they are not being taxed correctly in this scheme. You are taxing the wealth creator dissuading him from creating more wealth and at the same time not discouraging the wealth/resource destroyers.

Uncle Scrooge McDuck is the "wealthiest duck in the world". Hence, he is an obvious foil for those who despair at the thought of billionaires. But Scrooge McDuck should be considered a saint to those who truly wish the best for all the other ducks of the world. For he is the ultimate giver. 

He creates vast wealth through his many businesses, but he uses very little of it. In fact his number one entertainment is simply swimming through his money and treasure which he keeps in a giant money bin. So in exchange for creating wealth he takes basically only money (claims on resources) rather than resources himself. Outside of funding his adventures for more wealth, he lives a quite miserly life. Say what you will about that choice, it is consequentially a very good one for the rest of the ducks in his world. 

Who really pays taxes? 

Taxes are a method of the financing of government uses of resources. In order for a tax to be paid, it must be the case that someone, somewhere, sometime not use a resource so that government can use that resource. Therefore, the payer of a tax is ultimately the entity that must forego the use of a resource. It is decidedly not the creator of the resource, per se

Who should we want to pay taxes? What should we tax and why should we tax it? 

I always argue we should tax resource use rather than resource creation and do so as efficiently as possible. We should tax if the use of the taxed resource is better and necessarily done through government rather than private entities. If that seems like a high hurdle, it's because it is.

Attempts to tax Scrooge McDuck are bad faith and poor logic.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Big Five - Choose Your Battles Wisely

Here is the low-hanging fruit of public policy. 90% solutions (improvements) on these issues are several orders of magnitude more important than 99% solutions on a thousand others. They are in no particular order (alphabetical):
  • Drug Prohibition (end it--allow adults to make their own choices)
  • Education (privatize it--give the government an ever-smaller role)
  • Immigration (open it up--allow people to freely move and freely interact with other people)
  • Taxation (simplify and redirect it--efficiently tax the use of resources not the creation of resources)
  • War (move away from it--make postures less bellicose and violence less of an option). 
Everything else at this point is details. They are interesting details, yes. For example, the recent interesting, generally important, but marginally insignificant issue of the legality of blackmail. [note: I side with Robin Hanson, but I am sympathetic to and willing to live with the counter case.]

How should you vote? I would suggest an equal weighting of these Big Five policy stances as the guiding framework. While this recommendation is a prescription to be a few/select-issue voter, that should be considered a feature not a bug. Similarly straight-party voting isn't necessarily morally or intellectually inferior to a strategy of "voting the person not the party". By what criteria is a candidate-by-candidate voter deciding? Why should they believe they are properly weighting the issues, correctly identifying the stance on the issues, and accurately evaluating each candidate's position and expected actions on the issues? Using a few benchmark issues as the litmus test keeps the focus properly on that which meaningfully matters and gives the best hope the rationally ignorant voter is making a good decision.

More importantly, how should you advocate (much more bang for the buck)? Let's say solutions are just as simple as awareness (I know it is not, but it is a useful analogy). Spend about 95% one's advocacy efforts roughly evenly on the Big Five: ending the drug war, privatizing education, opening immigration, reforming taxation, and reducing war. The remaining 5% goes for everything else. My own behavior has not adhered to this framework, but since I am just now formally defining this, I grant myself pardon. Will I follow this going forward? All I can do is try.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Render Unto Caesar

I just filed my tax return, so it seems like a logical time to post on taxes.

The current regime (a Democrat-Republican alliance co-opted by many special interests (law-financial planning-accounting industrial complex, real estate industrial complex, big farm, big charity, and on and on)) has us running in circles.

On the one hand they giveth: corporate tax rate cut and increase in standard deduction--the two true highlights of the 2017 Trump tax reform.

On the other hand they taketh away: tariffs, which are just taxes on U.S. consumers, and threats of escalations in complexity and burden, +70% top rates and wealth taxes to name a couple.

I continue to find actual tax policies (basically everywhere) and most general discussion about tax policy to be a strong indictment of where we are as a society and how (un)critically we think. As an alien visiting your simple planet, I find it quite humorous how unsophisticated and corrupt the whole of taxation is and has always been. It is a Baptists and Bootleggers conspiracy combining the dumb with the evil.

As an example, an awkward tension exists between where implied tax levels are (the amount needed to pay for all the obligations and expenditures currently in place) and the current, explicit tax level actually in place (higher than commonly believed, but not high enough). The Republicans/conservatives cannot admit the Democrat/progressive proposal for very high rates is necessary for the very spending they are a partner in. Likewise the Democrats/progressives cannot admit the Republican/conservative fear of high taxation smothering future wealth is well placed.

There is hope. There are great ideas being well communicated and lurking in the forest. Examples:

Scott Sumner says tax luxury not wealth or income.

John Cochrane takes Krugman, et al. to task for lending support for some recent nonsense and he follows it up with a good discussion on the effective property tax rate.

Tyler Cowen warns that the Warren Wealth Tax won't be as popular (or desirable) as Democrats believe.

Related to all this is the UBI, and if you don't realize the relation, you aren't thinking critically enough. Arnold Kling offers some thoughts, and note the abstract of this recent paper (HT: Tyler Cowen).

Saturday, February 9, 2019

One High Net Worth Investment Manager's Plea: "Raise Tax Rates to 70% NOW!"

Shout it (and dance it) from the rooftops! We need higher tax rates on the rich. I'm not greedy. This is all I ask.

Please raise rates like in the good ole’ days.

Give me a way to help rich people shelter income from the tax man.

Bring back all the intentional loopholes, the legal methods to ensure that old money stayed on top.

Help me tie up capital in ways that benefit the haves and fill my pockets as well as those of tax lawyers and Wall Street financiers. It isn't just me that is hurting. Plenty of other people were promised lifetime high incomes and prestigious positions. Now we are forced to sully ourselves with talk of "adding value" and "matching the benchmark"--as if I should have to justify my 6-figure bonus. I have an MBA, for God's sake!

I don't mean to lose my cool, but I have had enough. In this world of passive investing, low fees, minimal commissions, and democratized capital we desperately need a way to justify our enormous salaries which fund our lavish lifestyles.

I am so disappointed in recent politicians. I'll tell you something. This country is going to the dogs. You know, it used to be when you bought a politician, that SOB stayed bought. Now they are raising the standard deduction and taking away options like having taxpayers help rich people pay for stuff--no more tax breaks for $100,000 football suites, etc.

We had a great system. It was working just fine during the days of Ike. They warned that kid, Kennedy, not to go down that path of "rising tide lifts all boats". Don't let the camel's nose into the sheikh's tent. He did it anyway.

Dream of a better tomorrow starting today. Imagine how more complex and elaborate our schemes could be in the modern world of international world of finance. Give me a 1,000 billable hours and a few well lobbied-for loopholes, and I could craft a perpetual wealth-shelter machine to ensure no taxman or 99-percenter ever touched a penny of great-granddad's fortune.

First they come for the 150-foot yachts...

Taking my tongue out of my cheek, the sad reality is we are still far, far away from an efficient, effective, fair, and simple tax regime (see also the long version). Progress has been made, but so much remains.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Trump - One Year In

About a year ago, I posted on Trump looking at what I saw as the reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic. Let's revisit that now that we have a year under our belt.

Overall, I think my predictions were good with some notable variance in a couple areas. Of course, I was vague enough to prevent too much inaccuracy (or accuracy) by design. Here are the areas that standout to me with a look back at my prior comments.

The Good

  • Taxes - this one was somewhat surprisingly good, blemishes and all. [remember with all of these we are grading on a curve] Much like Chance, Trump only gets credit for being there to sign the bill. 
  • Regulation - 1.25 steps forward with 1 step back is still progress. Congress and Trump completely failed to reform much less repeal the ACA (Obamacare). I have low and ebbing faith Dodd-Frank, et al. will be meaningfully changed. Still, there are success stories, and slowing the rate of growth is itself improvement
  • Judicial Appointments - I somehow missed mentioning this previously, and it would have been in the optimism bucket. This one has lived up to realistic (not full libertarian) hope. 
  • Lost Respect for the Sanctity of the Office - yes this is a feature--let the scales fall from your eyes, the emperors have never been well dressed. But . . .
The Bad
  • Presidential Power & Authority - we may be chipping away at the Cult of the Presidency, but I don't yet see the groundswell from the left or the center that I might hope for. They are much to tied up in the emotion of this particular president's actions and words.
  • Immigration - unlike in trade (below), Trump's actions have matched his rhetoric in this area. Here it looks to be an on-going real fight and will perhaps be the most lasting and impactful negative consequence of Trump.
  • Trade - as I mentioned, his administration is a lot of (bad) talk on this, but so far little action. Still, he has many opportunities to make good on his very bad desires.
  • War - I was not pessimistic enough on this. Drone attacks have increased under Trump as the list of places we are at war have grown. The U.S. government with the help of a complicit even if blissfully ignorant populace continues to be wrongfully aggressive. Include in this the surveillance state, but I am fairly certain this one is sadly nonpartisan. 
  • Drug Policy - yep, unfortunately I nailed this one.
The Ugly
  • Hatred, Nationalism, Bullying, etc. - I was not as pessimistic as I should have been in this general area. The downside of losing the always undue respect for the U.S. presidency is that it took this buffoon to get us there. He is at best sloppy and inconsiderate, at worst hateful and demagogic. If you need links on this topic to prove the point, you have been in a coma for 12+ months.
On balance there are reasons to claim "silver linings" and reasons to claim "not so fast".

PS. For a better analysis of the economic policy results of Trump's first year, read Scott Sumner's take

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The 2017 Tax Reform

There may not be another area of public policy where the distinction is greater between how non-economists (the general public, politicians, journalists, and practitioners in the area (in this case tax lawyers and accountants)) and economists evaluate policy than exists in tax policy. Who should you pay attention to? I will let the rest of this post hint at my answer.

Here is a sampling for how economists look at taxes centering on the most recently enacted changes to the U.S. Federal Tax Code. I've indicated the major takeaways for each and tried to keep this as low wonk as possible. Trust me; it could have been a lot deeper in the weeds.

Scott Sumner notes that there is more good reform in the recent changes than what probably was expected, by no means is it all progress, and that three natural experiments come out of the package. He also has a post discussing misconceptions in tax policy where most people don't understand that to tax someone you must reduce that person's consumption. If you don't reduce it, you haven't taxed that person--period. He also points out that distortions are always an important part of evaluating tax policy.

Steve Landsburg echos Scott's take and adds his own points including how the recent reform is genuine improvement and still far, far from the ideal.

John Cochrane is always worth quoting on tax policy. I'll limit myself to a few. First, here is how he sees the public role for economists discussing tax policy. Here is a long, but very rewarding, analysis of how to craft a good tax regime and what makes it "good". He calls out a fellow economist, former colleague and friend Austan Goolsbee, for not thinking like an economist. And he reminds us that the distributional effects of tax changes are never what the public and media expect.

Rawls' Veil of Ignorance is a useful philosophical approach in many cases and a good tool for guiding tax policy. How tax changes happen to affect you should not guide what changes you support. Humility is another quality tax reform should respect. The risks of unintended consequences are orders of magnitude higher in tax policy than in other aspects of political economy.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Highly Linkable - "progress" report edition

Let us begin with all the answers: The Cato Handbook for Policy Makers - it reads like stereo instructions for solving public policy problems.

Tyler Cowen has a new book, The Complacent Class, this short video is a good introduction. He suggests you can turn the book into winning advice. And perhaps it offers a unique explanation of Trump.

More from Cowen: Let he who cannot assimilate cast the first stone.

The Trump Rally? Scott Sumner cautions against the conventional view.

Dollars, Taxes: It is that time of year again. One of the promised blessings of President Trump is tax reform. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the version we will get is anything but ideal. Cowen explains. And Scott Sumner points out what economists know about taxes that the general public doesn't.

Do we need a national health policy? Steven Landsburg strongly suggests the question is silly on its face and requires more and different thought than what is generally offered.

One area of public policy Trump is offering no progress on is Social Security along with its ~$11 TRILLION of unfunded liability (i.e., debt in addition to the official national debt). Regardless of the chances, Bob Murphy has thought through a first-step solution to be considered before the inevitable changes to the benefit formula: Let people opt out. 

Speaking of letting people make decisions for themselves (and why shouldn't we given that they are in the best position to make good decisions as it concerns themselves), a surprising thing happened to an Ivy-league professor when she did a study of check-cashing businesses by working at one. She changed her mind about the business's virtues. (HT: David Henderson)

Scott Alexander kindly suggests some groups of people who we don't have to hate.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Update on the Once and Future Tsar

Well, we are one month into the greatness. And it has been stellar!

Steve Palpatine Bannon finally spoke using his own voice instead of the orange puppet. Spoiler alert: Anyone who proudly speaks of 'economic nationalism' isn't going to win the Shazam Prize in Economics

He laid out three pillars of Trump's plan, and two out of three were bad. He starts with national security and sovereignty--we know how that has gone so far. Next comes the same type of thinking applied to trade--you see, kids, menage a trois (or menage a beaucoup when plus de deux) is bad in trade. Lastly is a promise that I would like to see come to play out, 'deconstruction' of the administrative state--can we count on this crew to pull anything like that off? I am highly doubtful. I believe they lack the ideological integrity to follow through or the intellectual acuity to be successful. My guess is that they want the administrative state to work for them rather than to truly reduce its breadth or depth.

What about Dodd-Frank and Obamacare reform? Well, where is the Republican Congress? They are the only chance at that. Meanwhile we lose ground on immigration, drug policy, and asset forfeiture. School choice, reversing net neutrality, and satire are among the areas that still have a good degree of optimism for progress. 

We will see...

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Highly Linkable

First of all, it is settled--I will be inviting Alton to my Super Bowl party next year.

But I'm not inviting Adam because he ruins everything--in this case debunking 13 things that aren't true.

Carol Anne, they're out there.

Speaking of scary things, the news isn't so calming. I find Bryan Caplan's advice to be a sound counter to the tide of common opinion. 

The most I'll allow myself to speculate is that the supposed momentum issue in today's politics of a desire to look inwardly to protect what we have and regain what we've lost will be soon enough revealed as a chimera based on delusion. As Scott Sumner says, absolute poverty dwarfs relative discomfort as a material issue. (BTW, thanks again to Scott for his time in OKC and his nice comments at the bottom of that post).

If you want evidence of how phony the President's argument is and the unlikelihood of lasting "reforms" brought by his administration, look to this illustration of just one widget's journey through a supply chain that spans all of the NAFTA countries. (hat tip: David Henderson)

Alas, fear of Trump ruination continues to grip many. I recommend more advice from Bryan Caplan--embrace limited government!

Trump's own ruination appears more likely to me. I am just surprised by how fast it seems to be developing (perhaps this is wishful thinking). In fact I fear it will all be but wishful thinking that meaningful, good reforms will come from this Republican government. Perhaps Congress will be compelled to tell The Donald "You're Fired!" in short order and a President Pence can then be the signator to healthcare reform, corporate tax reform, and perhaps even major tax reform that can be bundled with climate change (externality) reform. It is amazing how simple and achievable these solutions can be--and accessible when presented by John Cochrane.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Age of Trump

Tomorrow one third of the United States' government leadership will change hands from one who once promised hope and change to one who now promises the same but supposedly of a different variety.

The tension around this transition is particularly elevated. Not since Hoover-Roosevelt has a U.S. presidential interregnum been so ugly. How will the final moments play out? Will Obama be gracious or will he smugly toss the football? Will the White House be adorned with golden accents? Will a great wall emerge protecting us from things we'd like to buy and people we'd like to meet? How great shall our greatness be?

Below is a partial list of my areas of optimism and pessimism as yet another self-greatness seeking charlatan proceeds to chase away our ideals.

Before I begin, a quick look at the optimism/pessimism I predicted about one year ago when Trump was but a surprising front runner though still a dark horse.
Optimistic - Shows why we should lose (and should have lost a long time ago) our reverent awe for the U.S. Presidency; prevents major government action/intervention/meddling on any number of issues by being a circus act writ large (his administration's priorities will be prestige and showmanship rather than policy accomplishment); forces a meaningful debate and action on limiting executive power (a little bit in tension with the previous prediction as this one mitigates a Trump administration that is actually trying to do something).
Pessimistic - Engages in major international war actions (beyond the high amount the each of his opponents would do anyway); sets back trade freedom and immigration substantially; creates strong racial, ethnic, nationalistic, and gender divides.
Overall - I estimate the optimistic possibilities are more likely than the pessimistic possibilities. 

  • Taxes - As with many of these, Trump himself is not really the source of optimism. Rather the Republican Congress is the new hope. Trump is just the chance that a good reform will be drafted with the expectation that he will sign it into law.
  • Regulation - He continues to talk strongly about reducing the monstrous regulatory burden our federal empire exerts. The areas of particular expectation are banking & finance (Dodd Frank) and health care/medicine/insurance (ACA/Obamacare), but also environmental; although I am less sanguine about the prospects there. 
  • Presidential Power & Authority - This one is borrowed my original. I believe the return of the left is long overdue in this area. Perhaps it will take this time... doubtful. The same can be said for the anti-war movement. Their 8-year hibernation is now over. Remy puts it well in the second verse. 
There is no doubt these are important areas; yet, so are those I put in the pessimistic camp.

  • Trade - Astute readers will notice how many of these in the pessimism category are related. Is his rhetoric enough to satiate the unintentional, populist desire to be poorer? Our trade deficit/capital account surplus is not some phantom menace plaguing our economic well being. Is he really so dense as to believe the nonsense he speaks on this issue? . . . based on the rest of his behavior . . . Okay, good point.
  • Immigration - The free exchange of labor is every bit as important a contributor (perhaps even a greater contributor) to our economic wealth as is the free exchange of goods and services. His attack on those not from around here is both disgusting and discouraging. Again, I hope this is a clone of the prior item where it is all about rhetoric and not action.
  • Nationalism - We don't need more tribal thinking in this world. Unfortunately, he nurtures this toxin. He wants revenge on those not allowing us to be great.
  • War - Here my outlook is just slightly negative. I'm grading on a curve based on the past two Commanders in Chief. I think he will tend to reduce the areas of conflict where both Bush and Obama took us. However, the risk he runs of allowing an awoken force from Russia or China is elevated compared to the prior administrations. Think reduced magnitude across the bulk of the probable war fronts but with increased risk in the extremes (tail risk).
  • Drug policy - I suspect he views drugs in the traditional simplistic framework (good versus evil). Drug users are rogues who must be dealt with. The first one to tell him he can't win the war on drugs will seal our fate in continuing the evil work that is that battle.
  • Government Meddling - From the Carrier deal to GM to you name it, the picture so far is bad for economic growth specifically and bad for liberty in general.
  • Free Speech - For as much as he deplores PC, he certainly can't take criticism. He has flat out said we need to reign in speech. 
  • Internet freedom - This may be a small issue, but perhaps it is a litmus test for how he will govern overall. He said we need to look into 'closing that Internet up'. His nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, as well as his vice president, Pence, are outspoken in their disdain for internet poker. They want to keep us safe . . . from ourselves and our choices.
  • Surveillance State - I suspect no relief. 
  • Gender Issues/Tolerance - While I actually think he actually takes a lot of unfounded and unfair flack regarding areas like race and sexual orientation, his sexism is undeniable. He is not just crude. He is misogynistic. It is hard to be very trusting that this strong character flaw and his errors in judgment don't and won't extend beyond objectifying women. 

The Trump years (and they will be years despite the hope of so many for impeachment or that he would divorce America to be president of some younger Eastern European country) might be an odd combination of dramatic progress and colossal retreat. I think the eventual decisive factor will be how strong and righteous Congress is. I believe the case for optimism has a greater magnitude than the case for pessimism, but the negative sensitivity is high--meaning prospects are skewed with more downside risk than upside potential while the balance is still to the upside. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Devil is in the Details

I have been thinking about taxes recently and actually had a couple of potential posts noodling around in my mind and my notes for the past few months. Good thing I waited. No, you didn't miss news of hell freezing over and a sensible tax code being adopted in the U.S. But you did miss me stumbling through what John Cochrane very simply Nadia Comaneci'd.

My notes on the potential posts began with: "I propose a major tax compromise: slightly higher taxes now in exchange for dramatic tax simplification. We take the existing tax code today and replace it wholesale with a consumption tax. We'll have the debate/fight at a later time about how big the tax burden should be, which is really a debate about how big the government should be. For now let's just remove the deadweight loss that comes from the complexity and the cronyism of the tax code."

Here is the full post from The Grumpy One's webpage. Allow me to extract a few key sentences:
Left and right agree that the U.S. tax code is a mess.
The first goal of taxation is to raise needed government revenue with minimum economic damage. That means lower marginal rates—the additional tax people pay for each extra dollar earned—and a broader base of income subject to tax. It also means a massively simpler tax code.  
... A simple code would allow people and businesses to spend more time and resources on productive activities and less on attorneys and accountants, or on lobbyists seeking special deals and subsidies. And a simple code is much more clearly fair. Americans now suspect that people with clever lawyers are avoiding much taxation, which is corrosive to compliance and driving populist outrage across the political spectrum.
... the government should tax consumption, not wages, income or wealth.
Wise politicians often bundle dissimilar goals to attract a majority. But when bundling leads to paralysis, progress comes by separating the issues. Thus, we should agree to first reform the structure of the tax code, leaving the rates blank. We will then separately debate rates, and the consequent overall revenue and progressivity.
Scott Sumner heaped rightful praise on the piece while noting a few considerations. I had similar thoughts. Again from my notes: "The many complications of any tax scheme: defining consumption goods versus investment assets, not penalizing transactions (you want to tax activity as it is more traceable and definable, but you don't want to do so in a way that stifles or distorts gains from trade), not inadvertently taxing capital (capital is ideas; when you tax textbooks, you are effectively taxing capital; when you tax computer sales you are taxing both Minecraft users and the 'next Minecraft' creator), etc."

Some additional thoughts: It is important to understand that ultimately ALL taxes are consumption taxes. The only difference is how efficient they are. When you tax savings, you are taxing future consumption (encouraging current consumption, which is shameful). And this taxation is usually on income that has already been taxed, but that isn't the central reason it is despicable. To savings taxes (including investment and corporate and capital gains, etc.) I say, "You're Despicable!" because that taxation compounds making the tax disincentive for savings worse the longer it is deferred (i.e., saved).

If structured properly, the disruptive effects of taxes on consumption can be minimized. If not, they can be quite dramatic and quite limiting. Of course, the current incumbent is not a high hurdle to surpass on this last point. Consider this very conservative estimate of the gains from simplification:

Let's assume the estimates of man-hours devoted to tax preparation and compliance of 3.2 billion (many estimate it is closer to 6 billion) are way off. Let's assume it is only 1 billion man-hours. Let's further assume away any other costs (capital investment distortions, rent seeking, labor tied up in compliance/avoidance work (lawyers, accountants, internal corporate departments, etc.), enforcement, etc.). Let's finally assume we can only reduce the man-hours by half (500 million). The average U.S. wage is about $25 per hour. Just this conservative estimate yields a wealth gain of about $12.5 billion dollars every year.

PS. Will tax cheating (intentionally under-reporting tax liability) or perhaps more likely tax fraud (filling fraudulent returns to garner other taxpayers' refunds) force us to simplify the tax code? Will they force us to remove Milton Friedman's unfortunate innovation (no refunds, no fraud)? Will they force a rethinking about identity verification at least in regards to the government (even less anonymity)?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Highly Linkable

Remembering the lessons of "Swamp Thing", 3-D printing DNA can make us more of what we already are.

Flying without getting the window seat is like dieting without looking in the mirror--where's the satisfaction?

And while you're flying, make one of these your destination.

This photo set represents the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity. Prepare yourself before clicking.

Every bridge in America. (HT: Tyler Cowen)

A great example of how in well-functioning markets outcomes satisfy along multiple dimensions.

Bryan Caplan recycles a great piece that speaks to making the perfect the enemy of the good--don't let your quest for purity extinguish your chances for progress.

Scott Sumner provides example applications of what he calls The Wittgenstein Test. This is an effective way to check one's reasoning that I plan to start employing on myself.

Arnold Kling seems to not realize that "I want this to be; therefore, it is feasible" is a logical argument for some people.

It seems that the Republicans will be running with tax-reform as a central part of their agenda for 2016--one can hope, but don't hold your breath waiting for results. To that end Sumner says Rubio-Lee is great; co-blogger David Henderson says not so fast.

Disagreements about that particular bundle of tax proposals aside, I'm sure Henderson would agree with Sumner's analysis here of why a pure wage tax equals a consumption tax and that taxing capital income is VERY BAD.

One last one from Sumner: I agree with his analysis on what Democrats really want and where reducing inequality ranks. To those who want progress against inequality, which one should though the devil is in the details, I'll give the same advice as above--continue breathing.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Highly Linkable

These people and their miniature worlds are so tiny. I'm crushing their heads! Be sure to hit the video at the end.

Megan McArdle asks us to take a moment to marvel at the kitchen wonders some of us (humans) enjoy today.

The rest of this link post is brought to you by Don Boudreaux (directly or via hat tips).

On the 69th anniversary of inexcusable brutality, Boudreaux asks us to remember and remember how conservatives felt about it at the time.

I relate very, VERY much to Sheldon Richman's sentiments in this post.

George Will rightfully takes to task those who would paint inverting corporations as unpatriotic. I love the conclusion:
This illustrates the grandstanding frivolity of the political class. It legislates into existence incentives for what it considers perverse behavior, and then waxes indignant when businesses respond sensibly to the incentives.
Matt Zwolinski has five important moral (and economic) points about payday lending.

The free market is filled with something even better than tolerance--indifference.

Here Boudreaux offers not just a strong argument against cronyistic policies like the Ex-Im Bank but also a strong argument against the minimum wage. To wit: why is it consumers' job (or in the case of the minimum wage, employers of low-wage employees' job) to compensate the "victims" of foreign subsidies (low wages)?

Just how dangerous is it to be a cop? Daniel Bier answers. (SPOILER ALERT: not very).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Highly Linkable

I've been on some of these. Perhaps I should set a goal to eventually be on each one. See if you can spot the one Forrest Gump was on. There is also one that looks a lot like the one where Joan Wilder first got into trouble (but it isn't the one; that one was in Mexico posing as Columbia).

Let's hit these by author in this edition:

First, Don Boudreaux makes quick work of the childish argument "If perfection is so good, why isn't anybody perfect?" Next, he points out something cool about keeping cool this summer.

Megan McArdle hits all the notes on why we need to end the corporate income tax. One quibble: I completely disagree with her idea of replacing it with higher taxes on capital gains/income. There is no logical or moral reason to tax the same thing twice and in a way that encourages wasteful consumption--taxing savings and investment encourages consumption today that otherwise would not take place.

Speaking of consumption, Scott Sumner points out that one implication of Piketty's wealth tax ideas would be wasteful consumption. Moving away from consumption, let's discuss aggregate demand, which isn't just consumption as Sumner points out. I know a lot of smart people who don't understand that they don't understand this concept.

Next time you're aggregate demanding you might want to use the retail version of Uber as detailed by Erika Morphy.

Finally, Timothy Taylor discusses the government's arrival on the scene of "The Great Honey Bee Panic of the 21st Century" (title all mine) just as the market is done making short work of the problem.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Highly Linkable

Into the caves

Out on the shore

If you're looking for poetry, look elsemore.

Sumner illuminates the thing versus the thing that is done.

In Europe silver spoons aren't just a good idea, they're the law! Is a world of Ricky Stratton's really the progressive dream?

Insider trading as a parallel to prohibition.

It's Derby time; hence, it is julep time.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Highly Linkable

Kojak. Bang! Bang!

Virginia Postrel gives us four questions courtesy of FIRE to ask prospective universities regarding their attitudes on free speech.

Federal land ownership looks like an epidemic outbreak (HT: Mungowitz):

Scott Sumner gives two posts on taxes that are both important examples of thinking like an economist. He then follows it up with a lesson on why it is all about consumption--not income--when it comes to inequality.

Bryan Caplan recently participated in a debate hosted by Reason on immigration (hopefully it will be up in video form soon at ReasonTV). As such, he is on an immigration posting roll. Each one is worth reading.