All posts by Janet Byrd

Income inequality follow-up point

Offline convo with a friend about the inequality measurement issues that I discussed in my last two posts (concerning the Auten colloquium) has prompted some further reflection on the relevance of healthcare.

As noted in the previous post, U.S. income distribution looks more even than it otherwise would if one includes, at the bottom, the cash value of healthcare that poor people get from sources such as Medicaid and (if they are old enough) Medicare. This also reduces the percentage of the pie that one measures as sticking to the top. So it makes things look more even than otherwise.

In the Auten-Splinter measure, this is a key reason why things look less unequal than they otherwise would. US healthcare costs have been exploding relative to GDP over the last couple of decades, this does reflect technology-driven improvements in care, and the bottom 50% of the distribution are getting some of this care.

Piketty, Saez, and Zucman spin this same data point differently, arguing that a huge proportion of any income gains at the bottom are being swallowed up by rising healthcare costs. This also is unmistakably true; the question is what to make of it.

Auten and Splinter, rightly in terms of their purposes, view the question as one of whether poor people are getting full cash value. Arguably they are, given how important healthcare can be to one’s quality and length of life, and especially if one forces on them the hypothetical calculation of whether they’d swap it for cash (and whether it would be rational for them to do so) in the absence of free emergency care when things get truly dire.

I certainly wouldn’t favor eliminating Medicaid and Medicare for the poor and handing them the cash instead (in the amount of how much the services cost), even if it were politically stable to continue doing so. But this admittedly reflects not just the value I see it as having to them, but also the altruistic externality to others (such as myself) from their not being denied vital medical care even if they’d rationally spend the money on something else given the other great deficits in what good things in life they can afford to buy.

But now let’s add another point to the mix.US healthcare is by far the costliest in the world, pre capita and relative to GDP, and does not provide better results than other economically advanced countries get at a far lower cost. From the example of other countries, it’s plausible that we ought to be able to get healthcare that is just as good (judged by results) for half the costs. I don’t mean, of course, that it’s realistic to think that we can get there from where we are now, but rather that, had the system evolved in a different fashion over decades, that’s where we might be. It’s also plausible that rent seeking is an important part of the story of why we are where we are, rather than there.

Now let’s imagine a world where the U.S. is like that, hence people in the bottom 50% are getting healthcare of the same value for half the present cost. Suddenly, all else equal, their incomes have substantially declined (as measured by Auten-Splinter and anyone else who values the healthcare at cost), so, at least before we make any other conforming changes, the society looks far more unequal in the statistical measures.

Next step, of course, is that someone is being paid less, so distribution higher up will change as well. Plus, we then have to run the thought experiment, what else happens instead? E.g., is GDP simply lower since healthcare costs less, although by hypothesis everyone is just as well off as before except that some people have been paid less by other people? Consistency suggests trying to think this through a bit further, e.g., in terms of other output that occurs instead, but by now we’re not only in the realm of speculative fantasy but far beyond what distributional measures can reasonably give us.

Multiple bottom lines are possible off this speculative chain, but here’s one. In a distributional measure that (perhaps reasonably) views healthcare as worth its market cost to poor people, the fact that it is more expensive due to all the defects in how our system has evolved causes poor people, in a sense, to look spuriously better-off than they would, all else equal, in the scenario where we didn’t get on a different healthcare path than peer countries. On the other hand, despite its high cost, we are in fact still giving this care to poor people (to the extent that, as per the measures, we actually are). To some extent it all comes down to how you want to think about it, apart from the undeniable point that these measures really can’t tell us everything that we would like to know about inequality.

Tax policy colloquium, week 4: Gerald Auten’s Income Inequality in the United States, part 2

My prior blog post noted that, while the Auten-Splinter (AS) paper, despite its clear merits, seems in tension with the vast anecdotal evidence (and other empirical studies) suggesting that there has been a substantial rise in U.S. high-end inequality over the last three decades, there are ways of getting past the initial head-scratching. Let me start with the question of why high-end inequality might matter, which relates to how one might try to measure it for different purposes, and then turn to a few of the particular empirical issues in the debate, along with the relationship between AS and the most recent work in the same area by Piketty, Saez, and Zucman (PSZ).

AS seek a “broad and consistent income measure” for purposes of measuring high-end inequality. For the most part, they look to market measures of income earned by different households and individuals, and at taking national income and trying to allocate it to people, although this is influenced by issues of what we might reasonably infer in some circumstances about underlying utility. But why would one care about this?
An initial point, and I think closest to their purpose, is as follows. If one thinks in terms of a national “pie” of income that the people in the country divide somehow, then it is of interest what percent of it is held (or “eaten”) by people at the very top. This might implicate concerns about distribution or vertical equity. It also might be a relevant input to thinking about the marginal utility that might be gained and lost by changing the distribution. So let’s say the following:

Reason 1 for caring about high-end inequality is that we care about the distribution of the total.

Reason 2 is that we draw inferences from it about marginal utility. All else equal, if the rich are richer and the poor poorer, the marginal utility gain from transfering a quantum of consumption from the former to the latter might be expected to increase.

But this does not exhaust the possible reasons for concern about high-end inequality. AS mention, at the start of their paper, three further issues (developed in earlier economic literature) that might be raised: “Increased inequality could be an indicator of greater concentration of political power and increased rent-seeking … or a result of increases in the bargaining power of top earners for compensation.” Hence, they note, three particular ills might accompany rising high-end inequality.  Let’s call these Reasons 3 – 5, given the two I noted above. In AS’s words, they consist of:

Reason 3: “decreasing institutional accountability due to concentrated power,”

Reason 4: “decreasing economic efficiency due to rent-seeking,” and

Reason 5: “stagnating middle-class wages due in part to shifts in relative bargaining power.”

Let me add to the list two more possible ills from rising high-end inequality:
Reason 6: If people care about relative consumption (hint: they do), there might be what Robert Frank calls “expenditure cascades” radiating from the top down, potentially reducing subjective welfare for people at all levels.

Reason 7: Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett powerfully suggests that greater inequality is correlated with, and apparently causes, increases in social gradient ills, ranging from violence to drug abuse to alcoholism to suicide to other stress-related health problems. Even the rich are affected. This matters not just for its own sake (social gradient ills are bad), but as a diagnostic indicating broader negative effects on people’s subjective wellbeing in more unequal societies.

This list is not necessarily exhaustive. One may wish to add other reasons, or delete those listed above that one deems not to be serious concerns. But here’s the thing: If you still have several reasons on your list, they are unlikely to motivate identical measures of high-end inequality for purposes of assessing them.

Here is a simple example. AS address the question of whether we should think of, say, healthcare benefits provided through Medicare, Medicaid, and employer-provided health insurance as providing benefits that are worth their cost to the recipients. This clearly must be addressed with regard to Reason 1 – it tells us about the value of the “pieces” of the “pie” that people in different households are getting.

But how much does it affect, say, Reason 4 or Reason 6? Do we think there’s less rent-seeking at the top if poor people are getting good rather than mediocre value from Medicaid? Really no, except insofar as prevalent rent-seeking might increase the likelihood that they might be handed bad healthcare. Do we think there will be less by way of “expenditure cascades” that are mainly a product of visible public Veblenesque consumption? People aren’t competing over cancer and diabetes treatment in quite the same way as they might be over their homes, weddings, vacations, food consumption, and air travel.

One reason AS find that high-end inequality hasn’t risen as much as one might otherwise have thought is that people lower in the distribution, due to advances in medical technology, are getting far more expensive – but also better – healthcare than previously. PSZ note in their work that wage increases among the bottom 50% have been substantially eaten up by rising healthcare costs. These are two different ways of saying the same thing. The AS way of putting it might be better in relation to Reason 1, but it’s conceivable that all of Reasons 2 through 7 (to the extent affected at all) are better aligned with PSZ’s framing.

Here’s another tough measurement issue that both AS and PSZ have had to wrestle with. Say I save during my working years for my retirement years, perhaps through tax-favored retirement saving that I accumulate upfront and withdraw/use at the back end. How should we measure this?

Measuring it on an accrual basis rightly captures that the individual who accumulates retirement saving during her working years is better off than one who consumes the same amount that year but doesn’t have anything left over for retirement saving. The saver preferred to save – why should she be treated as worse-off than if she had spent more on current consumption in lieu of saving for retirement.

But if you measure consistently on an accrual basis, then the person who is living off her savings once she retires appears, in the measure, to be poor, even though she isn’t. And double-counting it for both periods leads to a falsely high measure of lifetime income.

To add in a factor that both AS and PSZ leave out for methodological reasons (since they are doing annual snapshots), what about life expectancy differences? If I have $X (and let’s suppose it’s a tidy sum) at retirement, perfectly self-annuitize, and spend it all before I die, was I better-off in the scenario where (a) I correctly forecast that I would live a very short time and hence blew through it rapidly, than (b) in that where I correctly forecast that I have many years left, and prudently spread it over a longer period?

Annual scenarios make me look worse-off in (b) than (a), whereas the truth is the other way around. Even under a pure accrual method, which misclassifies me as poor in my retirement years because the retirement savings have already been counted during the build-up years, I appear to be poor for more periods, by reason of my living longer, so I make high-end inequality look worse even if in fact I’m at the top throughout in any real sense.

It certainly matters to the assessment of high-end inequality that the life expectancy gap between rich and poor has been growing in the United States. But if we go back to Reasons 1 through 7, it doesn’t matter identically for all of them! It clearly makes #1 look worse, as assessed from a longer than merely annual perspective, it has ambiguous effects on #2 (we could really benefit poorer people if we enable them to live longer, but if we take the discrepancy as given then having a longer lifespan increases the marginal utility of a dollar of lifetime income), and, as to the rest, who knows (or at least, it would require more analysis).

So we have complex and ambiguous issues, not reducible to being assessed via a single-bullet measure of current annual shares of the pie. Plus, you could have exactly the same such measure in Society 1 as opposed to Society 2 – thus equalizing them in terms of Reason 1 – yet the two societies might differ substantially with regard to Reasons 2 through 7. Hence the point, for example, that even if high-end income concentration in 1960 was closer than we thought to being similar to that today, its adverse effects may have been less, e.g., because people were less inclined to use their wealth aggressively in either politics or Veblenesque status competition through conspicuous consumption.

One last point before I close: How does the AS versus PSZ standoff look today? The latter have shifted from Piketty-Saez approach of starting from taxable income and moving up (effectively critiqued by AS in various respects) to an approach of starting with a measure of national income and allocating it down.

AS find that the top 1% have a national income share of 10.2%, whereas PSZ come out at 15.7%. This is still a sizeable different – albeit, not necessarily large enough to motivate fundamentally different bottom line viewpoints about whether we have a problem from rising high-end inequality.

PSZ report that their finding 5.5% more of national income concentrated at the top arises as follows:

1) 1% comes from PSZ’s including retirement savings as it accrues, rather than when it is later spent. As noted above, there is clearly some merit to this position (although its upside of more properly measuring the income of workers who save comes with a downside of overestimating the poverty of retirees who have saved).

2) 0.4% comes from assuming that deficits will be funded half through tax increases and half through spending cuts, rather than all through tax increases as AS assume. I find the PSZ scenario more plausible, although either alternative raises the question of how we should think about the current distributional implications of future policy changes that have not been adopted yet and that remain deeply unpredictable.

3) 0.2% comes from differences in how they treat married couples. This is a very interesting and intricate subject – we spent a lot of time on it at yesterday’s AM and PM colloquium sessions, but I lack the time and space to cover it properly here.

4) 0.3% comes from only AS’s removing young and dependent filers from the lists, on the view that their low income measures may be wholly uninformative if, say, they are living with affluent parents.

5) 2.6% comes from PSZ’s treating unreported income as concentrated at the top, whereas AS allocate it ratably to reported income. I see a number of strong reasons (although, again, no time or room to run through them here) for leaning heavily towards PSZ on this issue.

6) 1% comes from other methodological and data source differences between AS and PSZ.

Suppose one were to run a totally back-of-the-envelope scoresheet on this. For example, say we gave PSZ half of #1, all of #2, half of #3, none of #4, and all of #5. Then, even if we gave them none of #6, we would still have raised the AS estimate of a top 1% income share of 10.2% by 3.6%, to 13.8% – almost two-thirds of the total difference. Plus, I’ve suggested that some of the reasons why the top 1% income share isn’t higher – e.g., because people at the bottom do at least get some medical treatment that is not only costly but also valuable – might not matter so much for Reasons 2-7, even if quite relevant to Reason 1.

I think this plausibly puts us in a scenario where concern about high-end income inequality that we believe to be both high and rising is by no means rebutted or shown to be an “illusion” by AS’s nonetheless valuable and admirable contribution to the debate.

Tax policy colloquium, week 4: Gerald Auten’s Income Inequality in the United States, part 1

Yesterday at the colloquium, Treasury economist (at the Office of Tax Analysis) Gerald Auten presented his paper, co-auithored with David Splinter of the Joint Committee on Taxation, entitled Income Inequality in the United States: Using Tax Data to Measure Long-Term Trends.

This paper is an important entry in the ongoing empirical debate among economists regarding the rise of high-end inequality. I think it’s worth offering a bit of the backstory here.

My view, and that of many others, has been that the rise of high-end inequality in the U.S. (and elsewhere) in recent decades is both unmistakable and highly consequential. Let me offer here just a few anecdotal examples off the Internet, illustrating this pervasive (I would argue) phenomenon:

–A 2016 NYT article, entitled “In an age of privilege, not everyone is in the same boat,” describing how consumer businesses increasingly direct their efforts towards extremely high-end consumers, creating sectors that feature a “money-based caste system.”

–A 2015 WaPo article, entitled “In 2016 campaign, lament of the not quite rich enough,” describing how, in the days when Jeb Bush appeared to be riding high, campaign finance had moved in such a way that presidential campaigns had little interest in courting mere multi-millionaires. One needed to be a billionaire to really get all those lap kisses and special access.

–A pair of delightful 2014 blog posts by economists, the first called “Inequality in the Skies” and the second “Fly Air Gini,” describing how the allocation of seat space inside commercial airplanes has become more high-end skewed. (This despite the fact that the real high-flyers, or top 0.1 percent, aren’t to be found in business class or even first class – they are using their own personal or corporate jets. The influience they nonetheless have on commercial flights is related to what my recent High-End Inequality Colloquium teaching colleague, Robert Frank, calls “expenditure cascades,” involving the radiation downward through the wealth distribution of influence from high-end consumption patterns.)

Anyway, it seems to me verging on undeniable that this thing at the top has happened. Widespread agreement about the reality and importance of this phenomenon helped to trigger the extremely high-profile reception of Thomas Piketty’s 2014 tome, Capital in the 21st Century.

The Piketty book, and its underlying research (much of it conducted with Emmanuel Saez, and subsequently also with Gabriel Zucman), had a lot going for it. It took a fresh look at previously under-utilized data, it reached important conclusions that seemed clearly correct, and Piketty even made the book more fun by discussing the novels of Austen and Balzac.

But there were a couple of things to create potential unease about this work. First, there was reason to question Piketty’s causal theory for the rise in high-end inequality, which he based on “r > g” – the excess of the rate of return over the rate of growth in the economy, causing capital-owners to hold an ever-increasing share of the overall pie. Not only were there some soft spots in the underlying theoretical reasoning, but it seemed clear that, in the U.S. at least, the rise of high-end inequality was driven primarily by rising high-end labor income inequality.  (Joe Bankman and I wrote about Piketty’s work, in part critically, here, in connection with an interdisciplinary NYU-UCLA conference on the book that Piketty attended.) Ought the problems with the underlying theory support broader skepticism about the work – or was it simply a causal dispute? It was hard to know.

Second, while I am not myself an empiricist, I began to hear suggestions from various economists – straight-up folks without intellectual axes to grind – that they were uneasy about some of the details in the (at that stage mainly) Piketty-Saez work. Reading the footnotes, in effect, seemed not to inspire universal confidence. And there are people to whom it sometimes seemed that debatable interpretive choices – although inevitable, given the data challenges in the enterprise – seemed to have a tendency to lean towards making the estimates of rising high-end inequality higher, rather than lower.

Yesterday’s colloquium presenter, Gerald Auten, got into the debate as a consequence of his in effect carefully reading the footnotes in connection with IRS tax data. Among the things he noticed was that the Piketty and Saez (“PS”) methodology seemed to show a huge uptick in high-end inequality right around the enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

Now, as an aside, it is plausible that TRA 86 might have tended over time to boost high-end inequality (it aimed to be distributionally neutral, but only within a 5-year budget window and without looking at the top 1% – it was designed in light of effects on income quintiles). But not quite so immediately. The jump one computed by replicating the PS methodology seemed to rely a lot on (a) the fact that TRA 86 induced a lot of people to shift out of corporate form, so that the same earnings they had previously been generating through C corporations now appeared on their individual returns, and (b) the fact that, under TRA 86 provisions targeting tax avoidance by rich people, more children of rich people now had to file tax returns on which they might have trivial amounts of taxable income. These looked as if they were the tax returns of poor people, but actually weren’t. The growth in seemingly “poor” taxpayers made the income concentration at the top look greater than it would have, had the kids (as previously) not filed.

In short, there were technical reasons unrelated to the true growth of high-end inequality why it seemed to grow sharply, under the PS methodology, right around 1986. And if one took that growth away from the estimates, what was left seemed potentially much smaller than PS had been trumpeting.

Auten and Splinter therefore started preparing their own estimates of high-end inequality trends from 1960 through the early twenty-first century, and came up with a much more modest growth estimate. Indeed, the current paper draft concludes that its findings support an “alternative narrative … [to that in PS] when consistent and broad measures of pre-tax and after-tax incomes are used: changes in the top one percent income shares over the last half century are likely to have been relatively modest.”

As I see it, this can put one in a strange place, as a consumer of the empirical debate. Much of what Auten and Splinter (AS) do – such as addressing the anomalies that I noted above – seems clearly correct. What’s more, they clearly have no axe to grind, and simply want to get the data analysis right.

On the other hand, it kind of seems like their bottom line conclusion can’t quite be correct. I’m reminded of the old joke: “Who are you gonna believe, honey – me or your lying eyes?” It’s not just bias or media trends – our not so lying eyes surely have seen a real phenomenon unfolding over time. How could it not be happening after all?

This angle is well-captured in a recent Vox blogpost by Dylan Matthews, entitled “A new study says much of the rise in inequality is an illusion. Should you believe it?” This in the end is not ultimately my take on how to think about the significance of the AS paper, but I will admit that I started there.

Now, as I’ll discuss in a follow-up blog entry, there may actually be several good reasons, based purely on data interpretation, for revising the AS “narrative” very substantially towards that in PS. Indeed, the latest version of the latter – PSZ for Piketty-Saez-Zucman – really helps in framing the empirical gap in ways that could well come out sufficiently in their favor to revive their “narrative” relative to that in AS.

Let us suppose, however, that this remains indeterminate. How should one’s prior about the compelling, even if anecdotal, evidence of the contemporary rise in high-end inequality affect one’s response to the empirical analysis in AS?  Here are two possibilities:

–It can function as a Bayesian prior, influencing how one evaluates uncertainties in the data, even though one must always be open-minded,

–It can motivate considering how the AS analysis and what one has seen happening over the last three decades could BOTH be true. For example, if empirical measures of high-end inequality came out exactly the same in 1960 as today – which would go well beyond their finding merely “modest” high-end growth – might the changes we’ve observed nonetheless have been happening? I find it very plausible that cultural and behavioral changes since that time could have this upshot. If people at the top, in 1960, didn’t flaunt and flex their wealth to nearly the same degree then as they do now, either in consumer markets or in politics, then the changes so many of us have observed could reflect that, rather than (just) material changes in distribution.

I’ll develop all this further in the next blog entry (after participating, in a few minutes, in an NYU Law Forum where I and three colleagues will discuss the 2017 tax act with an audience mainly of law students).

But first, a last quick point to sharpen (I hope) interest in the follow-up. High-end inequality is not a single entirely well-defined “thing,” nor does it matter for just one reason. For each reason why it might matter, a different mode of measurement might be appropriate. So there is no unitary answer to the measurement issues that are raised by AS, PS, and PSZ.

Art by our extinct cousins?

Per an article in today’s New York Times, this may have been australopithecine art, depicting a face. (The pebble seems to have been transported to the site where it was found, and the holes gouged into it deliberately.)

And this may have been (technically and conceptually more advanced) Neanderthal art, also depicting a face.

OK, I realize that we don’t know for sure that this is a correct interpretation in either case. But interesting to contemplate.

New article (on the DBCFT) posted on SSRN

I have just posted on SSRN a recently completed article of mine, entitled “Goodbye to All That?: A Requiem for the Destination-Based Cash Flow Tax.” It’s available here.

It’s based on an ever-evolving talk that I gave multiple times in 2017, most recently at the interdisciplinary conference, “International Tax Policy in a Disruptive Environment,” that the Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance held in Munich on December 14-15, 2017. A final version of the paper will be appearing in a forthcoming conference volume of the Bulletin for International Taxation, to be published by IBFD.

Its abstract goes something like this:

In the aftermath of the short but spectacular career of the destination-based cash flow tax (DBCFT) as a widely-discussed tax reform option in U.S. tax policy debate, this paper argues that we should generally move on from focusing on the DBCFT as a discrete package.  While its political future (if any) is hard to predict, discussing it as a package tends to impede, rather than advance, clear thinking about the underlying issues.

The DBCFT has three main elements: (1) adopting a broad-based VAT (or increasing the VAT rate, in countries that already have one), (2) reducing the origin-based corporate (or business) income tax rate to zero, and (3) adopting a wage subsidy.  Intellectual clarity would be greatly advanced by evaluating each of these elements separately, rather than the DBCFT as a package.  It also would be advanced by more consistent recognition of the points that (1) countries can (and frequently do) have both VATs and origin-based corporate income taxes – it is not an either/or proposition – and (2) even if a destination-based VAT is more efficient than an origin-based tax, that does not make the case for having onlythe former, especially in a system that otherwise retains income taxation of individuals, and that serves distributional goals as well as that of efficiency (which would be advanced even more by having a lump-sum tax).

In addition, the DBCFT, unlike its forebears the flat tax and X-tax, does not involve specifying how individuals are taxed on wage and investment income.  This impedes analyzing how it, as compared to those more comprehensive instruments, would affect the fiscal system as a whole, in any given instance where it was adopted.

Tax policy colloquium, week 3: Andrew Hayashi’s “Countercyclical Tax Bases”

Yesterday at the colloquium, Andrew Hayashi presented an early draft of an interesting project that brings together two recently burgeoning (but still on balance underpopulated) sub-genres in tax policy scholarship. The first is looking at macroeconomic, or more specifically, Keynesian, policy considerations – in particular, the design of fiscal policy instruments to be automatically countercyclical (or at least not procyclical). The second is state and local taxation, which gets less attention in the literature (despite some excellent scholars) than its overall importance deserves, in part because it’s harder to look at all 50 states than simply at the federal level.

Hayashi is interested in examining, from both a theoretical and an empirical perspective, the question of how the choice of tax base by local governments could affect the depth of recessions and speed of recovery within their borders.

In recent years, we have of course learned that serious recessions actually can and do still happen. Plus, they may be inadequately addressed at the federal level, despite the multiple tools of monetary policy, automatic fiscal policy adjustments, and discretionary fiscal policy responses. Plus, recessions may vary significantly in severity as between localities, even if geographical mobility within the United States is not quite so low as, say, that between distinctive parts of the EU.

So, even if one is skeptical of the potential of discretionary fiscal policy at the state and local level – if only due to balanced budget constraints on state and local governments – one might like to ask what automatic fiscal policy can do. Only, when one thinks about this, balanced budget constraints remain relevant.

State and local governments may face balanced budget legal requirements with varying degrees of rigor. But even if the legal constraints aren’t binding, the governments may face market constraints since, their credit ratings can plummet if they don’t take care (reflecting a long history of sub-federal defaults).

If a locality’s balanced budget constraint is sufficiently binding, then a countercyclical reduction in tax revenues may be promptly (or even verging on simultaneously) offset by a procyclical reduction in government outlays. So then the question becomes, from the standpoint of countercyclical fiscal policy, which of these two sets of opposite changes is likely to have a greater business cycle effect.

Joseph Stiglitz and Peter Orszag have apparently argued that marginal changes in state and local government spending, amid a recession, tend to affect consumption levels more than marginal changes in state and local tax levels – reflecting that taxes may tend to be paid by higher-income households that respond to the tax changes via their savings levels.  If and insofar as this is true, one gets a seemingly paradoxical reversal of the standard wisdom regarding automatic fiscal policy.

If the tax side changed by itself, then the Keynesian macro standpoint would counsel the use by state and local governments of tax instruments that are relatively volatile and correlated with the business cycle. State and local income taxes are the classic example. By contrast, real property tax revenues tend to be extremely stable, even if home values are fluctuating. For example, property tax reassessments may be sporadic, may lean in practice against reducing the assessed value, and have enough discretion in the joints to permit keeping revenues steady. (Recent research by John Mikesell confirms that real property tax revenues were extremely stable during the Great Recession.)

So one has the paradigmatic choice between state and local taxes – income taxes, which fluctuate countercyclically but thereby draw procyclical spending changes, and real property taxes, which may fail to boost consumption in a recession, since they remain about the same, but have the virtue of not similarly drawing procyclical spending cuts.

A question of central interest in Hayashi’s paper is whether one can find an empirical correlation between (a) the use of income taxation versus property taxation at the county level and (b) the severity of and speed of recovery from recessions. Then a second question is whether one can draw a causal arrow from (a) to (b), based on the above scenario in which volatile income taxes, but not stable property taxes, draw matching spending cuts. Early work, reflected in the draft discussed yesterday, suggests that there may indeed be some positive correlation between using property taxes and doing better in recessions, but much work remains to be done before any causal interpretation of the data can be confidently advanced.

Now, that’s what I call a bargain

According to the International Business Times, the 2017 tax bill may cause the Koch brothers to clear an extra $1 billion after-tax each year that it remains in force.

Given that point, what a bargain for them to have paid Paul Ryan’s fundraising committee a mere $500,000 shortly after the tax act passed. That’s only about 0.05% of a single year’s yield – although it’s obviously true that they’ve paid off plenty of other people as well.

Ryan of course also benefited, and got paid by, plenty of other very rich people by helping to ram through the tax bill. But still, without needing to compute who paid him how much in exchange for how much (and express, criminally punishable quid pro quos are wholly unnecessary to this), it is an interesting question, which the public choice literature has studied over a period of decades, why he and others like him can’t clear even more from their largesse than they already do.

Gordon Tullock wrote a number of interesting works, including this one, on why the Washington rent-seeking industry, although we think of it as large, is actually so small (and poorly paying for the government actors who provide the payoffs) relative to the benefits they provide. He noted that this suggests the industry is highly “inefficient” – a fact of which we should be glad, since if it were more “efficient” at rent extraction this would probably cause the collapse of the U.S. economy and immiserate (or further immiserate) the hundreds of millions of Americans who are not in a position to reap the fruits of perverting government processes.

One of the key factors Tullock identifies is that both legal constraints and informal norms, by making it harder to pay really large amounts and have explicit quid pro quo deals without courting jail time, help to make the industry so “inefficient.” But the rise of partisan norms, decline of democratic accountability, and decline of prosecutorial independence from the presidency (if sustained) could certainly move towards making the rent-seeking / corruption market increasingly “efficient.”

Forget draining the swamp; the question now is to what extent the swamp will start draining us.

Tax policy colloquium, week 2: Peter Dietsch’s “Tax Competition and Global Background Justice”

Yesterday at the Tax Policy Colloquium, Peter Dietsch of the University of Montreal’s Philosophy Department presented “Tax Competition and Global Background Justice,” coauthored by Thomas Rixen.

Given our interdisciplinary interests at the Colloquium, it was great to have a paper by a philosopher, especially one who understands both economics and legal institutions at a sufficient level to be able to make a serious and grounded inquiry. 

The paper’s underlying concern is that global tax competition may undermine countries’ fiscal systems in two ways: by reducing (1) their tax capacity (how much revenue they can raise, and thus what sorts of spending policies they can afford, and (2) their ability to achieve distributional aims, in particular at the high end of the wealth or income distribution. (Obviously, some readers may view these limitations as good rather than bad – noted in the interest of completeness, although I am not in that camp myself.) One might reasonably posit that problem #1 is more likely to be binding for small and developing countries, while problem #2 is more likely to affect larger, wealthier, and more developed countries.

The normative framework that the paper applies to these issues is consequentialist, but not welfarist. The aim is to maximize aggregate fiscal self-determination, a country-level analogue to thinking about individuals’ autonomy.  This is founded on accepting pluralism and countries’ having distinctive sets of policy preferences, and the concern is about effective de facto, not just formal de jure, powers of fiscal self-determination.

A simple example that’s drawn from the paper may help to illustrate this. Suppose Sweden has a preference for high taxes and a big welfare state; the UK for low taxes and only a small welfare state.  Fiscal self-determination is advanced if both countries can do what they prefer. 

With global capital mobility, capital will tend to flow out of Sweden and into the UK if each country simply implements its preferences (which one might think of them as having wholly without regard to global capital mobility – although, in fact, one might ask if there’s a kind of not-behind-the-veil issue going on here. So what the UK does potentially undermines Sweden’s ability to do what it likes. But suppose a global tax authority therefore told the UK: You need to have higher taxes, so that you don’t undermine Sweden’s ability to fund a large welfare state. This would aid Swedish fiscal self-determination, but at the cost of denying fiscal self-determination to the UK. So there is an inherent tension that makes it harder to decide how fiscal self-determination is best maximized.

Before turning to the paper’s proposed response to the dilemma or tradeoff, it’s useful to mention 3 well-chosen scenarios that it emphasizes:

CASE 1: An individual hides income from the national tax authorities by earning it through (and stashing it in) a bank in a tax haven jurisdiction that (still) offers banks secrecy.  This is fraud by the taxpayer under domestic law. The haven jurisdiction, or people in it, might conceivably be thought of as enablers or even accessories to this fraud, but rather than use all those issues the paper refers to this as “poaching” by that jurisdiction at the expense of the residence jurisdiction.

CASE 2: A company uses transfer pricing and other tricks of the trade to divert taxable income from the places where it actually arose (perhaps an ambiguous concept, of course) to a tax haven jurisdiction. This is profit-shifting by the taxpayer, and the paper likewise calls it poaching by the tax haven jurisdiction. The key difference between Cases 1 and 2, other than individual vs. corporation, is that 1 involves straight-up fraud, while here the profit-shifting may be at least arguably, or even unambiguously, legally permissible under the tax rules of the “true” source jurisdiction (and perhaps also the residence jurisdiction).

CASE 3: A multinational firm places a factory wherever the effective tax rate on the production will be lowest. We can call this production-shifting, rather than profit-shifting, because here the “true” source changes – this is “real” rather than formal tax competition. The paper’s term for jurisdictions that seek to attract factories and other real investment via lower effective tax rates is “luring.”

An example of the paper’s shrewdness is its recognizing that cutting back on poaching may increase luring. Real tax competition may become fiercer if higher-tax countries can’t mitigate their headline rates via the availability of profit-shifting. But let’s go back to the central line of argument.

If we think of tax competition as a race to the bottom, poaching inevitably leads there, to the extent that it is feasible, since profits can in principle be placed wherever one likes. Luring also pushes in that direction, although it is more constrained since one has to place the factory somewhere where real production activity is not just feasible but cost-competitive with the alternatives on an all-in, after-tax basis.

The paper offers two main principles in addressing the challenges to fiscal self-determination that these three scenarios raise. The first is a “membership principle,” holding that one should be liable to pay tax wherever one is a “member” of the given society. This works in familiar fashion for individuals, who in the simplest cases are unambiguously residents of one country but not others. But the paper also argues that corporations – perhaps a better concept would be “businesses” – are members wherever they make significant use of local resources. Thus, if I (at least through a corporation) sat around in NYC writing books in Hindi that I then had printed in Singapore and sold in India, I’d have some membership in the US, in Singapore, and in India. As I’ll address shortly, it might seem a bit odd to say my corporation is a “member” of these three societies, but it would be unexceptional to say that all three have legal nexus permitting them to tax my activity of writing, printing, and selling books.

Second, the paper offers what it calls a “fiscal policy constraint” on how countries should decide on their tax rules. To simplify slightly, the idea is no poaching and no luring. In other words – but, to be fair, putting it in my words, not exactly those of the paper – they should set their tax rules (such as the corporate rate) under the counterfactual assumption that capital is geographically inelastic.

Back to the UK, with its lower tax rate than Sweden. It’s fine, and a basic exercise of their fiscal sovereignty, if they set a low corporate tax rate in part because they believe UK residents will save and invest more if this rate is low, rather than high. But if the elasticity on which they rely is cross-border, rather than internal – if they are setting their tax rate at least in part to “lure” capital away from other places such as high-tax Sweden – then they are acting improperly. 

As an aspirational aim for the distant future, the paper envisions the creation someday of an “International Tax Organization” or ITO, by analogy to the World Trade Organization (WTO), or more distantly, say, the International Court of Justice. In a world where all this was in place, if the UK cut its tax rate (to keep things simpler, let’s leave aside preexisting low rates), Sweden could contest this in the ITO, which would rule against the UK if the Swedes sufficiently demonstrated that luring was afoot and that it had an adverse impact on Sweden.

I don’t consider the fact that (as the authors recognize) this is not very short-term practical or likely to happen as an insuperable objection to evaluating it normatively. Our underlying principles (and what they should be) are of interest even with relevant political, etc., constraints. But several main comments occur to me, even leaving aside the broader issue of whether one might view at least some aspects of tax competition as good rather than bad.

1) To what extent is multilateral cooperation necessary to preserve countries’ tax capacity and ability to achieve their distributional aims? A big part of the problem is that so much business income is taxed at the entity level, via corporate income taxes, thus causing corporate residence electivity plus source manipulability (through both real tax competition and profit-shifting) to have large effects. But, so long as Problem 1 (fraud) is being addressed – and I note that FATCA et al suggest that it is increasingly being addressed – countries might have other ways of getting to where they might want. A key aspect may be shifting effective taxation to be more at the owner level and less at the entity level. Some recent US academic tax reform plans that would have done this are (a) Toder-Viard (mark to market taxation at the SH level, tax rate is reduced to 15%), (b) Grubert-Altshuler (deferral charge for the receipt of dividends, plus realization at death for shareholders, with the corporate rate likewise being reduced to 15%), and (c) Kleinbard’s BEIT proposal, shifting taxation of normal returns to the owner level (among other changes). Adopting progressive consumption taxation (which I would want to supplement with something such as inheritance taxation) might also decouple achievement of the fiscal sovereignty aims from the issues around tax competition.

2) To say not just no poaching but also no luring is a rather demanding standard. In effect, nations are being urged to make tax policy around a counterfactual, and to overlook key empirical consequences of their choices that may be quite difficult to disregard. Note of course that, in well-governed countries, the legislators recognize fiduciary duties towards the wellbeing of their constituents, and that one may especially uneasy about disregarding important empirical issues if one is not convinced that legislators in other countries are doing this as well.

3) This may be as much a semantic as a substantive objection, but it seems inapt to me to say that my hypothetical Hindi book publishing and writing business makes me a “member” of Singapore’s and India’s polities under the above hypothetical facts. The paper invokes the notion of benefit. But the normative force of the concept is unclear to me, especially where the benefits that I’m getting impose no net cost (and perhaps even convey a net benefit) to the jurisdictions that provide them. Singapore is presumably better-off (rather than, say, predominantly more “congested”) by reason of my doing some basic manufacturing there, likewise India by reason of my hypothetical eloquence in Hindi. So the idea is really nexus with an associated notion of proportionality. (The paper anticipates, say, 3-factor formulary apportionment’s being used, so that Singapore & India merely get a share – they can’t over-grab merely because my company has nexus &/or is deemed a “member” of their polities.)

Nexus is a familiar legal concept, but hard to ground directly in clear normative terms. I think of it in this context in terms of what I like to call the “Monty Python tax principle.”

A silly Pythoneer in a bowler hat comments, in one of the old episodes, “To aid the British economy, we should tax foreigners living abroad.” Hence, under the Monty Python tax principle, every country in the world might like to tax my activity of writing books in the US that are printed in Singapore and sold in India. But this would lead in a rather chaotic direction, to say the least (even apart from the question of how all those countries could actually collect these taxes).

Nexus is  clearly an important practical idea, but I myself wouldn’t ground it semantically in terms of “membership.” I also might not ground it normatively in terms of “benefit,” although admittedly I haven’t focused on nexus issues, more or less taking it for granted that, in the above scenario, the only 3 relecant players are likely to be the US, Singapore, and India. But it’s a topic that certainly merits attention.

Despite quibbling with some aspects of the paper’s analysis, I found it very helpful and interesting, and thought that it prompted a great discussion at both our AM and PM sessions.

Dietsch’s recently published book, Catching Capital: The Ethics of Tax Competition, discusses his views more broadly. Recommended & worth a look by all with related interests.  Its multidisciplinary strengths are not often found in the biz.

Lost in translation

I spoke briefly by phone in December to a reporter from Japan who was asking me how the 2017 Republican tax bill compared to 1986 tax reform. Today he kindly sent me the text of his article, with highlighting for the portion where my comments are mentioned.

Unfortunately for my comprehension, the article is in Japanese, but he suggested that I use Google Translate for the highlighted portion. I did so, and here is what I got:

“Mr. Trump often cites tax reductions of the Reagan administration about 30 years ago. However, Daniel Shaviro, who worked as a lawyer in planning a tax cut on Reagan, said, ‘At that time, the principle that equitable taxation should be imposed on whatever income it was in was at the bottom of the line: the current tax system to distinguish by how earned, It is not similar even though they are similar.'”

Hmm, not sure Google Translate absolutely nailed it here.

But perhaps I was noting that the passthrough rules cause the same earnings to be taxed differentially based on whether or not one is formally classified as an employee.

New tax policy articles

Although largely not reflected until now in my public profile, I’ve been busy writing tax articles over the last month, and it looks like I’ll be continuing to do so for a bit. I have more or less completed two short articles (each about 10,000 words long) and just started a new piece today.

The two that I’ve largely completed are as follows:
1) “The Disgraceful U.S. Passthrough Rules,” drawing on analysis that will be familiar to people who have been reading this blog over the last few months. Yes, this piece has a definite point of view. I plan to post it on SSRN fairly soon.
2) “Goodbye to All That? A Requiem for the Destination-Based Cash Flow Tax.” Here the content will likewise be familiar to people who have looked at slides that I’ve posted in various incarnations here (and in one of them on SSRN).  This one will also probably be on SSRN soon.
Then there’s the new one. I’ve just started it, but am hoping it will go fast as I can use portions of an early draft of an article that I wrote (but never posted) in the last quarter of 2017, before U.S. legislative developments made portions of it obsolete.
Its current working title is “Does the United States Now Have a Territorial Tax System?” The answer, in a word, is No.
I don’t make readers wait for this conclusion – it actually comes on the bottom of page 1. And I note, of course, that this isn’t my novel conclusion – sophisticated observers were saying it publicly before the bill had even been signed. What makes it seem useful to me as the article’s title is that it helps to show the thorough unhelpfulness of the terms “worldwide” and “territorial” – not just as descriptions of actual real world tax systems, but even as basic analytical tools.
I’m planning to go on from there to point at what I think are better tools for analyzing international tax systems. Design issues of interest include (1) whether or not there is deferral, (2) what is the domestic tax rate for different kinds of foreign source income, (3) what is the effective marginal reimbursement rate for foreign taxes paid, and (4) how does one address profit-shifting, both in general and when it’s done by resident as opposed to nonresident multinational firms (as classified by domestic law).
One point I will make is that the new U.S. international tax rules (along with various international tax rules in other countries) show the influence of considerations that I have argued are important with respect to the above questions.
It will also be clear to readers of the article that I by no means lump the 2017 act’s international tax rules with its abysmal (or, per my article title, ‘disgraceful”) passthrough rules. There are clearly some serious problems with the new international tax rules. But even if they’re not better than prior law right now – on which I don’t have a definite conclusion at this point – they certainly could be tweaked to be significantly better.
This is partly a “compared to what”” point. The U.S. international tax rules were bad beforehand, and getting rid of deferral is an immediate plus, although the next question has always been what replaces it. (Both pure worldwide and pure territorial advocates, who have long existed in academia despite what I’d call the underlying weakness and analytical sloppiness of both positions, alike hated deferral.)
But it also reflects that the legislative effort with respect to international tax law changes appears to have been fundamentally different in character than that with respect to the passthrough rules and the corporate rate cut.
I argue in “Disgraceful” that the passthrough rules, along with the lack of any serious effort to cabin heightened incentives to use corporations as tax shelters for labor income, raise serious concerns about the competency and even the good faith character of the legislative effort. But the new international rules, despite having some sloppy and rushed elements, are in a different category, as some serious thought by serious people does seem to have gone into designing them.

It’s a relief to be able to take a far less negative tone in my second piece addressing aspects of the 2017 act than in my first.