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When I was studying abroad in China (2006) a friend told me that I should always insist on getting the receipt whenever I ate at a restaurant, because the receipts are scratch-off lottery tickets.
I didn’t think very much of it at the time (as a visitor, I didn’t think I’d ever collect any winnings), but one of the Freakonomics podcasts that talked about capturing unreported income (I think it was “The Tax Man Nudgeth“) reminded me of their ingenious system to encourage customers to demand that restaurants report their income.
Yes, the cruelest month has begun, marked at its dead center by tax day. We have a Freakonomics Radio segment tonight on Marketplace about some tax-collecting ideas. Here, from John Steele Gordon in today’s Wall Street Journal, is a compelling attack on the practice of treating carried interest as capital gains. Would love to hear in the comments from some private-equity and hedge-fund folks why/how Steele isn’t right:
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To defend the favored treatment of carried interest, private-equity and hedge-fund owners argue that their share of the customers’ gains is analogous to “founders stock,” which is granted to the founders of a company when it goes public, even though they may not have personally invested money in the venture.
This analogy is bogus when the companies in which a fund is invested are not actively managed. A founder has a bright idea. He works hard to convince others of its worth so that they will invest in it. He works hard to get the company off the ground, investing his time and his sweat equity in the business (not to mention the forgone income from the 9-to-5 job he could have had instead). He is risking a lot: a substantial portion of his working life, his reputation, his potential current income, etc.
A recent issue of the Handelsblatt (the German Wall Street Journal equivalent) had a neat graphic comparison of the U.S. to 5 other major countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K., along the criteria of the Gini coefficients on pre-tax/transfer incomes, post-tax/transfer incomes, and household wealth. Our pre-Gini on incomes is slightly below that in Italy, a bit higher than in the other four countries. The big difference is that our post-Gini is much higher than in all the other countries—0.38 compared to a range of 0.29 to 0.34. We do much less redistribution through transfers and have flatter taxes.
It is thus not surprising that we win the Champions League of Gini wealth inequality: Ours is 0.85, with a range of 0.65 to 0.78 in the other five countries. The tiny tax increase on the top 1 percent of households that took so much political energy last year will do almost nothing to strip us of our championship status. Read More »
The Texas Legislature is back in session, providing its usual cookie jar of absurd economic proposals. A real winner is House Bill 649, which would provide compensatory tax reductions to companies that become taxed under the Affordable Care Act because their employer-provided health insurance fails to cover employees’ emergency contraception. Such a bill means Texas would be giving firms incentives to thwart federal law. It also opens up the possibility of much broader tax offsets. I’m certain that our governor and legislature dislike the recent imposition of higher federal income tax rates on high-income families. Why not take the logic of this bill one step further and offer tax reductions (sales tax, since we have no income tax) to very high-income families? Indeed, the reductio ad absurdum would construct all state tax policy to offset to the extent possible any incentives provided by federal tax policy.
When you are a transportation professor, it is your privilege to hear a lot of zany ideas. I have heard about a scheme to create a fleet of intercontinental freight zeppelins (actually, this may not be quite as zany as it sounds). Fifty years after The Jetsons, there are still dogged advocates of flying cars. The most common thing I hear is that we should attack congestion by building monorails down the medians of the freeways. I have no idea how the monorail has bewitched our citizenry (too many trips to Disneyland?), or what precisely is so offensive about the idea of trains that run on two rails, but it’s amazing how beloved the monorail is, so much so that an episode of the Simpsons parodied it. Monorail! Monorail!
Because I love hearing people’s ideas and have no desire to be rude, I engage in an exacting regimen of meditation, yoga, and deep breathing so I can exhibit the equanimity of a lama when hearing goofy ideas. But occasionally something comes up that none of my mantras or self-hypnosis can handle.
1. Poll tax. Everyone pays the same amount. What could be fairer than this?!
England tried it in the late 14th century, leading in 1381 to Wat Tyler‘s Rebellion. Six hundred years later, England tried it again, leading to the Poll Tax Riots.
2. Sales tax. Goods are taxed at a flat rate (often 17 to 20 percent in Europe, and 5 to 8 percent in various American jurisdictions). Because the wealthy spend a smaller fraction of their income on taxable goods than do the poor, this tax is less progressive than a flat income tax.
We believe this is because marriage provides an implicit social insurance since the spouses are able to share their income. However, if divorce rates are higher in a society, women have a higher incentive to obtain work experience in case they find themselves alone in the future. The reason the incentive is higher is because in our data, women happen to be the second earner in the household more often than men. European women anticipate not getting divorced as often and hence find less reason to insure themselves by working as much as American women.
Chakraborty and Holter use U.S data to run a model testing their theory; their findings are interesting: Read More »
Chances are, you’re going to spend tonight finalizing your taxes, making sure that you ferret every last deduction. And probably pretty pleased to be getting these deductions; but when you dig in a bit deeper, you may not be so sure — at least that’s what Betsey Stevenson and I argue in our latest column.
In fact, tax breaks are no different from either government handouts, or federal mandates, whether evaluated in terms of your finances, the government’s finances, or incentives:
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Instead of looking at all the breaks for mortgage interest, health care, retirement savings and so on as deductions, picture the government writing you a check for each item. This equivalence between tax deductions and government spending leads economists to call them “tax expenditures.” Reformers have hit on an even more pointed description: spending through the tax code.