Archives for taxes



A Solid Fiscal-Cliff Plan

As Republicans and Democrats continue to bicker about spending and taxes, the Onion has stepped in with an excellent plan for averting a fiscal crisis:

STEP ONE: Eliminate school breakfast and lunch programs, Medicaid, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, Medicare, PBS, New Mexico, elk, the Coast Guard, and all dams.

And, our favorite, Step Three:

STEP THREE: Eliminate federal prison system by converting U.S. territory of Guam into an unsupervised penal colony known as “The Gauntlet.”



The Demand Curve for Religion

“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”? In many European countries, religion comes at a price: If you want the services of a religious community — for marriages, burial, and other activities — you pay a tax.  (In Germany, for example, there is an 8 percent surcharge on your income-tax bill.) A very nice Finnish study by Teemu Lyytikäinen and Torsten Santavirta, “The Effect of Church Tax on Church Membership” (Journal of Population Economics, forthcoming), uses this institution to examine the demand curve for religion. The price elasticity of demand is fairly small—not more than 0.05—but that is partly because until 2003, Finland made it difficult to opt out of a religious community (and opt out of paying the tax).  Not surprisingly, once the transactions costs of tax avoidance were reduced, the elasticity of demand appears to have risen.



Fans of a “Fat Tax” Will Be Saddened by the News From Denmark

The other day, Levitt and I participated in a brainstorming session on how to fight childhood obesity, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (FWIW, we recorded the event and will try to turn it into a podcast.)

One topic that got a lot of traction was a targeted tax on sugary drinks and fatty foods. (This is often called a “fat tax” but should not be confused with a tax on overweight people.) Many people in the session were in favor of the idea but a few were skeptical, primarily because such a tax will be tricky to implement well. One objection that I was surprised no one raised: the simple fact that taxpayers might hate the tax and rebel against it to the point where it becomes politically and economically impossible.

In support of the idea, one person reminded us that Denmark recently instituted a “fat tax” on  foods containing more than 2.3 percent of saturated fat. Read More »



One More Thing to Worry About: Underfunded Public Pensions

If there is one thing that politicians love to do it’s to promise people things now and not worry about how we will pay for those promises until sometime far into the future, when some other politician is on the hook to balance the budget. 

We see this all the time in the form of budget deficits in the federal government, and also with the accounting tricks used on the Social Security Trust Fund.

These sorts of shenanigans get less press at the state and local level because many state and local governments are required to have balanced budgets (this paper by my thesis adviser Jim Poterba lays out some of the details).  There are, of course, ways for states to get around the balanced-budget provisions.  The method that currently casts the greatest shadow over the future is underfunded pensions.  State governments promise generous retirement packages to state employees, but use accounting tricks to avoid recognizing the full value of what taxpayers will owe in the future to cover those debts. Read More »



Lying to Ourselves: a New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Lying to Ourselves.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player in the post.) 

The episode was inspired by a recent poll I saw on Yahoo! Finance (at left).

Does anyone believe for a minute that this many people would actually leave the U.S. if taxes (whatever that means, exactly) were to rise to 40 percent or even 70 percent? Read More »



A Tax Taxonomy

Dan Hamermesh’s much-discussed post about taxing capital gains brought to mind my own taxonomy of taxes, so to speak, from least to most progressive:

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.

3. Flat income tax. Everyone pays the same fraction of his or her income. This tax was the core of Steve Forbes’s platform when he ran for president in 1996 and 2000. Read More »



How Deep Is the Shadow Economy? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “How Deep Is the Shadow Economy?” It addresses what we know — and don’t know — about the gazillions of dollars that never show up on anyone’s books.

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

The conversation ranges from the macro to the micro — that is, from worldwide estimates of the size of the shadow economy to the actual off-the-books transactions (from drug dealing to freelance hair-cutting) that make those dollars flow. Read More »



Taxing Capital Gains

Dividends in the U.S. are taxed at only 15 percent (much lower than wages/salaries).  The argument is that since corporate profits, from which dividends are paid, are already taxed, taxing dividends is double taxation.  But what about capital gains—why are they taxed at 15 percent too?  The standard argument is that we should be taxing real capital gains, not nominal gains.  Okay, but it would be easy to include the Consumer Price Index for each of many years in TurboTax or TaxCut, base taxes on real gains and tax the real gain at the same rate as wages. The administrative cost of calculating real gains has disappeared. Another argument for a lower tax on capital gains might be that investment/risk-taking is more responsive to net returns than is labor supply, justifying a lower tax rate as optimal taxation.  Perhaps, but at best the evidence is scarce.  My guess is that the real justification is the ability of wealthy people, who are the main beneficiaries of this tax giveaway, to get Congress to enhance their net incomes. (HT: PLM).