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.
I wasn’t sure if it was still going on, but this blog suggests that it still was at least a year ago. Here is an older post with a little bit more detail about the system.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
In his posthumous novel The Pale King, David Foster Wallace describes a fictional progressive sales tax in Illinois that imposes higher rates the larger the amount purchased. Sounds good and fair — tax those who make larger purchases. Not surprisingly, it generates a substantial deadweight loss: People buy a few things, take them to their cars, then come back and buy more. Auto dealers sell parts separately to reduce the average tax rate on consumers. If this sales tax was real, the deadweight loss would be borne especially heavily by low-wage people. Those who feel pinched for cash but whose time is less valuable would be more likely to engage in tax-avoiding activities like repeated small purchases. (HT to TW)
3. Excellent article by Howard Beck on Jeremy Lin‘s improvement over past two years; also explains why Golden State cut him:
Unfortunately for the Warriors, they hardly had a chance to assess Lin’s off-season transformation. The N.B.A. lockout prevented them from working with him until camps opened in early December. He was on the court for maybe 90 minutes before the Warriors cut him in a move to clear payroll room to chase a free-agent center.
Millions of Christmas trees will be hauled away this week — some will enjoy a useful life after death and many others will end up in the dumps. But record numbers of Christmas trees will also be boxed up and stored in closets till next year. And that has many Christmas tree growers feeling in the dumps, ever more so after anti-tax crusaders trashed a plan to rescue their declining industry by labeling it “Obama’s Christmas Tree Tax.”
The $0.15 fee on the sale of fresh Christmas trees hardly seems like the stuff of political scandal. But announced in November—just days before many Americans would make the trip to tree farms in search of the perfect tree—and branded by conservatives as an assault on Christmas and a sign of government overreach, the story quickly gained traction, with the Drudge Report driving nearly a million visitors to the Heritage Foundation, which broke the story. Before long, mainstream news outlets were reporting that the administration had caved to conservative backlash and decided to delay the “Christmas tree tax” indefinitely.
On Monday, Aaron Edlin and I published a cri de coeur op-ed in the New York Times calling for a Brandeis tax, an automatic tax that would put the brakes on income inequality. This is the second in a series of posts (the first post is here) explaining more about our rationale and providing more details on how a Brandeis tax might be implemented.
An Inequality Tax Trigger By Ian Ayres and Aaron Edlin
A central idea behind our Brandeis tax proposal was to have a tax that is triggered by increases in inequality. Our Brandeis tax does not target excessive income per se; it only caps inequality. Billionaires could double their current income without the tax kicking in — as long as the median income also doubles. The sky is the limit for the rich as long as the “rising tide lifts all boats.” Indeed, the tax gives job creators an extra reason to make sure that corporate wealth does in fact trickle down.
A new paper by William Congdon, Jeffrey Kling, and Sendhil Mullainathan provides an excellent summary of the implications of recent behavioral economics research for tax policy.