Friday, December 15, 2017

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Not Connecting the Dots

Public policy often seems that it should be intuitive. If a state needs more revenue, the easiest way to raise some is to increase taxes (easiest for elected officials, that is). Who has the most money to appropriate? Millionaires, obviously. Connect the dots, and raise taxes on millionaires.

Maryland did just that, but their experiment shows why political common sense and real life common sense are distinctly separate things. From the Wall Street Journal:

We reported in May that after passing a millionaire surtax nearly one-third of Maryland’s millionaires had gone missing, thus contributing to a decline in state revenues. The politicians in Annapolis had said they’d collect $106 million by raising its income tax rate on millionaire households to 6.25% from 4.75%. In cities like Baltimore and Bethesda, which apply add-on income taxes, the top tax rate with the surcharge now reaches as high as 9.3%—fifth highest in the nation. Liberals said this was based on incomplete data and that rich Marylanders hadn’t fled the state.

Well, the state comptroller’s office now has the final tax return data for 2008, the first year that the higher tax rates applied. The number of millionaire tax returns fell sharply to 5,529 from 7,898 in 2007, a 30% tumble. The taxes paid by rich filers fell by 22%, and instead of their payments increasing by $106 million, they fell by some $257 million.

Don’t feel sorry for the poor poor millionaires; that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Taxes are a serious driver of out-migration, be it small states like Maine, or more populous states like New Jersey:

New Jersey out‐migrants tend to move to states that have much lower property values (35% lower), property taxes (41% lower) and overall costs of living (17%lower). Destination states also have notably lower average incomes, substantially higher crime rates, higher infant and child mortality; slightly lower school quality, but somewhat warmer winters. Overall, it appears that net out‐migration is due to the high cost of living (especially the high cost of housing and property tax) in New Jersey.

Policy makers and their hangers-on have often regard taxpayers as little more than fiscal sheep, and periodically shear them. But people, unlike sheep, can vote with their wallets and feet. Usually the powers that be see this as something akin to letting the home team down, or not doing one’s “fair share.” The word “selfishness” is also thrown around.

Policies like the levels of taxes, services, and entitlements that a government prescribes are hardly a form of science. Law makers and interest groups would like to portray them as a serious commitments, and not self-interested social experiments. Again from the Journal:

Thanks in part to its soak-the-rich theology, Maryland still has a $2 billion deficit and Montgomery County is $760 million in the red. Governor Martin O’Malley’s office tells us he wants the higher rates to expire “as scheduled at the end of 2010.” But there are bills in both chambers of the legislature to extend the surcharge. The state’s best hope is that politicians in other states are as self-destructive as those in Annapolis.

The “Soak the Rich” phenomenon is a common-sense argument for redistributive policies, but it has significant flaws beyond the simple fact that it doesn’t work. Take a look at this chart of how tax burdens are distributed in Federal taxation. (here, either insert or link to this: http://www.mint.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/MINT-TAXES-R4.png)

Libertarians and liberals can mostly agree that there is too much money and influence in politics, but the policy prescriptions each group suggests are dramatically different. Advocates of punishing the rich ignore the simple fact that when a certain group bears so much of the tax burden, they have massive incentives to care about and influence politics. It’s that or leave the country, or just stop making money (by, for instance, not hiring new employees.)

See this graphic (or click below) for a good visual explanation: