Class Warfare Tax Policy Causes Portugal to Crash on the Laffer Curve, but Will Obama Learn from this Mistake?
Daniel J. Mitchell
Back in mid-2010, I wrote that Portugal was going to exacerbate its fiscal problems by raising taxes.
Needless to say, I was right. Not that this required any special insight. After all, no nation has ever taxed its way to prosperity.
We’re now at the end of 2012 and Portugal is still saddled with a weak economy. And the higher taxes haven’t resulted in less red ink. Indeed, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, government debt has jumped from 93 percent of GDP in 2010 to 124 percent of GDP this year.
- Higher taxes undermine incentives for productive behavior, thus reducing an economy’s potential for growth. This means less economic output, which also means a smaller tax base. This Laffer Curve effect doesn’t necessarily mean less revenue, but it certainly means that tax increases rarely raise as much money as initially projected.
- Higher taxes usually are a substitute for the real solution of spending restraint (i.e., Mitchell’s Golden Rule). Politicians oftentimes refuse to reduce the burden of government spending because of an expectation of additional tax revenue. Heck, in many cases, higher taxes trigger an increase in the size and scope of the public sector.
So did Portugal learn any lessons from this failed experiment in Obamanomics?
Hardly. Indeed, the government plans to double down on this approach – even though it’s increasingly apparent that higher tax burdens won’t translate into much – if any – additional tax revenue. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Financial Times.
Lisbon plans to lift income tax revenue by more than 30 per cent, raising the effective average rate by more than a third from 9.8 to 13.2 per cent. Anyone receiving more than the minimum wage of €485 a month, including pensioners, will also pay an extraordinary tax of 3.5 per cent on their income. …the steep tax increases facing many families have made the outlook for 2013 – the third consecutive year of austerity, recession and rising unemployment – the grimmest yet. Total tax revenue has fallen considerably below target this year, forcing the government to implement additional austerity measures… The coalition will be relying on increased state revenue to account for about 80 per cent of the fiscal adjustment required in 2013 – a reversal of the original bailout plan, in which consolidation was to be achieved mainly through spending cuts.
Amazing. The government imposes huge tax hikes, which don’t generate any positive results. Yet even though “tax revenue has fallen considerably below target,” confirming that there are significant Laffer Curve issues, the government chooses to repeat the snake-oil fiscal therapy of higher taxes.
Anybody want to guess what’s going to happen? The answer, of course, is that this will further dampen incentives to generate income and comply with the government’s fiscal demands.
The latest increases have stretched the tax system to the limit, says Carlos Loureiro, a tax partner at Deloitte. “The current model is exhausted. We need to do something different,” he says. “Any further increase in tax rates is unlikely to result in increased revenue.” Income from value added tax, the government’s biggest source of tax revenue representing about 36 per cent of the total, has been falling since 2008, despite a sharp increase in the rate – the main rate is now 23 per cent. Both the government and the European Commission have acknowledged the risks of depending on increased tax revenue, which is more growth sensitive, to meet fiscal targets and contingency spending cuts amounting to 0.5 per cent of national output have prepared in case of another tax shortfall.
I almost want to laugh at the part of the excerpt which notes that tax revenue “has been falling…despite a sharp increase in the rate.”
Maybe it’s time for these fiscal pyromaniacs to realize that revenues might be falling because rates are higher. In other words, Portugal not only isn’t at the ideal point on the Laffer Curve(collecting the amount of revenue needed to finance legitimate activities of government), it may even be past the revenue-maximizing part of the curve.
To be fair, there are lots of factors that determine economic performance, so higher tax burdens are just one possible explanation for why the tax base is shrinking or stagnant.
The one thing we can state with certainty, though, is that Portugal’s fiscal problem is too much government spending. The failure to address this problem then leads to very unpleasant symptoms, such as lots of red ink and self-destructive class-warfare tax policy.
If all that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also a description of what President Obama is proposing for the United States.
P.S. I don’t want to imply that Portugal is a total basket case. True, I’m not optimistic about the country’s future, but at least some lawmakers now acknowledge that Keynesian spending was a big mistake. And there are even signs that Portuguese officials are beginning to realize that lower tax rates should be part of the solution. But good policy may be impossible since so many people now have a moocher mentality.
P.P.S. At the risk of bearing bad news to close the year, research from both the Bank for International Settlements and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows the United States actually faces a bigger long-run fiscal challenge than Portugal.
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At a time when America desperately needs to come together, we are becoming more divided than ever. The mainstream media and most of our politicians love to pit us against one another in dozens of different ways, and right now class warfare has become one of their favorite tools for getting us to hate one another. If you are struggling in this economy, you are being told that “the wealthy” are the cause of your problems. If you have money, you are being told that the poor hate you and want to tax you into oblivion. Class warfare has already become a dominant theme in the 2012 race for the White House, and there will certainly be endless speeches given along these lines by politicians from both major political parties all the way up to election day. Class warfare will be used by both sides as a way to divide America and get votes. And the frightening thing is that it is clearly working. There is more hatred between the poor and the wealthy in America today than at any other time that I can remember. But hating people because of how much money they have or don’t have is not going to solve anything. Instead, it is just going to cause more problems.
The other day, Yale economics professor Robert Shiller told CNBC that the globe is already in a state of “late Great Depression“. The United States is heading into unprecedented economic and financial problems and we desperately need to pull together as a country and solve these problems.
But instead, our leaders are tapping into the politics of division in a desperate attempt to get elected in the fall.
Rather than focus on real issues and real solutions, our politicians attempt to make “the wealthy” or “welfare recipients” the focus of our debates.
Well, you know what?
Most people that are rich and most people that are poor are not purposely trying to abuse the system. Most of them are hard working people that are trying to do the best that they can in a world that is increasingly going crazy.
These days, the Occupy Wall Street crowd loves to talk about how evil the “1 percent” is. But most of the “1 percent” are people that have worked really hard and that have been fortunate enough to get some really good breaks in life.
Yes, there are some among the “1 percent” that do some really bad things. The too big to fail banks and the big money managers on Wall Street should be held accountable for the crimes that they have committed.
But most wealthy Americans are not trying to oppress the poor. Most of them are just trying to do the best that they can for themselves and their families.
Neither are most poor people trying to abuse the system either.
Yes, without a doubt there are some that do not want to work and that want to live on government benefits indefinitely.
But that is a minority.
Most Americans that are receiving government benefits today would rather be working good jobs that would enable them to provide for their families.
Most Americans understand that government handouts can never provide dignity and hope for a better future.
But if you don’t demonize the poor and you point out the decline of the middle class, many Republicans will call you a “liberal” or a “socialist”.
And if you don’t demonize the rich and you don’t blame them for all of our economic problems, many Democrats will call you a “pig” or a “fascist”.
Unfortunately, playing the blame game is not going to get us anywhere.
The number of Americans living in poverty increased dramatically under George W. Bush and it also increased dramatically under Barack Obama.
Our country is drowning in debt, millions of our jobs are being shipped overseas, the middle class is shrinking at an astounding pace, and the Federal Reserve continues to destroy our financial system.
Getting angry at the wealthy or the poor is not going to fix those problems.
But it will distract us from the reality that both major political parties have been doing a horrible job.
Sadly, Americans seem to really enjoy blaming one another these days. Just check out some of the slogans that have been seen on various signs at Occupy Wall Street protests….
“They Only Call It Class Warfare When We Fight Back”
“Eat The Rich – Feed The Poor”
“The Rich Are Wrecking The Planet”
So will destroying the lives of the rich solve our problems?
Of course not.
The truth is that we should want millions more Americans to be prosperous. We should be cheering for one another instead of tearing one another down.
But that is heresy to many on the left.
On the right, it is heresy even to mention that our tax system is fundamentally flawed and that it has thousands of loopholes that are being abused by the very wealthy.
In a previous article, I detailed how many of the largest and most profitable corporations in America get away with paying absolutely nothing in taxes.
There is something very wrong with that.
Our income tax system should be abolished altogether, but if we do have to pay income taxes, then it is fundamentally unfair for some people and businesses to be able to pay little or nothing while the rest of us get absolutely obliterated by taxes.
But if you try to say that to many on the right, they will look at you in horror.
The other day, there was a New York Times article that detailed the extreme measures that Apple takes to avoid paying taxes. It turns out that Apple sets up shell offices all over the globe in order to evade taxation….
As it has in Nevada, Apple has created subsidiaries in low-tax places like Ireland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the British Virgin Islands — some little more than a letterbox or an anonymous office — that help cut the taxes it pays around the world.
That same article talked about how Apple has become a model which hundreds of other companies have followed. To giant corporations such as Apple, tax evasion has become an art form….
Apple, for instance, was among the first tech companies to designate overseas salespeople in high-tax countries in a manner that allowed them to sell on behalf of low-tax subsidiaries on other continents, sidestepping income taxes, according to former executives. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies.
So what is the solution to all of this?
Raising income taxes won’t work too well because the tax lawyers are always several steps ahead of our politicians.
The truth is that when taxes get raised it is always the middle class that gets absolutely clobbered and the wealthy always find more ways to reduce their exposure.
Just take a look at Mitt Romney. He made more than 42 million dollars in 2010 and yet Romney had an effective tax rate of only 14 percent.
If I could find a way to have an effective tax rate of only 14 percent I would be jumping up and down for joy, and so would millions of other Americans.
Our tax system is deeply, deeply broken and needs to be thrown into the trash can.
Abandoning the current tax system would not solve all of our problems, but it would be a start.
Unfortunately, neither political party is willing to even consider this.
Instead, the Democrats want to raise taxes a little bit and the Republicans want to lower taxes a little bit.
But neither alternative will do much of anything to solve any of the real problems we are facing.
Our economy is dying and it is not producing nearly enough jobs for all of us. When Barack Obama took office, the number of “long-term unemployed workers” in America was 2.6 million. Today, it is 5.3 million.
At this point, an astounding 53 percent of all college graduates under the age of 25 are either unemployed or underemployed.
So where is all of the “change” that Obama promised?
Things just keep getting worse.
Since Obama has been in the White House, 14 million more Americans have gone on food stamps, and more than 25 percent of all American children are enrolled in the program today.
How will class warfare help those people?
Will blaming the wealthy make things better for them?
They are already receiving government handouts.
Will increasing those handouts a little bit more fundamentally change their lives for the better?
Of course not.
What those people need are good jobs.
But instead, both the Democrats and the Republicans continue to pursue the same job killing policies that have been destroying American jobs for decades.
Without good jobs, the number of Americans dependent on the government is going to continue to grow.
In a previous article, I detailed the explosive growth of social welfare benefits that we have seen under both Republicans and Democrats….
Back in 1960, social welfare benefits made up approximately 10 percent of all salaries and wages. In the year 2000, social welfare benefits made up approximately 21 percent of all salaries and wages. Today, social welfare benefits make up approximately 35 percent of all salaries and wages.
The goal should not be to rape the rich and give out even more social welfare benefits.
Instead, the goal should be to develop an economy that creates good jobs.
We need have an economy that empowers individuals and small businesses.
Instead, we have an economy dominated by big government and big corporations.
We have an economy that funnels the vast majority of the economic rewards to a tiny elite while most of the rest of us struggle.
Just consider the following statistics….
*The following is how income gains in the U.S. were distributed during 2010….
-37 percent of all income gains went to the top 0.01 percent of all income earners
-56 percent of all income gains went to the rest of the top 1 percent
-7 percent of all income gains went to the bottom 99 percent
*In America today, the wealthiest one percent of all Americans have a greater net worth than the bottom 90 percent combined.
*According to Forbes, the 400 wealthiest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.
So what is the solution to that problem?
Is it to attack the rich and take away all their money and give more government handouts to the poor?
Of course not.
Rather, we need to change the rules of the game so that individuals and small businesses are empowered to succeed.
We need to decentralize economic power and dramatically reduce the undue influence that big government and giant corporations have over our economic system.
We need to create an environment where almost anyone that has a good idea and that is willing to work hard can succeed.
But instead of focusing on real solutions like shutting down the Federal Reserve, converting to debt-free currency, eliminating the income tax, shutting down the IRS, massively reducing the size of government and getting rid of thousands upon thousands of unneeded regulations, the mainstream media and our politicians are going to continue to try to get Americans to blame one another for our problems.
The efforts to divide America are working, and hatred is growing to unprecedented levels in this country.
Eventually this will lead to mass rioting in our major cities and that will make our problems far worse.
Hatred and division are not going to bring us a better future.
They are only going to destroy us from within.
We don’t need hate.
What we need is more love and more solutions.
Unfortunately, our leaders are leading us down a very dark path, and we are heading for a future that is going to be a complete mess.
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