Monthly Archive for April, 2011

D’oh — The First in a Series

homerWhen something is wrong on the Internet, bloggers love to pounce. But since no blogger is infallible, most of us can find ample fodder in our own past writing, if we go back and reread it with a sufficiently critical eye. Over the next few weeks, I plan to revisit some things I got wrong the first time around. (You’ll recognize those posts by the Homer Simpson logo.) I hope others will be inspired to do the same.

To lead off this series: In December, 2009 I blogged about space scientiest James Hansen, who prefers carbon taxation to cap-and-trade. His argument: A carbon tax allows for the possibility of additional carbon abatements through altruism. Under cap-and-trade, if I altruistically decide to buy a fuel-efficient car, someone else gets to buy an SUV. Whereas under a carbon tax, if I altruistically decide to buy a fuel-efficient car, less gas gets consumed.

Wait a second, though. Under a carbon tax, if I decide to buy a fuel-efficient car, I drive the price of gas down, which encourages someone else to buy an SUV. So altruism is equally ineffective under either policy, no?

That’s the argument I made in December, 2009. I now believe that:

  • Under a plausible interpretation of Hansen’s argument, I was wrong.
  • But Hansen is still unconvincing, though for somewhat subtler reasons.

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Friday Quotes

Paul Krugman, economist:

This insight illustrates a general principle of the economics of taxation: the incidence of a tax — who really bears the burden of the tax — is typically not a question you can answer by asking who writes the check to the government.

Paul Krugman, blogger, remarking on a straightforward application of that principle:

There are multiple things wrong with this claim, but the most fundamental, I think, is that it represents a remarkable misunderstanding of the reasons why we have taxes in the first place.

(Edited to add: My response to Krugman is here.)

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Dead Man Followup

Since even Paul Krugman manages to be completely confused about this and this, allow me to summarize:

1) A tax imposes a burden.

2) If a tax has no effect on a man’s lifestyle, then it imposes no burden on him.

3) Therefore, if a tax has no effect on a man’s lifestyle, then it must impose a burden on someone else.

That is the argument that Krugman things betrays “no coherent picture of how the pieces fit together”. I would like to know more specifically whether he disagrees with 1), disagrees with 2), or disagrees with the logic that leads from 1) and 2) to 3).

In more detail:

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You Can’t Tax a Dead Man

On Monday, I wrote about the man who can’t be taxed. There were many comments, some confused, some insightful, and (at least) one brilliant. Let me highlight that brilliant comment, then beat the point to death a little, and then draw a large moral.

Our commenter Ken B invited us to imagine a dead man, with, say $84,000,000 in his bank account (and a will that requires this bank account to be maintained forever). And let’s suppose the government confiscates, say 82 of those 84 millions, thereby allowing it to reduce other people’s current or future taxes —making those people richer. They buy more stuff. They eat more, they burn more gas, they occupy more space. Where did that stuff come from?

(Alternatively, instead of lowering someone else’s taxes, the government takes the opportunity to spend more, in which case the government claims more stuff. We still have to ask where it comes from.)

It certainly did not come from the dead man, who was eating nothing, burning no gas, and occupying no more space than he continues to occupy. Instead, somebody else must decide to consume less.

But initially nobody wants to consume less. So people, collectively, are trying to consume more stuff than is available. This excess demand for stuff pushes up prices and/or interest rates until people are willing to cut their consumption.

There is no meaningful sense in which the dead man paid the tax. Instead, the tax burden is borne by those people who were hurt by rising prices and/or interest rates.

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The President’s Taxes

obamaJust a couple of days ago, President Obama excoriated the Republican Congress for wanting to keep tax rates low for “people like me” — that is, people who, like the President, have very high incomes.

Now we learn that on an income of $1.7 million, the Obamas paid $450,773 in taxes, taking full advantage of the Bush tax cuts. I think it is fair to ask: If the President believes that people like him ought to be paying more, then why didn’t he pay more? There is absolutely no rule against sending in more money than you owe.

Now you might say that the Obamas believe it’s important to raise many billions more in taxes, and that sending in an extra hundred thousand or so would make essentially no progress toward that goal. But I don’t think you’d continue to say that if you thought about it. If the Obamas are one of, say, a million families in their financial position, and if the Obamas, and only the Obamas, send in some extra money, that’s only (by Mr Obama’s reckoning) one one-millionth as good as repealing the Bush tax cuts — but at the same time it’s costly to only one one-millionth as many taxpayers. Surely these things should scale.

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Happy Passover

Hat tip to my architectural consultant MRF.

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The Man Who Can’t Be Taxed

Nothing makes my job easier than a journalist who writes about something interesting and gets it 100% wrong.

Thanks, then, to Elizabeth Lesly Stevens for her column in yesterday’s Bay Citizen. Stevens wants to tax the “idle rich”, her Exhibit A being Robert Kendrick, heir to the $84 million Schlage Lock Company fortune. According to Ms. Stevens, Mr. Kendrick appears to do pretty much nothing but park and re-park his four cars all day long. Taxing people like Mr. Kendrick, she says, has to be part of any solution to America’s fiscal crisis.

Here’s what Ms. Stevens misses: Assuming the facts are as she states them, it is quite literally impossible to raise revenue by taxing the likes of Mr. Kendrick. We could argue about whether it’s desirable, but because it’s impossible, the discussion is moot.

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Subtraction Distraction

Paul Krugman, getting less serious by the minute, on the budget deal:

It’s worth noting that this follows just a few months after another big concession, in which [Obama] gave in to Republican demands for tax cuts. The net effect of these two sets of concessions is, of course, a substantial increase in the deficit.

Well, no, actually. The net effect of these concessions is a (small but not insignificant) cut in spending coupled with a (somewhat larger) set of tax cuts.

To sum that up by saying that the “net effect” is an increase in the deficit is like saying that if a woman gives birth to twins and then murders her husband, the “net effect” is to increase the population. We’re entitled to care about more than just the bottom line.

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Unhealthy Reasoning

Paul Krugman on the Ryan budget proposal:

And then there’s the much-ballyhooed proposal to abolish Medicare and replace it with vouchers that can be used to buy private health insurance….

…The House plan assumes that we can cut health-care spending as a percentage of G.D.P. despite an aging population and rising health care costs.

The only way that can happen is if those vouchers are worth much less than the cost of health insurance.

Well, this is just plain illiterate. In fact, the only way that can happen is if the voucher system affects people’s health care choices. Which is, you know, the whole point.

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Cyclical Fluctuations

 

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Exotica

This is really very cool. In several ways.

First: For the past year or so, there has been a remarkable website called Math Overflow where research mathematicians gather to swap ideas, to ask for help when they get stuck, and to offer help when they can. Frequent contributors include the Fields Medalists (a Fields Medal is roughly the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel Prize) Terry Tao, Tim Gowers, Bill Thurston and Richard Borcherds. Others who have popped up from time to time include Vaughan Jones (yet another Fields Medalist), John Tate, whose thesis reshaped modern number theory, and Peter Shor, the pioneering figure in quantum computation. And every day, one runs across dozens of other folks who nearly any top math department would be proud to have (and in many cases are proud to have) on their faculties. If you already know a lot of math, you can get a hell of an advanced education browsing this site.

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Senator B.S.

faceofevilA lot of people think of janitors as a group that’s not particularly well paid. Those people might be surprised to learn that in the last five years alone, American janitors earned over $250 billion! That’s billion! With a B!

Despite that enormous income, janitors pay no taxes whatsoever — or at least no taxes whatsoever over and above the taxes that are paid by you, me and other ordinary Americans. And shockingly, it appears that the U.S. Congress would rather cut spending than institute a new tax on janitorial income.

If the above strikes you as insane, congratulations. You are smarter than the intended audience of Senator Bernie Sanders, who observes in his new book “The Speech” that General Electric’s shareholders collectively earned a staggering $26 billion over the past five years, and paid absolutely no tax on that amount.

Of course $26 billion is only a tenth of what janitors earned over the same time period, but I guess it does look mighty big if you don’t bother dividing by the number of shareholders. Without having all the numbers in front of me, my best guess is that we’re talking maybe a few hundred bucks per shareholder, though of course (as with janitors) some earn more and others earn less.

And as for the shareholders paying absolutely no tax, perhaps they didn’t, as long as you don’t count taxes on dividends, capital gains and wages. To wit:

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Announcement

I’m pleased to announce that as of today, April 1, I’ll be joining the Obama Adminstration’s economic team. My first assignment is to produce an estimate of the number of lives saved or created by the Libya operation.

(A hat tip for the inspiration to my colleague Mark Bils, who really should have his own blog.)

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