Monthly Archive for November, 2011


I’m off to Jamaica, where I’ll be giving two talks on the theory and practice of economics. Expect blog-silence for
the next few days at least.

Meanwhile: Given that I plan not to travel far from Kingston, what are the things that I must see and do?

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Econ 101 for the Supercommittee

Here is my op-ed on deficit reduction from this morning’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required). For those without subscriptions, the thrust (which won’t be new to long-time readers of this blog) is that raising taxes can’t convert fiscally irresponsible spending to fiscally responsible spending.

If your household is over budget, you can address that problem either by spending less or by earning more income. It is tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that by analogy, the government can address its budget problems either by spending less or by raising taxes. But the analogy fails because raising taxes is not like earning more income; it’s more like visiting the ATM.

The government is an agent of the taxpayers. Raising taxes to pay for government spending depletes our assets just as visiting the ATM to pay for household spending depletes our assets. That’s not at all like earning income, which adds to our assets.

So insofar as the supercommittee relies on tax increases to address issues of “fiscal irresponsibility”, it will have failed.

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Quote of the Day

From Jonathan Gelbord, research associate in astrophysics at Penn State:

We always knew that Penn State football was like a religion. Now we know which religion.

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What Is the Title Of This Post?

I am filling out an online recommendation form for a student who is applying to graduate school at Berkeley. One of the questions is: “Rate the applicant in comparison to others you have known in a similar capacity.” My choices are:

(This is an actual screen capture from the actual form.)

Unless I select one of the options, I am unable to submit the form.

I find myself at a loss for snarky words. What ought to have been the title of this post?

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Ranking the Tax Plans

This post is a first attempt to rank the efficiency of the Republican candidates’ tax plans, concentrating on six dimensions:

1) The tax rate on wages and/or consumption. A wage tax and a consumption tax are pretty much interchangeable; you can tax the money as it comes in or you can tax it as it goes out. So I’m treating this as one category. The “right” level for this tax depends on your forecasts for future government spending.

2,3,4,5 and 6) The tax rates on dividends, interest, capital gains, corporate incomes and estates. I believe these tax rates should all be zero. That is not a statement about how progressive the tax system should be. A wage tax and/or a consumption tax can be as progressive (or regressive) as you like. It is instead a statement that while all taxes discourage both work and risk-taking, capital taxes have the added disadvantage that the discourage saving. This simple intuition is confirmed by much of the public finance literature of the past 25 years. (Here is a good example.)

My personal preference is for a system substantially less progressive than the one we’ve got, but for purposes of this exercise I won’t penalize candidates whose preferences differ from mine. For the record, Romney, Huntsman and Santorum are the three who (as far as I can tell) want to maintain substantial progressivity, with Romney, uniquely among the candidates, preferring even more progressivity than we currently have.

Here, then, is a chart, with candidates ranked roughly in order of their willingness to exempt capital income from taxation. I prepared this chart with a few quick Google searches (this is a blog post, not a journal article) and it probably contains errors. I’ll be glad for (documentable) corrections and will update the chart as they come in. Asterisks refer to further explanations, which you’ll find below the fold.

If we care about efficiency, we’re looking for zeroes in the last five columns. On the face of it, Johnson is the clear winner. But Cain’s 9/9/9 plan has two arguments in its favor that don’t appear on this chart. First of all, people are a lot less likely to bother evading one of three 9% taxes than a single 23% tax; therefore we’d have a lot fewer evasion problems under Cain than under Johnson. Second, it’s pretty easy to imagine Congress raising a 23% tax to 24% or 25% or 26%, but it’s a little harder to break the psychological barrier of single-digit tax rates, so Cain’s 9/9/9 might be more politically stable than Johnson’s 23. Therefore I’m calling this a tie between Johnson and Cain.

But the top six are all pretty good, except maybe for Paul, who hasn’t revealed his key number. Santorum is bad, Romney is atrocious, and Bachmann (who, as far as I can tell, has not bothered to release a tax plan) is an enigma.

Some explanations:

Continue reading ‘Ranking the Tax Plans’