In light of Mitt Romney's recent tax returns, the economic blogosphere has been kicking around the issue of capital taxation. Ryan Chittum at Columbia Journalism Review has an excellent overview of what people have been writing with "The capital gains preference." This is a response to Dylan Matthews and Matt Yglesias, who each present arguments from economists that capital gains taxes should be lower than other taxes, even potentially set at zero percent.
Many economic arguments are about tradeoffs, but the argument for the zero tax rate of savings, also similar to the arguments for a consumption tax, is usually phrased as an argument about fairness. In order to frame the fairness argument, economists bring up a story of two similar individuals with one as a saver and one as a spender. Yglesias has the framework in his post:
You imagine two prosperous but not outrageously so working people living somewhere—two doctors, say, living in nearby small towns. They're both pulling in incomes in the low six figures. One doctor chooses to spend basically 100 percent of his income on expensive non-durables. He goes on annual vacations to expensive cities and eats in a lot of fancy restaurants. The other doctor is much more frugal, not traveling much and eating modestly. Instead, he spends a lot of his money on hiring people to build buildings around town. Those buildings become houses, offices, retail stores, factories, etc. In other words, they're capital. And capital earns a return, so over time the second doctor comes to have a much higher income than the first doctor. [...]
In the world where investment income is taxed like labor income, the first doctor says to the second "man you're a sucker—not only are you deferring enjoyment of the fruits of your labor (boring) but when the money you've saved comes back to you, it gets taxed all over again. Live in the now. And the thinking is that world number one where people with valuable skills take a large share of their labor income and transform it into capital goods is ultimately a richer world...
Taxing savings by having an income tax punishes the Saver Doctor relative to the Spender Doctor. If you just taxed what they consumed, they would be treated equally.
Yglesias leans on the idea that we'll be a richer world without taxing savings, because people will respond to the incentives against savings here. I don't believe the research bears this out. I'm not an expert, but I believe the impact, if any, is small. In their excellent summary book on taxation, Taxing Ourselves (2004, 3rd edition), Joel Slemrod and Jon Bakija conclude that a "large number of studies have attempted to address these problems to some degree, and they generally come to the conclusion that saving is not very responsive to incentives."
But if the efficiency argument is weak evidence, the fairness argument is assumed to make the case, and make it for zero percent taxation. It is unfair to tax the Saver Doctor even a penny more than the Spender Doctor. Scott Sumner gives a similar example at The Economist: "The proper tax rate on capital income is zero [...] To see why this is so, consider twin brothers who each make $100,000 in wage income. Most people would regard these two people as equally well off, even if one freely chose to consume his income now, while the other chose to consume later. But not advocates of the income tax. They insist the more patient twin brother is 'richer' and deserves to be taxed at a higher income tax rate." Gilles Saint-Paul argues in the same forum that fairness requires that we shouldn't "penalise future consumption relative to current consumption."
In Joanathan Gruber's popular undergraduate textbook Public Finance and Public Policy, the two people are actually Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders!
Consider two individuals, Homer and Ned, who are identical except for their preferences for saving. Both live for two periods, earning $100 in the first period and nothing in the second period. Homer is impatient: he wants to consume his entire income in the first period and nothing in the second period. Ned is more patient; he wants to consume in both periods. Initially, they are both subject to an income tax, which taxes all labor earnings and interest income at 50%.The interest rate earned on savings is 10%. [...] In present discounted value (PDV) terms, Homer pays only $50 in taxes across both periods, but Ned pays $51.11. Thus, savers such as Ned are penalized in an income tax regime.This tax treatment of savings is both horizontally inequitable (because Ned is taxed more simply for making a different choice) and inefficient because it may reduce the incentive to save (because savings leads to higher tax payments).
Let's stick with Homer and Ned. Is this fairness argument against the "inequitable" treatment of Ned either impressive or conclusive? I'd argue no. I'm going to rely on arguments from Barbara Fried's excellent "Fairness and the Consumption Tax" for the following to identify some problems, and I'd recommend her essay if you are interested in learning more.
The first issue is the assumption that Homer and Ned should pay in accordance with their consumption, or that equal spenders should have equal tax burdens, or, technically, that the present value of their tax burdens should be identical. This presupposes what is up for debate, which is what the appropriate tax base is. If the tax base is explicit wealth, then income from savings should also be taxed. There are significant advantages to owning wealth, including security, peace of mind, power, the ability to direct private investment, political control, and much more. It isn't clear why these shouldn't be part of the tax base.
issue is that it assumes that all income from savings is the result of delayed compensation, when much of it doesn't even come from the individuals themselves. We don't know how much of the United States' capital stock comes from the gifts, bequests, or inheritance that constitute intergenerational transfer, though averages of studies
say about 50 percent. Fairness arguments become a lot more complicated here.
A third issue is the assumption that, since Homer and Ned are equally ranked in well-being in a no-tax world, they should be equally ranked after any tax comes into play. This equal ranking is the engine behind a lot of the fairness arguments -- as Gruber says, we don't want to penalize Ned for "making a different choice." Since a tax on savings would fall on Ned the Saver but not Homer the Spender, they would no longer be equally ranked, as Homer would end up better off than Ned with an income tax. It isn't clear how much savers would be disadvantaged relative to spenders, as some of that tax will fall to borrowers. But the general point remains.
But even granting this, a new question arises: why do we care about maintaining equal ranking from a "no-tax" world, and why would it be unfair to change it? This is only a claim to fairness if Homer and Ned, or savers and spenders more generally, have a claim to their relative ranking in a "no-tax" world. It's not clear that they do. They certainly don't under an entitlement theory, as the value the saver gets in this example is just the random quirk of his or her preference structure. It also presumes that the ranking in a "no-tax" world was just in-and-of-itself and thus worth preserving, which requires a lot of libertarian heavy lifting.
It also presumes a myth of ownership, or the idea that you can conceptualize the economy without the government or that tax policy isn't just one of many ways that the government affects interest rates. Sumner and Yglesias, for instance, believe the Federal Reserve should do some major things to raise nominal GDP, which would have a dramatic effect on the relative ranking of savers and spenders compared to a non-Federal Reserve world. How are they any different from this tax policy, other than the fact that they justify it within a larger set of social institutions, especially ones that produce the patterned world of full employment?
thing to consider is the issue of generalizing this critique to other examples. Another way of reading the fairness issue in the example is that since both Homer and Ned start off equal, and had equal capability to generate wealth, they should have an equal tax burden, akin to an endowment or faculty tax
If a tax on savings is removed, taxes on wages would have to go up. Now imagine that, in addition to Homer and Ned, there's Barney at time zero. Barney hates working but loves leisure, so he doesn't work at all but enjoys just as much utility as Homer and Ned when they consume their net present value of $100. Raising taxes on wages leaves Homer and Ned equally well off but punishes them both relative to Barney. Should taxes on wages therefore be set to maintain their ordering? Would we have to abolish taxes on consumption then? If so, then it isn't clear we can have a coherent tax policy period.
But we could have a coherent tax policy, especially if we focus on what kind of economy we want to build and use tax policy as one of many levers, working in concert with all the others, to create it.
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Simpsons images used without permission from 20th Century Fox.