One of the greatest lessons of economics that is simple, yet so often misunderstood, is something that Art Laffer put to me very succinctly: “Whatever you tax, you get less of.”
In general, people seem to understand this.
We tax cigarettes because, at the margins, less people will smoke if smoking costs more. We, as a society, recognize that smoking will cause death; however, even though we know that every cigarette marginally diminishes the smoker’s health, we don’t criminalize smoking. Instead, we just tax cigarettes in hopes that this “sin tax” will help to influence some people not to smoke. Of course, economists also recognize that the demand for cigarettes, especially to a nicotine-addicted person, is relatively inelastic, and therefore a cigarette tax is a good source of government revenue. However, demand elasticity aside, we do recognize that when we tax cigarettes, less cigarettes are smoked. Whatever you tax, you get less of.
When it comes to income, it would seem that people understand the concept, but their application of the concept isn’t well thought out.
Given the class warfare that seems to dominate today’s political conversations – and, with 5% of the population paying the bulk of the taxes, it’s politically expedient for politicians to promise the other 95% benefits at no cost to them, but for which the other 5% will be forced to pay – I think it’s safe to say that there is a fair amount of the “have nots” thinking that there are too few “haves” and too many “have nots” and that by increasing taxes on the “haves” we will simply get less “haves” and we will, to quote Barrack Obama, “level the playing field.” Oh, but that were true.
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: Remember, whatever you tax, you get less of. What, exactly, are we taxing when we tax those “rich” people? Are we taxing their assets, or are we taxing their current year income? We tax current year income. So, what do we get less of? We get less high income earners.
In the short term, we get less high income earners because the government takes some of their earnings and redistributes it (through direct redistribution and indirect redistribution in the form of government operations and projects) to those who earned less income, giving a whole new definition to the term “unearned income”, as defined by the IRS currently anyway.
In the long term, we get less high income earners because people substitute away from those activities that earn higher incomes. Earning a lot of money is hard work: there’s greater responsibility, greater stress, greater risk, and more years of hard work on the front end to be able to take on everything that comes along with activities that generate more income. It’s far easier to earn less money: anyone can flip a burger. Also, dual income families where income is roughly equal between the husband and wife may decide that if they are going to lose 50% of their income to taxes, they would be better off having one of the two stay home, thus decreasing the output of the economy as a whole because less people are producing goods and services.
Now, the question is do we really want to have less high income earners? Is that really what those who want to level the playing field want? I posit that those who vote to level the playing field often think of people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates as those who should contribute more in order to level the playing field.
I’ve got news for you: Warren Buffet and Bill Gates could both not earn a dime for the rest of their lives, not pay any income taxes, and live perfectly comfortable lives. In fact, they could not earn another dime and be wealthier the day they die than almost any other American. Why? Because they are wealthy today. What’s worse is that if we enacted high taxes, we would probably find that their wealth would increase compared to the rest of the population. If their relative wealth were to increase, that would be precisely the opposite of the “level the playing field” crowd’s goal. This is what we in economics refer to as secondary effects, or unintended consequences.
When we tax income, we just ensure that we have less high income earners. Let’s think about what that means; let’s examine the secondary effects.
Average Joe is a hardworking American. He has been working at a fast food chain since he was 16, and has worked his way up to a district manager. He’s 40 years old, making $65,000.00 per year, has a decent amount of debt like a lot of Americans, and he desperately wants to take his experience to open his own restaurant, but he needs to save around $250,000.00. Given that Joe is carrying about $30,000.00 of credit card debt, trying to save that money is difficult, and taking on even more debt in loans is a substantial risk at his age.
Joe has worked so hard over the years, and distinguished himself as such a stand-out in the organization, that he’s asked to take on a vice president role in the company. Joe will be paid a salary of $150,000.00 per year, with a bonus potential of 200% of his salary, depending on company performance. In his first year, Joe earns a 100% bonus, but is let go because of budget cutbacks in the organization.
Guess what: Joe is now rich. That’s right, according to the tax code, Joe is in the top 5% of income earners, and we’re going to tax him to level the playing field. Joe will probably pay well over $100,000.00 in taxes. Joe was finally getting to a point in life when he unloaded the burden of credit card debt that straps so many Americans, and he could have established a base of savings that would have begun to accrue interest so that interest was finally working for him. Joe could have used that savings towards starting his own restaurant, which would have employed more people and brought more diversity of restaurants to the community.
Joe’s hard work could have finally made him just barely self-sustaining and finally put him in the black, but because he’s now “rich”, he’s going to have to give a substantial amount of his earnings to Uncle Sam. So much for leveling the playing field. Now that he was finally getting to a point where he could start caching up to the truly wealthy, his tax burden is making it more difficult for him. We’re leveling the playing field by keeping Joe in relative poverty.
Meanwhile, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates will pay roughly $45,000.00 per $300,000.00 of income because their incomes come predominately in the form of dividends, interest, and long-term capital gains.
That’s right: the “income gap” between Average Joe and the Warren Buffets (net of tax) of the world is actually widening. The wealth gap is widening at an even faster pace because of the power of compounding interest. And, to make matters worse, people like Average Joe have an even more difficult time attaining the level of wealth of Buffet and Gates because the government classifies them as “rich” the second they actually are in a position to make their lives better and earn their way out of relative poverty.
By taxing the “rich”, so long as we classify rich as those who earn a lot of W-2 or 1099 income (for those not familiar with the tax system, these are “earned income” or wages as opposed to “unearned income” such as interest, dividends, and capital gains), we actually ensure that we get less rich people in the future. Those with wealth continue to have wealth, and those who aspire to become wealthy by working hard will be kept down by the tax system.
In the long term, less people will work towards the American Dream, because we will have taxed away the opportunity for those who would only be moderately successful in comparison to the few notables such as Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and those whose work commands compensation on the order of magnitude the likes of which most Americans will likely never achieve. So, not only will we have made it more difficult to become wealthy, we will, at the margins, reduce the number of people who put in the necessary work to become wealthy, and that only reduces our production as a whole.
Whatever you tax, you get less of. If you tax high income, you’ll get less high income, and that will keep the wealthy wealthy, and the poor poor. Do we really want to level the playing field by forcing poverty on future generations?