Apr. 28th, 2017

hudebnik: (teacher-mode)
So, one vague part of Da Trump's vague plan to come up with a tax plan is "reducing the number of personal income tax brackets", from seven to three. That sounds like a simplification, right? And a simpler tax system has to be good, right?

Well, no. Most Americans figure out how much tax they owe by looking up their taxable income in a table; it makes no difference to them whether the table was generated from three brackets or three hundred. But if you have complicated taxes and a paid tax preparer on speed-dial, it makes a big difference. Tax brackets are discontinuities, thresholds, and every place there's a discontinuity, there's an opportunity to get on the more favorable side of the discontinuity by fudging some numbers, reclassifying one kind of income as another, etc. The bigger the discontinuities, the more incentive there is for people to game the system in these ways, and the more money rent-seeking tax professionals will make by finding opportunities to do so.

Gaming the system not only deprives the government of revenue (which some see as a feature), it also makes the economy as a whole less efficient. If you actually believe in free markets, you want people to put their money where it will be the most productive, which (under certain assumptions that dyed-in-the-wool capitalists believe) is where it earns them the highest return. Discontinuities in tax policy encourage people to put their money where it will earn them the highest after-tax return, which may not be at all where it would be most productive in any other sense.

If we want a tax system that distorts the economy as little as possible, it should treat income as income, no matter whether it comes from interest, dividends, salary, consulting, short-term capital gains, long-term capital gains, inheritance, royalties, etc. And tax rates should be as smooth and continuous a function as possible -- infinitely many tax brackets, ideally, with each "discontinuity" being so small as to not influence behavior. That way people have little incentive to "reclassify" their income from personal to business, to move their stock sales from one fiscal year to another, etc. just to avoid taxes.

Naturally, that's the opposite of what the Trump plan-to-write-a-plan does: it makes the discontinuities bigger, and in particular encourages ultra-wealthy individuals like Trump to reclassify their personal income as business income -- not because it's any less their personal property, not because it's any more productive as business income than as personal income, but just in order to cut their tax rates by more than half.

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