Friday, January 12, 2018

Right answer, wrong reason

Sometimes it is not good to get to the right answer for the wrong reasons. This thought comes to mind reading to recent WSJ articles, Walmart raises wages and Tax reform releases the bulls.
"Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it would raise starting hourly pay to $11 for all its U.S. employees and distribute one-time bonuses, doling out some of the windfall it expects from the U.S. tax overhaul as it competes for store workers in a tight labor market." 
"Only 15 market days have passed since the Senate passed the tax bill, ensuring it would become law, and Wall Street analysts have already upgraded their consensus forward earnings for the S&P 500 by an unprecedented 4.6%. Is it any wonder that stocks have rallied?"
Two narratives compete for how corporate tax cuts might spur the economy: cashflows vs. incentives.  Washington and most pundits like to talk about cashflows, "trickle-down" if you will. Corporations (existing, large) don't have to give so much money to the government. So perhaps they will benevolently pass it on to their workers -- or perhaps political pressure is important to force them to this magnanimity.

Economists see the world through incentives. In this narrative, a lower corporate tax rate increases the incentive to invest, broadly construed -- to buy new investment goods, sure, but also to invest in worker skills, organizational improvements, new opportunities, and for new companies to spring up. That investment raises the productivity of labor and hence demand for labor. Competing to hire good workers, companies drive up wages. But companies no more voluntarily give workers bonuses out of extra cash than they voluntarily send money to the electric company on top of the bill.

National Fellows

Are you a young economist or other professor, and would you like to spend a year at Stanford with no teaching? The Hoover National Fellows program may be for you. Information and application instructions here. It's ideal for someone from a few years after PhD to a few years after tenure who wants a break to bring a research project to fruition.  Hoover prefers research with policy implications and people who will benefit from and contribute to the intellectual environment here.  Applications due Jan 30.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Property tax update

Every now again in writing a blog one puts down an idea that is not only wrong, but pretty obviously wrong if one had stopped to think about 10 minutes about it. So it is with the idea I floated on my last post that property taxes are progressive.

Morris Davis sends along the following data from the current population survey.


No, Martha (John) property taxes are not progressive, and they're not even flat, and not even in California where there is such a thing as a $10 million dollar house. (In other states you might be pressed to spend that much money even if you could.) People with lower incomes spend a larger fraction of income on housing, and so pay more property taxes as a function of income. Mo says this fact is not commonly recognized when assessing the progressivity of taxes.

SALT margins

I think most of the debate misses an important point about the state and local tax deduction -- incentives.

Suppose you are in the top, (roughly) 40% marginal federal tax bracket.  If you pay an extra $100 in state taxes, you deduct $100 from income, and pay $40 less in federal taxes. So, you really only pay $60 in state taxes. The federal government effectively transfers $40 to the state from taxpayers in other states.

That's a big incentive to raise money as deductible taxes from high-bracket tax payers! This incentive doesn't work if the state raises taxes from lower bracket taxpayers.

California's tax system, for example, seems to respond heartily to this incentive. California's income tax rate is highly progressive, topping out at 13.3%.  As reported in the Sacramento Bee
Nearly 90 percent of the money [income tax receipts]  comes from one-fifth of the taxpayers – those making $91,000...Forty-five percent of the state’s income tax money comes from the top 1 percent of filers – those with adjusted gross income of at least $501,000.
and, therefore, in the highest Federal tax bracket, and also likely to itemize deductions.