Slaves to Words

We could definitely use another Abraham Lincoln to emancipate us all from being slaves to words. In the midst of a historic financial crisis of unprecedented government spending, and a national debt that outstrips even the debt accumulated by the reckless government spending of previous administration, we are still enthralled by words and ignoring realities.

President Barack Obama’s constant talk about “millionaires and billionaires” needing to pay higher taxes would be a bad joke, if the consequences were not so serious. Even if the income tax rate were raised to 100 percent on millionaires and billionaires, it would still not cover the trillions of dollars the government is spending.

More fundamentally, tax rates — whatever they are — are just words on paper. Only the hard cash that comes in can cover government spending. History has shown repeatedly, under administrations of both political parties, that there is no automatic correlation between tax rates and tax revenues.

 

When the tax rate on the highest incomes was 73 percent in 1921, that brought in less tax revenue than after the tax rate was cut to 24 percent in 1925. Why? Because high tax rates that people don’t actually pay do not bring in as much hard cash as lower tax rates that they do pay. That’s not rocket science.

Then and now, people with the highest incomes have had the greatest flexibility as to where they will put their money. Buying tax-exempt bonds is just one of the many ways that “millionaires and billionaires” avoid paying hard cash to the government, no matter how high the tax rates go.

Most working people don’t have the same options. Their taxes have been taken out of their paychecks before they get them.

Even more so today than in the 1920s, billions of dollars can be sent overseas electronically, almost instantaneously, to be invested in other countries — creating jobs there, while millions of American are unemployed. That is a very high price to pay for class warfare rhetoric about taxing “millionaires and billionaires.”

Make no mistake about it, that kind of rhetoric wins votes for political demagogues — and votes are their bottom line. But that is totally different from saying that it will bring in more tax revenue to the government.

Time and again, at both state and federal levels, in the country and in other countries, tax rates and tax revenue have moved in opposite directions many times. After Maryland raised its tax rates on people making a million dollars a year, there were fewer such people living in Maryland — and less tax revenue was collected from them.

In 2009, many people specializing in high finance in Britain relocated to Switzerland after the British government announced plans to take 51 percent of high incomes in taxes.

Conversely, reductions in tax rates can lead to more tax revenue being collected. After the capital gains tax rate was cut in the United States in 1997, the government collected nearly twice as much revenue from capital gains taxes in the next four years as in the previous four years.

Similar things have happened in India and in Iceland.

There is no automatic correlation between the direction in which tax rates move and the direction in which tax revenues move. Nor is this a new discovery.

Back in the 1920s, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon pointed out that people with high incomes were simply not paying the high tax rates that existed on paper, because they were putting their money into tax shelters.

After the tax rates were cut, as Mellon advocated, investments flowed back into the private economy, producing higher output, rising incomes, more tax revenue and more jobs. The annual unemployment rate in the next four years never exceeded 4.2 percent, and in one year was as low as 1.8 percent.

Despite political demagoguery about “tax cuts for the rich,” in human terms the rich have less at stake than working people. Precisely because the rich have so many ways of avoiding taxes, a high tax rate is likely to do them far less harm than it does to the economy, on which millions of people depend for jobs.

COPYRIGHT 2011 CREATORS.COM

Thomas Sowell

By

Thomas Sowell was born in North Carolina and grew up in Harlem. As with many others in his neighborhood, he left home early and did not finish high school. The next few years were difficult ones, but eventually he joined the Marine Corps and became a photographer in the Korean War. After leaving the service, Sowell entered Harvard University, worked a part-time job as a photographer and studied the science that would become his passion and profession: economics. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University (1958), he went on to receive his master's in economics from Columbia University (1959) and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago (1968). Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His 28 books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Currently, he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU