Friday, November 30, 2012

The Gray Lady's Misleading Headline

Over my coffee this morning, I read the following headline on the front page of The New York Times: "Complaints Aside, Most Face Lower Tax Burden Than in the Reagan ’80s."  Below it was a graphic comparing average tax rates for various income groups in 1980 and 2010.

The problem is that Reagan did not become president until January 1981, and his tax policy was not fully implemented until a couple of years later (and arguably not until his second term, when we got very significant tax reform).  So the headline should have read, "Complaints Aside, Most Face Lower Tax Burden Than in Carter's 1980."  That makes the story very different, as 1980 was the year the incumbent Carter was defeated by the challenger Reagan, who was proposing significant tax reduction as a key part of his campaign.

By the way, the online version of The Times omits the mention of Reagan in the headline.  There, the headline is the more accurate "Complaints Aside, Most Face Lower Tax Burden Than in 1980."

Addendum: Using the Times online interactive graphic, you can compare the average tax rates between any two years.  Here, by income level, is how the average tax rate changed from 1988, Reagan's last year in office, to 2010, the most recent year available.

0 to 25K, fell by 4 percentage points
25 to 50K, fell by 3 percentage points
50 to 75K, fell by 2 percentage points
75 to 100K, fell by 2 percentage point
100 to 125K, fell by 1 percentage point
125 to 150K, fell by 1 percentage point
150 to 200K, unchanged
200 to 350K, rose by 2 percentage point
350K+, rose by 1 percentage point

That is, according to the Times numbers, since Reagan left office, tax rates have risen at the top and fallen for the middle class and especially the poor.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Quick Movie Reviews

Over the last week, I saw two of the movies that critics have been raving about: Lincoln and ArgoLincoln was okay but a bit disappointing compared to expectations.  It is too hagiographic for my taste.  Argo was great.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Coming Tax Hikes

Donald Marron of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center explains the tax increases that are part of the upcoming fiscal cliff.

Dividing Household Chores

Advice from economist Emily Oster.  A good reading to assign when teaching the theory of comparative advantage.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Michael Sandel and His Critics

My Harvard colleague Michael Sandel has been getting a lot of attention lately with his book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. To get a flavor of the debate, read
  1. A short essay by Michael Sandel.
  2. A review of his book by economic historian Deirdre McCloskey.
  3. A commentary from erstwhile ec 10 sectionleader Jodi Beggs.
  4. A review by Chicago's Raghu Rajan.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Master of Tax Avoidance

Warren Buffett has an op-ed in today's NY Times on one of his most popular themes: The rich should pay more in taxes.  At first blush, his position seems noble: A rich guy says that people like him should pay more to support the commonweal.  But on closer examination, one realizes that Mr Buffett never mentions doing anything to eliminate the tax-avoidance strategies that he uses most aggressively.  In particular:

1. His company Berkshire Hathaway never pays a dividend but instead retains all earnings.  So the return on this investment is entirely in the form of capital gains.  By not paying dividends, he saves his investors (including himself) from having to immediately pay income tax on this income.

2. Mr Buffett is a long-term investor, so he rarely sells and realizes a capital gain.  His unrealized capital gains are untaxed.

3. He is giving away much of his wealth to charity.  He gets a deduction at the full market value of the stock he donates, most of which is unrealized (and therefore untaxed) capital gains.

4. When he dies, his heirs will get a stepped-up basis.  The income tax will never collect any revenue from the substantial unrealized capital gains he has been accumulating.

To be sure, there are pros and cons of changing the provisions of the tax code of which Mr Buffett takes advantage. Tax policy always involves difficult tradeoffs.  But it seems odd to me that whenever Mr Buffett talks about taxing the rich more, the "loopholes" that he uses never seem to enter into the conversation.

Solow on Hayek and Friedman

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Slugging It Out, Inside Obama’s Mind

Click here to read my column in Sunday's NY Times.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Response to Diamond and Saez

In a widely discussed recent paper, Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez have suggested that the top tax rate should be very high--about 73 percent.  Tax Notes has a new commentary on their conclusion.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The U.S. has a flat tax (in effect)

The Congressional Budget Office has a new study of effective federal marginal tax rates for low and moderate income workers (those below 450 percent of the poverty line).  The study looks at the effects of income taxes, payroll taxes, and SNAP (the program formerly known as Food Stamps).  The bottom line is that the average household now faces an effective marginal tax rate of 30 percent.  In 2014, after various temporary tax provisions have expired and the newly passed health insurance subsidies go into effect, the average effective marginal tax rate will rise to 35 percent.

What struck me is how close these marginal tax rates are to the marginal tax rates at the top of the income distribution.  This means that we could repeal all these taxes and transfer programs, replace them with a flat tax along with a universal lump-sum grant, and achieve approximately the same overall degree of progressivity. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Chemistry behind Commodity Money

Monday, November 12, 2012

Should we repeal anti-gouging laws?

A great topic for class debate.  Some readings:
  1. John Carney says yes. (Also, look here.)
  2. Mark Thoma raises concerns about fairness. (Also, look here.)
  3. Carney replies to Thoma.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

An Interview with Eugene Fama Bob Litterman.  (A great piece to assign undergrads when teaching about financial markets and institutions.)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How To Raise Tax Revenue From The Rich Without Increasing Tax Rates

According to the Tax Policy Center, if we cap itemized deductions at $50,000 and keep tax rates as they are today, we would raise $749 billion in tax revenue over ten years.  Moreover, according to the TPC's distribution table, 96.2 percent of the extra revenue would come from the top quintile, with 79.9 percent from the top one percent.

This may be the germ of a possible deal between President Obama and Speaker Boehner: The speaker agrees to this tax hike if the president agrees to some fundamental reform of the entitlements, such as gradually but significantly raising the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

No Exit

With the President reelected and the House and Senate largely unchanged in composition, the first thought that came to my mind was the classic Sartre play No Exit, with President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Majority Leader Reid playing the three characters.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012


Today is the day. If you are a reader of this blog, it is a good bet that you are better informed than average on the key economic issues of the day. So get to the polls.

BTW, for two of my three children, this is the first presidential election in which they can vote.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff: A Primer