In the Journal piece, the claim is made that even if we taxed all the income of the top one percent of taxpayers, that would not raise enough funds to close the deficit. Sachs takes issue with the numbers, he claiming that taxing “total income of the top 1% would close the budget deficit entirely.” He sees an error in the numbers the Journal uses, and I think he might be right. I can’t figure out the arithmetic the Journal uses.
But while Sachs takes great relish in showing — at least in his mind — that the Journal is wrong in its numbers, Sachs himself can’t be taken seriously. After all, he is proposing to tax 100 percent of the adjusted gross income income of the top one percent of earners.
While liberals might want to take all the income of our country’s high-earning people, this is a plan that can’t be taken seriously, especially by a purportedly serious person as Sachs. It could possibly work for one year — if you could pull off a surprise and make the 100 percent tax rate retroactive, after everyone has already earned the money for the taxable year. Any other plan will fail. That’s because we know that when marginal tax rates rise, people takes steps to have less income. Some decide to work and risk less, so they have less income. Others seek to shelter income from taxes, and since almost all such tax shelters are an economically unproductive use of funds, we are all poorer as a result. And some people lie and cheat in order to avoid taxes. But we can be sure that people will takes steps to have less taxable income as tax rates rise.
Try as we might, raising tax rates won’t generate higher revenues (as a percentage of gross domestic product), due to Hauser’s law. W. Kurt Hauser explains in The Wall Street Journal: “Even amoebas learn by trial and error, but some economists and politicians do not. The Obama administration’s budget projections claim that raising taxes on the top 2% of taxpayers, those individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning $250,000 or more, will increase revenues to the U.S. Treasury. The empirical evidence suggests otherwise. None of the personal income tax or capital gains tax increases enacted in the post-World War II period has raised the projected tax revenues. Over the past six decades, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have averaged just under 19% regardless of the top marginal personal income tax rate. The top marginal rate has been as high as 92% (1952-53) and as low as 28% (1988-90). This observation was first reported in an op-ed I wrote for this newspaper in March 1993. A wit later dubbed this ‘Hauser’s Law.’”
People react to changes in tax law. As tax rates rise, people seek to reduce their taxable income and make investments in unproductive tax shelters. There is less incentive to work and invest. These are some of the reasons why tax hikes usually don’t generate the promised revenue.
Any plan to reduce the deficit by raising tax rates will have to overcome this tax-avoiding behavior. Hauser’s law says this is not likely to happen.
The subtitle to Hauser’s article is “Tax revenues as a share of GDP have averaged just under 19%, whether tax rates are cut or raised. Better to cut rates and get 19% of a larger pie.”