What a Real Tax Reform Could Look Like – I: Corporate and Individual Income Taxes

A.  Introduction

After many months in development, although behind closed doors until near the end, Republicans in Congress approved on December 20 a sweeping change in the nation’s tax laws.  Trump signed the measure on December 22, and it will go into effect in 2018.

However, this is not, in fact, a tax reform.  Rather, the measures are primarily a series of tax cuts for certain favored groups.  The greed on display was breathtaking, as special interest lobbyists were able to get many of their provisions included, with the legislation then rammed through on largely party-line votes.  The specific legislative language was kept secret to as late as possible, no public hearings with expert testimony were held, and tax lawyers are already finding numerous newly created loopholes in the drafting.  Instead of simplifying the tax system, the new law has created numerous opportunities for various special interests to game the system and avoid taxes that others must pay.

And it truly is a Republican tax plan, not just Trump’s.  On the key votes, 100% of Republicans in the Senate voted for it, while 95% of Republicans in the House did so.  No attempt was made to develop a bipartisan plan, and Democrats were never consulted on it.  Thus, not surprisingly, no Democrats voted for it.  For these reasons, I will refer to it below as the Republican tax plan.

A true tax reform would be quite different.  The reforms themselves would be revenue neutral, with the focus on measures to simplify and rationalize the tax system.  Tax rates would then be adjusted up or down, as necessary, to restore the revenues that would be lost or gained by the reform measures.  But the measure passed is instead forecast to produce a net loss in revenues of $1.5 trillion over the next ten years (and many believe the cost will in fact be higher as the cost from the new loopholes created, as well as from rushed, and consequently poor, drafting language, will be greater than congressional staff forecast).  But even at $1.5 trillion, the loss in tax revenues is not small.

But tax reform is possible, provided there is a modicum of political will, and reform is indeed certainly needed.  This post will look at what a true tax reform could look like.

To start, any true tax reform would reflect three key principles:

a)  Taxes due should not depend on the source of a person’s income (whether from wages or from wealth), but rather on that person’s total income from all sources.

b)  Tax rates should be progressive.  Those with a higher income should pay taxes at a higher rate than those with a lower income.  As Warren Buffett has noted, he pays taxes (perfectly legally under the current system) at a lower rate than what his far less rich secretary pays.  That is not fair.

c)  And the system should be as simple as possible.  Taxing income from all sources similarly would be a huge step to a simpler system, as much of the complexity arises from taxing different sources of income differently.  But there is more that could be done beyond this to simplify the system.  Indeed, one suspects that Congress has often added needless complexity to the tax code for purely political reasons.

The discussion below will be on reforms to taxes on income, whether corporate or individual.  Much of the focus of the recently passed tax legislation has been on the corporate income tax, which would be permanently slashed.  It is a complex topic, especially due to the international aspects of it (how to treat income earned abroad by US corporations, and income generated in the US by foreign-owned corporations).  It is also inextricably linked to individual income taxes, as individuals ultimately own corporations and receive the incomes corporations generate.  Thus income taxes on corporations and on individuals should be considered together.

The first section below thus will consider what a reform of corporate income taxes could look like, with the next section then looking at reforms to the individual income system.  We will then look at rough estimates of the tax revenue implications of such reforms.  Under the simplified system of taxes proposed, where all forms of income are taxed similarly, it is estimated that total tax revenues generated would rise, by close to $2.5 trillion over the next ten years.  One could then adjust rates downward to yield the same tax revenues as is being generated by the fragmented system we have had up to now current.

A comprehensive tax reform would cover more, however, than just income taxes.  This blog post will therefore be followed by two more:  One on reforms to Social Security taxes in order to ensure the Social Security trust fund remains solvent (it will run out around 2034 if Congress does nothing), and one which proposes a tax on emissions of greenhouse gases (commonly referred to as a carbon tax, as it would apply to carbon dioxide emissions primarily) in order to address climate change.  Both of these reforms would be designed to be revenue neutral, in the sense that Social Security taxes would be directed to what is required to fund Social Security benefits, while the revenues collected by a tax on greenhouse gas emissions would all be rebated to American households.  Thus they can be treated separately from reforms to the corporate and individual income tax systems.

Note finally that in the discussion below, reforms will be discussed in terms of changes relative to the tax system that has been in place up to now.  It will change as of January 1, 2018, under the recently passed Republican legislation, with many changes including new rates.  But the aim here is to discuss what a true tax reform could have looked like.  In addition, data we have on tax revenues (current and projected) are all in terms of the current tax system, not the new one, and we need such data to estimate what the revenue impacts would be of a true reform.  Thus references to tax rates and other aspects of the tax system will all be in reference to what we have had up to now.

B.  Corporate Income Taxes

Corporate income taxes (or corporate profit taxes – the terms will be used interchangeably) were a focus in the recent debate on taxes, with a good deal of hyperbole and confusion.  It is also a complex and peculiar tax, which exists today in its current form probably more for historical reasons than as something one would create now if one were to start anew.

The reason is that a corporation is purely a legally constructed entity, which defines an organizational structure that can borrow money, hire workers, produce something, sell it, and then distribute the gains from this production in accordance with decisions made in a precisely defined decision-making structure.  Whatever is gained is distributed to someone, or it is retained on the books of the corporation for use in the future.

But in taxing these corporate profits, including what is then distributed to individuals as their share of the profits, one is taxing the same gains twice – at the level of the company and then at the level of the individual.  This is double taxation, and creates problems.  The special, low, rate of tax paid on capital gains (on earnings from the sale of corporate shares, as well as from the sale of other assets) has been justified for this reason.  But that low rate is then of special benefit to those who are well-off compared to others.  This is not what one should want in a system of progressive taxation.

There are other problems as well, starting importantly with how one defines taxable corporate profits.  Profits are revenues obtained from selling a product minus the cost of producing it, but how one defines “revenues” and “costs” is not a simple matter.  Revenues, for example, may be paid in cash in the current period, but might also accrue now but only be paid at some future time (as credit is extended).  How should one count the latter?

There are similar timing issues with costs, but also issues of what one counts in costs.  Should one include the cost of interest on loans taken out to finance the company?  How about the cost of dividends paid on the capital obtained from shareholders?  Most definitions of costs include the former (interest) but not the latter (dividends), but the justification for this distinction is not clear.  Investment is also clearly a cost, but for an asset which will last for more than one period (by definition – otherwise it would simply be treated as a current input).  One should then include depreciation as a current year cost, but determining what that depreciation should be is not straightforward.  And there are more complicated issues as well, such as how to include the cost of stock options provided to management.  Finally and importantly, the law provides for a large range of various tax credits and tax deductions which are designed to provide special subsidies to various favored industries or owner categories.  Different countries do this differently, and they of course change over time in any individual country as well.

Such difficulties have created a profitable industry of lawyers and tax accountants with expertise on how, legally, to minimize recorded taxable corporate profits.  Together with changes in the underlying law, this has led to the steady decline in corporate profit taxes paid as a share of corporate profits (as defined in the GDP accounts), to where the actual rate paid now is in fact only around 20% (with this including what is paid at the state and local level, as well as to foreign governments).

Such factors also show why it is meaningless to compare the 35% rate in the US to that in other countries.  Each country defines the portion of corporate profits that are treated as taxable in its own way, so the base to which the tax rate is being applied will differ across countries.  Thus, while Trump has repeatedly asserted that US corporate taxes are the highest in the world, this is simply not true.  One cannot look solely at the headline rate (35% in the US, which will be slashed to 21% in the new Republican tax plan).  Indeed, based on what is actually paid, US corporate profit taxes at the headline rate of 35% are already lower on average than what is paid in most other OECD members.  As a share of GDP, and using OECD data (where 2014 is the most recent year with comparable data for all members), corporate profit taxes were just 2.18% of GDP in the US.  This was more than a quarter below the average of 3.00% of GDP across all OECD members.  One cannot just focus on the 35% headline rate, but rather one must look at the system as a whole.

a)  “Follow the money”:  Tax dividends at the level of the individual, and treat it as a cost at the level of the corporation

How then to approach the taxation of incomes deriving from corporate activities?  My primary recommendation is to “follow the money”, and tax such incomes at the level of the individuals receiving them.  That is, the focus would be on a fair and progressive system of taxes on individuals receiving such income, with income to individuals from corporate sources taxed in the same way and at the same rate as income from any other source.  How this would be done will be discussed in detail in the next section below, when we look at individual income taxes.  But at the level of corporations, one would not separately tax the payments made by corporations (nor indeed any other business entity) to individuals liable for US income taxes.  Rather, a Form 1099 would be filed by the company on what dividend payments they made and who they went to, as is in fact now done.  And if the individual or entity is not subject to US income taxes (or has not told the corporation whether they are), the company would withhold taxes at the 35% rate, which the individual or other entity could later claim when they file their tax forms on US-source incomes.  This is also as now.

Thus, one would not tax at the level of corporations what they pay lenders for interest on loans (as is the case now, as interest payments are treated as a cost to the company), but nor also for what they pay as dividends to their shareholders (who, like lenders, have also supplied capital to the corporations).

What would remain would then be profits that the corporation has retained rather than distributed (although with a provision for the cost of investment, to be discussed immediately below).  These earnings, retained on the balance sheet and not invested in productive assets, would be subject to tax, and a 35% rate (as we have had prior to the new Republican tax legislation) would be reasonable.  The income generated as a result of corporate activities would thus all be subject to tax, either at the level of the individual (if paid out) or at the level of the corporation (if, and only if, retained on the books).  This would also ensure one is not leaving a loophole where incomes could be accumulated forever on the corporate balance sheet, and never be subject to the taxes that others are bearing.

b)  Allow 100% expensing of investment costs

How then to treat investment?  Investment is low in the US, and likely is a significant factor in why productivity growth has slowed in recent decades.  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, net private investment has declined in the US from over 7% of GDP between 1951 and 1980, to just half that now.  Stagnant real wages have likely been a factor in this (why invest in new equipment if you can hire workers at low wages instead?).  And while one will certainly want to take direct actions in the labor market to address this (most importantly by keeping the economy at close to full employment, thus strengthening the bargaining power of labor), tax policy can also contribute.

As discussed above, profits are defined as revenues minus costs, but the costs will in principle include only the extent to which invested assets have depreciated.  The problem in practice is that it is impossible to know what that depreciation really is, so our accounting systems use various simplified rules.  An example is the frequently used method of straight-line depreciation, where the investment is depreciated at a fixed percentage of its original cost for each year of some assumed lifetime.  But commonly, as part of tax policy, depreciation at some accelerated pace is allowed, thus reducing what is considered to be taxable corporate profits in the current period.  Costs are treated as if they were higher, by the extent of the higher depreciation allowed under the tax law.  This then reduces the share of actual corporate profits that are treated as taxable.

One could extend this to the maximum limit and allow 100% of investment to be depreciated (or “expensed”) in the current year.  Investment expenditures would be treated, in the period in which they are made, the same as any other input cost.  This would greatly simplify the system, and also would provide a strong incentive to invest.

One would then have that only those corporate profits which are retained on the balance sheet, and not invested in productive assets nor distributed either as interest or as dividends, would be subject to the corporate profits tax (at the 35% rate).  This would be close to a cash flow definition of profits (treating interest and similarly dividends as a cost for the capital used by the company), and would be straightforward to measure.  Corporate income taxes would only apply to those profits which are neither invested nor paid out as interest or dividends, but rather simply allowed to build up in bank accounts.

c)  Tax foreign operations of US corporations the same as their domestic operations, and tax foreign corporations operating in the US the same as a US corporation would be taxed on US operations

Corporations operate across borders, both US firms with operations overseas and foreign-owned corporations with operations in the US.  This raises special issues.  We will first look at the former (operations of US firms overseas), and then the latter (foreign-owned firms operating in the US).

The recently passed Republican tax legislation would partially exempt from US tax those profits earned by US companies on operations they undertake abroad.  But there is no logic in this – why should their operations overseas be taxed at a lower rate than the same operations would be had they been located in the US?  And it would also create a tremendous incentive for US companies to shift their operations to overseas locations, preferably to some tax haven.  Why this would be considered as something good for American workers is not at all clear.  Rather, and to create a level playing field, the earnings on such overseas operations should be subject to tax in the same way as corporate operations on American soil are.  And they should be subject to tax at the time such profits are generated, rather than deferred.

One should recognize, again in the name of a level playing field, that corporate taxes paid abroad should count as a credit against their US taxes.  This is to avoid what would otherwise be double-taxation (by both the country where the operations are being undertaken, and by the US), and is the standard practice in most of the countries where such operations exist (covered by double-taxation treaties).  This is the same as now.  But while the payment of such taxes to foreign governments should be recognized and treated as a cost of doing business there, what remains as income should be treated the same as if it were generated by operations in the US.

There is also the issue of what to do about the existing stock of accumulated, untaxed, corporate profits now held abroad.  Under US tax law (prior to the recent legislation), profits earned by US companies on overseas operations have not been treated as taxable in the US until such profits are repatriated to the US.  This has created the incentive to keep those profits in overseas accounts and investments, with this summing to at least an estimated $2.6 trillion (for 322 of the Fortune 500 top US companies that disclosed such figures, as of end 2016).  There is no rational economic reason why such accumulated earnings should benefit from a tax amnesty (whether in full or partial, as the new Republican tax legislation grants).  Rather, the taxes due on those funds should be paid and no longer deferred, in accord with the tax reform plan being presented here (distributions to shareholders would be taxed at the level of the individual, investments expensed, and remaining funds not invested in productive assets would be taxed at the 35% rate).  One could, however, provide for a multi-year period (of perhaps five years or so) to spread the impact.  And keep in mind that the corporations cannot argue that they cannot afford to make such payments.  Those assets (of over $2.6 trillion for a sub-set of the larger companies) are sitting in accounts abroad right now.

Finally, there is the issue of how to treat profits from operations in the US of companies owned (wholly or partially) by overseas entities.  The basic principle to follow, and to ensure a level playing field as well, is that they should be taxed the same as US owned companies would be.  Note that any company operating in the US has to be incorporated in the US under US law (as is the case for companies operating in any country), and thus in principle are US companies.  That is, Toyota or BMW car plants in the US are operated by US incorporated subsidiaries owned by (or primarily owned by) Toyota of Japan and BMW of Germany.  But their foreign ownership raises special issues.

Such subsidiaries will generally transfer as “dividends” the profits they generate to their foreign parents.  But there are other ways (perhaps not always so obvious) to pass along their profits.  These include paying interest on loans provided by the corporate parent (possibly at especially high interest rates), or by paying royalties or licensing fees for patents, trademarks, or proprietary designs coming from the parent companies.  All such transfers to corporate parents should be treated similarly as dividends.

Taxation of such entities should again follow the “follow the money” principle.  To the extent any such payments (whether dividends, interest, or royalties or licensing fees) paid to corporate parents (or to other entities where there is an ownership interest) are made by the foreign-owned subsidiary in the US to US entities who themselves are subject to US taxes (whether individuals, or banks, or other corporate entities), the payments would be treated as a cost.  The company would file (as US companies do) the Form 1099s that go to the IRS to inform them that such payments had been made.  Tax would then be paid by those individuals or other US entities receiving such payments, on their regular tax forms and in accordance with what they individually owe.

If the entity receiving the payment is not otherwise subject to US taxes (or has not told the company whether they are or not), the foreign-owned US subsidiary would withhold taxes that might be due, at the 35% rate.  The individuals or other entities could later file US income tax forms to cover the US taxes they might owe (on these distributions together with that owed on any other activities that generated taxable income in the US), and claim as a credit the taxes withheld on their behalf.  If they choose not to file US tax forms, the taxes withheld (at the 35% rate) would constitute the equivalent of corporate profit taxes being paid at such a rate on these US operations.  Again, the point is a level playing field between US and foreign-owned companies operating on US soil.

d)  Subsidies provided through the tax system to specific industries, sectors, or owners, should end

Finally, the tax code is riddled with special provisions that favor particular industries, sectors, or types of owners.  They are provided through a variety of means, including accelerated depreciation provisions in certain industries or for certain types of investments, various tax credits and deductions, and exemption from profit taxation (fully or partially) for those in certain industries.

Subsidies for certain of these activities might well be warranted.  But if so, it would be less costly and more transparent to provide such subsidies directly, through the budget, rather than hiding them in the tax code.

It should also be noted that with full expensing of investments allowed under the proposed new system, there will be built-in, and non-discriminatory, advantages provided to all investments.  The favored treatment of certain industries and not others, through granting of accelerated depreciation provisions for certain investments and not others, will no longer matter as all industries would be able to deduct 100% of the cost of investment in the year the investment was made.  This would include investments made in research and development, where 100% expensing has generally been allowed in recent years.  Such R&D costs would still enjoy this, but so would other investments.

As part of an overall reform of the corporate income tax, however, the many special, often industry specific, tax subsidies should end.  We will examine below, in Section D, what the resulting savings from this might be.

e)  Summary of corporate income tax reforms

In summary, the following is recommended to reform the system of corporate income taxes:

a)  Corporate investment expenditures should be allowed to be fully expensed in the year they are incurred.

b)  Dividend distributions should be treated as an expense, as interest on loans is now.  Together with full expensing of investment expenditures, this would imply that taxable corporate profits will equal what was retained that year and neither distributed (as dividends or interest) nor invested.  Those retained earnings, accumulating in bank accounts on the corporate balance sheet, would be taxed at 35% in the year they are so retained.

c)  Companies would report the dividend distributions to individuals or other entities on Form 1099s, just like interest payments are now reported.  If the individual or other entity has not provided their tax ID number to the company, then the company would withhold taxes on such distributions at the 35% rate.  Foreign individuals or entities would be treated similarly, with the taxes withheld, which they could then claim credit for if they file US tax forms covering all their US source incomes.

d)  Taxable corporate profits (as defined here) would apply not just to US-based operations, but also to the operations of US companies abroad.  That is, the taxation will be the same on a worldwide basis, and there would be no tax incentive to relocate operations to some foreign jurisdiction.  Like now, corporate income taxes paid in countries where double-taxation treaties have been negotiated would count as a credit.

e)  Profits of US corporations that have accumulated abroad (of an estimated $2.6 trillion for a sub-set of the larger companies) would be subject to a one-time tax on the same basis as retained earnings would now be.  One could allow a multi-year period, of perhaps five years, to spread this out.

f)  The US subsidiaries of foreign corporations would report (on Form 1099s or their equivalent) any distributions they make.  These would include payments of dividends or interest, but also royalties and licensing fees paid to corporate parents (or other entities with an ownership interest).  For foreign entities receiving such distributions that are not otherwise subject to US taxes, or in cases where the entity has not provided notice of their US tax status, the companies would withhold taxes at a 35% rate.

g)  Special tax subsidies for particular industries or purposes granted through the tax code should end.  To the extent any such subsidies are warranted as a matter of public interest, it would be less costly to provide them directly and transparently through the budget.

These reforms would have a major impact on what is collected as corporate income taxes.  As we will see below, income taxes paid directly by the corporations themselves would indeed be reduced.  But this would in large part be a consequence of the shift of the locus at which such incomes are taxed, from the corporate level to the individuals receiving those incomes.  One therefore needs to look at the revenue impact of these together, which we will do in Section D below after first discussing proposed reforms to individual income taxes.

C.  Individual Income Taxes

There are six major areas where reforms to the individual income tax system should be enacted:

a)  All forms of income should be taxed the same, and not at differing rates and brackets that vary depending on the source of that income;

b)  Equal benefit from deductions and personal exemptions should be provided to all, rather than (as now) higher benefits to those in the higher tax brackets;

c)  The cost basis of assets passed via inheritance should be retained at what they were, and not stepped-up;

d)  Exemption levels on estates subject to tax should be restored to $1.0 million for individuals and $2.0 million for married couples, which is roughly where they were from the mid-1980s through the 1990s (in terms of today’s prices);

e)  The use of life insurance to evade taxes on especially large estates should no longer be allowed;

f)  Tax subsidies for special, favored, private business activities should end.  Any such subsidies which are warranted can be provided at lower cost through the budget.

I have discussed the first three reforms on the list above in an earlier post on this blog.  Those interested in further detail on those measures may refer to that earlier post.  However, I will try to ensure the discussion here is sufficient to keep this post self-contained.

a)  Tax all forms of income the same

Taxing all forms of income the same is a matter not only of basic fairness, but also for reasons of tax efficiency and simplification.  To be clear, this does not mean one tax rate for all, but rather that income of one type (say wages) should be taxed the same as income from another source (such as capital gains).  Under the current US system a person will pay tax at different rates depending on the source of that income:  of up to 39.6% (37% in the recently passed legislation) on what is deemed “ordinary income” (such as wages), of up to 20% on income from capital gains on assets that have been held for more than a year, of also up to 20% on dividends paid on equity shares held for more than 60 days (but not on interest paid by those same companies), of up to 28% from capital gains on “collectibles” and certain small business stock, and of up to 25% from “unrecaptured Section 1250 gain” (whatever that is; I believe it is something primarily to do with real estate).

But this is not all.  In addition to such basic rates, there are various add-ons that raise the actual or effective rates for certain households.  For example, there has been a net investment income tax (applying to all forms of investment income, including capital gains as well as interest, dividends, rent, and so on) of 3.8% for households with incomes above $250,000 (when married filing jointly).  There is also an additional tax for Medicare of 0.9% for wage and self-employment income for households with income above $250,000 (when married filing jointly).  This is on top of the regular Medicare tax of 2.9% on all wage income (half technically “paid” by the employer and half by the individual, with the full 2.9% applying for the self-employed).

And then to add even further complexity, personal exemptions and itemized deductions are phased out for higher-income households (of more than $313,800 if married filing jointly in 2017).  These are called the PEP and Pease phase-outs, respectively, and act in effect as a higher tax rate on such households up to a certain amount that varies by household (depending on the number of personal exemptions and the value of their declared deductions).  Households who are extremely rich, with incomes above these phase-out amounts, then effectively pay a lower income tax rate than these more moderately well-off households pay.  The phase-outs raise the effective income tax rate paid by such households by about 1% point for the itemized deductions phaseout (or a bit more if one accounts for interaction effects), and by about 1% point for each personal exemption (thus 2% for a household of two, or 5% for a household of five, and again a bit more with interaction effects).

Finally, on top of all this is the Alternative Minimum Tax, which applies to moderately well-off households, excludes certain exemptions and deductions (in whole or in part), and then taxes the resulting taxable income (as then defined) at a rate of 26% or 28%.

This is incredibly complex, and for no justifiable purpose other than possibly an intention to obfuscate what rate is actually being paid.  And the complication does not come from the number of income tax brackets, but rather from taxing different forms of income differently, each with its own set of tax rates and tax brackets.  This is not only complex to figure out, but also provides an incentive to try to shift one’s income to a category that is taxed at a lower rate.  Thus, for example, suitably structured payments of stock options to high-level managers and other insiders allow them to switch what would otherwise be wage income (taxed at rates of up to 39.6% up to now) to long-term capital gains (taxed at 15% or 20%).  Similarly, managers of investment funds are able to structure the payments they receive from successful deals (which they call “carried interest”) at the low capital gains rate, even though they have no money of their own invested and are being compensated for their work in putting together the deals.

The recently passed Republican tax plan does not address this fundamental cause of complexity in the individual income tax system.  While some aspects would change (e.g. there would no longer be any personal exemptions, and hence no issue of personal exemptions being phased out), it would also create a new, highly favorable, treatment of what is termed “pass-through” income, that individuals obtain from businesses organized as partnerships, sole proprietorships, sub-chapter S corporations, and similar entities.  Currently, such income is treated the same as other ordinary income (such as wages) and is taxed as ordinary income is.  But under the new legislation, those in certain professions (but not others, where the rationale for including certain professions and not others is not clear), will be able to reduce their tax rate by 20%.  That is, those in the favored professions (and meeting certain other conditions), would be able to reduce the tax due on such income from the 37% others pay to just 29.6%.  This would create a strong incentive for such well-off individuals to structure the payments they receive for their work in such a way as to benefit from this lower rate (as the University of Kansas men’s basketball coach did when Kansas started to exempt such pass-through income from the state income tax).  Trump himself would be a prime beneficiary of such a “reform”.

The differing tax rates for different forms of income also has major distributional consequences.  For example, the special, low, rates on long-term capital gains and on dividends (on shares held for more than 60 days), primarily benefits those who enjoy a high income:

The Congressional Budget Office, in a May 2013 report, estimated that fully 93% of the benefit of the preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends accrued to the richest 20% of households (those with a minimum income of $162,800 for a family of four), and over two-thirds (68%) accrued to the richest 1% (those with a minimum income of $654,000 for a family of four).  This is a special tax benefit that overwhelmingly favors the rich.

Taxing all forms of individual income the same thus would not only greatly simplify the system, but would also be distributionally positive.  And it would be fair, as individuals would pay the same tax on the same total income, regardless of whether they received that income in one form (e.g. wages) or another (e.g. capital gains or dividends).

One issue that would need to be addressed would be to ensure all the income and gains are taxed in terms of today’s prices. This is not a problem for income received in the last year.  One just adds up the various sources of income.  But for capital gains on assets held for a number of years, accumulated general inflation can be a significant factor.  However, it would not be difficult to take account of this.  Each year, the IRS would publish a table for accumulated general inflation from any given prior year to today, and these tables would be used to adjust the cost basis of the assets to reflect today’s price level.

A simple example will illustrate what would be done.  Suppose you sold shares in some company for $300,000 now, which you had bought for $100,000 ten years ago.  The nominal gain would be $200,000.  However, a significant share of this reflects inflation.  Suppose, in this example, that inflation had averaged 2.0% per year over the ten years.  Compounded, cumulative inflation over this period would then be 21.9%, and the $100,000 spent for the asset ten years ago would be equal to $121,900 in today’s prices.  The taxable gain in today’s dollars would then be $178,100.  One would add that amount to your other earnings this year to determine what your total taxable earnings are this year, in terms of today’s prices.

This would not add any real complication.  One already must know the cost basis as well as the date the asset was acquired, and indeed, these are entered on our tax forms.  One would just then need to multiply the cost basis by the inflation factor provided by the IRS to reflect the cost in today’s prices.

Another category of income that is taxed differently than other categories of income is interest income from bonds issued by state and local governments (commonly called municipal or “Muni” bonds), as well as Private Activity Bonds (PABs) that are treated similarly.  Interest on such bonds is taxed at a special rate of zero (i.e. they are not taxed) at the federal level, and similarly not taxed at the level of most states and localities (for citizens of those jurisdictions).

With the interest income on such bonds not taxed federally (nor locally), the bonds can be issued at a lower interest rate.  The market will be able to issue such bonds at a rate of, for example, say 4%, when similar bonds (with similar risks) can only be sold with an interest rate of say 6%.  If one is in a 40% tax bracket, taxable interest earnings at 6% will equal 3.6% after taxes, so a similar risk bond paying 4% with no taxes due will be attractive.

This is done as a means to provide federal subsidy support to states and localities as they fund their investments and programs, but it is a terrible way to do it.  The federal subsidy comes from the federal tax revenue that is given up by allowing such bonds to be issued tax-free.  But it would cost less to the federal treasury if such subsidies were provided directly to the states and localities, rather than indirectly through this tax avoidance mechanism.  The reason is that such bonds will be sold in the market at that price where the interest paid by them will match what the marginal individual buying such bonds would receive, after taxes, from a regular, taxable, bond of similar risk and maturity.  At that price, the marginal individual buying such bonds would be indifferent between the two types of bonds.  They would receive the same, after tax, interest on each.

This would normally be for someone in one of the middle tax brackets.  Someone who is richer than that, in one of the higher tax brackets, will then receive a windfall gain equal to the difference between what they will earn from the tax-free bond, and what they would earn (after taxes) had the bond not been tax-free.  In the example above, the windfall to someone in the 40% bracket would equal the difference between the 3.6% and 4.0% interest rates, times the value of such bonds that they hold.  This is a direct windfall to the rich, and only the rich.  It would be cheaper for the federal government to provide the subsidies directly to the states and localities, if such subsidies are warranted.

Private Activity Bonds have the same problem, as the interest on them is also tax-free.  The original logic appears to be that such bonds would be used to finance infrastructure and other expenditures that states and localities have traditionally funded, but the allowable purposes for which such PABs can now be used is much broader.  They are used for many real estate development projects, for some housing, for investments in “qualified enterprise zones”, for certain mortgages, and even for certain manufacturing and farm investments.  They can be used for pro sports stadiums and arenas (although not for luxury skyboxes built in them).  But while there are guidelines for the allowable purposes, there appears to be a good deal of discretion at the local level on what qualifies as eligible, and politically well-connected actors undoubtedly have an advantage in receiving such local approvals.

But even aside from whether PABs may be used for questionable purposes, they suffer from the same inherent excessive cost as Muni bonds do.  If it made sense for the federal government to subsidize such activities, it would be cheaper to subsidize them directly through the federal budget.  Providing the subsidy by granting such bonds tax-free treatment leads to a windfall going directly to the rich in the higher tax brackets.

To sum up, in replacement of the current complex system where different forms of income are often taxed differently, requiring different taxes to be computed on each and with resulting interactions among them, one should simply add up incomes earned each year from all sources (in current year prices), and pay a progressive tax on the total.

b)  Provide equal tax benefits to all from deductions and exemptions

Under the current system, the cost to someone in, say, a 40% tax bracket for a $100 contribution to some charity is only $60.  The charitable contribution is tax deductible, and hence the federal government is compensating someone in the 40% bracket $40 for the contribution to that charity.  But someone in the middle class in, say, a 20% tax bracket, would only receive a $20 compensation from the federal government for a $100 contribution to that exact same charity.  It would cost them a net $80.  And someone even poorer, in a 10% tax bracket would receive only $10 back, so it would cost them $90 for a contribution to that exact same charity again (assuming they itemize deductions; if not, it would cost them the full $100).

This is not fair.  The richer are receiving a bigger gift from the federal government for a $100 contribution to the same charity that the others have also contributed to.  There is also no reason of practicality why the system needs to be structured in this way.  Instead, one would simply add up all deductions (as now on Schedule A of the Form 1040), plus whatever amounts are set for personal exemptions ($4,050 per person in the household in 2017).  Then, instead of deducting this total from gross income, with the tax then determined based on the various tax rates, one would deduct some share (perhaps 25%, but the same for everyone) as a credit from taxes due.  That is, one would first determine taxes due on gross income, and then treat as a tax credit some fixed percentage of the total of what is now treated as deductions and exemptions.

As part of this, one would also eliminate the PEP and Pease phase-outs which in effect make those who are moderately well-off pay a higher tax rate than what they are nominally obliged to pay (and a higher rate than what those who are even wealthier have to pay).  This just complicates the system.  It is better to set the rates openly and clearly, and keep the rates progressive.

Under the proposed system, a $100 contribution to some charity would in effect then cost the taxpayer $75 (if a 25% rate is used) whether or not the person is rich, middle class, or poor.  The rate to be used, 25% in the examples here, could be set at that level which would be neutral in terms of the overall impact on tax collections.  It would in effect be a weighted average of what applies now to everyone in all tax brackets.  One would also apply the same rate of 25% (or whatever) to the amount used for the standard deduction ($12,700 in 2017 for couples filing jointly), as well as to personal exemptions ($4,050 per person in 2017), and then treat them all similarly as a tax credit.

One would do this primarily to be fair to all.  But it would also simplify the system.

c)  Maintain the prior cost basis on inherited assets

Taxes are paid on the income obtained from capital gains when assets are sold.  The gain is equal to the difference between the price received for the asset, and the price paid for it at some time before (the cost basis).  As discussed above, as part of a general tax reform the cost basis should be adjusted for general inflation between when the asset was purchased and when it was sold (and then taxed at the same rate as any other source of income), but the principle remains that taxes are paid on the income received from buying and selling assets.

There is, however, an exception to this in the current tax system (and would remain an exception in the new Republican plan).  When an asset is received via inheritance, the cost basis is reset to what the value of the asset is at the time it is inherited.  That can be a major favor to those inheriting assets, and there is no justifiable reason for it.

Some have argued that the person inheriting the asset would not necessarily know the cost basis, but that could be easily remedied.  First, the cost basis for financial assets traded through some broker such as Fidelity or Merrill Lynch will be recorded by that broker (and is reported to the IRS when the asset is sold).  And the value at which real estate is bought and sold will be recorded by the local government and kept in its land records forever.  Thus one will normally have the cost basis independently, from third-party sources.  But should there be any other asset where there might not be an independent record of the cost basis, or should the cost basis change for some valid reason (such as for a major capital improvement in some real estate asset), one could always make sure the correct cost basis is recorded in an annex or something similar in any wills or trusts that convey the assets to the beneficiaries.  Or that annex could indicate where to go to find the papers with the cost basis.  Indeed, it would be good practice anyway to record those values (or where to go to find the values) in such documents for all assets being passed to heirs.

Another argument that might be made is that those inheriting the assets might not be able to afford to pay the tax if the income received is calculated based on the original cost basis of the asset, rather than a stepped-up value.  But this would be a confused argument.  First, the tax due would not arise until the asset is sold, which could be many years later.  And second, when the asset is sold those inheriting the asset will receive a payment for the full amount of the sale.  One will have the funds to pay any tax that is then due.

The current treatment of these assets, with a step-up in the cost basis to the value at the time of inheritance, is also of greatest benefit to the rich.  This is not surprising:  the wealthy will leave a larger estate to be inherited than the not so wealthy.  The Congressional Budget Office has provided an estimate:

While not so extremely skewed distributionally as the benefit gained from the low rate of tax on long-term capital gains (discussed above), two-thirds of the benefits of this tax provision still go to the richest 20% of households, and over 20% of the benefit goes to the richest 1%.

As part of a general tax reform, this provision should be eliminated.  The cost basis of assets should remain at whatever it had been, and not stepped-up at the time the asset is inherited to whatever the value is then.

d)  Restore the exemption levels for the estate tax to $1.0 million for individuals and $2.0 million for married couples

The estate tax is now paid by only a tiny percentage of high net worth estates, because the exemption level has been raised over time to extremely high levels.  In 2017, estates with a net taxable value (after contributions to charity) of $5.49 million (or $10.98 million for married couples, if some standard arrangements have been made) are subject to this tax.  Because this exemption level is now so high, and with other ways as well to avoid estate taxes (such as use of life insurance, to be discussed below), only a small percentage of estates, less than 0.2%, end up paying any estate tax at all.  And under the recently passed Republican tax legislation, these floors on what is taxed would double, to $22 million for a married couple.  Only an exceedingly small share of estates will need to be concerned with this tax.

Until the tax cuts passed in 2001 under George W. Bush, the exemption level of estates had been far less.  It was raised as part of those tax cuts from $675,000 in 2001 to $1.0 million in 2002-03, and then by phases to the current $5.49 million (for 2017).  Indeed, in one year (2010) it was removed altogether.  Its complete removal has long been a goal of Republican leaders.

Returning the floor of what is subject to tax to $1.0 million for individuals and $2.0 million for married couples (with this inflation indexed going forward) would restore it to where it roughly was (in terms of today’s prices) from the mid-1980s through the 1990s.  Based on what was observed in the late 1990s, it would apply only to the richest 2% of households, approximately.  And this 2% share is indeed less than what the share was for most of the post-World War II period.  On average, a bit over 3% of estates were subject to the tax between 1946 and 2001.  There is no evidence that this tax at those levels did any harm to the economy.

e)  Ensure life insurance proceeds on especially large estates are subject to normal taxation, and not used as a way to evade taxation

A common “tax planning” tool used by the very wealthy to evade estate (and any other) taxes on assets passed to their heirs has been the use of life insurance.  Life insurance proceeds are not subject to tax.  For those who use life insurance for its intended purpose (to provide for family members and other dependants in case of an unexpected death), this is reasonable.  It should not then be subject to tax.  But its use to evade estate taxes should not be allowed.

One would then need to distinguish between these two purposes, and the question is how.  That could be done in various ways.  One could establish certain criteria, such as that both the age of death at which it would apply would be the normal retirement age or greater (say at age 66), plus that those receiving the insurance proceeds would be individuals other than the spouse or non-adult dependants of the deceased, plus that the amount in total to be paid out would (together with other estate assets) exceed the exemption level for estates subject to tax (which would be, as proposed above, $1.0 million for individuals and $2.0 million for married couples).

Using life insurance proceeds as a tax planning tool to allow extremely large estates to pass tax-free to heirs is a loophole which evades the intent of the estate tax.  It should be closed.

f)   Stop providing tax subsidies for special private activities

Finally, like the corporate income tax, the individual income tax provides special tax subsidies for various private business activities.  These include special deductions for certain “domestic production activities” (defined somehow in the tax code), favorable treatment of income earned abroad, and special advantages from the sale of certain categories of business stock.  While various subsidies to clean energy sources and energy efficiency are also included here, they are only a small share of the total – less than 10%.

To the extent such subsidies serve a valid public purpose, it would be less costly and more transparent to provide them directly and explicitly through the budget.  But many of these subsidies would not survive such public scrutiny.  They should be ended.

D.  An Estimate of the Impact of These Reforms on Tax Revenues

What would be the net impact on tax revenues from the reforms discussed above?  Estimates for the totals over the ten-year period of FY2018 to FY2027 are:

Impact of Tax Reform on Revenues, in $ billions

FY2018-27

Corporate Income Taxes:

  End deferral of tax on overseas income

  $1,500

  End subsidies for special industries & activities

     $950

  Expense investment at 100%

   -$200

  Exclude dividends paid to domestic persons

-$2,500

      Sub-total

   -$250

Individual Income Taxes:

  Tax capital gains and dividends at ordinary rates

 $1,150

  Tax interest from Muni bonds and PABs at ordinary rates

    $700

  End step-up of cost basis of inheritance

    $450

  Return estate tax exemption to $1.0 / $2.0 million

    $500

  Tax large life insurance proceeds from estates at ordinary rates

    $250

  End special tax subsidies for favored private business activities

    $250

  End surtax on investment income 

   -$400

  End PEP and Pease phase-outs

   -$250

      Sub-total 

 $2,700

     Overall Net Impact on Tax Revenues

 $2,450

     % change in Tax Revenues as share of Individual Income Tax

  11.2%

(Estimates rounded to nearest $50 billion, and totals are based on figures before rounding.)

I should emphasize that these are very rough estimates.  I will discuss below the various sources and assumptions made to arrive at these figures, but would stress that the information available to make such estimates is limited, and also does not take into account interaction effects nor how agents would react should such reforms be enacted.  Because they are rough, I have rounded each of the estimates to the nearest $50 billion (for the ten-year totals).  Nevertheless, the figures should suffice to give a sense of the magnitudes, and how the individual impacts would add up.

I have also excluded here what would be a significant, but one time, source of tax revenues under the proposed reforms.  Specifically, I have left out from the estimates here the taxes that would be paid on the accumulation of profits held overseas, on which taxes otherwise would have been due in the past had those profits been repatriated to the US.  As noted above, those untaxed profits are estimated to total $2.6 trillion for a subset of the larger US companies (the subset where data could be obtained for an estimate).  Those up-to-now untaxed profits would be subject to a 35% tax to the extent they are not either distributed to shareholders (in which case they would then be taxed at the individual level, at that individual’s rate) nor invested in productive assets (as investments could be fully expensed).  It is impossible to say how companies would then respond, but if they did nothing, a 35% tax on $2.6 trillion would total $910 billion.  This would be a significant addition to the ten-year totals.  But it is one time (perhaps spread, as discussed above, over a five year period), plus companies would be expected to respond in some way.  Thus I have left this figure, significant though it might be, out of the totals here.  Rather, the focus is on what the on-going, long-term, impacts might be of the tax reforms.

On the sources:  Most of the figures are derived from the most recent (January 2017) estimates of tax expenditures published by the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) of Congress.  The JCT publishes such estimates annually, and cover around 250 individual items.  Most are quite small, but they add up.  The report shows them separately for corporations and for individuals, and by year although only for the five years of FY2016 through FY2020 in their most recent report.  To scale them to the fiscal years of FY2018-27 (to make them comparable to the years discussed in the Republican tax legislation), I rescaled the totals for each category to FY2018-27 by multiplying them by the ratio of the Congressional Budget Office June 2017 forecasts of corporate or individual income tax revenues for FY2018-27 to what CBO is forecasting for FY2016-20 (separately for the corporate income tax and for the individual income tax).

Adjustments were needed for two of the proposed reform items.  The JCT estimates of the impact of the special, low, capital gains tax rate applied to long-term capital gains and qualified dividends, is based on figures which do not reflect inflation indexing of the cost basis for long-term capital gains.  Such inflation indexing would reduce the revenues collected significantly, but we do not have the data needed to provide a good estimate of how much.  To arrive at the figure shown here, I first took out the qualified dividends share of the total taxed at the capital gains rate (where published IRS data shows that in 2015 the share was 31%), as such dividends are paid in the current year.  The remainder reflects actual long-term capital gains.  Arbitrarily but generously, I assumed such capital gains would be reduced by 50% due to inflation indexing of the cost basis.  I suspect this is on the high side – the true reduction is likely to be less.  But based on this assumption, I arrived at the figure shown in the table.

The second item in the JCT estimates that needed to be adjusted was the impact of no longer treating as tax-free the payments made under life insurance.  As discussed above, some life insurance is used as a genuine tool to manage the financial risk of losing a provider for the family.  But life insurance is also used as an estate planning tool by wealthy estates to convey, tax-free, the assets from an estate to heirs, and thus avoid the estate tax.  In terms of dollar volumes, this latter use likely dominates.  One would want to design the tax only to apply to the latter, which could be done through various ways (using age, who the heirs would be, and a large minimum size).  For the purposes of the calculation of the tax revenue impact of such a reform, I assumed that the revenues generated would be reduced to 80% of the JCT estimates, as life insurance for the management of the financial risk of losing a family provider would remain tax exempt.

The January 2017 JCT report on tax expenditures did not have estimates for three of the tax items.  One was what the impact would be from allowing 100% expensing of all corporate investment.  However, a recent (November 14) JCT analysis of the tax revenue impacts of the House Republican tax plan did include, as a separate item, the cost of a proposed 100% expensing of corporate investment.  While this expensing (under the then House Republican plan) would formally end in 2022, one can use the estimates shown for a separate 100% expensing item (for small business) to calculate what it would roughly be in the second half of the decade (the relative proportions would be similar).  Note that the net tax revenue impact of 100% expensing diminishes over time.  Full expensing essentially brings forward allowed depreciation, so instead of spreading depreciation over time, the asset is treated as if the full cost was borne in the initial period.  This reduces taxable profits in the initial year, but then will raise it later (as the full depreciation has already been taken).

The second was the cost of returning exemption levels for estates to $1.0 million for individuals and $2.0 million for married couples.  This was estimated based on figures from the Tax Policy Center on the revenues collected by this tax in the late 1990s (but converted into revenues in today’s prices), when the exemption levels then (in terms of today’s prices) were close to the proposed new levels.  They were then forecast going forward to grow at the same rate as what the Congressional Budget Office forecast for the estate tax under current law.  The net increase in revenues would then equal the difference between this stream of tax revenues (with the exemption levels at $1.0 / $2.0 million) and what the CBO is forecasting the revenues would be under current law.

Finally, the impact of shifting the taxation of dividends from the corporate level to the individual level (where it would be taxed at the same rate as other income) was estimated based on current figures from the GDP accounts on corporate dividends, less Tax Policy Center estimates on the share going to foreigners, with this then forecast to grow at the same rate as what the JCT is forecasting for dividends and capital gains.

The resulting figures are shown in the table, with each rounded to the nearest $50 billion.  The net impact of the reforms on what would be collected directly through the corporate income tax would be a decline of $250 billion over the next ten years.  There would be a reduction in taxes collected at the corporate level of $2.5 trillion from excluding dividends from taxable corporate profits, and a reduction of $200 billion from allowing investment to be 100% expensed.  But this would mostly be offset by ending the deferral of taxes on income earned abroad by US corporate subsidiaries (generating $1.5 trillion in revenues), and by ending corporate subsidies for various special industries and activities (generating $950 billion).

Income tax collected at the individual level would, however, grow by an estimated $2.7 trillion over the ten year period.  The largest component of this ($1.15 trillion) would be generated by taxing capital gains and dividends at ordinary income tax rates, rather than the special low rate (20% generally) they are granted now.  Taxing interest on state and local government bonds (Munis) as well as private activity bonds (PABs), rather than not taxing them at all, would generate $700 billion over the ten years.  Ending the step-up of cost basis on assets received via inheritance would generate $450 billion, while returning the exemption level for the estate tax to $1.0 million for individuals and $2.0 million for married couples would generate $500 billion.  Taxing large life insurance proceeds from estates, used to evade estate taxes, would generate an estimated $250 billion.  And ending special tax subsidies to individuals for favored private business activities would generate $250 billion.

Partially offsetting this, ending the surtax on certain rich households on investment income (so that it would be taxed the same as other income) would mean a reduction of $400 billion in tax revenues over the decade.  And ending the complication of the PEP (personal exemption) and Pease (itemized deductions) phase-outs would reduce revenues by an estimated $250 billion.

Adding the impacts on both the corporate income tax and the individual income tax, the net effect would be to raise tax revenues collected by an estimated $2.45 trillion over the ten years.  This is large, and can be contrasted with the loss of $1.5 trillion in tax revenues that would follow from the recently passed Republican tax plan.  Even if several of my revenue estimates turn out to be too optimistic, the $2.45 trillion increase in revenues leaves a generous margin for uncertainties.  The net impact of these tax reforms would almost certainly be budget positive.

But assuming the $2.45 trillion surplus is a reasonable estimate, what could be done with such an amount?  First, I would note that some of the savings would come from ending various subsidies through the tax system.  As discussed above, providing such subsidies through the tax system is both costly (it would cost less to provide the subsidies directly through the budget, as the current system provides a windfall to those in the higher tax brackets) and lacks transparency.  Many of these subsidies should cease altogether, but some might well serve a valid public purpose.  When this is the case, regular budget expenditures would rise, and one should use a portion of the $2.45 trillion for such expenditures.

One might also wish to use a portion of the $2.45 trillion for other urgently needed budget expenditures the nation requires, such as for infrastructure.  As discussed in prior posts on this blog, government expenditures have been squeezed for many years, leaving a backlog of high priority needs.  One might also use a portion of the $2.45 trillion to pay down part of the national debt, although the priority of this is not clear.  Even the supposedly fiscally conservative Republicans see no problem with voting for a tax plan that would reduce tax revenues by $1.5 trillion over the next decade.

Finally, one could use the $2.45 trillion to adjust income tax rates downward.  If the full $2.45 trillion were used for this, and if one were to apply the reduction in proportion to current rates (as of 2017), one can calculate (using the CBO forecasts of tax revenues under current law), that the top tax rate could be cut from the current 39.6% to a rate of 35.6%.  The other tax rates would be similarly reduced (proportionally).  This would even be close to the top rate of 35% that the Republican plans have been aiming for (at various times), but would have been achieved as a consequence of true reforms.  That is, rather than setting a rate target (of 35% or whatever) and then trying to find sufficient measures to allow this to be met (including allowing for a net revenue loss of $1.5 trillion), the approach of a true reform is to start with several basic principles (uniform tax rates on all forms of income, progressivity, and simplification), work out what reforms would follow from this, and then set the rates accordingly for revenue neutrality.

E.  Conclusion

The recent debate on tax policy was an opportunity to enact a true reform.  We certainly need it.  The current tax system is inequitable, overly complicated, has provisions which induce perverse behavior, and is costly to administer.  Sadly, the recently passed Republican tax plan will make it worse, as just the example of the special treatment of pass-through income makes clear.  The new law introduces new inequities (pass-through tax provisions that favor a narrow few), new complications (distinctions that cannot be logically explained as to whom will be able to cut their taxes on pass-through income, such as professionals in real estate but not certain others), provisions that will induce perverse behavior (such as newly-created business structures for doctors to sell and lease back their offices, in order to obtain some of the pass-through benefits that real estate companies will enjoy), and will be costly to administer (as the IRS tries to ensure the law is applied as intended despite the numerous complications, as for example again with regard to who will and will not be allowed to benefit from the tax cuts for pass-through income).

And the complications and inequities in the new Republican tax legislation extend far beyond what was done on pass-through income.  Many new loopholes have been created, and the tax cuts provided have gone disproportionately to the rich.  Along with differing treatments of different sources of income, the new system will be more complex than the old, and less progressive.  Finally, it will not be revenue neutral.  Rather, it will lead to $1.5 trillion more being borrowed in our budget over the next ten years.  Our budget is in deficit and will remain so if nothing is done, even though now is the time, with the economy at full employment, that one should be moving to a budget surplus.  In effect, we are borrowing a further $1.5 trillion over the next decade to hand out primarily to the rich.

In a simple and fair system of taxation, one would be paying the same in taxes whether one’s income came from working for wages, from business income, from dividends from corporations or interest from loans, from stock options, or from capital gains.  Under our current tax system, each of these sources of income may be taxed at different rates.  The result is undue complication, as one has to determine not only what total income is but also how it should be categorized.  But in addition there are interaction effects, where the tax applied in some category depends not only on the income earned in that category, but also often on the income earned in other categories.  And most importantly, there is then the incentive to try to arrange income payments so that they will come under a category where lower taxes are due (e.g. shifting wage income to stock options, or for hedge fund managers to shift what would be wage income to “carried interest”).

The new Republican tax plan will make this worse.  Now there is a new general category treated preferentially, of pass-through income.  Pass-through income had been taxed before the same as wage and other ordinary income.  Now it will be taxed 20% less.  This is a strong incentive, for those who are able, to try to arrange the payments they receive to qualify as pass-through income rather than wages.  This is just a gift to the wealthy who are able to obtain such special treatment.

But there is no disagreement that a true tax reform is certainly needed in the US.  The proposals outlined above show what could have been done.  And such a reform now is more important than ever, as the Republican tax plan has moved us in the opposite direction of what we needed.

Productivity: Do Low Real Wages Explain the Slowdown?

GDP per Worker, 1947Q1 to 2016Q2,rev

A.  Introduction, and the Record on Productivity Growth

There is nothing more important to long term economic growth than the growth in productivity.  And as shown in the chart above, productivity (measured here by real GDP in 2009 dollars per worker employed) is now over $115,000.  This is 2.6 times what it was in 1947 (when it was $44,400 per worker), and largely explains why living standards are higher now than then.  But productivity growth in recent decades has not matched what was achieved between 1947 and the mid-1960s, and there has been an especially sharp slowdown since late 2010.  The question is why?

Productivity is not the whole story; distribution also matters.  And as this blog has discussed before, while all income groups enjoyed similar improvements in their incomes between 1947 and 1980 (with those improvements also similar to the growth in productivity over that period), since then the fruits of economic growth have gone only to the higher income groups, while the real incomes of the bottom 90% have stagnated.  The importance of this will be discussed further below.  But for the moment, we will concentrate on overall productivity, and what has happened to it especially in recent years.

As noted, the overall growth in productivity since 1947 has been huge.  The chart above is calculated from data reported by the BEA (for GDP) and the BLS (for employment).  It is productivity at its most basic:  Output per person employed.  Note that there are other, more elaborate, measures of productivity one might often see, which seek to control, for example, for the level of capital or for the education structure of the labor force.  But for this post, we will focus simply on output per person employed.

(Technical Note on the Data: The most reliable data on employment comes from the CES survey of employers of the BLS, but this survey excludes farm employment.  However, this exclusion is small and will not have a significant impact on the growth rates.  Total employment in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting, which is broader than farm employment only, accounts for only 1.4% of total employment, and this sector is 1.2% of GDP.)

While the overall rise in productivity since 1947 has been huge, the pace of productivity growth was not always the same.  There have been year-to-year fluctuations, not surprisingly, but these even out over time and are not significant. There are also somewhat longer term fluctuations tied to the business cycle, and these can be significant on time scales of a decade or so.  Productivity growth slows in the later phases of a business expansion, and may well fall as an economic downturn starts to develop.  But once well into a downturn, with businesses laying off workers rapidly (with the least productive workers the most likely to be laid off first), one will often see productivity (of those still employed) rise.  And it will then rise further in the early stages of an expansion as output grows while new hiring lags.

Setting aside these shorter-term patterns, one can break down productivity growth over the close to 70 year period here into three major sub-periods.  Between the first quarter of 1947 and the first quarter of 1966, productivity rose at a 2.2% annual pace.  There was then a slowdown, for reasons that are not fully clear and which economists still debate, to just a 0.4% pace between the first quarter of 1966 and the first quarter of 1982.  The pace of productivity growth then rose again, to 1.4% a year between the first quarter of 1982 and the second quarter of 2016.  But this was well less than the 2.2% pace the US enjoyed before.

An important question is why did productivity growth slow from a 2.2% pace between the late 1940s and mid-1960s, to a 1.4% pace since 1982.  Such a slowdown, if sustained, might not appear like much, but the impact would in fact be significant.  Over a 50 year period, for example, real output per worker would be 50% higher with growth at a 2.2% than it would be with growth at a 1.4% pace.

There is also an important question of whether productivity growth has slowed even further in recent years.  This might well still be a business cycle effect, as the economy has recovered from the 2008/09 downturn but only slowly (due to the fiscal drag from cuts in government spending).  The pace of productivity growth has been especially slow since late 2010, as is clear by blowing up the chart from above to focus on the period since 2000:

GDP per Worker, 2000Q1 to 2016Q2,rev

Productivity has increased at a rate of just 0.13% a year since late 2010.  This is slow, and a real problem if it continues.  I would hasten to add that the period here (5 1/2 years) is still too short to say with any certainty whether this will remain an issue.  There have been similar multi-year periods since 1947 when the pace of productivity growth appeared to slow, and then bounced back.  Indeed, as seen in the chart above, one would have found a similar pattern had one looked back in early 2009, with a slow pace of productivity growth observed from about 2005.

There has been a good deal of work done by excellent economists on why productivity growth has been what it was, and what it might be in the future.  But there is no consensus.  Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University, considered by many to be the “dean in the field”, takes a pessimistic view on the prospects in his recently published magnum opus “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”.  Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT, in contrast, argue for a more optimistic view in their recent work “The Second Machine Age” (although “optimistic” might not be the right word because of their concern for the implication of this for jobs).  They see productivity growth progressing rapidly, if not accelerating.

But such explanations are focused on possible productivity growth as dictated by what is possible technologically.  A separate factor, I would argue, is whether investment in fact takes place that makes use of the technology that is available.  And this may well be a dominant consideration when examining the change in productivity over the short and medium terms.  A technology is irrelevant if it is not incorporated into the actual production process.  And it is only incorporated into the production process via investment.

To understand productivity growth, and why it has fallen in recent decades and perhaps especially so in recent years, one must therefore also look at the investment taking place, and why it is what it is.  The rest of this blog post will do that.

B.  The Slowdown in the Pace of Investment

The first point to note is that net investment (i.e. after depreciation) has been falling in recent decades when expressed as a share of GDP, with this true for both private and public investment:

Domestic Fixed Investment, Total, Public, and Private, Net, percentage of GDP, 1951 to 2015, updated Aug 16, 2016

Total net investment has been on a clear downward trend since the mid-1960s.  Private net investment has been volatile, falling sharply with the onset of an economic downturn and then recovering.  But since the late 1970s its trend has also clearly been downward. Net private investment has been less than 3 1/2% of GDP in recent years, or less than half what it averaged between 1951 and 1980 (of over 7% of GDP).  And net public investment, while less volatile, has plummeted over time.  It averaged 3.1% of GDP between 1951 and 1968, but is only 0.5% of GDP now (as of 2015), or less than one-sixth of what it was before.

With falling net investment, the rates of growth of public and private capital stocks (fixed assets) have fallen (where 2014 is the most recent year for which the BEA has released such data):

Rate of Growth In Per Capita Net Stock of Private and Government Fixed Assets, edited, 1951 to 2014

Indeed, expressed in per capita terms, the stock of public capital is now falling.  The decrepit state of our highways, bridges, and other public infrastructure should not be a surprise.  And the stock of private capital fell each year between 2009 and 2011, with some recovery since but still at almost record low growth.

Even setting aside the recent low (or even negative) figures, the trend in the pace of growth for both public and private capital has declined since the mid-1960s.  Why might this be?

C.  Why Has Investment Slowed?

The answer is simple and clear for pubic capital.  Conservative politicians, in both the US Congress and in many states, have forced cuts in public investment over the years to the current low levels.  For whatever reasons, whether ideological or something else, conservative politicians have insisted on cutting or even blocking much of what the United States used to invest in publicly.

Yet public, like private, investment is important to productivity.  It is not only commuters trying to get to work who spend time in traffic jams from inadequate roads, and hence face work days of not 8 1/2 hours, but rather 10 or 11 or even 12 hours (with consequent adverse impacts on their productivity).  It affects also truck drivers and repairmen, who can accomplish less on their jobs due to time spent in jams.  Or, as a consequence of inadequate public investment in computer technology, a greater number of public sector workers are required than otherwise, in jobs ranging from issuing driver’s licenses to enrolling people in Medicare.  Inadequate public investment can hold back economic productivity in many ways.

The reasons behind the fall in private investment are less obvious, but more interesting. An obvious possible cause to check is whether private profitability has fallen.  If it has, then a reduction in private investment relative to output would not be a surprise.  But this has in fact not been the case:

Rate of Return on Produced Assets, 1951 to 2015, updated

The nominal rate of return on private investment has not only been high, but also surprisingly steady over the years.  Profits are defined here as the net operating surplus of all private entities, and is taken from the national account figures of the BEA.  They are then taken as a ratio to the stock of private produced assets (fixed assets plus inventories) as of the beginning of the year.  This rate of return has varied only between 8 and 13% over the period since at least 1951, and over the last several years has been around 11%.

Many might be surprised by both this high level of profitability and its lack of volatility.  I was.  But it should be noted that the measure of profitability here, net operating surplus, is a broad measure of all the returns to capital.  It includes not only corporate profitability, but also profits of unincorporated businesses, payments of interest (on borrowed capital), and payments of rents (as on buildings). That is, this is the return on all forms of private productive capital in the economy.

The real rates of return have been more volatile, and were especially low between 1974 and 1983, when inflation was high.  They are measured here by adjusting the nominal returns for inflation, using the GDP deflator as the measure for inflation.  But this real rate of return was a good 9.6% in 2015.  That is high for a real rate of return.  It was higher than that only for one year late in the Clinton administration, and for several years between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s.  But it was never higher than 11%.  The current real rate of return on private capital is far from low.

Why then has private investment slowed, in relation to output, if profitability is as high now as it has ever been since the 1950s?  One could conceive of several possible reasons. They include:

a)  Along the lines of what Robert Gordon has argued, perhaps the underlying pace of technological progress has slowed, and thus there is less of an incentive to undertake new investments (since the returns to replacing old capital with new capital will be less).  The rate of growth of capital then slows, and this keeps up profitability (as the capital becomes more scarce relative to output) even as the attractiveness of new investment diminishes.

b)  Conservatives might argue that the reduced pace of investment could be due to increased governmental regulations, which makes investment more difficult and raises its cost.  This might be difficult to reconcile with the rate of return on capital nonetheless remaining high, but in principle could be if one argues that the slower pace of new investment keeps up profitability as capital then becomes more scarce relative to output. But note that this argument would require that the increased burden of regulation began during the Reagan years in the early 1980s (when the share of private investment in GDP first started to slow – see the chart above), and built up steadily since then through both Republican and Democratic administrations.  It would not be something that started only recently under Obama.

c)  One could also argue that the reduced investment might be a consequence of “Baumol’s Cost Disease”.  This was discussed in earlier posts on this blog, both for overall government spending and for government investment in infrastructure specifically.  As discussed in those posts, Baumol’s Cost Disease explains why activities where productivity growth may be relatively more difficult to achieve than in other activities, will see their relative costs increase over time.  Construction is an example, where productivity growth has been historically more difficult to achieve than has been the case in manufacturing.  Thus the cost of investing, both public and private, relative to the cost of other items will increase over time.  This can then also be a possible explanation of slowing new investment, with that slower investment then keeping profitability up due to increasing scarcity of capital.

One problem with each of the possible explanations described above is that they all depend on capital investments becoming less attractive than before, either due to higher costs or due to reduced prospective return.  If such factors were indeed critical, one would need to take into account also the effect of taxes on investment returns.  And such taxes have been cut sharply over this same period.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, taxes on corporate profits, for example, are taxed now at an effective rate of less than 20%, based on what is actually paid after all the legal deductions and credits are included.  And this tax rate has fallen steadily over time.  The current 20% rate is less than half the effective rate that applied in the 1950s and 1960s, when the effective rate averaged almost 45%.  And the tax rate on long-term capital gains, as would apply to returns on capital to individuals, fell from a peak of just below 40% in the mid-1970s to just 15% following the Bush II tax cuts and to 20% since 2013.

Such sharp cuts in taxes on profits implies that the after-tax rate of return on assets has risen sharply (the before-tax rate of return, shown on the chart above, has been flat).  Yet despite this, private investment has fallen steadily since the early 1980s as a share of GDP.

Such explanations for the reason behind the fall in private investment since the early 1980s are therefore questionable.  However, the purpose of this blog post is not to debate this. Economists are good at coming up with models, possibly convoluted, which can explain things ex post.  Several could apply here.

Rather, I would suggest that there might be an alternative explanation for why private investment has been declining.  While consistent with basic economics, I have not seen it before.  This explanation focuses on the stagnant real wages seen since the early 1980s, and the impact this would have on whether or not to invest.

D.  The Impact of Low Real Wages

Real wages have stagnated in the US since the early 1980s, as has been discussed in earlier posts on this blog (see in particular this post).  The chart below, updated to the most recent figures available, compares the real median wage since 1979 (the earliest year available for this data series) to real GDP per worker employed:

Real GDP per Worker versus Real Median Wage, 1979Q1 to 2016Q2, rev

Real median wages have been flat overall:  Just 3% higher in 2016 than what they were 37 years before.  But real GDP per worker is almost 60% higher over this same period.  This has critically important implications for both private investment and for productivity growth. To sum up in one line the discussion that will follow below, there is less and less reason to invest in new, productivity enhancing, capital, if labor is available at a stagnant real wage that has changed little in 37 years.

Traditional economics, as commonly taught, would find it difficult to explain the observed stagnation in real wages while productivity has risen (even if at a slower pace than before). A core result taught in microeconomics is that in “perfectly competitive” markets, labor will be paid the value of its marginal product.  One would not then see a divergence such as that seen in this chart between growth in productivity and a lack of growth in the real wage.

(The more careful observers among the readers of this post might note that the productivity curve shown here is for average productivity, and not the marginal productivity of an extra worker.  This is true.  Marginal productivity for the economy as a whole cannot be easily observed, nor indeed even be well defined.  However, one should note that the average productivity curve, as shown here, is rising over time.  This can only happen if marginal productivity on new investments are above average productivity at any point in time.  For other reasons, the real average wage would not rise permanently above average productivity (there would be an “adding-up” problem otherwise), but the theory would still predict a rise in the real wage with the increase in observed productivity.)

There are, however, clear reasons why workers might not be paid the value of their marginal product in the real world.  As noted, the theory applies in markets that are assumed to be perfectly competitive, and there are many reasons why this is not the case in the world we live in.  Perfect competition assumes that both parties to the transaction (the workers and employers) have complete information on not only the opportunities available in the market and on the abilities of the individual worker, but also that there are no costs to switching to an alternative worker or employer.  If there is a job on the other side of the country that would pay the individual worker a bit more, then the theory assumes the worker will switch to it.  But there are, of course, significant costs to moving to the other side of the country.  Furthermore, there will be uncertainty on what the abilities of any individual worker will be, so employers will normally seek to keep the workers they already have to fill their needs (as they know what these workers can do), than take a risk on a largely unknown new worker who might be willing to work for a lower wage.

For these and other reasons, labor markets are not perfectly competitive, and one should not then be surprised to find workers are not being paid the value of their marginal product.  But there is also an important factor coming from the macroeconomy. Microeconomics assumes that all resources, including labor resources, are being fully employed.  But unemployment exists and is often substantial.  Additional workers can then be hired at the current wage, without a need for the firm to raise that wage.  And that will hold whether or not the productivity of those workers has risen.

In such an environment, when unemployment is substantial one should not be surprised to find a divergence between growth in productivity and growth in the real wage.  And while there have of course been sharp fluctuations arising from the business cycle in the rate of unemployment from year to year, the simple average in the rate since 1979 has been 6.4%.  This is well in excess of what is normally considered the full employment rate of unemployment (of 5% or less).  Macro policy (both fiscal and monetary) has not done a very good job in most of the years since 1979 in ensuring there is sufficient demand in the aggregate in the economy to allow all workers who want to be employed in fact to be employed.

In such an environment, of workers being available for hire at a stagnant real wage which over time diverges more and more from their productivity, consider the investment decision a private firm faces.  Suppose they see a market opportunity and can sell more. To produce more, they have two options.  They can hire more labor to work with their existing plant and equipment to produce more, or they can invest in new plant and equipment.  If they choose the latter, they can produce more with fewer workers than they would otherwise need at the new level of production.  There will be more output per unit of labor input, or put another way, productivity will rise if the latter option is chosen.

But in an economy where labor is available at a flat real wage that has not changed in decades, the best choice will often simply be to hire more labor.  The labor is cheap.  New investment has a cost, and if the cost of the alternative (hire more labor) is low enough, then it is more profitable for the firm simply to hire more labor.  Productivity in such a case will then not go up, and may indeed even go down.  But this could be the economically wise choice, if labor is cheap enough.

Viewed in this way, one can see that the interpretation of many conservatives on the relationship between productivity growth and the real wage has it backwards.  Real wages have not been stagnant because productivity growth has been slow.  Labor productivity since 1979 has grown by a cumulative 60%, while real median wages have been basically flat.

Rather, the causation may well be going the other way.  Stagnant and low real wages have led to less and less of an incentive for private firms to invest.  And such a cut-back is precisely what we saw in the chart above on private (as well as public) investment as a share of GDP.  With less investment, the pace of productivity growth has then slowed.

As a reflection of this confusion, conservatives have denounced any effort to raise wages, asserting that if this is done, jobs will be lost as firms choose instead to invest and automate.  They assert that raising the minimum wage, which is currently lower in real terms than what it was when Harry Truman was president, would lead to minimum wage workers losing their jobs.  As a former CEO of McDonalds put it in a widely cited news report from last May, a $15 minimum wage would lead to “a job loss like you can’t believe.”   Fast food outlets like McDonalds would then find it better to invest in robotic arms to bag the french fries, he said, rather than hire workers to do this.

This is true.  The confusion comes from the widespread presumption that this is necessarily bad.  Outlets like McDonalds would then require fewer workers, but they would still need workers (including to operate the robotic arms), and those workers would be more productive.  They could be paid more, and would be if the minimum wage is raised.

The error in the argument comes from the presumption that the workers being employed at the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour do not and can not possess the skills needed to be employed in some other job.  There is no reason to believe this to be the case.  There was no problem with ensuring workers could be fully employed at a minimum wage which in real terms was higher in 1950, when Harry Truman was president, than what it is now.  And average worker productivity is 2.4 times higher now than what it was then.

Ensuring full employment in the economy as a whole is not a responsibility of private business.  Rather, it is a government responsibility.  Fiscal and monetary policy need to be managed so that labor markets are tight enough to ensure all workers who want a job can get a job, while not so tight at to lead to inflation.

Following the economic collapse at the end of the Bush administration in 2008, monetary policy did all it could to try to ensure sufficient aggregate demand in the economy (interest rates were held at or close to zero).  But monetary policy alone will not be enough when the economy collapsed as far as it did in 2008.  It needs to be complemented by supportive fiscal policy.  While there was the initial stimulus package of Obama which was critical to stabilizing the economy, it did not go far enough and was allowed to run out. And government spending from 2010 was then cut, acting as a drag which kept the pace of recovery slow.  The economy has only in the past year returned to close to full employment.  It is not a coincidence that real wages are finally starting to rise (as seen in the chart above).

E.  Conclusion

Productivity growth is key in any economy.  Over the long run, living standards can only improve if productivity does.  Hence there is reason to be concerned with the slower pace of productivity growth seen since the early 1980s, and especially in recent years.

Investment, both public and private, is what leads to productivity growth, but the pace of investment has slowed since the levels seen in the 1950s and 60s.  The cause of the decline in public investment is clear:  Conservative politicians have slowed or even blocked public investment.  The result is obvious in our public infrastructure:  It is overused, under-maintained, and often an embarrassment.

The cause of the slowdown in private investment is less obvious, but equally important. First, one cannot blame a decline in private investment on a fall in profitability:  Profitability is higher now than it has been in all but one year since the mid-1960s.

Rather, one needs to recognize that the incentive to invest in productivity enhancing tools will not be there (or not there to the same extent) if labor can be hired at a wage that has stagnated for decades, and which over time became lower and lower relative to existing productivity.  It then makes more sense for firms to hire more workers with their existing stock of capital and other equipment, rather than invest in new, productivity enhancing, capital.  And this is what we have observed:  Workers are being hired, but productivity is not growing.

An argument is often made that if firms did indeed invest in capital and equipment that would raise productivity, that workers would then lose their jobs.  This is actually true by definition:  If productivity is higher, then the firm needs fewer workers per unit of output than they would otherwise.  But whether more workers would be employed in the economy as a whole does not depend on the actions of any individual firm, but rather on whether fiscal and monetary policy is managed to ensure full employment.

That is, it is the investment decisions of private firms which determine whether productivity will grow or not.  It is the macro management decisions of government which determine whether workers will be fully employed or not.

To put this bluntly, and in simplistic “bumper sticker” type terms, one could say that private businesses are not job creators, but rather job destroyers.  And that is fine.  Higher productivity means that a firm needs fewer workers to produce what they make than would otherwise have been needed, and this is important for ensuring efficiency.  As a necessary complement to this, however, it is the actions of government, through its fiscal and monetary policies, which “creates” jobs by managing aggregate demand to ensure all workers who want to be employed, are employed.

The Highly Skewed Growth of Incomes Since 1980: Only the Top 0.5% Have Done Better Than Before

Piketty - Saez 1947 to 2014, June 2015, log scale

A)  Introduction

The distribution of the gains from growth have become terribly skewed since around 1980, as the chart above shows and as has been discussed in a number of posts on this blog (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here).  From 1980 to 2014, the bottom 90% of households have seen their real income fall by 3%, while the top 0.01% have enjoyed growth of 386%.  This was not the case in the post-war years up to 1980:  Over those decades the different income groups saw similar increases in their real per household incomes:  By 87% for average income for the period between 1947 and 1980. But that ended around 1980.

The data underlying these figures were recently updated to include estimates for 2014, and this may be an opportune time to look at them again and more closely.   Specifically, most analyses (as well as the chart above) focus on the incomes of the top 10%, the top 1%, and so on, even though these are overlapping groups.  The top 10% includes the top 1%, and an open question is the extent to which the gains of the top 10% reflects gains primarily in the top 1% or also gains of those in the 90 to 99% income range.  This will be examined below.  Finally, the post will look at the question of what share of the growth in overall incomes over the full 1980 to 2014 period went to the various groups.  As one would expect, the gains were highly concentrated for the rich.  What one might find surprising is how concentrated it was.

B)  Real Income Growth (or Decline) Between 1980 and 2014 

As seen in the chart above, the rich got far richer in the period since 1980, while not just the poor but even those making up fully 90% of the population, got poorer.

The data in the chart come from Professor Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley, who has for some years been providing the figures from which the incomes of the very rich can be calculated, often in collaboration with the now better known Thomas Piketty.  In late June, Saez released data updated through 2014:  See his June 29 post at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth website, with links there to an Excel spreadsheet from which the data used here was downloaded.  The basic data are now also available at the World Top Incomes Database, of Facundo Alvaredo, Tony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez.  Note that this data for 2014 reflects initial estimates.  They may change as more detailed figures are released by the IRS (the ultimate source for the data).

The chart covers the 1947 to 2014 period, indexed to 1980 = 100 for each of the groups. A logarithmic scale is used as equal proportional changes will then show as equal distances on the vertical axis.  That is, the distance between index values of 50 and 100, between 100 and 200, and between 200 and 400, will all be equal as all represent a doubling on income.  This makes it easier to see and track relative changes in values across different periods, for example between 1947 and 1980 in comparison to 1980 to 2014.

The data through 2014 confirm the trends discussed before in this blog, with a sharp increase in inequality since 1980 but also with large year to year fluctuations.  The year to year fluctuations are especially large for the very richest.  The incomes reported here come from anonymized tax return data, and hence reflect incomes by tax reporting units (generally households) with incomes as defined for tax purposes.  The income figures include income from realized capital gains, and hence one sees peaks (especially among the very rich) around 2000 (due to the dotcom bubble) and again in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s (coinciding with the housing as well as stock market bubbles of those years). The fluctuations between 2012 and 2014 can also be explained, at least in part, from tax law changes.  The Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire for the very rich in 2013 (they were made permanent for everyone else), which created an incentive for the rich to bring forward their taxable incomes into 2012.  This increased reported income in 2012 (when their tax rates were lower) while reducing it in 2013.  There was then a return to more normal levels in 2014.

Average household incomes rose only by 27% over 1980 to 2014, a sharp slowdown from the 87% growth achieved on average between 1947 and 1980 (with one less year as well in that period, compared to 1980 to 2014).  An earlier post on this blog discussed the immediate factors that led to this sharp deceleration in growth for average incomes (at least for wages).  But I want to focus here on the growth in incomes of the higher income groups, where there was no such slowdown.

Between 1980 and 2014, the top 10% saw their average incomes rise by 82%.  This was far better than the 27% growth in overall average household income in the period, and even more so than the 3% fall in incomes for the bottom 90%.  But it is actually similar to the growth seen for most income groups between 1947 and 1980, when average incomes rose by 87%.  One could reasonably argue that the top 10% did not do especially well over this period, but rather only saw a continuation for them of the previous trend growth.

The ones who undisputedly did especially well post 1980 were the top 1%, top 0.1%, and especially the top 0.01%.  The richer you were, the greater the increase enjoyed in the post-1980 economy.  Note there is no necessity in this:  The households are stratified by their rank in income in each year, but the growth in incomes over the period could be greater for the top 10%, say, than the top 1%.  Indeed, this was the case over the 1947 to 1980 period.  But between 1980 and 2014, the higher your income, the higher your growth in income:  The average income of the top 1% rose by 169% between 1980 and 2014, by 281% for the top 0.1%, and by 386% for the top 0.01%.

It should not be surprising that the extreme rich are pleased with how their incomes have grown since 1980, which many have not unreasonably attributed to the election that year of Ronald Reagan.  But you have not done well if you are in the bottom 90% of the population – your real income has stagnated over this period of more than a third of a century, and indeed even fell slightly.

C)  Real Income Growth of Non-Overlapping Groups

As noted above, there is a potential issue when figures are provided for the top 10%, top 1%, top 0.1%, and top 0.01%.  Even though commonly done, the figures for the top 10% include the incomes of the top 1% (and the top 0.1% and top 0.01%).  That is, these are overlapping groups, and one cannot determine just from figures presented in such a way whether the share of the top 10% increased because of higher incomes for most of those in the group, or because those in the top 1% saw an especially sharp increase.  Similarly for the top 1% and top 0.1%.  Since the very richest enjoyed such a sharp increase in their incomes, one cannot say with certainty from just these figures whether the widening distribution reflected higher incomes for most of those with higher incomes, or just for the extremely rich.

Thus it is of interest to break down the population categories into non-overlapping groups:

Piketty - Saez 1947 to 2014, by exclusive categories, log scale, June 2015The bottom 90% is as in the chart at the top of this post (decline of 3% in their real per household incomes between 1980 and 2014), and growth was 27% for average household incomes over this period.

But then it is of interest to note that those with incomes in the 90 to 99% range of households saw real income growth over this period of just 47%.  While better than the overall average of 27%, it is worse than the average growth achieved of 87% in the third of a century before 1980.  It would be difficult to argue that they have done especially well in the period since 1980.  They did worse than what average growth for everyone was before.

The group in the 99 to 99.5% percentile of income (in red in the graph) saw their incomes over the 1980 to 2014 period as a whole rise by 89%.  This was almost exactly what their growth in incomes would have been had they grown at the same rate as average incomes grew between 1947 and 1980.  Thus they did not do worse post-1980, but also not better than what the average for everyone was before.

The groups that did do better post-1980 were those in the top 0.5% of the distribution. Those whose income put them in the top 99.5 to 99.9% of the population saw income growth of 127% over this period; those in the top 99.9 to 99.99% of the population saw income growth of 219%; while those in the top 0.01% enjoyed income growth of 386%. These groups did extremely well in the post-1980 economy.

Thus the slogans about the top 1% should perhaps be refined.  It is really the top 0.5%.

D)  The Share of Growth Going to the Rich

Finally, one can calculate what share of the growth in the economy over this period accrued to the different income groups.  The measure used here is the one the Professor Saez has used in his work, and has applied to various periods (although not to the 1980 to 2014 period).  It shows what share of the growth in the overall economy was captured, in per household terms, by the group identified:

Bottom 90%

Top 10%

Top 1%

Top 0.5%

Share of income in 1980

65%

35%

10%

7%

Share of 1980-2014 growth

-7%

107%

63%

54%

Share of income in 2014

50%

50%

21%

17%

Difference in Share 1980 – 2014

-15%

15%

11%

10%

The top 10% of households accounted for a little over a third (35%) of overall household incomes in 1980.  But between 1980 and 2014, they captured 107% of the gains in overall growth, raising their share of overall incomes to 50%.  The bottom 90%, in contrast, saw their per household real incomes fall.  They “gained” a negative share of the income growth, of -7% (the mirror image of the top 10%).  Their share of overall incomes fell from almost two-thirds (65%) in 1980 to just one-half (50%) by 2014.  These are huge changes in national income shares over such a period.

Breaking this down further, it is the top 1% and even more the top 0.5% that accounted for the bulk of this worsening in distribution.  The top 1% captured 63% of the gain in overall incomes between 1980 and 2014 (in per household terms), and saw their share of overall income more than double to 21% in 2014 from “just” 10% in 1980.  But the top 0.5% captured 54% of the gains, and saw their share rise from 7% to 17% over this period, or an increase of 10% points.  That is, the increased share of the top 0.5% accounted for, by itself, fully two-thirds of the 15% point increase for the top 10%.  Yet there are only one-twentieth (1/20) as many households in the top 0.5% as the 10%.

The distribution of the gains from growth have become extremely concentrated.  Just the top 0.5% (five-thousandths of the population) captured more than half of income growth generated by the economy over this 34 year period.

E)  Conclusion

The gains from growth have accrued overwhelmingly to the very rich since 1980.  And it is not really the top 10% who have done so well, nor even the top 1%, but rather the top 0.5% .  At the same time, the bottom 90% have seen their real incomes fall.

Something changed around 1980.  Growth before then (in the period since 1947) had been much more evenly distributed, with the rich as well as the bottom 90% doing similarly well, with growth of 1.9% per annum in average household incomes (a cumulative 87%).  To be fair, one cannot say with certainty that the turning point was in 1980 rather than a few years before or a few years after.  Incomes in any given year will depend a good deal on whether the economy is growing strongly or is in recession, and (especially for the rich) whether the stock market and other asset prices are booming or in a bust. The economy was also already struggling in the 1970s.  It is therefore difficult to mark when there has been a change in trend as opposed to fluctuations caused by year to year factors.  But something happened to the economy in either 1980 or in the years surrounding it.

Ronald Reagan was of course elected president in 1980.  He launched a broad set of policies that conservatives like to praise as the “Reagan Revolution”.  There is no doubt that a deterioration in distribution resulted from many of the policies that Reagan won (large tax cuts focussed on the rich, attacks on labor unions, a focus of macro policy on inflation rather than unemployment, deregulation of financial markets and other sectors, changing wage norms which led to giant compensation packages for CEOs and others at the top, and so on).  But to be fair, one should add that other structural changes in the economy in recent decades have also had an impact on distribution, such as changes in technology, from globalization, and following from these, an increasing number of “winner-take-all” markets.

But whether due to policy or structural changes or (almost certainly) a combination of both, it is clear that policy did not counteract the resulting extreme concentration in the benefits of growth accruing to very rich.  And that is a challenge that needs to be addressed.

Why Wages Have Stagnated While GDP Has Grown: The Proximate Factors

Real GDP per Capita & Median Weekly Earnings, 1980-2013

A.  Introduction

A healthy debate appears to be developing in the run up to the 2016 elections, with politicians of all parties raising the issue of stagnant wages.  Republicans have charged that this is a recent development, and the fault of Obama, but that is certainly not the case.  As the diagram above shows, real median wages have been stagnant since at least 1980, despite real GDP per capita which is 78% higher now than then.  Real median wages are only 5% higher (and in fact unchanged from 1979).  In a normally developing economy, one would expect real GDP per capita and real wages to move together, growing at similar rates and certainly not diverging.  But that has not been the case in the US since at least the early 1980s.

Why has such a large wedge opened up between worker earnings and GDP per capita?  This blog post will look at the immediate factors that lead from one curve to the other.  This will all be data and arithmetic, but will allow one to decompose the separation into several key underlying factors.  A future blog post will look at policies that would address those factors.

B.  Moving from Growth in GDP per Capita to Stagnant Real Wages

The progression from GDP per capita to real wages, with intermediate steps shown, looks as follows:

Going from GDP per Capita to Median Wage, 1947 to 2013:14

The chart here goes back further, to 1947, to show the divergence in recent decades in a longer term perspective.  The data come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) or the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  As one sees, the curves moved together until around the mid-1970s, after which they began to diverge.

1)  Real GDP per Capita

Starting at the top, real GDP per capita (the curve in blue) measures the progression, in real terms, of GDP per person in the US.  GDP captures the value of all goods and services produced in the economy.  Its price index, the GDP deflator, is a price index for all those goods and services.  Although there have been temporary dips with periodic recessions, real GDP per capita has in fact grown at a remarkably stable long term rate of about 1.9% per annum going back all the way to 1870.  The growth rate was in fact a bit higher, at 2.0%, from 1947 to 2014, as the 1947 starting point was somewhat below the long term trend.  With this growth, real GDP per person was 3.75 times higher in 2014 than what it was in 1947.

2)  Real GDP per FTE Worker

But wages are paid to individual workers, and the share of workers in the population can change over time.  The share has in fact grown significantly over the post-war period, and in particular since about the mid-1960s, principally due to women entering the labor force.  There will also be demographic effects leading to changes in the shares of the very young and of retirees.

With a growing share of the population in the labor force, real GDP per full time equivalent (FTE) worker (the measure of the labor force used by the BEA) will grow by less than it will per person in the population.  The path of real GDP per FTE worker (the curve in green in the chart above), will rise more slowly than the path for real GDP per capita.  The curves start to diverge in the mid-1960s, when large numbers of women began to enter the labor force.

It should also be noted that the divergence in the two paths will not necessarily continue forever.  Indeed, the paths have in fact grown broadly in parallel from around 1997 until 2008 (when GDP per capita dipped in the downturn that began in the last year of the Bush administration).  The number of women entering the labor force reached a peak as a share of the labor force around 1997, and a decade later the first of the baby boomers started to retire.

Thus while such demographic factors and labor force participation decisions led to a significant divergence in the two paths (between GDP per capita and GDP per FTE worker) from the mid-1960s to the late-1990s, the impact since then has been broadly neutral, and might in fact go the other way going forward.

3)  Average Real Wages using the GDP Deflator

Next, workers are paid wages, not units of GDP.  Wages and salaries made up roughly half of GDP in 1947, with most of the rest accounted for by profits to capital.  And it stayed in the narrow range of 49 to 51% of GDP continuously until 1974.  The share then fell to 48%, where it held until 1981, and then began to deteriorate much more sharply, to just 42% as of 2013 (the most recent year with this data).

If the share of wages in GDP had remained constant, then the growth of wages per FTE worker would have exactly matched the growth of GDP per FTE worker.  But with a declining share of wages in GDP (with a growing share of profits as the mirror image), the curve (shown in brown in the chart above) of wages per FTE worker will rise by less than the curve of real GDP per FTE worker.

4)  Average Real Wages using the Consumer Price Index

The curves so far have been measured in real terms based on the GDP deflator.  The GDP deflator is a price index that takes into account all goods and services produced in the economy, and the weights in the price index will be in accordance with the shares of each of the goods or services in the overall economy.  But to an individual, what matters is the prices of goods and services that he or she buys.  This is measured by the consumer price index (cpi), where the weights used are in accordance with the expenditures shares of households on each of the items.  These weights can be significantly different than the weights of the items in GDP, as GDP includes more than simply what households consume.

The curve in orange in the chart above is then the average real wage but with the cpi rather than the GDP deflator used to account for inflation.  From 1978 onwards, the average real wage based on the cpi grew by significantly less than the average real wage measured in terms of the GDP deflator.  That is, inflation as measured by the items that make up the cpi grew at a faster rate, from 1978 onwards, than inflation as measured by the items (and their weights) that go into the GDP deflator.  Up until 1978, the cpi and the GDP deflator grew at remarkably similar rates, so the two curves (brown and orange in the chart) follow each other closely up to that year.

What happened after 1978?  The prices of several items whose weight in the cpi is greater than their weight in the GDP deflator began to rise more rapidly than other prices.  Especially important was the rise in medical costs in recent decades, but also important was the rise in housing costs as well as energy (with energy increases already from 1974).

Thus wages expressed in terms of what households buy (the cpi) rose by less, from 1978 onwards, than when expressed in terms of what the economy produces overall (the GDP deflator).

5)  Median Real Wages using the Consumer Price Index

The final step is to note that average wages can be misleading when the distribution of wages becomes more skewed.  If the wages of a few relatively well off wage earners (lawyers, say) rise sharply, the average wage can go up even though the median wage (the wage at which 50% of the workers are earning more and 50% are earning less) has been flat.  And that median wage is what is shown as the red curve in the chart.

[Technical Note:  The median wage series used here is the median weekly earnings of full time workers, adjusted for inflation using the cpi.  The series unfortunately only starts in 1979, but is the only series on the median, as opposed to average, wage I could find that the BLS publishes which goes back even as far as that.  The source comes from the Current Population Survey, which is the same survey of households used to estimate the nation’s unemployment rate, among other statistics.]

Since 1980 (and indeed since 1979, when the series starts), the median real wage has been flat.  This is not a new phenomenon, that only began recently.  But it is a problem nonetheless, and more so because it has persisted over decades.

C.  The Astounding Deterioration in the Distribution of Income Since 1980

Aside from demographic effects (including the impact of women entering the labor force), and the differential impact of certain price increases (medical costs, as well as others), the reason median real wages have been flat since around 1980 despite an increase of real GDP per capita of close to 80% over this period, is distributional.  The share of wages in GDP has been reduced while the share of profits has increased, and the distribution within wages has favored the better off compared to the less well off (leading to a rise in the average wage even though the median wage has been flat).

That is, the US has a distribution problem.  Wages have lost relative to profits (and profits largely accrue to the rich and wealthy), and the wages of lower paid workers have fallen even while the wages of higher paid workers have risen.

There are therefore two reasons for the distribution of income at the household level to have deteriorated since 1980.  And one sees this in the data:

Piketty - Saez 1945 to 2012, Feb 2015

This is an update of a chart presented in an earlier post, with data now available through 2012, and with the period from 1945 to 1980 included on the same chart as well.  The data comes from the World Top Incomes Database, which is maintained by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and others.  The data is drawn from individual income tax return filings, and thus the distribution is formally by tax reporting unit (which will normally be households).  The incomes reported are total taxable incomes, whether from wages or from capital.

Over the 33 years from 1947 to 1980, average reported taxable incomes rose in real terms (using the cpi price index to adjust for inflation) by 87%.  The incomes of the bottom 90%, the top 10%, and the top 0.01%, rose by almost exactly the same amount, while the incomes of the top 1% and top 0.1% also rose substantially (by 57% and 63% respectively).  It is amazing how close together all these figures are.

This changed dramatically from 1980.  As the chart above shows, the curves then started to diverge sharply.  Furthermore, the average reported income rose only by 24% over 1980 to 2012, even though real GDP per capita rose by 73% over this period.  The 24% average increase can be compared to the 28% increase over the same years in the average real wage (based on the cpi).  While from two totally different sources of data (income tax returns vs. the national income accounts of the BEA) and measuring somewhat different concepts, these are surprisingly close.

But while average real incomes per household rose by 24%, the bottom 90% saw their real incomes fall by 6%.  Instead, the rich gained tremendously:  by 80% for the top 10%, by 178% for the top 1%, by 312% for the top 0.1%, and by an astounding 431% for the top 0.01%.

The US really does have a distribution problem, and this deterioration in distribution largely explains why real median wages have stagnated since 1980, while real GDP per capita grew at a similar rate to what it had before.

D.  Summary

To summarize, in the post-war period from 1947 to about the mid-1970s, measures of real income per person grew substantially and at similar rates.  Since then, real GDP per capita continued to grow at about the same pace as it had before, but others fell back.  The median real wage has been stagnant.

One can attribute this to four effects, each of which has been broadly similar in terms of the magnitude of the impact:

a)  Real GDP per worker has grown by less than real GDP per capita, as the share of those working the population (primarily women) has grown, with this becoming important from around the mid-1960s.  However, there has been no further impact from this since around 1997 (i.e. the curves then moved in parallel).  It may be close to neutral going forward, but was an important factor in explaining the divergence in the period from the mid-1960s to the late-1990s.

b)  The average real wage (in terms of the GDP deflator) has grown by less than real GDP per worker, as the share of GDP going to wages has gone down while the share going to profits (the mirror image) has gone up, especially since about 1982.

c)  The average real wage measured in terms of the cpi has grown by less than the average real wage measured in terms of the GDP deflator, because of the rising relative price since 1978 of items important in the household consumption basket, including in particular medical costs, but also housing and energy.

d)  The median real wage has grown by less than the average real wage (and indeed has not grown at all since the data series began in 1979), because of increasing dispersion in wage earnings between the relatively highly paid and the rest.

The implication of all this is that if one wants to attack the problem of stagnant wages, one needs to address the sharp deterioration in distribution that has been observed since 1980, and secondly address issues like medical costs.  Medical costs have in fact stabilized under Obama, as was discussed in a recent post on this blog.  But while several of the measures passed as part of the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) have served to hold down costs, it is too early to say that the previous relentless upward pressure of medical costs has ended.  More needs to be done.

Future blog posts will discuss what policy measures could be taken to address the problem of stagnant real wages and the deterioration in the distribution of income, as well as what can be done to address medical costs.

The Obama Bull Market Rally on Its Fifth Anniversary

S&P 500 Index, March 9, 2009, to March 10, 2014

Bull Markets, 1940-2014, updated to March 10, 2014

 
   Bull Market Rallies Since 1940
  Ranked by overall growth in real terms
Start Date End   Date Calendar Days Nominal % Change Real % Change Real Rate of Growth
Dec 4, 1987 Mar 24, 2000 4,494 582% 361% 13%
Jun 13, 1949 Aug 2, 1956 2,607 267% 222% 18%
Aug 12, 1982 Aug 25, 1987 1,839 229% 181% 23%
Mar 9, 2009 Mar 10, 2014 1,827 177% 151% 20%
Apr 28, 1942 May 29, 1946 1,492 158% 124% 22%
Oct 22, 1957 Dec 12, 1961 1,512 86% 76% 15%
Oct 9, 2002 Oct 9, 2007 1,826 101% 75% 12%
Jun 26, 1962 Feb 9, 1966 1,324 80% 69% 16%
May 26, 1970 Jan 11, 1973 961 74% 57% 19%
Oct 6, 1966 Nov 29, 1968 785 48% 37% 16%
Oct 3, 1974 Nov 28, 1980 2,248 126% 34% 5%

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Obama bull market rally.  The rally began on March 9, 2009, just six weeks after Obama was inaugurated.  A reader of this blog suggested that on this anniversary, an update of previous posts on the strong performance of the stock market during Obama’s tenure (see here and here) might therefore be timely and of interest.

Stock market prices have indeed continued to rise, and as the table above shows, stocks during Obama’s term in office have now posted the fourth highest gains of any stock market rally since 1940.  Market rallies are defined as at least a 25% rise in the S&P 500 Index (in real terms), without a 20% fall.  Equity prices (as measured by the S&P 500) have risen by 177% in nominal terms since March 9, 2009, as of the close today.  The increase in real terms (using the CPI inflation index) has been 151%.  And since this rally is on-going, it could move further up in rank.  In addition, in just twelve more days (assuming the rally does not suddenly collapse) this rally will be the third longest in terms of calendar days of all market rallies since 1940.

It is also interesting to see how steady the upward progression has been, especially since September 2011.  This is shown in the graph at the top of this post.  I do not believe anyone had predicted this.

The rally could also end tomorrow.  All rallies eventually come to an end, and this one will as well.  But the rise in prices already achieved, the fourth largest since 1940, needs to be recognized.

Should Obama be given credit for this historic market rally?  Not fully.  I doubt that equity prices in themselves are a primary objective of what Obama has been trying to achieve.   Rather, the objective has been a stronger economy.  Regulatory as well as policy measures have been taken with the aim of strengthening the system, and this ultimately benefits business (as well as the population) as a whole.  This then helps equity prices.  Unfortunately, and as this blog has discussed in earlier posts, fiscal drag from cuts in government spending has held back the pace of the recovery, and this fiscal drag is continuing.  The economy could be doing better.  Nevertheless, there has been a partial recovery.  But it is not yet complete, nor as rapid as one would have had without the fiscal drag.

But what this strong growth in the stock market does clearly indicate is that the charges by Republican politicians that Obama has been bad for business (indeed a disaster for business many of them have said), has no basis.  If there were any truth to the charge, stock market prices would not be up by 177% in nominal terms (and by 151% in real terms) over the last five years, leading to the fourth biggest rally in stock prices in three-quarters of a century.