Skip to comments.Flatten California! (Art Laffer's proposal to fix the state’s business-killing tax regime)
Posted on 06/14/2012 4:22:44 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
Six years ago, I decided to leave Rancho Santa Fe, California, for Nashville, Tennessee. Thats a major undertaking for anyone, but particularly for a 25-year resident of Southern California, dragging his whole family and company along with him. I still remember decision day: January 5, 2006. Id been disappointed in November by the defeat of Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggers ballot initiatives, which aimed at reining in state spending, but I was utterly aghast as I read the transcript of the governors State of the State speech just days into the new year. Clearly, he had resolved to move in a big-government direction, making proposals that included issuing billions of dollars worth of new bonds to pay for statewide infrastructure projects. The last thing California needed was more government spending. It was time for me to go.
Ive had a lot of company of late. Firms, people, investments, and tax revenues are fleeing California, repelled by the most onerous antigrowth business environment in the United States. Californias after-tax rate of return for doing business lags so far behind other states (especially zero-income-tax competitors such as Texas, Tennessee, and Florida) that the exodus shouldnt surprise anyone. Yet the states Democratic leadership is pushing a November ballot measure aimed at raising income and sales taxes in order to make up for lost revenue.
Tax hikes, especially during trying economic times like these, make no sense. Economies dont tax themselves into prosperity. What California needs is a radical tax overhaulto be precise, a single, low-rate flat tax. Such a reform would spur a renewal of economic activity and investment while continuing to raise the revenues that the state needs.
The upcoming fifth edition of Rich States, Poor States, a publication that I coauthor annually with Stephen Moore and Jonathan Williams, will show just how antigrowth Californias business environment is. Our study uses 15 pro-growth attributes to rank the states economic competitiveness. In the first four years of the index, California never ranked outside the bottom ten states; this year, it will probably manage that featjust barelythanks to the expiration of numerous temporary tax increases (several of which Democrats want voters to reinstate in November).
Taxes are indeed a big part of Californias economic problem. At 10.30 percent, the states top marginal personal income-tax rate is the fourth-highest in the country, and its top marginal corporate income-tax rate of 8.84 percent is 25 percent above the national average. Excessive taxation is an equal-opportunity tormentor, afflicting labor and capital, poor and rich, men and women, old and young. In the short run, higher taxes on labor or capital will reduce after-tax earnings. Some people will violate the law and fail to report taxable income; others will use legal options, including tax deductions and credits, to reduce their payments. In the long run, residentsthose who can afford to, anywaywill vote with their feet and leave the state, shifting the tax burden to lower-wage workers, as well as to immobile land and property.
Californias income-tax system is also the nations most progressiveand thats not a good thing. Progressive tax systems magnify tax-revenue volatility, with lots of money pouring in during periods of growth and the till running dry during downturns. This volatility occurs because wealthy people, who pay more taxes in a progressive system, experience sharp income swings from boom to bust. Depending disproportionately on the wealthy for its own revenues, the state experiences the same swings. This dynamic has a bad effect on politicians, who go on spending sprees during booms and then raise taxes during busts, harming competitiveness.
Worse, a highly progressive tax structure means that the most productive California residents and businessesthe primary employers of otherswind up taxed the most on the margin. State government figures show that in 2008, 61.3 percent of all personal income taxesby far the states most important source of revenuewere paid by filers with adjusted gross incomes of over $200,000, who constituted just 4.1 percent of the population and earned 34.5 percent of all income. Its a wonder that California has any entrepreneurs or venture capitalists left.
In the late 1800s, economist Henry George, a Californian, neatly summarized the main points of a good tax system. It should bear as lightly as possible upon productionso as least to check the increase of the general fund from which taxes must be paid and the community maintained, he wrote. It should be easily and cheaply collected, and fall as directly as may be upon the ultimate payersso as to take from the people as little as possible in addition to what it yields the government. It should be certainso as to give the least opportunity for tyranny or corruption on the part of officials, and the least temptation to law-breaking and evasion on the part of the taxpayers. Finally, George argued, a good tax system should bear equallyso as to give no citizen an advantage or put any at a disadvantage, as compared with others.
California should follow Georges instructions by scrapping all its state and local taxes and fees (except for sin taxes, which exist to modify behavior rather than to raise revenue) and replacing them with a flat tax of about 6 percent on two distinct bases. One tax base would be personal unadjusted gross income from all sources, with only a few deductions: charitable contributions; interest payments, including on home mortgages; and rent on ones primary residence, to remove the current systems preference for homeowners. A single tax rate would apply across the board, from the first dollar earned to the last. The other tax base would be businesses net sales, or value addedthat is, the difference between sales and production costs, which equals the states gross domestic product when aggregated across California. The low 6 percent rate would reduce the incentive to avoid earning taxable income in California, and the very broad base would reduce the number of places where people could hide their income to avoid taxation.
Thats it. This tax system would yield as much revenue as all of Californias current state and local taxes. At the state level, the taxes on business profits, payroll, gas, capital gains, and stock options would disappear. Locally, property taxes would follow suit. All sales taxesstate, county, city, and special-districtwould likewise be abolished.
Such a tax reform would spark a surge in economic activity in California, since the after-tax rate of return for doing business would rise, both from the decline in tax rates and from the elimination of myriad fees that harm productivity. The result would be more businesses moving into California, fewer moving out, and more economic activity emerging from the underground economy. The California economy would soar, generating higher tax revenues, which would reduce the state budget deficit. The revenue stream would also be far more stable from year to year.
Californians may recognize this proposal as similar to one offered 20 years ago by, of all people, Jerry Brown. When Californias current governor was running for president in 1992, he campaigned on a flat taxa 13 percent national rate for everyone, regardless of income. In fact, Brown and I developed that proposal together.
As of March, California has a projected general-fund deficit of $9.2 billionand that doesnt include local government deficits or the states growing unfunded entitlement and pension liabilities. Governor Brown is intent on raising taxes to avert further spending cuts. But with Californias unemployment rate at 10.9 percentamong the highest in the nationraising taxes on those still holding jobs will only make things worse. The governor should recall his old enthusiasm for the flat tax, which the state needs more than ever.
Without question, other major reforms are also needed in California. One could get lost for weeks in the state budget, with its vast unfunded liabilities, and come up with innumerable ways to save money that most Californians would find reasonable. (In our new book, Eureka! How to Fix California, Wayne Winegarden and I suggest some.) But the tax reform that Ive outlined would be a big step toward Californias becoming the Golden State again.
-- Arthur B. Laffer is chairman of Laffer Associates, a macroeconomic research firm, and Laffer Investments, a money-management firm. He is the author of Eureka! How to Fix California.
This is the guy who supported Clinton twice. Can’t say that I blame him. In this article he doesn’t talk about spending. Dealing with the immigration and drilling for offshore oil wouldn’t hurt.
He also doesn’t talk about excess regulation.
Wish he would talk about the family side of leaving California.
When I moved out of the Socialist State of Maryland to Georgia, I not only noticed the lower gas prices, lower food prices, but also the family friendliness.
It started with the folks in Publix loading up the groceries and pushing the cart and loading it into the car for my wife. Then we noticed folks talking to us in the restarants and even forming dialogs to get to know us. This was a far cry from Maryland where they couldn't push you out of the stores and restaurants fast enough.
While at a the "Big Shanty" festival, watching some square dancers, we were invited to a square dancing lesson. From this we got to know our town and even later became presidents of the club for a time.
Property taxes were lower by 25% and so were the state taxes. So it was like a major raise.
Oh we had a time with the Schools as they actually taught Grammar and Math and expected the kids to know it (and be able to read). Maryland had inventive spelling and creative math (another reason we left) and didn't expect them to be able to read before graduation.
And our knew church wanted us to know the scriptures, good doctrine and to love our neighbors (really).
We were so glad we loaded up the truck and moved Out of "Beverly"
For me same decision same day.
Arnold, who is dead to me; capitulates.
As a taxpaying resident of CA, so did I.
Yeah...but unless they kick Moonbeam out and put this guy, or someone like him in his place, there will be...Trouble!
The cost v benefit must be realigned before California will come back.
What about a comedy series about the Californians moving South, “The Nashville 90210ers”.
Already done with “Green Acres”.
It is the place to be, if the ticks would just let up on us a little.
Henry George was a socialist, the inventor of property taxes as economic rent. IOW, what George was saying was true in this instance, but he rendered it a well-constructed pack of lies with his "solution."
Socialism has never been anything else.
A governor's job is to do the will of the people, or to be sure that they are educated as to why their will is harmful. Unfortunately, in CA, people = morons. Uneducable, unrepentant gimmies.
***lower food prices, but also the family friendliness.***
Fifty seven years ago, when my dad got a wild hair up his a$$ and dragged us kids kicking and screaming from our beloved Rockey Mountains to the Ozarks, we found the locals to be the most UNfriendly people we had ever seen.
They all looked at us as if we owed them money or had our hand in their pocket. None of that oil camp or ranch country friendliness here!
Thankfully those old codgers have died off and lots of new blood has come into this area and broke up the family cliques in this area.
Interesting side note: My brother did some research in high school and found that every student in his class was somehow related to everyone else in the class, except us. We were the outsiders, treated as outsiders, and we all have never forgotten it.
bump & a ping
If he's in Tennessee, why all the hand wringing?
As long as the California voters keep reelecting liberals
(socialists), nothing is going to change.