Posts tagged ‘Tax Foundation’

When Media Cheers for Corporate Welfare -- Local Film Subsidies

I am always amazed that the media will credulously run stories against "corporate welfare" for oil companies (which usually mostly includes things like LIFO accounting and investment tax credits that are not oil industry specific) but then beg and plead for us taxpayers to subsidize movie producers.

I wish I understood the reason for the proliferation of government subsidies for film production.  Is it as simple as politicians wanting to hobnob with Hollywood types?  Our local papers often go into full sales mode for sports team subsidies, but that is understandable from a bottom-line perspective -- sports are about the only thing that sells dead-tree papers any more, and so more local sports has a direct benefit on local newspapers.  Is it the same reasoning for proposed subsidies for Hollywood moguls?

Whatever the reason, our local paper made yet another pitch for throwing tax dollars at movie producers

Notwithstanding a recent flurry of Super Bowl-related documentaries and commercials that got 2015 off to a good start, Arizona appears to be falling behind in a competitive and lucrative business. The entertainment industry pays well, supports considerable indirect employment and offers the chance for cities and states to shine on a global stage.

Seriously?  I am sure setting up the craft table pays better than catering a party at my home, but it is a job that lasts 2 months and is then gone.  Ditto everything else on the production.   And I am sick of the "shines on the world stage thing."  Who cares?  And is this really even true?  The movie Chicago was filmed in Toronto -- did everyone who watched Chicago suddenly want to go to Toronto?  The TV animated series Archer gets a big subsidy from the state of Georgia.  Have they even mentioned Georgia in the series?  Given the tone of the show, would they even want to be mentioned?

When government subsidizes an industry, it is explicitly saying that resources are better and more productively invested in the subsidized industry than in other industries in which the money would have been spent in a free market.  Does the author really have evidence that the money I would have spent to improve the campgrounds we operate in Arizona is better taken from me and spent to get a Hollywood movie shot here instead?  Which investment will still be here 6 months from now?

Arizona is one of 11 states that don't offer tax incentives, primarily in the form of income-tax credits, and that's the core of the problem. There's also no state film office to help out-of-state crews obtain filming permits, locate vendors, hire temporary staff and so on.

Arizona's tax incentives expired after 2010 and the film office closed in the wake of a recession that hit the state especially hard and necessitated tough spending choices. Although bills to revive those programs have been introduced, they're not given high odds of success in the current session as the governor and lawmakers struggle to close $1.5 billion in deficits over this year and next.

"Right now, there's nobody to call, the phone isn't being answered and nobody responds to e-mails," said Mike Kucharo, a local producer and director who serves as the state-government liaison for the Arizona Production Association, an entertainment trade and networking group. "We need a film office."

Yeah for us!  While all the lemmings in other states bid up the price of a few politicians being able to get their picture with Hollywood types on a production set, we have chosen not to play.  Good for us.  Only an industry insider clown with a straight face could say that we need a taxpayer-funded film office.  Really?  Do we need a taxpayer-funded florist office to attract flower sales?

Years ago I wrote an article calling sports team subsidies a prisoners dilemma game, where the only winning move was not to play.  The NFL has 32 teams, mostly in the largest cities.  Without subsidies the NFL would have ... 32 teams, mostly in the largest cities, and taxpayers would have saved billions of dollars.  The same is true for film:

Indeed, the number and size of incentives escalated from just two states offering $2 million in combined incentives in 2003 to 40 states offering $1.2 billion just six years later, according to the Tax Foundation.

So subsidies have gone up by over a billion dollars a year, and yet roughly the same films are being made.  This is one of the best examples I can think of where politicians are using taxpayer money to increase their personal prestige.  The AZ Republic should be embarrassed they are out front actively encouraging this behavior.

Postscript:  For all of its flaws in teaching real-world relevant business topics, the Harvard Business School was very good, at least when I was attending it, at teaching business strategy.  My memory may be fuzzy here, but I am pretty sure that "40 other groups have all jumped into this activity and have ramped up their spending by a factor of 50 in just six years and all 40 competitors are really focused on winning almost irregardless of the price they pay" is not a very good pitch for investing money in a new field.

Postscript #2:  All of this is a wonton violation of the AZ state Constitution, though of course big government advocates are really good at totally ignoring Constitutional limits on government power.  Here is what our Constitution says:

Section 7. Neither the state, nor any county, city, town, municipality, or other subdivision of the state shall ever give or loan its credit in the aid of, or make any donation or grant, by subsidy or otherwise, to any individual, association, or corporation, or become a subscriber to, or a shareholder in, any company or corporation, or become a joint owner with any person, company, or corporation, except as to such ownerships as may accrue to the state by operation or provision of law or as authorized by law solely for investment of the monies in the various funds of the state.

Update:  From the Manhattan Institute, film tax breaks return 30 cents for every dollar spent

Similar to most targeted tax breaks, movie production incentives routinely fail to deliver on the economic promises made by their proponents. Supporters frequently claim movie incentives create jobs and lead to net gains in tax revenue. However, data from several states find movie production incentives generate less than 30 cents for every lost dollar in tax revenue.

Providing tax breaks specifically to the film industry is an example of government working to choose winners and losers in the marketplace. States could attract almost any industry if they paid for a quarter to a third of its expenditures, but such a policy would be fiscally unsustainable. A better system would be to lower state tax rates for everyone, encouraging economic growth.

Film is a particularly poor industry to subsidize because it does not create long-term employment and other lasting economic benefits for states. Even though a well-made film might boost tourism, productions only offer short-term employment and the workers are highly specialized. Production and workers can easily move from one location to wherever better deals are offered.

Update #2:  The AZ Free Enterprise Club was on this last month

It is Time to End Favored Tax Treatment of Capital Gains

My new column is up at Forbes.com, and asks why we fetishize capital gains over regular income

Let's consider two investors.  Investor A buys a piece of land and builds a campground on it, intending to run the campground for decades.  Investor A gets her return on investment from the profits each year running the campground, profits that are taxed as regular income  (Full disclosure:  In my business life, I am essentially investor A).

On the other hand, Investor B buys the same piece of land and builds the same campground on it, but in about a year Investor B sells the newly developed facility, making a profit on the sale over his original investment.  Investor B likely will pay taxes on this gain at reduced capital gains tax rates.

But why?  When Investor B sold the property, the price he got was probably something like the present value of the expected cash flows from operating the campground.   Both Investor A and B created essentially the same value., but Investor B took the value as a single lump sum rather than as a stream of income over time.  Why is Investor B's approach preferred in the tax code?  Or, stated another way, why does the tax code favor asset flipping over long-term operations?

EEEEEEEEK! Taxe Rates Required to Erase the Deficit

From the Tax Foundation via Bruce McQuain, I don't think this needs any comment:

taxes1

taxes2

Five Worst Traits About Taxes

Generally, in any discussion of taxes, I focus on the foundations of
property rights
, to argue that taxation is no different than
stealing.    Most of us agree that grabbing someone else's money at
gunpoint is immoral.  I do not hold to a theory of government that says
that this immoral action is suddenly moral if 51% of my neighbors
sanction it.

Anyway, I am going to leave behind the moral basis (or lack thereof)
for taxes and focus instead on five practical problems that a
well-crafted tax system should be able to avoid.

1.  Complexity and Preparation Time

I probably don't need to go into great depth on this one to convince you that taxes and tax returns are ridiculously complex.  We all know how complicated even the individual 1040 has become, so much so that using tax preparation software is nearly de riguer for most middle class taxpayers.  Last year, our federal and state income tax returns for the company were over 400 pages long.

For a small business, the tax preparation burden goes much further.  For example, the burden of payroll tax preparation, not to mention staying on top of compliance issues, is so high that no sane business person does payroll in house any more.  Quarterly state and federal unemployment and withholding tax returns must be filed, with salary detail to the last penny for every single employee.   As a result, everyone uses a service like ADP, and though this solves the workload problem, it still costs money - about $12,000 a year in our case.  That's not the tax bill, just the cost to keep up with the government paperwork. 

But with payroll taken care of, businesses still must file sales tax returns, excise tax returns, detailed property tax returns, census data requests, labor and commerce department surveys, and of course income tax returns.  Each of these typically have to be done at the state level and in many cases separately for every single county and city where we do business.  Each in and of itself is horribly time consuming - see this example for property taxes, this one for sales taxes, and this one for government surveys

In Kentucky, for example, we have to file quarterly state withholding tax returns, quarterly payroll withholding returns in each county we operate in, a quarterly state unemployment return, an annual property tax return in each county, and annual income tax return at the state level, an annual income tax return in each county, a monthly sales tax return, a monthly survey for the US Department of Labor about Kentucky headcount levels, an annual foreign corporation renewal, a new hire report whenever we hire a new employee, and a monthly report to the workers comp state fund


2.  Disguising the Tax Load

Quick, how much total do you pay in taxes?  Perhaps the greatest innovation of statists in the 20th century was the tax load shell game - the clever balkanization of the tax load that makes it nearly impossible for the average person to truly know how much they pay in taxes to the government.

Start with income taxes.  OK, April 15 has just passed, but even so, how many people know how much they paid in income taxes last year?  For many people, this is the single largest expense they have, but the total amount is disguised by the fact that most income taxes are taken out as direct payroll deduction.  Statists and leftists everywhere in the US should get up in the morning and give thanks for direct payroll deduction -- without it, if every American had to write a single check once a year for the sum total of their annual income taxes, there would have long since been a revolution.

OK, so you don't know how much you paid in federal, state and local income taxes.  But in addition to that, how much did you pay in social security and medicare (typically about 8% of salary)?  Property taxes (typically 1-2% of your home value)?  How about sales taxes (typically 6-9% of your purchases)?  What about vehicle licensing fees and special taxes on hotels and airfare and rent cars?  If you add all these up, the average American pays about 30% of his/her salary in taxes.  The Tax Foundation has a great chart summarizing this shell game, with relative burdens expressed as days of work each year required to pay the tax.  Note that on average, your federal income tax is only 1/3 of the total of what you are paying:

 

Taxchart


 
So those are the direct ones, but how much are you also paying in higher prices due to government import duties?  What about the 8% FICA and medicare that employers pay on your behalf - how much higher might your salary be if they did not have to pay these?  What about corporate taxes - you may not pay them directly, but they certainly get passed on to you in the form of higher prices and lower dividends.  What else? - try this list on for size.

3.  Taxes on Wealth and Savings

Most taxes are on income or sales, and so they are at least marginally calibrated with an individual's cash flows.  The exceptions to this are property taxes and inheritance taxes.  These two taxes both go after an individual's savings -- property taxes mainly on the home, the primary savings vehicle for most Americans, and inheritance taxes on everything you've saved when you die.

Lets take property taxes first.  Many people complain that modern life has become a treadmill, forcing families to work harder and harder to keep up their lifestyle.  To a large extent, I think this is a myth - people may be working harder but their effective standard of living is way, way higher than say 30 years ago.  But one of the things that definitely creates a treadmill are property taxes. 

Many people have worked hard to pay off their mortgage, thinking they could settle down into their retirement in a paid off house.  Unfortunately, they may find that their home has increased in value so much that their property taxes at retirement are actually much higher than their original payment on the house.  Take the case of a couple who bought their house in an urban area for $25,000 and find its now worth $375,000 forty years later (this is an average urban price increase over the last 40 years).  For simplicity, we will assume the effective tax rate has stayed at $1.50 per $100 for these forty years (though its more likely to have gone up).  In 1965, they paid $375 a year in taxes.  Today, they have to pay $5,625.  In other words, their property taxes today are over 22.5% a year of the original price they paid for the house.  Now, this is all fine if the couple strove to work up the corporate ladder and get promotions and grow their income proportionately.  But what if they didn't want to?  What if they just wanted to buy that house, pay it off, and live modestly selling driftwood sculptures at farmers markets, or whatever.  The answer is, because of property taxes, they can't.  Likely they will have to sell this house, give up the urban life they wanted, and either move to an urban dump they can afford the property taxes on, or they move out to the country.  Here is an example, via Reason, of this process of property taxes forcing out urban residents living small in favor of yuppies living the dream.  It is ironic that a tax initially invented for populist reasons to cut back on wealth accumulation hurts the lower income brackets and those trying to step off of the capitalist treadmill the most.  In fact, it was the poor in the Great Depression who typically lobbied for laws to put moratoriums on property tax collections.

The estate tax has many of the same origins and issues.  The biggest downside of the estate tax is that it tends to force premature sales of productive business assets to pay the tax.  Rather than leaving small businesses in the family, who have the experience and passion to make them work, they typically must be sold to third parties outside the family to pay the estate taxes.  Again, the law of unintended consequences crops up - estate taxes and the sales they force have done more to contribute to merger and acquisition activity, which in turn drives consolidation of economic assets into fewer and fewer corporations.  The tax meant to stifle wealth accumulation among individuals has in fact spurred wealth accumulation among corporations.  While used for many purposes today, LBO's, that bogeyman of the left, were invented to manage this estate tax forced sale problem.

Asymmetrical Information has a thoughtful series of posts going on estate taxes.

4.  Picking Favorites for Special Treatment

One of the defining characteristics of statist politicians of both the left and the right is that they think they are smarter and more moral than the average American, and certainly than the average American businessman.  Statists and technocrats distrust markets and assume that they can succeed in managing the economy in general and individual decision-making in particular where markets have "failed" to reach whatever end-state politicians would prefer.

Therefore politicians insist on using tax policy to reinforce (or discourage) certain behaviors or to influence certain outcomes or to frankly enrich some favored group.  Examples are all around us, but include:

5.  Class Warfare and Punishing Success

Many of the taxes we pay - income, property, estate - have strong class warfare origins.  Heck, the income tax and the Constitutional Amendment that made it possible because Americans were told that only the richest 1% or so would ever have to pay it.  Today, tax debate is littered with class warfare arguments. 

Today, the richest 1% of Americans pay about a third of the total individual taxes, and the richest 10% pay two-thirds.  The richest 50% of Americans pay 100% of the taxes (in the other half, some pay a bit, and some get a bit back in EITC, but the net is zero).  So, a small percentage of Americans pay for the services and government
cash subsidies enjoyed by the majority.  So how do we treat these
people?  As heroes, or benefactors, or as the most productive?  No we treat them as evil parasites who are not
doing their fair share
.

By the way, These shares paid by the rich actually went up after the Bush tax cuts (yes, that's not a typo).  The very fact that this statement might seem unbelievable points to how much ridiculous class warfare demagoguery permeated the last election.  By the way, these numbers are for income taxes.   The numbers for total taxes, including the regressive payroll taxes, yields slightly different numbers but the same results, as outlined in TaxProfBlog today.

The fact is that most "progressive" taxes are in fact punishing the successful and most productive.  The Left loves to wave Paris Hilton around as an example of the useless and unproductive rich who presumably should be taxed into poverty.  They want to obscure the fact that 99% of the rich got to be rich honestly, through hard work, and via the uncoerced interaction with others.  Because saying that your government rewards success with its highest tax rates and confiscates the vast majority of its operating funds from the people who would employ this money the most productively, um, doesn't sound very good.

UPDATE:  I have more here, including a rebuttal of Kevin Drum.

April 17 is Tax Freedom Day

Per the Tax Foundation:

The report compares the number of days Americans work to pay taxes to the number of days they work to support themselves.
      

"Despite
all the tax cuts that the federal government has passed recently,
Americans will still spend more on taxes than they spend on food,
clothing and medical care combined," said Hodge.

In
2005, Americans will work 70 days to afford their federal taxes and 37
more days to afford state and local taxes. Other categories of spending
measured in the report include housing and household operation (65
days), health and medical care (52 days), food (31 days),
transportation (31 days), recreation (22 days), clothing and
accessories (13 days), saving (2 days) and all other (42 days).

Tax Freedom day has moved around over the last few years:

Tfd1800px_1

Enjoy!