Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Difference Between 1993 and 2009

At the center of Senator Obama's tax policy argument is that by raising taxes on the top 5% of income earners, we are only returning to President Clinton's 1993 tax increases. Let's for a moment leave aside that Obama really is looking to raise taxes on social security (above incomes of $103,000) and on everyone's capital gains, regardless of income. Rather, the Obama argument goes that because we had a relative economic boom following the 1993 tax increase, it's perfectly safe to raise taxes in 2009 as well.

Wrong. There is a major difference between 1993 and 2009 that Obama and McCain alike are both failing to articulate. In 1993, the U.S. was one of the world's lowest-tax countries, with Europe mostly at much higher rates, and most of the Asian economies too underdeveloped to be alternatives for investments and businesses. Eastern Europe was under a cloud of uncertainty and instability following the rapid demise of The Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. The 1993 tax increase left the U.S. as the leading free-market economy, albeit at a smaller margin than before.

As we enter 2009, the U.S. position in the world is extremely different than it was 16 years earlier. We are no longer the low-tax beacon of the major industrialized world. Numerous countries in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere now have lower capital gains taxes than the U.S. The same goes for top marginal income tax rates, where Albania is at 10%, Estonia 13% and Russia 17%, just to mention a few. Here in the U.S., the current top rate is 36% for Federal, and if you live in NYC or California, you probably pay very close to 50% all-in. Our 15% long-term capital gains tax can't compete with the 0% rates in many other countries, but don't forget that many capital gains taxes aren't long-term, at which point you will pay 36% or higher.

The effect of the current high-tax policies is becoming an increasing disaster. There has been no employment growth in places such as Silicon Valley in the last decade, because U.S. companies are choosing to locate more employees in lower-tax areas such as China, India and Eastern Europe. Have you noticed the lack of IPOs in the U.S. this year? For the first time in 30 years, there were no venture-backed IPOs. This has a significant impact to the standard of living here at home.

In this context, it is strange to listen to Senator McCain saying repeatedly that he wants to "Keep taxes low." Well, if taxes aren't low, why does he want to keep them? We have some of the world's highest capital gains and income taxes, so we are hemorrhaging investments and human capital to those places where they are not taxed as much.

So what is the 2009 recipe to strengthen the U.S. economy? Clearly McCain is wrong about "keeping taxes low" because they are already way too high. As for Obama, he proposes an outright train wreck in terms of forcing investors, businesses and high-wage earners abroad. Rather, we should once and for all abolish the capital gains tax – whether for short-term gains, or long-term. We should also become competitive with the fastest-growing economies in the world by cutting the top Federal rate to below Albania's 10% rate. Given that some U.S. states and local governments have combined rates of around 10%, it would be appropriate to abolish our Federal income tax altogether. This would stop the hemorrhaging of investments, businesses and talented individuals leaving our country.

What about the budget deficit, you say? Wouldn't abolishing the income tax and capital gains taxes reduce tax revenue? Of course it would. So the answer is to cut government spending correspondingly. The Federal budget now exceeds $3 trillion, or $10,000 per U.S. citizen, of which the Department of Defense is little over 20%. Big ticket items are Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, for starters. Medicare and Medicaid in particular, are hugely inefficient and unnecessarily bureaucratic ways to induce people to over-consume health care services, and should be abolished in favor of lower taxes that would lead to a booming economy. The list goes on, but the Federal budget can be cut from over $3 billion to around $2 billion immediately, followed by another cut down to $1 trillion over time as Social Security payments dwindle in favor of a private 401(k)-style private system. The government can also raise funds by selling property, including land. After all, various agencies of the U.S. government is by far the largest property owner in the country, and could fill several years worth of budget gaps by auctioning off vast amounts of lands and buildings no longer necessary when we cut off the bureaucracy and the socialist apparatus currently consuming our tax dollars.