Ten Miles Square


December 20, 2012 11:24 AM The Capital-Gains Tax: A Tragedy in Two Acts

By Michael Kinsley

Critics of the capital-gains tax are absolutely correct when they say that a tax on capital hurts our economy by reducing the incentive to save and invest. They say the same thing about the tax on investment interest, and they’re right about that, too.

Unfortunately, this is true of every method of taxing capital, just as any tax on labor reduces everybody’s incentive to get up in the morning and go to work. When you tax something, you discourage whatever it is you’re taxing. That is the tragic nature of taxation.

But you have to tax something if you want to spend on something else. You wouldn’t know this from listening to liberals in the current debate, protecting every penny of current entitlements. You wouldn’t know it from conservatives as they defend past tax cuts and argue for more. Nor would you know it from listening to conservatives and liberals as they defend the loopholes and special rules that litter the tax code. Even if you borrow instead of taxing today, you’ll have to tax tomorrow to pay for that borrowing.

Recently, after an untold number of editorials endorsing austerity and calling for tax reform that closes loopholes and lowers tax rates, the New York Times ran an editorial saying, in effect: “Of course, we don’t mean messing with the deduction for state and local taxes. That’s different.” Sadly, everyone has a favorite deduction that’s “different”: Charitable contributions, anyone? Home mortgages?

Taxing Sin

So, given that all taxes are disincentives, what kinds of taxes do we want? The answer is that most of the time, if we believe in free-market capitalism, we want taxes that affect behavior as little as possible. Or, to put it another way, we want a tax system that replicates the incentives of a world with no taxes.

Sometimes we do want to affect behavior. That is the explanation for “sin taxes” such as the heavy taxes on cigarettes. But attempting to affect the general economy’s behavior by playing games with tax rates is a fool’s errand, like an individual trying to beat the stock market.

Or at least, this is what you ought to believe if you believe in free markets. So what kinds of taxes affect behavior the least? My favorite economist, Henry George (1839-1897), wanted a tax on the ownership of land, because — unlike almost any other good in our economy — you can’t make more of it, and you can’t make less of it. If you own some, you’re at the mercy of the tax collector, and have nowhere to hide.

A good tax — one that has minimal effect on behavior — has two qualities. First, it is as low as possible. Second, it is as consistent as possible.

Sure, a tax of 15 percent — the current, scandalously low ceiling on the tax on both capital gains and interest — would be less distortive than a tax of 35 percent, which was the theoretical top rate under President Bill Clinton.

But the real distortion comes in a tax system that might take 15 percent and might take 35 percent, depending on the situation. Tax-cut obsessives can always show you that, say, a tax cut for people named “Trump” had led to a 73 percent increase in the number of people named Trump. But that’s because lots of people decided to change their names, not because being named Trump magically turns you into a productivity machine.

Please notice that the argument so far has said nothing about fairness. It has all been about efficiency. So throw fairness into the equation: The capital-gains tax is paid by people who trade stocks and bonds, or buy and sell real estate or whole companies. The ordinary income tax is paid by people who work for a living.

Taxing Virtue

Yes, yes, people with capital gains work too. They may even work hard. And they take risks. But it’s still a heckuva lot easier to watch your stock go up than it is to work on the assembly line, and a tax differential really adds insult to injury.

Capital gains are favored by the tax system in various ways, most of which aren’t even under discussion. The biggest is that you don’t pay any taxes at all until an investment is traded or cashed in. If your stock portfolio doubles in value, you still owe no taxes unless you sold any of it. And when you die, all those profits on unsold assets disappear for tax purposes. The meter goes back to zero for your heirs. Capital gains are also exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes, which start at the first dollar of ordinary income.

It’s sometimes said that capital gains are “taxed twice.” First they tax your wage income, and then they tax the return on anything you manage to save out of it. In reality, much of the income of the very rich is not taxed on either occasion. Mitt Romney was embarrassed when the world discovered that he had paid taxes of only about 13 percent on his income in recent years. But that’s on realized income. What percentage of his total lifetime fortune will have been through the tax mill when he dies?

Anyway, what’s so terrible about “double taxation”? There are two economic decisions going on: work versus sloth, and saving versus spending. True, you want to encourage work and saving, while discouraging sloth and spending. Just as true: You must tax something. So it makes sense, or so it seems to me, to tax all of these activities equally at the lowest responsible rate. Right now we are violating this principle in every possible way.

Like tuning the piano, reforming the tax code isn’t something you can do just once and then forget about it. You’ve got to do it and then do it again, forever. Even if we blow it this time, we’ll probably get another chance in 2036.

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  • Crissa on December 22, 2012 3:56 AM:

    Well, this article went nowhere.

    Taxing capital gains as a double tax is ridiculous. You spend money to eat, to drive to work, to pay for all the things you need to work, and then you're taxed on your wages. Double! But what about interest upon your interest? Each time you've realized a capital gain, you pay tax. But you pay tax again when you realize a profit on the previous profit. Triple! Quadruple! Infinite taxation!

    It's a stupid argument, and we should just label it as such. If you bought or sold something you did 'work' and 'realized' a profit or loss. That should be taxed at the same rate - if not the same way - as other income. Because really, barring some special situations, like small savings interest and selling your owner-occupied dwelling, the profit see is no different than any other work.

  • Rich on December 22, 2012 4:32 PM:

    Kinsley used to be a "sacred cow" among liberal writers & bloggers, always spoken of as some sort of genius. It didn't matter that Slate was filled with laughable second stringers from TNR in his time; he was still the great Michael Kinsley. Except for some WaPo pieces he did a few years ago, most of his output is as inane as this.

  • Travis on December 22, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Why is the step-up basis for inherited unrealized capital gains never mentioned when eliminating tax expenditures is discussed.

  • paul on December 23, 2012 12:02 PM:

    The idea of special tax treatment for capital gains might have been a good idea once to encourage investment. But when rich guys can reclassify their salaries as capital gains, when the preferential treatment gets applied to "investments" held for a few milliseconds, oy.

  • Area Man on December 23, 2012 2:06 PM:

    Good grief, taxes on capital gains are not "double taxation". You pay income taxes on money you make, which forms your principle, and then you pay capital gains on any profit you make above that. Each dollar earned is taxed just once.

    The only exception is if you make a capital gain off of selling stock. Some of the value of that stock may be past earnings that were taxed at the corporate rate. Assuming this is a problem that needs solving (it's not really), there are far better ways to do it than to create a vastly lower capital gains rate.

  • toowearyforoutrage on December 24, 2012 8:16 AM:

    "But you have to tax something if you want to spend on something else. You wouldn’t know this from listening to liberals in the current debate, protecting every penny of current entitlements. "

    A monetarily sovereign nation does NOT need to tax.
    It can just print money. We in America print all our money with interest and it takes the form of deficit spending.

    It can be paid back whenever there is political will. Paying it back can spark inflation, thus we do not pay the debt, we simply roll it over into more interest bearing debt.

    Remember the two 1 trillion dollar coins Obama was capable of minting? He's just as able to mint 17 of them and pay off the debt. That isn't discussed because it would produce a temporary surge of inflation until interest rates drained the surplus capital.

    Macroeconomics is a hidden science that people should learn to better understand the role of budget priorities in their country;s operations. A failure to grasp these concepts produces a tremendous edge in plutocratic rhetoric. There is never a lack of money, there is only a risk of inflation. When inflation is at record lows, it ISN'T your biggest problem. Roger M. Mitchell provides good material for the layman.

  • Xenos on December 25, 2012 4:15 PM:

    "Why is the step-up basis for inherited unrealized capital gains never mentioned when eliminating tax expenditures is discussed."

    The step-up is supposed to be offset by the rather steep rate of inheritance tax. That is not necessarily a good idea but at least it makes some sense, provided that the inheritance tax is actually applied.

  • Neil Bates on December 28, 2012 12:54 PM:

    Michael, you're (AFAICT) missing a big point here: capital gains from *trading* aren't really (overall) part of anything much useful anyway. For example, trading stocks is just passing back and forth, there is no "investment money" provided to the entrepreneurs, the traders are exchanging money among each other. There is no excuse to give them a break - indeed, better to have a Tobin type trading tax (and only then lower rates to comp.) also, to suppress useless fluctuation trading and keep markets stable.

    OTOH we could say that startup capital is different, and I believe in rewarding that with an upfront deduction from current income instead of a lower rate or even indexing for later.