The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal cited two working papers from 2015 as proof that the United States needs to lower its top marginal tax rates to keep and attract successful workers and “help the economy grow.” But one of the studies the editorial referenced debunked the paper’s trickle-down economic argument while the other study stopped far short of hailing tax cuts as a silver bullet solution for economic growth.
The Journal grumbled that the United States needs to cut federal income tax rates to keep and attract talent in a July 4 editorial titled “Why Everyone Needs A Tax Cut.” The Journal cited two working papers that investigated how top income brackets affected the migration patterns of the world’s top inventors and scientists -- one put out in March 2015 by economists with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and another released in December 2015 by economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco -- to claim, “Lower marginal rates improve incentives and help the economy grow.” From The Wall Street Journal:
The authors, in hilariously dry academic fashion, dare to note that these “migratory responses to tax policy might represent a cost to tax progressivity.” Imagine trying to attract the top 1% of earners instead of driving them away.
All of this is worth keeping in mind the next time you hear Hillary Clinton attack Donald Trump or House Republicans for their tax-reform plans. Lower marginal rates improve incentives and help the economy grow.
The Journal failed to mention that its conclusions are not supported by the research it cites. The United States has the lowest top tax rate of the developed countries NBER researchers surveyed. Additionally, while the San Francisco Fed did conclude “that state taxes matter” in terms of the interstate migration of top-tier workers and corporations, there is little evidence that the “[l]ower marginal tax rates” the Journal supports would actually “help the economy grow.”
NBER Research Shows Little Incentive For U.S. To Cut Taxes
The NBER researchers the Journal referenced broke down their findings in a blog for the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research, noting that they looked at the effect tax cuts had on retaining and attracting “superstar inventors” in eight developed countries -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Of these eight countries, the U.S. had the lowest top tax rate and, according to the researchers, would experience the smallest gains in terms of newly attracted workers from cutting taxes. The authors argued that “labour, like capital, might be internationally mobile and respond to tax incentives,” but “language, distance to one’s home country, and career concerns” are other factors to consider when workers are choosing where to live:
According to data compiled by the CIA, the United States ranks among the bottom quarter of countries in the world in terms of how much taxation it collects as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). The U.S. ranks 171st out of 219 countries, with just 18.1 percent of GDP going toward income taxes, consumption taxes, and tariffs. By this metric, taxation in the United States looks more akin to the Caribbean tax havens of the Bahamas (172nd) or Bermuda (176th) than to the developed economies of France (12th) or Germany (24th).
Federal Reserve Paper Doesn’t Actually Account For Economic Growth
On several occasions throughout the text, the San Francisco Fed paper makes the point that “[w]hile there are many other factors that determine where innovative individuals and innovative companies decide to locate … relative taxes matter.” This might seem to support the Journal’s embrace of the misleading “tax flight” myth commonly deployed by right-wing media against states like California and New York, which are known for their high taxes and Democratic-led state governments. Yet, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argued in a July 29 blog for The New York Times, the high-tax states often targeted by conservative outlets are not being outperformed by low-tax states in terms of economic growth:
Attracting such individuals as those the Fed paper deems to be “star scientists” is important, but the number of people likely to be involved is extremely small. The authors estimate that a 2006 tax cut in New York increased the number of “star scientists” in the state by 28 total individuals in a state with 19.3 million residents and more than 8.6 million workers.
Right-wing media outlets, including the Journal, frequently complain about the high tax rates imposed on American workers and businesses, but the facts lead to the opposite conclusion. It is not clear why the Journal chose these papers as the basis for its argument, but the conclusion of most independent research on the economic effects of cutting taxes reveals no evidence that it spurs economic growth.