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Why Cuomo’s Latest Tax Hike Proposal Would Accelerate New York’s Decline

New Yorkers had a rough, rough 2020. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s latest proposal would make 2021 even worse.

“New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed raising taxes on the wealthy to a combined level of 14.7%, which would be the highest state-and-local tax rate in the nation,” CNBC reports. “The tax increase would raise $1.5 billion for the state, Cuomo said Tuesday in an address unveiling his 2022 budget proposal.”

The tax increases would apply to those who earn more than $5 million a year. If implemented, New Yorkers would officially beat California for the top state and local tax rate in the nation; the Golden State currently comes in at 13.3 percent.

Governor Cuomo says the tax increases are necessary because unless the federal government passes a full bailout for the $15 billion state budget hole New York has created, it will have a large deficit to plug.

“New York cannot manage a $15 billion deficit,” Cuomo said. “It’s beyond what we can do.”

The governor favors hiking taxes on “the rich” rather than closing the budget gap solely by cutting spending.

Even before these proposed hikes, the Empire State already has the highest overall tax burden—beyond just income taxes—nationwide and one of the highest costs of living. The situation has only worsened during the COVID-19 crisis, with huge losses of life, in part due to the governor’s mandate forcing nursing homes to accept COVID-19-positive patients. And, drastic lockdowns imposed irrespective of actual pandemic data have ruined New York City’s economy and the cultural vibrancy that made it so appealing pre-pandemic.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people are fleeing in droves.

More than 300,000 people have left the city, according to official filings. Informal measures like U-Haul data similarly show New Yorkers moving elsewhere en masse. An astounding $34 billion in income left the area in 2020.

Over the summer, Governor Cuomo was literally reduced to calling up wealthy residents who’d fled and begging them to come back to New York City—even offering to cook for them and buy them drinks.

New York state officials should be doing everything they can to reverse this troubling trend; cutting taxes; removing regulations; expanding education options. If Cuomo successfully implements his tax hikes, though, it will only result in more people leaving the Empire State.

Why? It’s simple.

A tax proposal cannot be evaluated simply on its raw numbers. One must also take into account how it would change people’s behavior.

Successful people are not automatons; if anything, they are the most responsive and mobile members of society. And other thriving states like Florida and Texas offer not just warmer weather than New York, but zero state income taxes. It’s only natural that increased tax rates will prompt more people to leave the Empire State; nobody likes paying taxes or wants to have more of their money taken away. Even the super rich.

This will hurt the entire state, which will lose not only residents, but also their wealth, spending, investment, and businesses (aka jobs).

Ironically, the tax increase may not even raise the $1.5 billion in revenue that Cuomo hopes. Sometimes, an increase in income tax rates can actually decrease income-generating activity so much that overall tax revenues fall. This was the famous insight of economist Art Laffer, who served on Ronald Reagan’s board of economic advisors. We can’t know for sure whether it would apply here—taxes always disincentivize income earning, but only sometimes result in less tax revenue—but it’s certainly cause to be skeptical of Governor Cuomo’s revenue projections.

However, Governor Cuomo’s backward policy proposal has implications that reach much wider than just New York state and its most successful citizens. It’s another reminder that when it comes to government policy, incentives matter.

“Our economic verities have remained forever,” Laffer once explained. “They go back to caveman, pre-cavemen. Incentives matter: If you reward an activity, then people do more of it. If you punish an activity, people do less of it.”

This is why progressives often promote cigarette taxes or carbon taxes. They, at least in this setting, acknowledge that taxing something naturally discourages its consumption and production—you get less of it. Why does anyone want to do that for income?

The timeless economic reality of incentives doesn’t just call Cuomo’s tax hike on high earners into question. It ought to make us reconsider whether we should be punishing wealth-creation through taxing income at all.

COLUMN BY

Brad Polumbo

Brad Polumbo (@Brad_Polumbo) is a libertarian-conservative journalist and Opinion Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

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The Islamic State vs. the Laffer Curve by Daniel J. Mitchell

Based on my writings, some people may think I’m 100 percent against higher taxes.

But that’s not exactly true. In some cases, I like punitive taxation. Or, to be more precise, I sometimes take pleasure when punitive tax policy backfires on bad people.

Here’s an example. An interesting article in Slate, authored by Adam Chodorow of Arizona State University Law School, looks at how a terrorist group’s attempt to form a government is being stymied by an inability to collect taxes.

Revolution is easy. Governing is hard. And there are few things more difficult than taxes. Operating a country requires money, and that typically requires taxes. … 

The population in this area is estimated to be between 7 million and 8 million, about the same as the population of Washington state. While ISIS currently collects about $1 billion annually, countries of similar size collect about $16 billion, suggesting that ISIS has a long way to go if it wants to operate like a real state.

But the comparatively low levels of tax revenue are not because of a Hong Kong-type commitment to limited government.

Instead, the terror group is discovering that people don’t like giving their money to politicians and bureaucrats, even ones motivated by Islamic fundamentalism.

Taxes aren’t a great way to ingratiate oneself with the governed. … More than one government has fallen because of its tax policy. ISIS must face these challenges just as any emerging polity does… ISIS may have displayed prowess on the battlefield, but it has revealed that it is as stymied and constrained by the complexities of taxation as the rest of us. …

ISIS’s taxes appear to be … no more popular in the territory it controls than they would be here in the U.S. As the Times reported, ISIS’s taxes are now so onerous that large numbers of people, who were apparently willing to tolerate ISIS’s religious authoritarianism, are fleeing Syria and Iraq to escape them. At some point people will either rise up or leave, threatening ISIS’s internal revenue source.

So taxes are becoming so onerous that taxpayers (and taxable income) are escaping.

Hmm… excessive taxation leading to less taxable economic activity. That seems like a familiar concept — something I’ve written about one or two times. Or maybe 50 or 100 times.

Ah, yes, our old friend, the Laffer Curve!

ISIS is … constrained by a lack of administrative resources and the simple reality once sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin by the economist Arthur Laffer: that tax rates can only get so high before they actually drive down government revenues.

Given current conditions, ISIS may be near or at the limits of its ability to tax, even if it can recruit jihadi tax accountants to its cause. Thus … it’s not clear how much room the group has to grow internal revenues. More important, its efforts to do so may do more to damage its prospects than outside forces can accomplish.

This sounds like the tax equivalent of War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells’ classic in which alien invaders wreak havoc on earth until they are felled by bacteria.

Tom Cruise was the star of a 2005 movie adaptation of this story, but I’m thinking I could rekindle my acting career and star in a movie of how the Laffer Curve thwarts ISIS!

But to have a happy ending, ISIS has to be defeated. And Professor Chodorow closes his article with a very helpful suggestion.

Rather than send in ground troops … view our tax code as a weapon of mass destruction. … We could make full use of it in the war on ISIS, perhaps by translating it into Arabic in the hopes that the group adopts it.

Sounds like the advice I once gave about threatening Assad with Obamacare.

A version of this post first appeared at Dan Mitchell’s blog International Liberty.

Daniel J. MitchellDaniel J. Mitchell

Daniel J. Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in fiscal policy, particularly tax reform, international tax competition, and the economic burden of government spending. He also serves on the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review.