The Biden administration last week proposed to increase the capital-gains tax rate—currently 20% for most assets held for at least a year—to 39.6% for people making more than $1 million. Since capital gains are also subject to the 3.8% Medicare tax, the new capital-gains rate would be 43.4%.
What makes this unusual is that 43.4% is well above the rate that would generate the most revenue for the government. Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, which does the official scoring and is no den of supply siders, puts the revenue-maximizing rate at 28%. My work several decades ago puts it about 10 points lower than that. That means President Biden is willing to accept lower revenue as the price of higher tax rates. The implications for his administration’s economic thinking are mind-boggling.
Even the revenue-maximizing rate is higher than would be optimal. As tax rates rise, the activity being taxed declines. The loss to the private side of society increases at a geometric rate (proportional to the square of the tax rate) as rates rise. The government collects more revenue, but its gains slow as the taxed activity declines. The revenue-maximizing rate is the point at which the government starts losing from higher taxes. Tax rates above the revenue-maximizing rate are punitive: The government is giving up revenue simply to punish the rich.
Punishing the rich is distinct from redistribution. Higher taxes on the rich to finance spending, or to transfer money to lower-income people, may be good for society’s welfare. Economists express this idea in a “social-welfare function,” which weights additional income received by different people, usually based on income. The same sum is considered less valuable if it goes to a high-income person than a lower-income one. The weights are subjective and different analysts will choose different weights.
Still, economists can agree that the ideal is to make someone better off without making someone else worse off. The simplest case is a voluntary exchange of goods for money, in which the buyer values the purchase at least as much as the price, while the seller values the money at least as much as the item being sold. Economists call such an exchange Pareto-optimal after Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist who formally framed the concept.
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