Saving, Investment, and the Income Tax

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In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was an economist at the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation, my boss and tax policy mentor, the late Norman Ture, had a favorite saying: "People aren't taxed. Activities are." It is this proposition - that taxation of any kind always has the effect of penalizing some activities relative to others - that lies at the heart of the economic analysis of taxation.

Obviously the income tax is a tax on people's income-generating activities. What this means is that it penalizes these activities relative to activities that do not generate income. In a market setting, incomeaeneratins activities are those that lead to the production of goods and services. So the income tax penalizes work relative to leisure, and saving and investment relative to consumption. It is the latter that tends to be least understood and therefore will be the focus of this essay.

The broad choice facing an individual in choosing to allocate his or her income is to either spend it or save and invest it. This consumption/saving choice is distorted by the income tax in favor of consumption.

Using the traditional terminology, the income tax "double taxes" saving relative to consumption. It should be noted that this terminology is somewhat misleading. The tax does not explicitly double tax saving but reduces the returns to saving twice, while reducing the returns to consumption just once.

This can be shown with a simple example. Start with an individual who has $100 of pretax income. In the absence of taxation this person has $100 for either consumption - the purchase of goods and services - or saving. If the interest rate is a simple 10 percent per year, then the person can decide whether he prefers to spend $100 or save the $100 and have $110 available for spending a year from now. The decision will be based on his preference for satisfaction now relative to satisfaction in the future. This is what economists call time preference.

Now assume that the individual faces a 10 percent income tax. His $100 is reduced to $90, cutting the amount available for consumption by 10 percent. Likewise the tax implicitly reduces his returns to saving by 10 percent. In other words, by taxing the principal the government is simultaneously reducing the entire stream of returns from the investment. So if he saves the $90, because of the tax his interest income is reduced from $10 to $9.

In the absence of further taxation the individual's choice is between spending $90 now or waiting a year and having the opportunity to spend $99. Returns to consumption spending and returns to saving have both been reduced equally by the tax. But under a standard income tax the returns to saving are reduced yet again.

The $9 in interest also is taxed 10 percent, leaving $8.10.

So the tax reduces the returns to savings twice: first from $10 to $9 when the initial $100 is taxed, and second from $9 to $8.10 when the interest is taxed.

Note that the return from consumption is only reduced once, from the level of satisfaction that could be obtained with $100 to the level that could be obtained with $90. The tax on interest or other returns to investment, including dividends and capital gains, biases decisions against saving, investment, entre preneurship, and business expansion, and in favor of consumption.

In addition the government, at both the federal and state levels, further punishes investors with a separate corporate income tax. The corporate tax, which at the federal level is 35 percent, adds a third layer of tax on both dividends and capital gains. …