The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in its Sat., Feb. 2, 2013, editorial, attacked Rex Sinquefield, the Show-Me Institute, legislators, and anyone who believes that income tax cuts in Kansas will have negative consequences for Missouri. The basic thesis was that by reducing the income tax rate on individuals and eliminating the tax on small businesses, Kansas will experience devastating losses in state revenue. State services, especially K-12 education, will suffer. In short, Kansas is walking off a fiscal cliff and Missouri should not follow.
So what exactly is the reckless Kansas policy that the Post-Dispatch editors tell us must be avoided at all cost? First, Kansas lowered its income tax rate from 6.45 percent to 4.9 percent on individual income. For small businesses, namely those organized as S-Corporations, LLCs, Partnerships, and Sole Proprietorships, cases in which business income that is passed through to owners, Kansas eliminated the income tax altogether.
What does economics tell us about the likely effect of such a policy? For simplicity, assume that there are two main sources of income: labor and capital. The former is the payment for supplying work effort to a firm. The latter is the payment for resources that you provide to companies and is usually returned to you after the risk you face is realized. So income from loans and other assets, along with returns to entrepreneurial activity, are deemed capital income. Given that government has to raise revenues for public needs, which should be taxed more — capital or labor? In research that Christophe Chamley and Kenneth Judd conducted independently, the conclusion is unambiguous: tax rates on capital income are very detrimental. Chamley’s and Judd’s work is in line with the analysis that two Nobel Laureates put forward: Peter Diamond and James Mirrlees, who argued that taxes should be applied to the most inelastically supplied goods. Because capital is so mobile, its supply is very elastic and the optimal tax rate on capital income is zero.
Ironically, the editors at the Post-Dispatch accept that people on the Kansas border are very mobile, just not in response to taxes. They argue that people move from Missouri to Johnson County, Kan., because of school quality. The unstated premise is that these people still work in Missouri. Will a substantial tax nudge not lead to even more people seeking out those Johnson County schools? Or, more importantly, induce employers to plant businesses where their employees want to live?
The issue for policymakers is this: for a given level of state revenue, what set of tax policies will yield the revenues while doing the least economic damage? Kansas is trying an experiment. There is an economic rationale for this experiment. If you have to tax income, there is good reason to try to separate out taxes on labor income from taxes on capital income, because capital is highly mobile. In spite of the editorial board’s heated rhetoric, the economic fundamentals favor Kansas on this one.
Joseph Haslag is chief economist and Michael Podgursky is a co-founder and director of the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.