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Your Team Would Win More in a Low-Tax State

Daniel J. Mitchell

The tax system is bad news for professional sports, with plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that athletes (and even fans) get pillaged by government.

Now we have some comprehensive academic research to augment the anecdotes.

Playing Field Impact

The Wall Street Journal opined today on a new study about the impact of marginal tax rates on professional sports teams.

Erik Hembre, an economist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, looked at the question: Do tax rates affect a team’s performance? He analyzed data in professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey between 1977 and 2014. Since the mid-1990s, he writes, “a ten percentage point increase in income tax rates is associated with between a 1.9-3.0 percentage point decrease in winning percentage.”

Here’s why: Professional athletes are taxed at the highest marginal rate. The average NBA player earned more than $4.8 million in 2013 and the average was $2.3 in the NFL, so athletes who play for the Minnesota Vikings earn less after taxes than do Dallas Cowboys.

…The effect appears strongest in the NBA, “where moving from a high-tax state to a low-tax state has a similar effect on winning as upgrading a bench player to an All-Star.” An NBA team that fled Minnesota (top rate: 9.85%) for Florida (0%) could expect to win an additional 4.5 games a season, Mr. Hembre found.”

This makes sense.

Indeed, there’s evidence from Monaco, which plays in the French soccer league, that low taxes produce better results on the playing field.

The editorial concludes with a caveat…and a political lesson.

Players make free-agent decisions for many reasons, and New York or Los Angeles can offer attractions and endorsement deals that offset their horrendous tax rates. But no one should be surprised that professional athletes respond to incentives like individuals in any industry. Perhaps this evidence will tempt governors and state lawmakers to cut rates now that they know that, along with a growing economy, they might end up with better sports teams and happier fans, also known as voters.”

None of this should be a surprise. We know taxes impact the decisions of high-income, high-productivity people, everyone from entrepreneurs to inventors.

Impact on the Economy

Now that we’ve looked at the impact of taxes on an industry, let’s now consider the impact of taxes on the overall economy. Professor Ed Lazear, in an article for the University of Chicago’s Becker-Friedman Institute, makes some critical observations on the American tax code.

Starting with the system’s complexity.

In the first 20 years after the 1986 Tax Reform Act was passed, there were already about 15,000 changes to the basic law. The lack of transparency is costly: resources devoted to tax preparation and avoidance alone amount to more than 1% of GDP.”

Continuing with distortions in the internal revenue code.

The tax system is full of inconsistencies, preferences, complex rules, and contradictory definitions that encourage distortionary behavior by Americans in their legitimate attempts to minimize their tax liabilities.

…Additionally, there are parallel systems that are not fully integrated into one coherent tax structure. Within the income tax category, the Alternative Minimum Tax has rules that are layered on top of the basic tax rate structure, which override the tax calculation for a sizeable fraction of taxpayers. Beyond that, the payroll tax, both employer and employee contributions, are distinct from the income tax rules, but for most Americans, act as a basic income tax that is an add-on to the income taxes that they pay.”

And there’s a big section on the economic harm caused by over-taxing business investment.

…growth is most affected by taxes on capital. Notorious is the high US corporate tax rate of 35% that the US imposes, which results in obvious evasive action like locating business overseas. More important, but less visible, is the actual reduction in investment that occurs because capital is taxed so heavily in the United States. The marginal dollar of investment is one that can find its home in another country as easily as in the US. When we raise taxes on capital, a German investor who might have preferred to invest in an American company simply chooses to keep that money in Germany. The easy flow of capital across borders means that lowering tax rates will encourage more capital to flow to American businesses.

…if investment were untaxed altogether, the economy would grow by an additional 5% to 9%. In the short run, the easiest way to accomplish this is to allow full expensing of investment with indefinite carry-forwards. This simply means that firms can deduct the cost of investments from their tax liabilities immediately and fully. Allowing full and immediate deductibility of investment expenses removes the distortions that impede capital investment and, as a consequence, raises productivity, incomes, and GDP.”

Augmented by the economic damage caused by over-taxing human capital.

Economists have estimated the human capital portion of the total capital stock in the United States as between 70% and 90%. …increasing tax rates is likely to have profound effects on occupational choice and investment in the skills that are required to be productive in high-value occupations.

…The personal income tax, and especially extreme progressivity, which places high burdens on professionals, discourages entry into professional occupations. Since human capital is such an important component of all capital, it is important to avoid over-taxing individuals directly.”

The Rich, the Poor, And Everyone Else

He concludes by explaining why the class-warfare crowd is misguided.

Lowering capital taxation and paying close attention to the progressivity of the tax structure both benefit the rich directly. The middle- and lower-income parts of the income distribution also benefit, however.

…there is a close relation between average income wage growth and productivity. Furthermore, there is a close link between GDP growth and productivity growth…unless we ensure that the economy grows, which means that productivity grows, we will not have wage growth.

…the poor and rich alike did best when economic growth was robust.”

This last excerpt is critical. Some of my leftist friends think the economy is fixed pie, and this leads them to think the rest of us lose money any time a rich person earns more money.

Or they are motivated by envy. In some cases, this even leads them to support policies that hurt poor people so long as rich people suffer even more.

Both these views are wrong. President John F. Kennedy was right about a rising tide lifting all boats.

And we see that in the incredible data that’s been shared by scholars such as Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux.

And since we just quoted Kennedy, let’s close with an equally appropriate quote from Winston Churchill, 

who famously observed that “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

And the best example of that is in the data comparing the US with Denmark and Sweden. Or the words of Margaret Thatcher.

The moral of the story is that Slovakia has the right approach on taxes while Sweden has the wrong approach. That’s true, whether you want a winning sports team or a winning economy.

Reprinted from International Liberty.

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