How High Is Too High?

California, like many states, has financial difficulties because of the Covid pandemic. So is the legislature looking at cutting spending? A little. How about raising taxes? Definitely, especially on the rich.

California’s top marginal tax rate today is 13.3% (on those earning $1 million or more). Proposed legislation would increase the tax rate to 14.3% on those earning more than $1 million, to 16.3% on those earning more than $2 million, and to a whopping 16.8% on those earning more than $5 million.

Today, California gets 40% of its revenues from the top 0.5% of taxpayers. But something lost by the California legislature is what happened after the last tax increase (to 13.3%). As Josuha Rauh notes,

The problem is that high earners do not simply sit there and take it when the state goes after their income.

In a detailed study of the 2012 California ballot measure that raised the top state rate to 13.3 percent, Ryan Shyu and I found that just two years later, the state was only collecting 40 cents of every dollar that it had hoped to raise from the tax increase.

The reason?

High income taxpayers affected by the 2012 tax increase suddenly began to flee the state at higher rates, especially to zero tax states like Nevada, Texas, and Florida.

This is an obvious corollary to the Laffer Curve. Economist Arthur Laffer noted that at 0%, no taxes are collected and that at 100%, no taxes would be collected. So there must be a curve that describes tax collection by tax rate.

The unspoken issue for California is, “Will this increase drive the top 0.5% out of the Golden State?” Mr. Rauh, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Professor of Finance at Stanford, clearly believes the answer is yes. When this measure passes (and given the makeup of the legislature, it will pass), the question is not will top-earners leave, but how many will leave. Alan Greenspan famously said, “Whatever you tax, you get less of.” California is conducting an experiment, and we will find out the results in a year or two. I believe that if you’re a realtor specializing in high-end properties in Nevada, Texas, Florida, or Arizona, you’re about to get more business.

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