I don't often comment on letters to the editor in the Journal Sentinel but this one caught my eye. A guy named Peter Flannery who says that he is a business owner doesn't think taxes have any thing to do - absolutely nothing he says - with whether his taxes go up. It's all about supply and demand he says. He learned it in Economics 101.
If that's what he learned, he was a poor student. To be sure, lower taxes can't overcome a complete lack of demand - although lower costs can lead to lower prices that can lead to higher demand. but taxes affect both supply and demand. If, for example, I have to pay higher property taxes, my cost of providing goods or services will go up and that may reduce the demand for my product. Fewer people will pay what I must charge. If I cut my prices to a level that they will pay, I may eliminate or lower my profit to the point where I become unwilling or unable to continue or expand my business.
If I must pay payroll taxes on each new hire, the cost of adding an employee will increase. The marginal increase may make hiring that employee unprofitable given the demand for my product or service.
If I must pay additional taxes on my earnings, it may reduce my rate of return to a point where, again, I am unwilling or unable to expand my business regardless of the existing demand.
Similarly, taxes on my customers may reduce demand for my product. Sales taxes are a simple example but income taxes imposed on my customers may also reduce their demand for goods and services generally including those that I provide. While it is possible that the taxes they pay will fund valuable public goods that increase productivity, it is also possible - and given levels of public spending in today's economy I would say likely - that taxes will reduce aggregate wealth and demand.
Whether and the extent to which these things happen will, of course, depend on the circumstances. If tax increases are modest, tied to income and where adding employees does not require significant sunk costs or long term commitments, the effect on the supply side may be less than in other circumstances. (The demand side is another matter.)
People on my side of the aisle may overestimate the impact of tax increases, but taxes certainly affect both demand and supply.
But, wait, didn't Warren Buffett say that he's never seen anyone scared off a "good investment" by capital gains tax rates. That's a much narrower point than the one Mr. Flannery made, but might it be a worthy amendment of the point?
No. I have not had the investment or business experience of Warren Buffett but in the time that I spent as a member of the senior management team of an international manufacturing business, I observed people expressing great concern - and even being "scared off" - by the way in which taxes would affect the expected rate of return on an investment.
You don't even need to be in business to understand this. We put money in our 401(k) accounts (as opposed to some other vehicle) and probably put in more than we otherwise might because it is tax advantaged.
As Richard Epstein recently wrote, the problem with Buffett's statement (even if one takes it as face value) is that it is the product of sampling error. Anyone who had been "scared off" by capital gains rates would not be coming to him looking for money.