High earners are internationally mobile, and so will emigrate if taxes are too high. Because of this, tax increases actually reduce revenue. So goes the standard rightist claim. However, a new paper (pdf) suggests it is plain wrong. Henrik Kleven, Emmanuel Saez and Camille Landais have studied the response of professional footballers in Europe to tax rates. And they’ve concluded that the revenue-maximizing tax rate upon them in England is over 80%.
Yes, there is a Laffer curve - it’s just that we are on the left of it.
This is not because top footballers don’t leg it when faced with higher taxes. They do. The authors estimate that a rise in the top tax rate of 10 percentage points reduces the probability of a foreign player joining that country’s league by four percentage points. As Arsene said, “With the new taxation system…the domination of the Premier League…will go. That is for sure.”
This mobility, though, is not sufficient to justify low taxes. The reason for this is simple. If a high-ability player leaves, he’ll be replaced by lower-ability one; when Cristiano Ronaldo flounced off to Spain, Manyoo did not field just 10 players. This displacement effect means the loss of tax revenue is far smaller than the loss of the top player would suggest. The upshot is that revenue-maximizing tax rates are high.
If this applies to high earners generally, it would imply that our 50p tax rate, far from threatening to reduce tax revenues, is in fact way too low . But does it apply?
Two things suggest yes. A footballer’s career is short. So he does not have the option, which other workers do, of postponing retirement in order to make up for a loss of post-tax income. For footballers, then, substitution effects dominate income effects in a way that is not true of other workers.
Secondly, footballers - especially from smaller countries - are accustomed to having to move country. So they are more mobile than other workers.
On the other hand, though, there’s a big difference arguing the other way. Football must be located in England. Fans expect Arsenal to be based in London, not in Basle. But the same is not true for the hedge fund industry. It could move overseas in its entirety. This argues for lower taxes.
However, as demand for £1 million houses has risen sharply in the last year, and prices of prime London property are rising, it’s not obvious that the new 50p tax rate is, so far, reducing the rich’s inclination to live in England.
What’s more - of course - revenue maximization is not the only criteria here. The authors find that higher taxes do reduce the quality of a country’s football league by driving out some of its top players. And there are, of course, also arguments that huge taxes reduce freedom.
Nevertheless, the fact is that complaints that higher taxes will backfire and produce less revenue are highly dubious.