Posted 9 months ago on Feb. 20, 2013, 4:42 p.m. EST by repubsRtheprob
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By JAMES B. STEWART Published: February 15, 2013 274 Comments
Last month, Vladimir V. Putin hugged his newly minted fellow Russian citizen, the actor Gerard Depardieu, posing for cameras at the Black Sea port of Sochi. “I adore your country,” Mr. Depardieu gushed — especially its 13 percent flat tax on personal income.
Sochi may not be St. Tropez, but it does have winter temperatures in the 60s and even palm trees. Mr. Putin’s deputy prime minister confidently predicted a “mass migration of wealthy Europeans to Russia.”
Here in the United States, the three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson recently walked off the 18th hole at Humana Challenge and said he might move from California because the state increased its top income tax rate to 13.3 percent from 10.3 percent.
“Hey Phil,” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas wrote in a Twitter message, “Texas is home to liberty and low taxes ... we would love to have you as well!!” Tiger Woods later said that he had left California for Florida for just that reason years ago. Mr. Mickelson can “vote with his Gulfstream,” a Wall Street Journal editorial noted, and warned California to “expect a continued migration.”
It’s an article of faith among low-tax advocates that income tax increases aimed at the rich simply drive them away. As Stuart Varney put it on Fox News: “Look at what happened in Britain. They raised the top tax rate to 50 percent, and two-thirds of the millionaires disappeared in the next tax year. Same things are happening in France. People are leaving where the top tax rate is 75 percent. Same thing happened in Maryland a few years ago. New millionaire’s tax, the millionaires disappeared. You’ve got exactly the same thing in California.”
That, at least, is what low-tax advocates want us to think, and on its face, it seems to make sense. But it’s not the case. It turns out that a large majority of people move for far more compelling reasons, like jobs, the cost of housing, family ties or a warmer climate. At least three recent academic studies have demonstrated that the number of people who move for tax reasons is negligible, even among the wealthy.
Cristobal Young, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford, studied the effects of recent tax increases in New Jersey and California.
“It’s very clear that, over all, modest changes in top tax rates do not affect millionaire migration,” he told me this week. “Neither tax increases nor tax cuts on the rich have affected their migration rates.”
The notion of tax flight “is almost entirely bogus — it’s a myth,” said Jon Shure, director of state fiscal studies at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group in Washington. “The anecdotal coverage makes it seem like people are leaving in droves because of high taxes. They’re not. There are a lot of low-tax states, and you don’t see millionaires flocking there.”
Despite the allure of low taxes, Mr. Depardieu hasn’t been seen in Russia since picking up his passport and seems to be hedging his bets by maintaining a residence in Belgium. Meanwhile, Russian billionaires are snapping up trophy properties in high-tax London, New York and Beverly Hills, Calif.
“I don’t hear about many billionaires moving to Moscow,” said Robert Tannenwald, a lecturer in economic policy at Brandeis University and former Federal Reserve economist. Along with Nicholas Johnson, he and Mr. Shure are co-authors of “Tax Flight Is a Myth,” a 2011 research paper.
Of course, some people do move for tax reasons, especially wealthy retirees, athletes and other celebrities without strong ties to high-tax locations, like jobs and families. In renouncing his French citizenship, Mr. Depardieu follows other French celebrities, the chef Alain Ducasse, the singer Johnny Hallyday and Yannick Noah, a former tennis star. Several Paris hedge fund managers have decamped to London and the fashion mogul Bernard Arnault applied for Belgian citizenship, though not, he has said, for tax reasons.
Stars like Mr. Depardieu and Mr. Mickelson certainly have incentives to move. Mr. Depardieu complained that he paid 85 percent of his income in taxes in France last year and has paid 145 million euros over 45 years. France has a top rate of 41 percent as well as a wealth tax, and the Socialist president, François Hollande, is trying to impose a temporary surcharge of 75 percent on incomes over 1 million euros. Mr. Mickelson earned more than $60 million last year, Sports Illustrated estimates, which means the three-percentage-point California tax increase could add up to an additional $1.8 million in tax.
Gregory Mankiw, an economist at Harvard, said that tax rates did affect migration, at least of certain groups. “Rich people can pretty much live anywhere,” he said. “If you’re a retired person trying to decide between Palm Beach and Santa Barbara, the tax difference between Florida and California is huge. If you’re an academic choosing between Stanford and Harvard, it might be a factor.” (Massachusetts has a flat income tax rate of 5.3 percent.)
For this affluent and mobile group, it doesn’t much matter where their official residence is. Mr. Mickelson and Mr. Woods travel the tournament circuit throughout the year. Very wealthy people often have multiple homes in different locations, even different countries, and can shuttle among them to avoid local taxes. One reason so many luxury apartments in Manhattan sit empty is that their foreign owners can’t spend more than half the year in them without incurring United States income tax liability.
A star like Mr. Depardieu “can go to Paris whenever he wants,” Mr. Shure noted. Professor Tannenwald agreed. “People who are very rich, who are retired or who aren’t tied to a particular location, do change their residency at a high rate based on tax differentials.”
But there aren’t many people like that. “Tax-induced flight is rare,” Professor Tannenwald said. “The rate of interstate migration is low to begin with. To the extent that people leave a state, or shun a potential destination, they do so primarily for other reasons, such as to find more affordable housing, better job prospects or a more attractive climate.”
Low-tax advocates like Mr. Varney point to Maryland as a prime example of tax flight. Maryland created a millionaire tax bracket in 2008 with a top rate of 6.25 percent. But a year later, the state reported that the number of millionaires filing returns had dropped by a third, and that total tax revenue from the group fell despite the rate increase. After a chorus of media criticism — “Millionaires flee Maryland taxes” (The Washington Examiner) and “Millionaires Go Missing” (The Wall Street Journal) — the state legislature let the increase expire in 2011.
But a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit research group in Washington, found that nearly all the decline in millionaires was the result of a drop in incomes largely attributable to the stock market plunge and recession, and not to migration — “down and not out,” as the study put it.
In 2009, just 364 people in the millionaire bracket moved from Maryland or died (the data didn’t distinguish between the two) — about the same percentage who disappeared in 2007, before any tax increase. And in 2009, more than 1,500 taxpayers entered the millionaire rolls, either because they earned more or moved to Maryland that year. That data “directly contravenes the notion that changes in tax policy were discouraging the affluent from working hard and earning substantial sums of money, or driving them out of the state altogether,” the study concluded.
Professor Young said his study looked at every millionaire tax record filed in California over the last 20 years, and “neither tax increases nor tax cuts on the rich have affected their migration rates.” He said that the two major tax overhauls before the recent increase didn’t have any effect on migration rates of millionaires. “Among the very richest, people making more than $2 million, out-migration actually declined slightly after the 2005 millionaire tax,” he said.
Why didn’t they move? Professor Young said that for most people, even the very affluent, it’s not that easy, since most successful businesses and high-paying jobs are tied to specific locations. In addition, “entrepreneurship and earning power are clustered in highly competitive regions like Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and New York City,” he said. “People making over a million are typically close to their peak income years, and are enjoying the fruits of long-term career investments. This is hard to walk away from.”
His research in New Jersey found that, while some people left, any lost revenue was more than made up for by added revenue from people who stayed. He estimated that New Jersey’s 2004 tax increase on incomes over $500,000 raised nearly $1 billion a year, “with little cost in terms of tax flight.”
Mr. Shure added, “I can say flatly that no state has ever raised taxes and lost money.”
Yet the tax flight myth remains surprisingly persistent, fanned by media coverage of celebrities, who are among those most likely to have the means and motive to choose a home based on tax considerations. “You can always find an anecdote.” Mr. Shure said. “Many people want this to be true as a way to discourage tax increases. The rich are always trying to find ways to make the middle class make their arguments for them.”