Are Your Taxes Too High?

Many business owners and investors stand squarely on the side of tax cuts. Their belief is that taxes are too high and should be reduced to encourage economic activity. And yet many of them fail to apply the argument to their own nations.

“Wait–taxes?” you say. “I don’t levy taxes.”

With the invention of capitalism, economists re-branded feudal taxation as “harvesting excess value.” But wages can also be seen as a reverse tax on the value produced by workers: where a feudal lord might take a certain amount or percentage, the capitalist allows an employee to keep a certain amount.

This reverse tax was an important invention when capitalism was conceived. It allowed people who didn’t create revenue directly (in the form of crops, manufactured goods, etc.) to create new kinds of value, particularly value that could only be created in concert with other specialists. In turn, workers were given a stable wage and economic and seasonal fluctuations were (in theory) absorbed by the capitalist. So a business became a kind of micro-socialist system within the larger context of capitalism.

Employees are, by and large, grateful for this micro-socialism: generally speaking, employees prefer to have stable paychecks, benefits, and job security–and if they don’t, they can always start their own businesses. But trying to squeeze every cost-saving measure you can out of your employees can be counter-productive, in the same way that increasing taxes can be counter-productive when there aren’t meaningful benefits to match.

While many entrepreneurs face the problem of not paying themselves enough, there are some who pay themselves far too much. And as the size of the company slides upward, owners and executives tend more and more frequently to be out of touch with how much they are taxing their employees–and the cost to their businesses.

This brings up two relevant issues from the world of economics and policy:

  1. What is the appropriate level of taxation to maximize revenue?
  2. What social programs are meaningful enough to justify taxation?

The appropriate level of taxation to maximize revenue follows what is known as the Laffer Curve (although the idea goes back to Arthur Pigou). The basic idea is that tax revenues at 0% and tax revenues at 100% are both zero (which is not entirely accurate, but close enough to be useful). That means that somewhere in between 0% and 100%, there’s a point at which you would receive less revenue if you either increased or decreased taxes, because increasing taxes would discourage revenue-earning activity and decreasing taxes wouldn’t result in substantively more revenue-earning activity.

The second question belies the fact that the peak of the curve can be shifted by many variables–and in fact is always shifting. One of the ways you can create a positive shift–that is, justify increased taxes while also increasing tax revenue–is by implementing meaningful social programs. In the politics, these social programs can be controversial, but in the operation of a business, they are relatively standard: health benefits, flexible hours, etc. They generally fall under the HR umbrella, but can also fit into support departments like printing, IT, and so on.

By this point you may be thinking this over-complicates the issue. The conventional wisdom is that labor is labor, and you compensate people based on the work they do and how well they do it–a simple transaction of value for money.

However, conventional economics has this one wrong. The emerging field of behavioral economics recognizes that not just incentives and disincentives, but context, internal motivations, values, ethics, biases, and other factors affect behavior. When you hire someone, an hour isn’t always an hour. The amount their work is taxed, the context in which they operate, and their emotions toward their work and employer will affect their behavior.

Given this knowledge, you could go with a more libertarian approach–give as much back to your employees as possible–or you could choose to go full socialist.

Lately, many organizations are going full socialist, including The Container Store and Wegmans Food Markets. In addition to providing great benefits, they’ve absorbed nearly all possibility of layoffs, and almost exclusively promote from within rather than recruiting experienced hires.

Netflix employes a different model of socialism: They pay literally top dollar–as much as they would offer to keep you if you got a job offer somewhere else. Management helps you if you’re in a slump, and if your skills just don’t fit the needs of the organization anymore they offer a generous severance package, including placement assistance.

There are two interesting traits in these socialist models: they all experience an increase in revenue that more than makes up for the reduction in employee taxes, and none of them offers the outrageous benefits offered by Google or other Silicon Valley heavyweights.

Which brings us to the question: What makes a meaningful social program (a.k.a. benefit)? Google is famous for having extravagant campuses with free meals, on-site massages, and a host of other benefits. But these only provide minor incremental value because they are simply “free stuff.” The same is true if you give your employees gift cards or tickets to a sports game. These aren’t really fostering a better environment, they’re just “free stuff.”

Meaningful social programs remove obstacles and increase feelings of security and freedom. They promote stability and peace-of-mind, they remove distractions or red tape, and they let you know that if something happens–if you have a child or have to take care of an elderly parent, if you have a bad quarter or even a bad year, etc.–your organization has your back. Each program must have a specific intent behind it that removes worries and stigma, provides a safe environment, or better enables problem solving and innovation. Especially for those who are budgeting a start-up, let these criteria be your guide.

For a lot of people reading this, extravagant social programs won’t be within the realm of possibility anyway. You might already be paying your employees less than they could get somewhere else. But it’s not so much an issue of whether you’re paying them less–so long as they’re able to cover their cost of living–but whether you’re taxing them fairly and giving them the tools they need to close the gap with what they could earn elsewhere. Help them–or sometimes just free them–to create new value and bring in new business. Not every potential employee will be excited about the idea, but the good ones will see the opportunity and jump for it.

There’s a lot more to be learned from macroeconomics and tax theory if you have a large business or your business is growing, but I’d love to hear your thoughts and answer any questions in the comments.

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