Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rank ignorance 

Rankings of things tend to annoy me. I would always prefer to know the actual values involved, but we tend to like lists. But they get you in trouble when people try to change how their measuring things.

Today's example is from our local paper. It takes exception with the Tax Foundation's rankings, largely because the Foundation thinks tax efficiency is a proper goal of public policy. The Foundation adds federal taxes to its ranking of the states, though as the link points out, removing federal taxes changes Minnesota's ranking not at all for 2007. Of course the letter writer forgot to tell you that.

He then switches to a report issued by the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, which includes both data based on taxes per capita and taxes per $1000 personal income. Using the latter measure, and using all state and local taxes, he finds that Minnesota ranks 23rd. Of course, he is now comparing apples and oranges. But he says "That one state has higher-income residents than another has nothing to do with the level of state and local taxes."

But the reason for his letter, that Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud) has proposed the state corporate income taxes are too high, is belied by his own report use. The state ranks 8th in corporate income taxes per $1000 personal income. The letter writer uses a measure of all taxes to rebut a specific point about one tax, by playing fast and loose with which rankings one uses. Our top marginal corporate tax rate, 9.8%, is sixth-highest in the nation.

He also plays a little fast and loose with his choice of who is a non-partisan by quoting at the end lovingly from something published by the Economic Policy Institute. If you are going to call the Tax Foundation "extreme conservative", then you don't get to use an institute run by folks like Robert Reich and Robert Kuttner as being unbiased.

Charlie Quimby pointed out something similar in the Mn2020/Mn Free Market Institute spat over Matt Entenza's 32nd ranking. It's not a fruitful debate (and I say this as a fellow of the latter, with some trepidation.) The question is whether taxes effect people's willingness to truck, barter and exchange in Minnesota, and choosing between Minnesota and other states. Rankings and arguments over what's in the numerator or denominator of this or that ratio won't help solve that debate.

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