The arguments against the rich paying more in taxes typically run mighty short on logic. But apologists for the rich can be incredibly creative. Their ability to manipulate data, a new research paper reminds us, remains unmatched.
In Taxes and Athletic Performance: Why NBA Players Perform Better in Low-Tax States, Conklin and Daniel introduce what they see as compelling statistical evidence that higher state tax rates cause NBA players to miss free throws that NBA players in low-tax states make.
Ponder that. Conklin and Daniel would have us believe that 20- and 30-something athletes making mega millions — superstars who routinely delegate their financial affairs to high-powered accounting and legal firms — will stress out and start bricking free throws once they have to toe the free-throw line in higher-tax states.
How ludicrous. Imagine LeBron James, a billionaire, standing at the free-throw line against the Golden State Warriors, so upset by California’s high state income tax rate that he misses a free throw.
Conklin and Daniel chose six teams from relatively low-tax states — the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz — and analyzed their free-throw percentages in away games against six teams in zero-income-tax states (Texas, Tennessee, and Florida) and nine teams in high-income-tax jurisdictions (New York, Oregon, Minnesota, California, and the District of Columbia).
In the resulting 465-game dataset, players from the six teams based in low-income-tax states made an average 77.04 percent on the free throws they shot in high-tax state arenas. These same players, when playing away games in a zero-tax state, averaged 78.9-percent makes.
Find that significant? Conklin and Daniel certainly did. They checked “for statistical significance” at the 95-percent level, they explain, with a “simple, two-sample regression analysis assuming equal variances” and had their sample’s statistical significance “confirmed with a p-value of 0.028, well under the required 0.05.”
Let’s not simply laugh off this silly exercise. Let’s engage instead give the Conklin-Daniel theory of state-income-tax-induced free-throw paralysis a purely objective analysis.
Start with the obvious: Some players shoot free throws better than other players. Some teams shoot free throws better than other teams. Some players and some teams get more free throw opportunities than other players and teams.
The significance of all these realities? If a poor free throw-shooting team is playing a higher percentage of its games in high-tax states than a good free throw-shooting team, the overall percentage of free throws made will skew in favor of the zero-tax states.
That all makes considering how the NBA schedule works important. A team plays each team in its division four times per season (two home and two away), other teams in its conference fewer times, and teams in the other conference still fewer times. By all appearances, Conklin and Daniel never accounted for any of this reality.
Big mistake. Schedule differences turn out to go a long way toward explaining the difference in free-throw shooting rates between zero- and high-tax states.
Two of the teams Conklin and Daniel tracked, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, sit in a division with two high-tax state teams and no zero-tax state teams. The Charlotte Hornets reside in a division with one high-tax state team and two zero-tax state teams. The remaining three teams they tracked, the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, and Cleveland Cavaliers, all sit in the Eastern Conference’s Central Division, a grouping with no low- or zero-tax state tax teams.
Only two of the six teams Conklin and Daniel tracked, the Nuggets and the Jazz, compete in the Western Conference, while six of the nine high-tax state teams and four of the six zero-tax state teams compete in the Western Conference.
All of which means two teams, the Nuggets and Jazz, played more tracked games than any of the other teams and played a higher percentage of their games against high-tax state teams. The Charlotte Hornets played a higher percentage of their tracked games against zero-state tax teams. The mix of the games between high- and zero-tax states for the remaining three teams — the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and Cleveland Cavaliers — ran between the high-tax-state heavy schedules of the Nuggets and Jazz and the zero-tax-state heavy schedule of the Hornets.
And the relative free-throw shooting performance of the teams?
Performances of the teams in the Conklin-Daniel study varied year-to-year, but over the course of the four years the Hornets, the team that played the largest portion of its tracked games in zero-tax states, had the best away game free-throw performance, followed by the combined performance of the Pistons, Cavaliers, and Pacers, followed by the combined performance of the Jazz and Nuggets, the teams that played the largest portion of their tracked games in high-tax states.
Interestingly, the overall away game free-throw performance of the six teams for the four seasons, taking into account the differing number of total designated away games each team played, ran about 77.21 percent, just 0.17 percentage points better than the teams performed under the supposedly oppressive conditions in the high-tax-state arenas.
That 0.17 percentage point differential amounts to a little under 12 free throws out of about 6,900 attempts made at those high-tax-state arenas over the course of the four seasons, or a little under 3 free throws per season. We’re going to go out on a limb here and deem those three misses not statistically significant.
What about the performance of the six teams in the zero-state-tax arenas? The interesting comparison here would be to the six teams’ overall home arena free-throw percentage, just 76.15 percent over the four seasons. The six teams all hail from relatively low-tax states. So if state tax rates impact player performance, why would the free-throw percentage at home games for those players be close to 3 percentage points lower than in the zero-tax states? The tax rate can’t explain the difference because the players will pay the same tax rate on their income from away games in zero-state-tax states as they do on income from home games, specifically, the tax rate of their home state.
And if the tax rate of the state where a team plays bears on performance at the free throw line, why did the six teams from low-tax states perform better at arenas in high-tax states, where their income would be taxed at a high rate, than they did at their home state arenas, the income from which would be taxed at the low rate of their home states? The most certain answer: Random factors explain the difference.
One such factor would be the number of free throw attempts per team, a figure that can vary significantly. Another would be the significant swings in player performance from game to game. Other factors range from differences in arena lighting and rim flex to whether better free-throw shooters played fewer minutes in games at high-tax states. Or the fact that some players thrive on the pressure of a free throw late in a closely contested game, while others perform better when the outcome of the game doesn’t depend on whether their free throws go in. Need we go on?
Okay, so, hard as they tried, Conklin and Daniel failed to show statistical support for their wild theory. The random and slight overall difference in free-throw performances at the various arenas comes in part from poorer free-throw-shooting teams playing a larger portion of their games at arenas in high-tax states. The explanation for the remainder of the difference in performance in all likelihood rests on a variety of random factors.
The unsurprising bottom line: State tax rates do not leave mega-millionaire NBA players weak-kneed at the free-throw line. NBA players, we would guess, spend less than 0.01 percent of their time thinking about their state tax rates. The only time they spend less than that thinking about state tax rates comes when they’re playing in the middle of a game, when they don’t think about those rates at all.
*One of the authors of the article discussed here has contacted us to ask that we remove from our piece any suggestion that his article opposes higher tax rates on the rich. We believe that his article, by purporting to show that higher state tax rates have a detrimental impact on athletic performance, is implying that higher tax rates on high incomes cause these rates to be a poor policy choice for any society interested in encouraging high performance. But readers remain free, of course, to draw their own conclusions.