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Archive for the ‘Fair Tax’ Category

I’m a long-time proponent of the flat tax for three simple reasons.

1. It replaces the discriminatory “progressive” tax with a single tax rate at the lowest possible level, thus reducing the tax penalty on productive behavior.

2. It gets rid of all forms of double taxation, such as the death tax and capital gains tax, meaning economic activity is never taxed more than one time.

3. Other than a family-based allowance, it gets rid of all loopholes, deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions, and preferences, meaning economic activity is taxed equally.

Some people say that these are also three reasons to favor a national sales tax.

My response is that they’re correct. In simple terms, a national sales tax (such as the Fair Tax) is like a flat tax but with a different collection point.

If you want more details, I often explain the two plans are different sides of the same coin. The only difference is that the flat tax takes of slice of your income as you earn it and the sales tax takes a slice of your income as you spend it. But neither plan has any double taxation of income that is saved and invested. And neither plan has loopholes to lure people into making economically irrational decisions.

Instead of class warfare and/or social engineering, both plans are designed to raise money is the least-damaging fashion possible.

So even though I’m mostly known for being an advocate of the flat tax, I have no objection to speaking in favor of a national sales tax, testifying in favor of a national sales tax, or debating in favor of a national sales tax.

With this bit of background, you can understand why it caught my attention that an economics professor at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) wrote a column for Forbes with the provocative title of “I Will Support The Fair Tax When Its Backers Tell The Truth”.

Professor Dorfman writes that “such a consumption tax has much to recommend it from an economic point of view” but then warns that he “cannot support the Fair Tax as long as its backers continue to make implausible claims for their proposed reform.”

So what are the implausible claims? Let’s check them out and see if his friendly criticism is warranted.

He first expresses skepticism about the claim that take-home pay will rise to the level of gross pay under a Fair Tax, particularly given the assertion that prices won’t rise.

…the odds are that your gross pay will shrink over time under the Fair Tax. …employers can offer workers lower pay because of the lower cost of living (same prices, but higher take home pay). Because workers evaluate pay offers based on the purchasing power of that pay, the same competitive forces that will lower prices after the removal of business taxes, will lead to lower pay for employees in the long run as the labor market adjusts.

I suspect Professor Dorfman’s critique is correct, but I don’t think it matters. Workers understandably care first and foremost about the purchasing power of their paycheck, and that won’t be negatively impacted.

The Professor than looks at whether the Fair Tax gets taxes the underground economy.

…let’s tackle the claim that the Fair tax will do a better job of collecting taxes on criminals, the underground economy, and those who underreport their income. The idea is that people may hide some of their income or that drug dealers and others in the underground economy do not report their income, but that everyone spends money so the Fair Tax will tax everyone. Unfortunately, this claim is not true… Retailers are just as capable of underreporting revenue and not sending in the corresponding Fair Tax as people are of underreporting their income. …The incentive to avoid such consumption taxes will only increase when the rate is four or five times what it is now. If you don’t believe consumption taxes suffer from collection problems, go ask Greece.

And he looks specifically at taxing criminal activity.

Another reason that the Fair Tax will not capture extra revenue from illegal activities is that it only switches which side of the transaction is missed by the tax system. Currently, while drug dealers may not report their income, the people who buy drugs are paying with after-tax income. Under the Fair Tax, the drug dealers will pay tax when they spend their drug profits. However, unless the drug dealer sends in the Fair Tax on their sales, the drug buyers will now avoid tax on their purchases. Under either tax system, one side of the underground transactions will be paying taxes and one will not.

I think Professor Dorfman is correct, particularly in his explanation that drug dealers and other criminals will not collect sales tax when they peddle their illicit goods.

And he’s also correct when he says that the Fair Tax won’t collect all taxes on legal products.

But that doesn’t mean the Fair Tax is somehow flawed. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the underground economy will shrink under a national sales tax since the incentive to evade tax (on legal products) is a function of the tax rate. So if we replace the punitive high-rate internal revenue code with a low-rate Fair Tax, there will be a higher level of compliance.

But not zero evasion, so Fair Tax supporters exaggerate if they make that claim.

The next point of contention is whether the IRS can be repealed under a Fair Tax.

…some agency needs to collect all the sales taxes, ensure retailers are sending in the full amount, and handle all the mechanics of the prebate. The prebate requires this federal agency to know everyone’s family size and have a bank account or other method of sending out the prebate each month. So while individuals will have less interaction with the federal tax agency, there will still be some. For retail businesses, their interactions with federal tax officials will be at least as much as now, if not more.

The Professor is right, though this may be a matter of semantics. Fair Tax people acknowledge there will be a tax collector (the legislation creates an incentive for states to be in charge of collecting the tax), but they say that the tax authority under their system will be completely different than the abusive IRS we have today.

Last but not least is the controversy over whether everyone benefits under a Fair Tax.

…while Fair Tax proponents often act like nobody loses under the Fair Tax that is simply not possible. If the Fair Tax is implemented in a revenue neutral manner (collecting the same amount of total revenue as all the taxes it replaces), and some people win then other people must lose. Poor people pay roughly no tax either way, so the Fair tax would be neutral for them. The very rich will assumedly pay less since they spend a lower percentage of their income and spend more overseas. Thus, the suspicion is that the middle class will be paying more. One other group pretty sure to pay more is the elderly. The elderly have paid income tax while earning income, and under the Fair Tax would suddenly pay high consumption taxes right when their income drops and their spending increases. In the long run, this is not a problem, but early in a Fair Tax regime, the elderly definitely are losers.

Once again, Professor Dorfman is making a good point (and others have made the same point about the flat tax).

My response, for what it’s worth, is that supporters of both the flat tax and national sales tax should not be bound by revenue neutrality. Especially if the revenue-estimating system is rigged to produce bad numbers. Instead, they should set the rate sufficiently low that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers are net winners.

And in the long run, everyone can be a net winner if the economy grows faster.

And that, as Professor Dorfman agrees, is the main reason for tax reform.

The Fair Tax really has much to recommend it. It is simpler than the current system. It causes fewer distortions in the daily economic decisions that people make. The main distortion it does introduce is positive: to encourage saving and discourage consumption which would make the country wealthier in the long run.

Though I would quibble with the wording of this last excerpt. I don’t think the Fair Tax creates a pro-savings distortion. Instead, it removes an anti-savings bias. Just like the flat tax.

Now let me add a friendly criticism that Professor Dorfman didn’t address.

Advocates of the Fair Tax correctly say that their proposal shouldn’t be implemented until and unless the income tax is fully repealed. But as I explain in this video, that may be an impossible undertaking.

To be blunt, I don’t trust politicians. I fear that they would gladly adopt some form of consumption tax while secretly scheming to keep the income tax.

P.S. Actually, what I really want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax. Our nation enjoyed strong growth before that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was imposed, so why concede that politicians today should have either a flat tax or Fair Tax? But that’s an issue for another day.

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I’m ecumenical on tax reform. I’ll support any plan that rips up the internal revenue code and instead lowers tax rates, reduces double taxation, and cuts out distorting loopholes.

And as I explain in this interview, both the flat tax and national sales tax have a low tax rate. They also get rid of double taxation and they both wipe out the rat’s nest of deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, and exemptions.

You’ll notice, however, that I wasn’t very optimistic in the interview about the possibility of replacing the IRS with a simple and fair tax system.

But perhaps I’m being needlessly gloomy. New polling data from Reason-Rupe show that there’s very strong support for reform. At least if you favor a flat tax.

This doesn’t mean we can expect genuine tax reform tomorrow or the next day.

President Obama is viscerally committed to class-warfare tax policy, for instance, and special interest groups would vigorously resist if there was a real possibility (they would say threat) of scrapping the current tax code.

But it does suggest that tax reform – at least in the form of a flat tax – could happen if there was real leadership in Washington.

So maybe my fantasies will become reality!

And one of the best arguments for reform is that the internal revenue code is an unfair mess.

Consider how rich people are treated by the tax code. The system is so complicated that we can’t tell whether they’re paying too much (because of high rates and pervasive double taxation) or paying too little (because of special preferences and tax shelters).

Regardless, we do know that they can afford lots of lobbyists, lawyers, and accountants. So even though they are far more likely to be audited, they have ample ability to defend themselves.

But the real lesson, as I explain in this CNBC interview, is that the right kind of tax reform would lead to a simple system that treats everyone fairly.

I’m also glad I used the opportunity to grouse about the IRS getting politicized and corrupted.

But I wish there had been more time in the interview so I could have pointed out that IRS data reveal that you get a lot more revenue from the rich when tax rates are more reasonable.

And I also wish I had seen the Reason-Rupe poll so I could have bragged that there was strong support for a flat tax.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have been able to make the same claim about the national sales tax. I haven’t seen any recent public opinion data on the Fair Tax or other similar plans, but a poll from last year failed to find majority support for such a proposal.

And a Reason-Rupe poll from 2011 showed only 33 percent support for a national sales tax.

That won’t stop me from defending the national sales tax. After all, it is based on the same principles as a flat tax.

But the polls do suggest (as do anecdotes from the campaign trail) that a flat tax is a more politically viable option for reformers.

The moral of the story is that it makes more sense to push for the flat tax. After all, if I have an easy route and a hard route to get to the same destination, why make life more difficult?

Though the ultimate libertarian fantasy is shrinking government back to what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Then we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax of any kind.

P.S. Here’s my choice for the strangest-loophole award.

P.P.S. Since I shared a poll today with good news, I may as well link to a tax poll that left me somewhat depressed.

P.P.P.S. Let’s end with some IRS humor.

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I’m at Hillsdale College in Michigan for a conference on taxation. The event is called “The Federal Income Tax: A Centenary Consideration,” though I would have called it something like “100 Years of Misery from the IRS.”

I’m glad to be here, both because Hillsdale proudly refuses to take government money (which would mean being ensnared by government rules) and also because I’ve heard superb speeches by scholars such as Amity Shlaes (author of The Forgotten Man, as well as a new book on Calvin Coolidge that is now on my must-read list) and George Gilder (author of Wealth and Poverty, as well as the forthcoming Knowledge and Power).

My modest contribution was to present “The Case for the Flat Tax,” and I was matched up – at least indirectly, since there were several hours between our presentations – against former Congressman John Linder, who gave “The Case for the Fair Tax.”

I was very ecumenical in my remarks.  I pointed out the flat tax and sales tax (and even, at least in theory, the value-added tax) all share very attractive features.

  • A single (and presumably low) tax rate, thus treating taxpayers equally and minimizing the penalty on productive behavior.
  • No double taxation of saving and investment since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth.
  • Elimination of all loopholes (other than mechanisms to protect the poor from tax) to promote efficiency and reduce corruption.
  • Dramatically downsize and neuter the IRS by replacing 72,000 pages of complexity with simple post-card sized tax forms.

For all intents and purposes the flat tax and sales tax are different sides of the same coin. The only real difference is the collection point. The flat tax takes a bite of your income as it is earned and the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent.

That being said, I do have a couple of qualms about the Fair Tax and other national sales tax plans.

First, I don’t trust politicians. I can envision the crowd in Washington adopting a national sales tax (or VAT) while promising to phase out the income tax over a couple of years. But I’m afraid they’ll discover some “temporary” emergency reason to keep the income tax, followed by another “short-term” excuse. And when the dust settles, we’ll be stuck with both an income tax and a sales tax.

As we know from the European VAT evidence, this is a recipe for even bigger government. That’s a big downside risk.

I explore my concerns in this video.

To be sure, there are downside risks to the flat tax. It’s quite possible, after all, that we could get a flat tax and then degenerate back to something resembling the current system (though that’s still better than being France!).

My second qualm is political. The Fair Tax seems to attract very passionate supporters, which is admirable, but candidates in competitive states and districts are very vulnerable to attacks when they embrace the national sales tax.

On dozens of occasions over the past 15-plus years, I’ve had to explain to reporters that why anti-sales tax demagoguery is wrong.

So I hope it’s clear that I’m not opposed to the concept. Heck, I’ve testified before Congress about the benefits of a national sales tax and I’ve debated on C-Span about how the national sales tax is far better than the current system.

I would be delighted to have a national sales tax, but what I really want is a low-rate, non-discriminatory system that isn’t biased against saving and investment.

Actually, what I want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax, but that’s an issue for another day.

Returning to the issue of tax reform, there’s no significant economic difference between the flat tax and the sales tax. What we’re really debating is how to replace the squalid internal revenue code with something worthy of a great nation.

And if there are two paths to the same destination and one involves crossing an alligator-infested swamp and the other requires a stroll through a meadow filled with kittens and butterflies, I know which one I’m going to choose. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but I think you get my point.

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Actually, the title of this post should probably read, “The Good, Good, Good, Bad, and the Ugly.”

That’s because Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan has low tax rates, it eliminates double taxation, and it wipes out loopholes, and those are three very big and very good things.

The bad part, as I explain here, is that Cain would let politicians impose a national sales tax at the same time as an income tax.

And the ugly part is that he also would let them impose a value-added tax as well, as I discuss here.

I pontificate on all these issues in the latest Coffee and Markets podcast, which you can listen to by clicking here.

In closing, I will admit that it’s been very frustrating to deal with Cain’s plan. Supporters of Cain accuse me of being too critical and opponents of Cain accuse me of being too nice.

Normally, I don’t like being in the middle of the road, but that seems to be the only logical place to be since 9-9-9 has some really good features and some really bad features.

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I’m very enthusiastic – but also a little worried – about Herman Cain’s tax plan.

So when I got the opportunity to write a short column for the New York Times, I explained that his proposal was very good tax policy, in large part because it is based on the same principles as the flat tax.

The flat tax is desirable for a wide range of reasons, including simplicity, fairness and transparency. It also would end the widespread and corrupt process of inserting loopholes and preferences in the code in exchange for campaign cash and political support. But public finance economists generally like the flat tax for different reasons, most notably the pro-growth impact… For the same reasons, people should like Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. …It is based on the idea that the tax rate should not penalize people for being productive, and even an ardent supply-side sympathizer like me can’t complain too much about a 9 percent rate. Another key principle is the repeal of most forms of double taxation… Cain also takes a chainsaw to the underbrush of credits, deductions, shelters, loopholes, exemptions, and other distortions in the tax code.

But I then expressed my concern that the 9-9-9 plan might morph into something we don’t want.

This doesn’t mean Cain’s tax plan is perfect. The biggest concern, at least from many on the right, is that he would allow the crowd in Washington to simultaneously impose a flat tax, a national sales tax and (apparently) a form of value-added tax. This might not be a problem if there was some way of guaranteeing that none of the rates could ever climb above 9 percent. Unfortunately, the European experience (especially with VATs) does not leave much room for optimism. Sooner or later, politicians who want bigger government can’t resist pushing tax rates higher. And when the dust settles, you become Greece. Which is why Cain should not have reinvented the wheel. If he wants a low rate, no double taxation and no loopholes, the flat tax has all the upsides and none of the downsides of the 9-9-9 plan.

My basic message is that 9-9-9 should be turned into a postcard because the flat tax is a safer way of achieving the same goals.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax, after all, is that politicians begin to re-install loopholes and re-impose discriminatory rates and we wind up with something that looks like the current system.

But that’s a lot better than being Greece.

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I became a big admirer of Herman Cain back in the 1990s when he was a member of the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform (aka, the Kemp Commission).

I worked as a staffer for the Commission and was able to observe Mr. Cain in action over a period of several months. Suffice to say I like what I saw. Unlike many people in DC, he is not an empty suit.

That doesn’t means he’s perfect, as illustrated by his support for the TARP bailout, but he’s definitely on the right side of the dividing line between those who want freedom and those who want statism.

And his victory in the Florida straw poll is bringing lots of deserved attention to his campaign, leading several people to ask what I think about his economic agenda.

To get right to the point, it’s a very Reaganesque package of lower taxes and more freedom that can be divided into three parts.

1. His short-run plan, which he calls the “Immediate Boost,” is to slash personal and corporate tax rates to 25 percent and eliminate the capital gains tax.

2. His intermediate plan, which he calls the “Enhanced Plan,” eliminates the death tax and the payroll tax. But the most important part is the 9-9-9 plan, which is a 9 percent tax rate on personal income, a 9 percent tax rate on corporate income, and a 9 percent national sales tax.

3. His long-run agenda, which he calls the “Fair Tax,” is to eliminate all personal and corporate income taxes and adopt a national sales tax.

This all sounds great, but let me do a bit of nit-picking. I want to focus on part 2, particularly the 9-9-9 plan.

It’s fine in theory. Heck, it’s great in theory. It means low tax rates on productive behavior. It means no double taxation of saving and investment. And it means no corrupt and inefficient loopholes.

What’s not to love about a plan that achieves all these principles?

But here’s the problem. If you happen to be one of those people (such as me) who does not trust politicians, then we run a grave risk if we ever let the crowd in Washington impose any sort of national sales tax without first getting rid of all income taxes.

I have faith that Herman Cain’s heart is in the right place, but years of experience in Washington have taught me to always assume politicians will grab more power and more money at every possible opportunity.

This is why I made this video, explaining why a national sales tax is only acceptable if the Constitution is amended to permanently bar any form of income taxation.

Let me put it more bluntly. A national sales tax – such as a Fair Tax or a VAT – would be a less destructive way of raising revenue than the current tax system.

But any form of national sales tax, if imposed on top of the income tax, would be a disaster. The experience of Europe shows that national sales tax are a money machine for big government.

This is why a national sales tax can only be put on the table after the income tax is repealed. But since I don’t trust politicians, we need to also amend the Constitution to repeal the 16th Amendment that allowed income taxes.

But since many Supreme Court Justices seem oblivious to the Constitution, we would actually need to replace the 16th Amendment with a new amendment that is completely unambiguous about banning any tax on income in perpetuity.

In other words, the income tax needs to be sealed in a lead vault, buried under 10 feet of concrete, and then covered by a foot of salt so nothing can ever grow back to haunt the American people.

Once these things happen, then we can adopt a national sales tax. See, I can be open-minded and reasonable.

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If you go to the IRS website, there are about one thousand forms (and accompanying material such as instruction documents) that you can download.

Fortunately, most of us only have to worry about a small fraction of what’s on that list, but it’s still a nightmare – and one that gets worse every year because politicians have an endless appetite for manipulating our lives and auctioning off new loopholes for campaign cash.

So let’s take a few minutes to review the features of a tax system that is simple and fair (and pro-growth). I’m talking about the flat tax, which now is successfully working in about 30 nations.

Just a quick caveat for my friends who prefer the national sales tax. Yes, that system also would be a vast improvement. But since the Fair Tax or something like that would require a constitutional amendment to ensure that politicians couldn’t impose both a sales tax and income tax, that’s more of a long-term project.

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