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Archive for the ‘Tax Reform’ Category

Some statements are so lame that they now serve only as punch lines.

Nobody, after all, would ever claim to a teacher that “the dog ate my homework.”

Moreover, surely few if any people ever actually assert to bill collectors that “the check is in the mail.”

And I have to imagine that no guy would be dumb enough to think a girl would fall for the line that “I’ll still love you in the morning.”

But we now have a new champion in the contest for the most laughable and pathetic assertion ever made.

But first some background. Congressional investigators have been trying to figure out the level of criminality and malfeasance in the IRS’s campaign to interfere with the 2012 election by targeting Tea Party groups. Much of the attention has focused on the activities of Lois Lerner, a left-wing ideologue at the center of the scandal.

And it is because of this investigation that we have a winner in the most-preposterous excuse contest. The political hacks at the IRS are now claiming, with straight faces, that they can’t turn over thousands of emails sent and received by Lois Lerner because of a “computer mishap.”

Here’s some of what’s been reported by the Washington Times.

The IRS has told Congress that it has lost some of former employee Lois G. Lerner’s emails from 2009 through 2011, including those she sent to other federal agencies… Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he was stunned… “The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’s response to congressional inquiries,” Mr. Camp said. “There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the Inspector General.” …the emails lost were “critical years” from the beginning of the targeting of conservative groups.

At this point, I suppose I should acknowledge that there’s an infinitesimally tiny chance that the IRS is being honest. Maybe, just maybe, the IRS’s immense computer infrastructure and multiple levels of redundant back up happened to fail. And, by an amazing coincidence, they can recover everything except the emails from Lois Lerner that were sent at precisely the time she was instrumental in the IRS’s harassment campaign.

Yeah, right, there’s a chance the IRS is being honest. Just like the Nixon White House could have accidentally erased 18-1/2 minutes of tape.

That being said, there’s a chance I’ll be playing center field next month for the New York Yankees. And an even bigger chance that the models from Victoria’s Secret will invite me for a weekend orgy (and just in case the Princess of the Levant is reading this, I naturally would say no).

Let me now detour into the world of public policy.

The IRS’s venal and corrupt behavior is only possible because the tax code is a Byzantine nightmare of about 75,000 pages. And that doesn’t even include all the tax court decisions and IRS letter rulings that also govern the internal revenue code.

It is this thicket of special-interest sleaze that enables hacks like Lois Lerner to wield unjustified power.

So if we want to actually reduce the chances of similar malfeasance in the future, then action is needed.

But I’m not just talking about prison for the crooks who tried to misuse the power of government.

We also need to rip up the internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

As you can see in this video, I’m mostly a fan of tax reform because it will help the American economy. But I’m also delighted the flat tax will reduce the discretionary power of politicians and bureaucrats.

In the long run, of course, it would be even better if we shrank the federal government so much that we didn’t need any broad-based tax of any kind.

 

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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 realize this may be a thought crime by DC standards, but it sure would be nice to eliminate the high tax rates that undermine economic growth and reduce American competitiveness.

At the risk of sharing too much information, I fantasize about a world without the internal revenue code. In addition to getting rid of high tax rates, I also want to abolish the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Tax Code PagesJust as important, I want to wipe out the distorting loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of politically connected interest groups. And I daydream about how much easier tax day would be if ordinary people didn’t have to figure out how to comply with an ever-changing tax code.

But perhaps you’re a normal person and you don’t dwell on these topics. Your fantasies probably have nothing to do with fiscal policy and instead involve that hottie in your neighborhood.

That’s fine. I’m actually envious of well-adjusted people who don’t fixate on the cesspool of Washington.

But – at the very least – I want you to agree that America needs fundamental tax reform. And to help persuade you,  here are some fresh stories to remind you that the tax code and the IRS are a blight on society.

For instance, how do you feel about the IRS engaging in partisan politics, as reported by the Washington Times.

Even as the IRS faces growing heat over Lois G. Lerner and the tea party targeting scandal, a government watchdog said Wednesday it’s pursuing cases against three other tax agency employees and offices suspected of illegal political activity in support of President Obama and fellow Democrats. …the Office of Special Counsel…said it was “commonplace” in a Dallas IRS office for employees to have pro-Obama screensavers on their computers, and to have campaign-style buttons and stickers at their office. In another case, a worker at the tax agency’s customer help line urged taxpayers “to re-elect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name,” the Office of Special Counsel said in a statement. …Another IRS employee in Kentucky has agreed to serve a 14-day suspension for blasting Republicans in a conversation with a taxpayer.

For more information about this nauseating scandal, read the wise words of Tim Carney and Doug Bandow.

Or what about the time, expense, and anxiety that the tax code causes for small businesses? Heck, even the Washington Post has noticed this is a big issue.

More than half of small employers say the administrative burdens and paperwork associated with tax season pose the greatest harm to their businesses, according to a new survey by the National Small Business Association. Forty-seven percent say the actual tax bill hits their companies the hardest. On average, small-business owners spend more than 40 hours — the equivalent of a full workweek — filing their federal taxes every year. One in four spends at least three full weeks on the annual chore. There is also the expense of doing that work. Only 12 percent of employers filed their taxes on their own this year, down from 15 percent last year — and hiring help can be pricey. Half spent more than $5,000 on accountants and administrative costs last year. One in four spent more than $10,000.

I was tempted to say compliance costs add insult to injury, except that understates the problem. Watch this video if you want to understand why the tax code needs to be junked.

And let’s not forget that high tax rates are pointlessly destructive and bad for America. Dozens of companies have redomiciled in other jurisdictions to get out from under America’s punitive corporate tax system. And more are looking at that option. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Financial Times.

Walgreens has come under pressure from an influential group of its shareholders, who want the US pharmacy chain to consider relocating to Europe, in what would be one of the largest tax inversions ever attempted. …The move, known as an inversion, would dramatically reduce Walgreens’ taxable income in the US, which has among the highest corporate tax rates in the world. …In a note last month, analysts at UBS said Walgreens’ tax rate was expected to be 37.5 per cent compared with 20 per cent for Boots, and that an inversion could increase earnings per share by 75 per cent. They added, however, that “Walgreens’ management seems more hesitant to pull the trigger near-term due to perceived political risks.”

By the way, “perceived political risks” is a polite way of saying that the team at Walgreens is worried that the company might be targeted by the crowd in Washington. In other words, it will be attacked if it does the right thing for workers, consumers, and shareholders.

But that’s blaming the victim. All you really need to know is that America’s corporate tax system is so harsh that companies don’t just escape to Ireland, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and Bermuda. They even find better fiscal policy in Canada and the United Kingdom!

Last but not least, do you trust the IRS with your confidential financial data? If you answer yes, seek help right away from a mental health professional and check out these stories.

According to the Washington Times:

A new cost-saving computer technology being implemented by the IRS has left the agency vulnerable to hacking, putting taxpayers’ info at risk, an investigative report has found. …although the IRS has developed cybersecurity guidelines, many of the servers aren’t following them, said a report by the agency’s internal watchdog, the Inspector General for Tax Administration. In fact, the servers failed 43 percent of the tests investigators put them through, though they aren’t releasing what those tests and settings are due to security concerns.

According to a Bloomberg report:

A U.S. Internal Revenue Service employee took home a computer thumb drive containing unencrypted data on 20,000 fellow workers, the agency said in a statement today. …The IRS said it’s working with its inspector general to investigate the incident. The IRS statement didn’t say why the incident was discovered now, didn’t include the name of the employee who used the thumb drive and didn’t say whether the employee still works at the IRS.

And National Review has reported:

The Internal Revenue Service stole and improperly accessed 60 million medical records after raiding a California company, according to a legal complaint filed in March with the California superior court for San Diego. …“No search warrant authorized the seizure of these records; no subpoena authorized the seizure of these records; none of the 10,000,000 Americans were under any kind of known criminal or civil investigation and their medical records had no relevance whatsoever to the IRS search.”

So what’s the bottom line? I suppose there are different interpretations, but my view is that the system is irretrievably broken. It needs to be shredded and replaced.

What are the options?

My real fantasy is to have a very small federal government. Then we wouldn’t need a broad-based tax of any kind.

But I also have incremental fantasies. Until we can shrink the federal government to its proper size, let’s at least figure out ways of collecting revenue that are much less destructive and much less unfair.

The flat tax is one possible answer.

I’m also a fan of the national sales tax, though only if we first amend the Constitution to ensure that politicians don’t pull a bait-and-switch and burden us with both an income tax and sales tax!

To be more specific, I’m a fan of the Fair Tax, but only if we make sure that politicians never again have the ability to impose an income tax.

P.S. Since we’re on the subject of taxes, folks in Northern New Jersey, Southern New York, and New York City may be interested in a tax symposium this Thursday at Ramapo College in Mahway, New Jersey. Along with several other speakers, I’ll be pontificating on the following question: “The Income Tax:
Necessary Evil, Or the Root of All Evil?”

The college is convenient to I-287 near the New York/New Jersey border. Say hello if you attend.

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As much as I condemn American politicians for bad policy, things could be worse.

We could be Greek citizens, which would be very depressing. Indeed, you’ll understand why I put Obamaland in the title after you read today’s column.

Simply stated, Greece is a cesspool of statism. The people seem to be wonderful (at least outside of polling booths), but government intervention is pervasive and atrocious.

Here’s an example. As I was coming in a taxi from the airport to the city yesterday, we passed some sort of protest. There were a couple of hundred people at the rally and probably about 50 riot cops.

I naturally wondered about the situation, expecting that it was radical statists or some of the crazies from Golden Dawn. But the cab driver explained that it was pharmacists.

So why are pharmacists protesting? I found out from some of the locals at the Free Market Road Show that this is a heavily regulated and protected sector of the Greek economy.

The government has rules, for instance, that products such as aspirin and other painkillers can only be purchased at pharmacies. The bureaucracy also rigs all the prices to preclude competition. And there are even government policies that make it very difficult for new pharmacies to compete against the established firms.

When special interests have that much power, no wonder Greece is in trouble.

Thought there are some sectors of the business community, such as online entrepreneurs, that are treated like crap. Literally.

Here’s another example from a Wall Street Journal report, albeit one where a modest bit of progress has been achieved.

For the first time in more than a hundred years, Greece is sacking public servants. In 1911, Greece introduced jobs for life under Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Now, a century later, his descendant, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s minister for administrative reform, is faced with the delicate task of slimming down the massive public sector this law helped create. …In exchange for…aid, Greece has promised to cut the government workforce by at least 150,000 by 2015 through attrition, and to lay off an additional 15,000 outright by the end of this year. Another 25,000 would be placed in the temporary labor pool. Of those goals, the first has been reached: Greece had 713,000 government workers at the end of 2012, down 122,000 from the end of 2010. …But the labor pool is still a work in progress. Last July, the first 4,000 employees were put in that pool, while another 8,000 or so followed a few months later. Few of them are expected to be rehired. And with Greece’s unemployment rate already close to 30%, few expect to find jobs in the private sector.

I actually feel a bit sorry for some of these people.

They probably took jobs in the bureaucracy without ever thinking about who was paying their salaries and without giving any thought to the featherbedding and waste that accompany most public sector positions.

But I bet they voted for the politicians that dramatically expanded the number of bureaucrats, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy.

In any event, they’re understandably worried now that the gravy train is being derailed.

Or maybe the gravy is still there, but in different forms.

It appears that there’s still taxpayer money floating around that can be wasted in interesting ways.

Here are some excerpts from the Guardian about EU-funded “anger management” for some of Greece’s senior tax bureaucrats.

Until Greece’s economic meltdown, anger management was an alien concept at the country’s finance ministry. …Today these are the buzzwords flying around the ground-floor training room at 1 Handris Street. For tax inspectors attending mandatory seminars at the government building, anger management, like patience and politesse, are now seen as essential prerequisites of an increasingly stressful job. “Today, in Greece, everyone is either unhappy or angry when they have to go and pay at the tax office,” Fotis Kourmouris, a senior official at the finance ministry’s public revenues department said. “There is a lot of negative emotion … in the framework of better customer service, classes in psychological and emotional intelligence had become necessary.”

I wouldn’t call it “negative emotion.”

This is a long-overdue revolt of the Greek tax slaves.

…inspectors have found themselves at the sharp end of popular rage. In recent months visiting auditors have been chased out of remote villages, hounded out of towns and booted off islands by an increasingly desperate populace. “We’ve had multiple cases of violence at tax offices by angry members of public, including physical assaults; shots were fired in one case, and one attacker came with an axe,” said Trifonas Alexiadis, vice-chairman of the national association of employees at state financial services.

But when you read how the Greek government is trying to rape and pillage taxpayers, you can understand the anger.

A series of new tax laws has further fuelled public anger. Since the outbreak of the crisis, close to 30 new levies have been introduced by governments desperate to augment empty state coffers. “Too much pressure is being put on people who can’t pay,” said Alexiadis, who suggested that in such circumstances the classes were not only ill-conceived but “juvenile and unnecessary”. …accountant Heracles Galanakopoulos agreed. “They produce a law that nobody understands and then produce another three to explain it. By the time people get here they are really very angry,” he lamented… “I spend at least five or six hours a day reading up on all these new laws and still can’t keep up. Anger management is a nice idea but in a system that is so absurd it’s not going to make a jot of difference.”

Amen. As I’ve argued before, Greece’s problem is high tax rates. Evasion is simply a function of a bad tax code.

Let’s close with some Greek-related humor.

I very much recommend this very funny video from a Greek comedian and this politically incorrect map of how the Greeks view the rest of Europe.

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I generally get very suspicious when rich people start pontificating on tax policy.

People like Warren Buffett, for instance, sometimes advocate higher taxes because they’re trying to curry favor with the political elite. Or maybe they feel compelled to say silly things to demonstrate that they feel guilty about their wealth.

Tax SystemRegardless, I don’t like their policy proposal (as you can see from TV debates here and here).

That being said, I also realize that stereotypes can be very unfair, so it’s important to judge each argument on the merits and not to reject an idea simply because it comes from a rich guy.

That’s why I was very interested to see that Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire software maker, decided to add his two cents to the discussion of tax reform.

Here’s what Gates said at an American Enterprise Institute forum (transcript here and video here).

…economists would have said that a progressive consumption tax is a better construct, you know, at any point in history. What I’m saying is that it’s even more important as we go forward.

He doesn’t really expand on those remarks other than to say that it’s important to reduce the tax on labor.

That part of Gates’ remarks doesn’t make much sense for the simple reason that workers are equally harmed whether the government takes 20 percent of their income when it’s earned or 20 percent of their income when it’s spent.

But his embrace of a “progressive consumption tax” is very intriguing.

I don’t like the “progressive” part because that’s shorthand for high marginal tax rates, and that type of class-warfare policy is a gateway to corruption and is also damaging to growth (see here, here, here, here, and here).

But the “consumption” part is one of the key features of all good tax reform plans.

For all intents and purposes, a “consumption tax” is any system that avoids the mistake of double-taxing income that is saved and invested.

Both the national sales tax and the value-added tax, for instance, are examples of consumption-based tax systems.

But the flat tax also is a consumption tax. It isn’t collected at the cash register like a sales tax, but it has the same “tax base.”

Under a flat tax, income is taxed – but only one time – when it is earned. Under a sales tax, income is taxed – but only one time – when it is spent. They’re different sides of the same coin.

Most important, neither the flat tax nor the sales tax has extra layers of tax on saving and investment. And that’s what makes them “consumption” taxes in the wonky world of public finance economists.

This means no death tax, no capital gains tax, no double taxation of interest or dividends. And businesses get a common-sense cash-flow system of taxation, which means punitive depreciation rules are replaced by “expensing.”

So Bill Gates is halfway on the path to tax policy salvation. His endorsement of so-called progressivity is wrong, but his support for getting rid of double taxation is right.

If you like getting into the weeds of tax policy, it’s interesting to note that Gates is advocating the opposite of the plan that was proposed by Congressman Dave Camp.

Camp wants to go in the right direction regarding rates, but he wants to exacerbate the tax code’s bias against capital. Here’s what I said to Politico.

Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he didn’t see it as an individual versus business issue, but rather took issue with Camp’s punitive treatment of savings and investment. “The way Camp is extracting more money from businesses — more punitive depreciation and the like — is he is making the tax system more biased against savings and investment,” said Mitchell, who worked for Republican Sen. Bob Packwood after the historic 1986 tax act that Packwood helped negotiate as chair of the Finance Committee.

By the way, this doesn’t mean Camp’s plan is bad. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the good and bad features.

Just like that type of analysis was appropriate in 1986, when the bad provisions that increased taxes on saving and investment were offset by a big reduction in marginal tax rates.

The 1986 law did take aim at some popular business benefits, including a lucrative investment tax credit. But the reward was a lot sweeter. “At least then, we got a big, big reduction in tax rates in exchange,” Mitchell said.

Here’s an interview I did with Blaze TV on Congressman Camp’s plan. If you pay attention near the beginning (at about the 2:00 mark), you’ll see my matrix on how to grade tax reform plans.

Now let’s circle back to the type of tax system endorsed by Bill Gates.

We obviously don’t know what he favors beyond a “progressive consumption tax,” but that bit of information allows us to say that he wants something at least somewhat similar to the old “USA Tax” that was supported by folks such as former Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici.

Is that better than the current tax system?

Probably yes, though we can’t say for sure because it’s possible they may want to increase tax rates by such a significant amount that the plan becomes a net minus for the economy.

Not that any of this matters since I doubt we’ll get tax reform in my lifetime.

P.S. Speaking of taxes and the rich, you’ll enjoy this very clever interview exposing the hypocrisy of wealthy leftists.

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Obamacare may not be good news for taxpayers or consumers, but let’s look at the bright side. At least the law has generated some superb political humor, including funny videos.

*The head of the National Socialist Workers Party finds out he can’t keep his health plan.

*A creepy version of Uncle Sam wants to know about your sex life.

*Young people discover that they’re screwed by Obamacare.

*One of the biggest statists of the 20th century is angry that the Obamacare exchanges don’t work.

We have another addition to this amusing collection. This cartoon video employs lots of snark to expose the illogical underpinnings of Obamacare.

My one complaint with this video, though, is that it merely scratches the surface.

Yes, Obamacare is a cluster-you-know-what, but there are many other government programs and policies that cause inefficiency and high costs

Here’s some of what I wrote on this topic back in 2009, starting with an explanation of how government intervention in the tax code has distorted the insurance market and turned it into an inefficient form of pre-paid healthcare.

Insurance is supposed to be for unforseen major expenses, such as a heart attack. But our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues discussed above, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans.

I then ask readers to contemplate what car insurance would look like if government also intervened in that market. Or to think about the consequences if insurance for houses also was subject to government-caused distortion.

Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

The best way of fixing the mess in health insurance, for what it’s worth, is a flat tax. This is because the “healthcare exclusion” is repealed and compensation in the form of fringe benefits is taxed at the same (low) rate as other forms of income.

This presumably will end the incentive for gold-plated Cadillac health plans since workers – once the playing field is level – will prefer a greater amount cash compensation. So health plans gradually will be scaled back so they offer genuine insurance.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity offers a good explanation.

You also should watch this Reason TV video that shows a real-world example of how prices fall and the system is more efficient when consumers are in charge of healthcare.

For the same reason, I also recommend this story from North Carolina, as well as this example of capitalism from Maine.

It’s also worth noting that there are a few tiny parts of our healthcare system where markets are allowed to operate and consumers are in charge of spending their own money, and in these areas – such as cosmetic surgery, laser eye surgery, and abortion (regardless of whether you approve or disapprove) – we find stable prices and rising quality.

Free markets work…when they’re allowed to function.

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The President’s new budget has been unveiled.

There are lots of provisions that deserve detailed attention, but I always look first at the overall trends. Most specifically, I want to see what’s happening with the burden of government spending.

And you probably won’t be surprised to see that Obama isn’t imposing any fiscal restraint. He wants spending to increase more than twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.

Obama 2015 Budget Growth

What makes these numbers so disappointing is that we learned last month that even a modest bit of spending discipline is all that’s needed to balance the budget.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the President also wants a $651 billion tax hike.

That’s in addition to the big fiscal cliff tax hike from early last and the (thankfully smaller) tax increase in the Ryan-Murray budget that was approved late last year.

P.S. Since we’re talking about government spending, I may as well add some more bad news.

I’ve shared some really outrageous examples of government waste, but here’s a new example that has me foaming at the mouth. Government bureaucrats are flying in luxury and sticking taxpayers with big costs. Here are some of the odious details from the Washington Examiner.

What can $4,367 buy? For one NASA employee, it bought a business-class flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Vienna, Austria. Coach-class fare for the same flight was $39. The federal government spent millions of dollars on thousands of upgraded flights for employees in 2012 and 2013, paying many times more for business and first-class seats than the same flights would have cost in coach or the government-contracted rate. …Agencies report their premium travel expenses to the General Services Administration each year. These reports were obtained by the Washington Examiner through Freedom of Information Act requests. …The most common reasons across agencies for such “premium” flights in 2012 and 2013 were medical necessities and flights with more than 14 hours of travel time.

By the way, “medical necessities” is an easily exploited loophole. All too often, bureaucrats get notes from their doctors saying that they have bad backs (or something similarly dodgy) and that they require extra seating space.

Probably the same doctors who participate in the disability scam.

But I’m digressing. It’s sometimes hard to focus when there are so many examples of foolish government policy.

Let’s look at more examples of taxpayers getting reamed.

One such flight was a trip from Washington, D.C., to Brussels, Belgium, which cost $6,612 instead of $863. Similar mission-required upgrades included several flights to Kuwait for $6,911 instead of $1,471, a flight from D.C. to Tokyo for $7,234 instead of $1,081 and a trip from D.C. to Paris for $6,037 instead of $477. …NASA employees also racked up a long list of flights that cost 26, 72 and even 112 times the cost of coach fares, according to Examiner calculations. Several space agency employees flew from Oslo, Norway, to Tromso, Norway — a trip that should have cost $65. Instead, each flew business class for $4,668. Another NASA employee flew from Frankfurt, Germany, to Cologne, Germany, for $6,851 instead of $133, a flight that cost almost 52 times more than the coach fare. …One flight from D.C. to Hanoi, Vietnam, for an informational meeting cost $15,529 instead of $1,649, according to the agency’s 2012 report.

Frankfurt to Cologne for $6851?!? Did the trip include caviar and a masseuse? A domestic flight in Norway for $4668? Was the plane made of gold?

I do enough international travel to know that these prices are absurd, even if you somehow think bureaucrats should get business class travel (and they shouldn’t).

And as you might suspect, much of the travel was for wasteful boondoggles.

Department of the Interior employees, for example, flew to such exotic locations as Costa Rica, Denmark, Japan and South Africa in 2012. …The Department of Labor sent employees to places like Vietnam and the Philippines for “informational meetings,” conferences and site visits.

The one sliver of good news is that taxpayers didn’t get ripped off to the same extent last year as they did the previous year.

The agencies spent $5.7 million in 2012, almost double the $3 million they paid for premium travel in 2013.

The moral of the story is that lowering overall budgets – as happened in 2013 – is the only effective way of reducing waste.

P.P.S. Want to know why the tax reform plan introduced by Congressman Dave Camp was so uninspiring, as I noted last week?

The answer is that he preemptively acquiesced to the left’s demands that class warfare should guide tax policy. Politico has the details.

Republicans had vowed for more than three years to slash the top individual income tax rate to 25 percent as part of a Tax Code overhaul. …last week Camp abandoned plans for a deep cut in the top marginal tax rate. He settled for 35 percent, which is just 4 percentage points lower than the current one. “It was a distribution issue,” Camp said. Getting all the way down to 25 percent “would have reduced taxes for the top 1 percent” and “I said we would be distributionally neutral.”

In other words, this is the tax code version of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Whenever the left is successful is raising the tax burden on the so-called rich (the top 20 percent already bears two-thirds of the burden), that then supposedly becomes a never-to-be-changed benchmark.

Fortunately, Reagan did not accept the left’s distorted rules and we got the Economic Recovery Tax Act in 1981, which helped trigger the 1980s boom.

And even when Reagan agreed to “distributional neutrality,” as happened as part of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, at least he got something big in exchange.

The Camp plan, by contrast, is thin gruel.

A big rate cut is what powered the last major tax overhaul, in 1986, which delivered tax cuts to every income group while slicing the top rate to 28 percent from a whopping 50 percent. …Lawmakers may look at the proposal and think: “I’m having the world coming down on me” and “all this just to get the rate down 4 points?”

That being said, the Camp plan has plenty of good features, including modest rate reductions and repeal of a few bad loopholes. But it’s accompanied by some really bad provisions, such as increased double taxation and higher taxes on business investment.

P.P.P.S. Long-time readers may remember this amusing Reagan-Obama comparison.

For understandable reasons, that’s what crossed my mind when seeing this example of Obama humor.

I should hasten to add, incidentally, that this is not to suggest I want Obama to do anything about the Ukrainian conflict (other than perhaps encourage decentralized power).

Unless one genuinely thinks that Putin has both the capacity and the desire for global imperialism, it’s hard to see how America’s national security is affected.

But I still appreciate good political humor. I like it when Obama is the target, and I like it even when it’s directed at people like me.

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To make fun of big efforts that produce small results, the famous Roman poet, Horace, wrote “The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.”

That line sums up my view of the new tax reform plan introduced by Congressman Dave Camp, Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

To his credit, Congressman Camp put in a lot of work. But I can’t help but wonder why he went through the time and trouble. To understand why I’m so underwhelmed, let’s first go back in time.

Back in 1995, tax reform was a hot issue. The House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, had proposed a flat tax. Congressman Billy Tauzin was pushing a version of a national sales tax. And there were several additional proposals jockeying for attention.

To make sense of this clutter, I wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation that demonstrated how to grade the various proposals that had been proposed.

As you can see, I included obvious features such as low tax rates, simplicity, double taxation, and social engineering, but I also graded plans based on other features such as civil liberties, fairness, and downside risk.

Tax Reform Grading Matrix

There obviously have been many new plans since I wrote this paper, most notably the Fair Tax (a different version of a national sales tax than the Tauzin plan), Simpson-Bowles, the Ryan Roadmap, Domenici-Rivlin, the Heritage Foundation’s American Dream proposal, the Baucus-Hatch blank slate, and – as noted above – the new tax reform plan by Congressman Dave Camp.

Given his powerful position as head of the tax-writing committee, let’s use the 1995 guide to assess the pros and cons of Congressman Camp’s plan.

Rates: The Top tax rate for individual taxpayers is reduced from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, which is a disappointingly modest step in the right direction. The corporate tax rate falls from 35 percent to 25 percent, which is more praiseworthy, though Camp doesn’t explain why small businesses (who file using the individual income tax) should pay higher rates than large companies.

Simplicity: Camp claims that he will eliminate 25 percent of the tax code, which certainly is welcome news since the internal revenue code has swelled to 70,000-plus pages of loopholes, exemptions, deductions, credits, penalties, exclusions, preferences, and other distortions. And his proposal does eliminate some deductions, including the state and local tax deduction (which perversely rewards states with higher fiscal burdens).

Saving and Investment: Ever since Reagan slashed tax rates in the 1980s, the most anti-growth feature of the tax code is probably the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Shockingly, the Camp plan worsens the tax treatment of capital, with higher taxation of dividends and capital gains and depreciation rules that are even more onerous than current law.

Social Engineering: Some of the worst distortions in the tax code are left in place, including the healthcare exclusion for almost all taxpayers. This means that people will continue to make economically irrational decisions solely to benefit from certain tax provisions.

Civil Liberties: The Camp plan does nothing to change the fact that the IRS has both the need and the power to collect massive amounts of private financial data from taxpayers. Nor does the proposal end the upside-down practice of making taxpayers prove their innocence in any dispute with the tax authorities.

Fairness: In a non-corrupt tax system, all income is taxed, but only one time. On this basis, the plan from the Ways & Means Chairman is difficult to assess. Loopholes are slightly reduced, but double taxation is worse, so it’s hard to say whether the system is more fair or less fair.

Risk: There is no value-added tax, which is a critically important feature of any tax reform plan. As such, there is no risk the Camp plan will become a Trojan Horse for a massive expansion in the fiscal burden.

Evasion: People are reluctant to comply with the tax system when rates are punitive and/or there’s a perception of rampant unfairness. It’s possible that the slightly lower statutory rates may improve incentives to obey the law, but that will be offset by the higher tax burden on saving and investment.

International Competitiveness: Reducing the corporate tax rate will help attract jobs and investment, and the plan also mitigates some of worst features of America’s “worldwide” tax regime.

Now that we’ve taken a broad look at the components of Congressman Camp’s plan, let’s look at a modified version of my 1995 grades.

Camp Tax Matrix

You can see why I’m underwhelmed by his proposal.

Congressman Camp’s proposal may be an improvement over the status quo, but my main reaction is “what’s the point?”

In other words, why go through months of hearings and set up all sorts of working groups, only to propose a timid plan?

Now, perhaps, readers will understand why I’m rather pessimistic about achieving real tax reform.

We know the right policies to fix the tax code.

And we have ready-made plans – such as the flat tax and national sales tax – that would achieve the goals of tax reform.

Camp’s plan, by contrast, simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic.

P.S. If you need to be cheered up after reading all this, here’s some more IRS humor to brighten your day, including the IRS version of the quadratic formula, a new Obama 1040 form, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon ofhow GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), and two songs about the tax agency (hereand here),  and a PG-13 joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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The tax code is a complicated nightmare, particularly for businesses.

Some people may think this is because of multiple tax rates, which definitely is an issue for all the non-corporate businesses that file “Schedule C” forms using the personal income tax.

A discriminatory rate structure adds to complexity, to be sure, but the main reason for a convoluted business tax system (for large and small companies) is that politicians don’t allow firms to use the simple and logical (and theoretically sound) approach of cash-flow taxation.

Here’s how a sensible business tax would work.

Total Revenue – Total Cost = Profit

And it would be wonderful if our tax system was this simple, and that’s basically how the business portion of the flat tax operates, but that’s not how the current tax code works.

We have about 76,000 pages of tax rules in large part because politicians and bureaucrats have decided that the “cash flow” approach doesn’t give them enough money.

So they’ve created all sorts of rules that in many cases prevent businesses from properly subtracting (or deducting) their costs when calculating their profits.

One of the worst examples is depreciation, which deals with the tax treatment of business investment expenses. You might think lawmakers would like investment since that boosts productivity, wage, and competitiveness, but you would be wrong. The tax code rarely allows companies to fully deduct investment expenses (factories, machines, etc) in the year they occur. Instead, they have to deduct (or depreciate) those costs over many years. In some cases, even decades.

But rather than write about the boring topic of depreciation to make my point about legitimate tax deductions, I’m going to venture into the world of popular culture.

Though since I’m a middle-aged curmudgeon, my example of popular culture is a band that was big about 30 years ago.

The UK-based Guardian is reporting on the supposed scandal of ABBA’s tax deductions. Here are the relevant passages.

The glittering hotpants, sequined jumpsuits and platform heels that Abba wore at the peak of their fame were designed not just for the four band members to stand out – but also for tax efficiency, according to claims over the weekend. Abba…And the reason for their bold fashion choices lay not just in the pop glamour of the late 70s and early 80s, but also in the Swedish tax code. According to Abba: The Official Photo Book, published to mark 40 years since they won Eurovision with Waterloo, the band’s style was influenced in part by laws that allowed the cost of outfits to be deducted against tax – so long as the costumes were so outrageous they could not possibly be worn on the street.

When I read the story, I kept waiting to get to the scandalous part.

But then I realized that the scandal – according to our statist friends – is that ABBA could have paid even more in tax if they wore regular street clothes for their performances.

In other words, this is not a scandal at all. It’s simply the latest iteration of the left-wing campaign (bolstered by tax-free bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD) to de-legitimize normal and proper tax deductions.

So I guess this means that the New York Yankees should play in t-shirts and gym shorts since getting rid of the pinstripes would increase the team’s taxable income.

And companies should set their thermostats at 60 degrees in the winter since that also would lead to more taxable income.

Or, returning to the example of ABBA, perhaps they should have used these outfits since there wouldn’t be much cost to deduct and that would have boosted taxable income.

Shifting to the individual income tax, another potential revenue raiser is for households to follow this example from Monty Python and sell their kids for medical experiments. That would eliminate personal exemptions and lead to more taxable income.

Heck, maybe our friends on the left should pass a law mandating weekend jobs so we could have more income for them to tax.

Though I’m not sure how that would work since the statists are now saying Obamacare is a good thing because it “liberates” millions of people from having to work.

I’m not sure how they square that circle, but I’m sure the answer is more class-warfare tax policy.

P.S. If you want to a simple rule to determine what’s a legitimate tax deduction, just remember that economic activity should be taxed equally (and at the lowest possible rate). That’s why businesses should have a cash-flow tax, and it’s why households should have a neutral system like a flat tax or national sales tax.

P.P.S. Though it would be nice if we had the very limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In that case, we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax whatsoever.

P.P.P.S. A very low tax rate is the best way of encouraging taxpayers to declare income and minimize deductions. Sweden Individual Income tax ratesWhen ABBA first became famous, the top personal tax rate in Sweden was at the confiscatory level of about 80 percent and the corporate tax rate was about 55 percent. With rates so high, that meant taxpayers had big incentives to reduce taxable income and little reason to control costs.

After all, a krona of deductible expense only reduced income by about 20 öre for individual taxpayers.

Corporate taxpayers weren’t treated as badly, but a rate of 55 percent still meant that a krona of deductible expense only reduced after-tax income by 45 öre.

But if the rate was very modest, say 20 percent, then taxpayers might be far more frugal about costs (whether the cost of uniforms or anything else) because a krona of deductible expense would reduce income by 80 öre.

By the way, the United States conducted an experiment of this type in the 1980s and the rich wound up declaring far more income to the IRS.

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In the famous “Bridge of Death” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, some of the knights are asked to name their favorite color. One of them  mistakenly says blue instead of yellow and is hurled into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

I can sympathize with the unfortunate chap. If asked my least favorite part of the tax code, I sometimes get confused because there are so many possible answers.

Do I most despise the high tax rates that undermine economic growth?

Am I more upset about the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested?

Or do I get most agitated by a corrupt and punitive IRS?

How about the distorting loopholes for politically connected interest groups?

And the anxiety of taxpayers who can’t figure out how to comply with an ever-changing tax code?

Depending on my mood and time of day, any of these options might be at the top of my list.

But I also might say that I’m most upset about the way that the tax code facilitates a perverse form of legalized corruption in Washington. In this FBN interview, I explain how even small tax bills often are vehicles for lining the pockets of lobbyists and politicians.

To elaborate, some taxpayers may pay more when there’s new tax legislation and some may pay less. But this “winners” and “losers” game only applies outside the beltway.

The inside-the-beltway crowd always wins. Whether they’re lobbying for or against a provision, they get very big checks. Whether they’re voting yes or no on legislation, they’re getting showered with campaign contributions.

This chart, showing the growing number of pages in the tax code (by the way, we’re now up to 76,000 pages of tax law), also could be seen as a proxy for how the Washington establishment has gamed the system so that they always profit.

Or, to be more specific, it’s an example of how government has become a racket for the benefit of insiders. All of us pay more and endure less growth, but Washington’s gilded class lives fat and happy because there is always lots of money changing hands.

So how do we solve this problem?

The answer, at least for a period of time, in the flat tax. This video explains how this simple and fair system would operate.

But even though I’m a big advocate of tax reform, the flat tax is only a partial solution.

Simply stated, there’s no way to reduce Washington corruption until and unless you shrink the size and scope of the federal government.

That means somehow figuring out how to restore the Constitution’s limits on Washington. For much of our nation’s history, federal spending consumed only about 3 percent of our economic output.

And when the public sector was small and government generally focused only on core competencies, there wasn’t nearly as much opportunity for the graft and sleaze that characterize modern Washington.

P.S. The bad news is that all the projections show that the federal government will get far bigger in the future. So before we shrink the burden of government, we first need to come up with ways to keep it from growing.

P.P.S. The national sales tax is another intermediate option for reducing DC corruption, though that option requires repeal of the 16th Amendment so politicians don’t pull a bait-and-switch game and stick up with both an income tax and consumption tax.

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The business pages are reporting that Chrysler will be fully owned by Fiat after that Italian company buys up remaining shares.

I don’t know what this means about the long-term viability of Chrysler, but we can say with great confidence that the company will be better off now that the parent company is headquartered outside the United States.

This is because Chrysler presumably no longer will be obliged to pay an extra layer of tax to the IRS on any foreign-source income.

Italy, unlike the United States, has a territorial tax system. This means companies are taxed only on income earned in Italy but there’s no effort to impose tax on income earned – and already subject to tax – in other nations.

Under America’s worldwide tax regime, by contrast, U.S.-domiciled companies must pay all applicable foreign taxes when earning money outside the United States – and then also put that income on their tax returns to the IRS!

And since the United States imposes the highest corporate income tax in the developed world and also ranks a dismal 94 out of 100 on a broader measure of corporate tax competitiveness, this obviously is not good for jobs and growth.

No wonder many American companies are re-domiciling in other countries!

Maybe the time has come to scrap the entire corporate income tax. That’s certainly a logical policy to follow based on a new study entitled, “Simulating the Elimination of the U.S. Corporate Income Tax.”

Written by Hans Fehr, Sabine Jokisch, Ashwin Kambhampati, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, the paper looks at whether it makes sense to have a burdensome tax that doesn’t even generate much revenue.

The U.S. Corporate Income Tax…produces remarkably little revenue – only 1.8 percent of GDP in 2013, but entails major compliance and collection costs. The IRS regulations detailing corporate tax provisions are tome length and occupy small armies of accountants and lawyers. …many economists…have suggested that the tax may actually fall on workers, not capitalists.

Regarding who pays the tax, shareholders bear the direct burden of the corporate tax, of course, but economists believe workers are the main victims because the levy reduces investment, which then means lower productivity and lower wages.

Statists would like us to believe that capitalists and workers are enemies, but that’s utter nonsense. Both prosper by cooperating. There’s a very strong correlation between a nation’s capital stock (the amount of investment) and the compensation of its workers.

So it’s no surprise to see that’s precisely what the authors found in their new research.

This paper posits, calibrates, and simulates a multi-region, life-cycle dynamic general equilibrium model to study the impact of U.S. and global corporate tax reforms. …when wage taxation is used as the substitute revenue source, eliminating the U.S. corporate income tax, holding other countries’ corporate tax rates fixed, engenders a rapid and sustained 23 to 37 percent higher capital stock… Higher capital per worker means higher labor productivity and, thus, higher real wages.

The impact is significant, both for worker compensation and overall economic output.

…real wages of unskilled workers wind up 12 percent higher and those of skilled workers 13 percent higher. …on balance, output rises – by 8 percent in the short term, 10 percent in the intermediate term, and 8 percent in the long term… The economy’s endogenous expansion expands existing tax bases, with the increased revenue making up for roughly one third the loss in revenue from the corporate income tax’s elimination.

By the way, the authors bizarrely then write that “we find no Laffer Curve,” but that’s presumably because they make the common mistake of assuming the Laffer Curve only exists if a tax cut fully pays for itself.

laffer curveBut that’s only true for the downward-sloping side of the Laffer Curve.

In other cases (such as found in this study), there is still substantial revenue feedback.

And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that full repeal of the corporate income tax doesn’t raise revenue. The Tax Foundation, after all, estimates that the revenue-maximizing rate is about 14 percent.*

Now that I’m done nit-picking about the Laffer Curve, let’s now look at one additional set of results from this new study.

…each generation, including those initially alive, benefits from the reform, with those born after 2000 experiencing an 8 to 9 percent increase in welfare.

I should point out, incidentally, that economists mean changes in living standards when they write about changes in “welfare.” It’s a way of measuring the “well being” of society, sort of like what the Founders meant when they wrote about “the general welfare” in the Constitution.

But, once again, I’m digressing.

Let’s focus on the main lesson from the paper, which is that the corporate income tax imposes very high economic costs. Heck, even the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (which is infamous for wanting higher tax burdens on companies) admitted that the levy undermines prosperity.

The study even finds that workers would be better off if the corporate income tax was replaced by higher wage taxes!

To learn more about the topic, here’s a video I narrated many years ago about cutting the corporate income tax. There was less gray in my hair back then, but my analysis still holds today.

* For the umpteenth time, I want to emphasize that the goal should not be to maximize revenue for politicians. Instead, we should strive to be on the growth-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve.

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It’s not easy being a libertarian, particularly if you follow public policy.

Thomas Jefferson almost certainly was right when he wrote that “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”

Heck, just look at how small government used to be in the developed world compared to where it is now. Public sectors used to consume only about 10 percent of economic output during the 1800s when nations became rich, but now the burden of government spending averages more than 40 percent of GDP.

And if you really want to get depressed, then look at the long-run fiscal forecasts for the United States and other industrialized countries. Things are going to get worse. Much worse.

Most nations are heading toward a Greek-style fiscal crisis. And while the United States is in better shape than many European welfare states today, our long-run outlook is actually worse according to the International Monetary Fund.

Even the Bank for International Settlements and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development agree with the IMF’s grim prognosis.

Speaking of the IMF, let’s discuss some very bad news. It’s about Albania, so it may not seem very important, but it’s quite symbolic of the destructive impact of international bureaucracies.

As you can see from this Reuters report, the IMF basically bribed Albania to get rid of its flat tax.

“The IMF staff and the authorities reached an agreement on the IMF supporting their economic programme with financial assistance which could be delivered over a period of three years under an extended fund facility with access of about 300 million euros,” the IMF’s mission chief, Nadeem Ilahi, told reporters. …The three-month-old Socialist government will scrap a flat tax of 10 percent in the next fiscal year in January and raise the corporate tax to 15 percent from 10 percent. Also, the income tax for high-earners will rise to rates of 13 percent and 23 percent from 10 percent currently. …”The package of economic policies … supported by the IMF programme should make Albania an economy that is reforming, is open to foreign investors. … A lot of the reforms the authorities are planning are consistent with what the European Union has been asking for,” Ilahi said.

So think about what this means. The IMF is hurting global growth by distorting the allocation of capital. It’s hurting Albanian growth by enabling more government spending. And it’s hurting Albanian growth by forcing higher tax rates.

And then the IMF bureaucrat in charge, Mr. Ilahi, actually has the nerve to assert that all this bad policy will make Albania “open to foreign investors.” Yeah, sure. Investors are always flocking to nations that are actively increasing the burden of government. I guess that’s why France is such an economic dynamo and Hong Kong is suffering from stagnation…at least according to the IMF model anyway.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Mr. Ilahi (like all international bureaucrats) gets a tax-free salary! So I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that he is completely clueless about the real-world impact on the destructive policies he has foisted upon Albania.

By the way, Albanian politicians are not exactly blameless. They doubled government spending over the past 10 years, with outlays climbing from less than 200 million leks in 2003 to more than 400 million leks this year.

And then these profligate politicians decided to throw their taxpayers under the bus in exchange for a pile of additional loot from the IMF.

The real victims are the people of Albania. They suffered decades of communist enslavement. But even after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, they’ve never enjoyed a free-market, small-government economy. But with the flat tax, they had at least one pro-growth policy.

Now they don’t even have that.

P.S. The IMF is an equal-opportunity proponent of bad policy. The tax-free bureaucrats have advocated lots of tax hikes on Americans, including a value-added tax, a financial transactions tax, and class-warfare tax rate increases. Oh, and let’s not forget they urged a giant energy tax on American consumers. IMF KevorkianIt’s nice to know that the bureaucrats are so industrious at developing policies to hurt the United States when American taxpayers underwrite the biggest share of the IMF budget.

P.P.S. But I don’t want to be unfair. The IMF did provide – albeit by accident – very powerful evidence showing why the United States should not have a value-added tax. So I guess that was one useful thing the bureaucrats did, even if it wasn’t their intention. And the bureaucracy has published some good studies about the economic benefits of reducing government spending and others warning that tax increases can be self defeating.

P.P.P.S. Since this has been a depressing post, let’s close by noting that the IMF doesn’t always succeed. The bureaucrats unsuccessfully tried to pressure Latvia into abandoning the flat tax.

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It’s no secret that I dislike the value-added tax.

But this isn’t because of its design. The VAT, after all, would be (presumably) a single-rate, consumption-based system, just like the flat tax and national sales tax. And that’s a much less destructive way of raising revenue compared to America’s corrupt and punitive internal revenue code.

But not all roads lead to Rome. Proponents of the flat tax and sales tax want to replace the income tax. That would be a very positive step.

Advocates of the VAT, by contrast, want to keep the income tax and give politicians another big source of revenue. That’s a catastrophically bad idea.

To understand what I mean, let’s look at a Bloomberg column by Al Hunt. He starts with a look at the political appetite for reform.

There is broad consensus that the U.S. tax system is inefficient, inequitable and hopelessly complex. …a 1986-style tax reform — broadening the base and lowering the rates — isn’t politically achievable today. …the conservative dream of starving government by slashing taxes and the liberal idea of paying for new initiatives by closing loopholes for the rich are nonstarters.

I agree with everything in those excerpts.

So does this mean Al Hunt and I are on the same wavelength?

Not exactly. I think we have to wait until 2017 to have any hope of tax reform (even then, only if we’re very lucky), whereas Hunt thinks the current logjam can be broken by adopting a VAT and modifying the income tax. More specifically, he’s talking about a proposal from a Columbia University Law Professor that would impose a 12.9 percent VAT while simultaneously creating a much bigger family allowance (sometimes referred to as the zero-bracket amount) so that millions of additional Americans no longer have to pay income tax.

Hunt likes this idea.

The Graetz initiative offers something for both sides. It starts, he suggests, with countering the observation once offered by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers that liberals fear a value-added tax because it’s regressive and conservatives fear it because it’s a money machine. Graetz’s measure overcomes both objections.

Regarding the final sentence of that excerpt, he’s half right. Folks on the left will be happy to know that there will be a lot more redistribution through the tax code.

Graetz addresses the regressivity of most sales taxes, not by exempting food, drugs and other necessities as most of the older European systems do, but with a system of credits and offsets… He provides a payroll tax cut and expanded child-care credits focused on low- and moderate-income workers.

But what do advocates of small government get out of the deal?

Well, they do get something in the short run. Graetz wants to use the VAT money to reduce the burden of the income tax. Rates for households are lowered, with the top rate falling to 31 percent. And the best part of the plan may be that it reduces America’s uncompetitive corporate tax rate to 15 percent.

But I’m more worried about the long run, particularly after looking at evidence from Europe and Japan.

What’s in the plan, for instance, that would prevent the VAT from becoming a “money machine”? Or what guarantees would be put in place to prevent politicians from re-expanding the income tax?

Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any safeguards. Professor Graetz has expressed some support for supermajority rules to protect against tax hikes, but he’s quoted in the article explicitly stating that a VAT could be used to generate more money to prop up the welfare state.

The Tax Policy Center found that his proposal succeeds in raising the same amount of revenue as current law. If revenue is to be part of any longer-term deficit reduction, Graetz observes, the value-added tax or the income taxes could be tweaked. “Actually, this would put us in a better situation to address the fiscal crunch down the road,” he says.

That statement scares the heck out of me. We desperately need the right kind of entitlement reform to save America from becoming another doomed welfare state. But what are the odds of getting good changes if politicians think they can continuously kick the can down the road by raising the VAT every couple of years.

Before you know it, we’re Greece!

If you don’t believe me about the VAT being a money machine, perhaps you’ll be more trusting of analysis from the International Monetary Fund. That bureaucracy actually supports the VAT, but the IMF inadvertently revealed in some research last year that the VAT is far more effective at generating new revenue than the income tax.

And that’s true for poor nations and rich nations.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by yours truly, explains why the VAT would finance the road to serfdom.

Last but not least, it’s worth pointing out that Professor Graetz’s proposal has become more punitive over time. Check out this portion of a Tax Policy Center study showing that the VAT rate has been increased and that a new class-warfare tax rate has been added to the proposal.

VAT Graetz

So if the proposal has become more onerous on paper, imagine how much worse it will get once politicians get their hands on it.

P.S. If you want short explanations of the flat tax, sales tax, VAT, and current system, check out these Heartland Institute videos.

P.P.S. To be fair, there’s very little indication that Prof. Graetz wants bigger and more expensive government. He’s proposing a VAT for the same reason Cong. Paul Ryan has proposed a VAT. They think the revenue can be used to reduce the burden of the income tax. They’re not wrong in theory. They just don’t appreciate the danger of giving politicians a new source of revenue.

P.P.P.S. George Will correctly warns that the VAT should be off the table until and unless the 16th Amendment is repealed. And Robert Samuelson gives several reasons why this levy should be rejected.

P.P.P.P.S. Some advocates say the VAT is needed to forestall higher income tax rates, but that certainly hasn’t been the case in Europe.

P.P.P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing VAT cartoons by clicking herehere, and here.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Al Hunt has always been a nice guy on the few occasions I’ve interacted with him, but it didn’t help my reputation when he wrote in the Wall Street Journal back in 1994 that I was a “responsible economic expert on the right.” That sounds like praise, but folks on the left generally only say nice things about their opponents when they’re being incompetent or selling out.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I’ll close with some good news. The U.S. Senate overwhelming rejected the concept of a VAT back in 2010, though I think the 85-13 vote overstates the level of opposition. Many left-wing Senators only voted no because it was a non-binding measure. But we don’t get many victories in Washington, so I’ll take it.

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One of my missions in life is fundamental tax reform. I would like to replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

Though what I really want is a tax system that minimizes the damage of extracting money from the productive sector of the economy, so I’ll take any system with a low rate, no double taxation, and no distortionary loopholes.

The national sales tax, for instance, also would be a good option if we can first repeal the 16th Amendment so there’s no risk that politicians would pull a bait and switch and saddle us with both an income tax and a sales tax (and in my ultimate fantasy world, we would shrink the federal government to the size envisioned by the Founding Fathers, in which case we probably wouldn’t need any broad-based tax at all).

While I normally make the economic case for tax reform, there are many reasons to fix our broken tax code.

Many Americans, for instance, are rightfully upset that the tax code is a 76.000-page monstrosity that enables the politically well connected to benefit from special provisions.

So we don’t know if the rich are paying an appropriate amount. Some of them are paying too much because of high rates and double taxation, while some of them are paying too little because they have clever lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants.

In an ideal world, if someone like Bill Gates earns 10,000 times as much as I do, then he should pay 10,000 times as much in tax. That’s a core principle of the flat tax.

But this post isn’t about why we need tax reform to promote economic growth or fairness. Instead, I want to focus on tax reform as a way of reducing welfare fraud. The Treasury Department just released a report acknowledging that the IRS made more than $100 billion of improper “earned income credit” payments over the past decade and that about one-fourth of all such payments are in error.

This Fox News article is a good summary. Here are the key details.

The Internal Revenue Service paid out more than $110 billion in tax credits over the past decade to people who didn’t qualify for them, according to a Treasury report released Tuesday. …IRS inspector general J. Russell George said more than one-fifth of all credits paid under the program went to people who didn’t qualify. …George said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it is still distributing more than $11 billion in improper EITC payments each year and that is disturbing.” …The agency said it prevents “nearly $4 billion in improper claims each year and is committed to continuing to work to reduce improper claims.” The EITC is one of the nation’s largest anti-poverty programs. In 2011, more than 27 million families received nearly $62 billion in credits.

Now some background. The “earned income credit” or “earned income tax credit” is actually an income redistribution scheme operated by the IRS. It’s basically a wage subsidy. If someone earns money (the “earned income” part), the law says the IRS should augment that money with a payment from the government (the “credit” or “tax credit” part).

The key thing to understand, though, is that the EITC is “refundable,” which is the government’s term for payments to people who don’t earn enough to owe any income tax. That’s why it’s primarily an income redistribution program. Only it’s operated by the IRS rather than the Department of Health and Human Service or some other welfare agency.

And when government is giving away other people’s money, there are those who will try to abuse the program. That’s true for corporate welfare, and it’s true for traditional welfare like food stamps. And, as we see from the Treasury report, it’s true for the EITC.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the EITC has a redeeming feature. Some lawmakers realized traditional welfare programs were very destructive because they paid people not to work. The EITC supposedly offsets that perverse incentive because you get the money only because you earn some income.

But now let’s share some additional bad news. The government takes away the EITC once your income reaches a certain level, and this is equivalent to a big increase in the marginal tax rate on earning additional income.

And when you combine the EITC with all the other redistribution programs operated by government, you create a huge dependency trap. Indeed, the chart shows that many of these programs can be larger than the EITC (which is called “negative income tax”).

So let’s adopt a flat tax and get rid of all the bad features of the tax system, including the EITC. Welfare and income redistribution are not proper roles of the federal government.

We’re far more likely to get good results – both for poor people and taxpayers – if we let state and local governments experiment and learn from each other on what actually helps people climb out of poverty.

P.S. I can’t overlook an opportunity to point out that today’s complicated and convoluted tax code is the reason why we have a powerful and intrusive Internal Revenue Service. And never forget that the IRS has a long record of abusive actions.

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Even though I’m a big fan of tax reform, I explained back in June that I’m not very comfortable with the “blank slate” tax reform plan put forth by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

My main gripe is that they start with the assumption that there should be more double taxation of income that is saved and invested, which is contrary to the principles of neutrality in pro-growth plans such as the flat tax and national sales tax.

This isn’t academic nitpicking. Check out the charts in this post and see how the United States is shooting itself in the foot by imposing some of world’s highest tax rates on capital income.

So why make a bad situation even worse?

The Tax Foundation addresses this issue in a new report on what would happen if there was more double taxation of capital gains and dividends.

A conventional static revenue estimate, which assumes away tax-induced growth changes, might suggest the federal government would collect more revenue by taxing capital gains and dividends as ordinary income. When growth effects are added to the analysis, however, the higher revenue disappears. Ending the individual income tax’s rate cap on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends would reduce capital formation, productivity, and wages to such an extent that it would be a major revenue loser for the federal budget. Few tax increases would actually cost revenue, but the capital gains (and dividend) tax is one of them.

Here are some of the details from the study.

…the desired capital stock is extremely sensitive to its expected after-tax return. The Tax Foundation model predicts that after a several year adjustment period, the capital stock would be 16.9 percent less than otherwise, work hours would be about 1.25 percent less, and GDP would be 6.3 percent lower than otherwise. Because tax collections depend on the size of the economy, these anti-growth effects would be expected to have a negative feedback on tax collections. When our model takes the smaller economy into account, it estimates that ending the rate cap on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends would actually reduce federal revenues by $122 billion.

As you can see in the chart, estimates of annual tax hikes turn into the reality of annual revenue losses once these Laffer Curve-type effects are added to the equation.

Tax Foundation Double Taxation Dynamic Chart

Now let’s conduct a thought experiment. Economics is an inexact science (to put it mildly), so perhaps the Tax Foundation economists are wrong. As a matter of fact, let’s assume they dramatically overstate the economic impact of double taxation.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s do a rough cut-the-baby-in-half exercise and assume that GDP only falls by about $500, which implies that there is no loss of tax revenue.

Does that mean it’s okay to increase the double taxation of dividends and capital gains?

The answer – which should be screamed from every rooftop – is no! It makes zero sense to reduce the economy’s output and make the American people poorer. Particularly when there is no upside (and I don’t think more tax revenue is an upside, but we’ll leave that issue for another day).

For more information (at least with regards to the tax treatment of capital gains), here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. I also highly recommend a primer on capital gains taxation put together by the Wall Street Journal.

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I’m a big proponent of tax reform, so at first I was very excited to learn that Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) were launching an effort to clean up the tax code.

But on closer inspection, I don’t think this will lead to a simple and fair system like the flat tax. Or even a national sales tax (assuming we could trust politicians not to pull a bait-and-switch, adding a new tax and never getting rid of the income tax).

But judge for yourself. Here’s some of what’s contained in a letter they sent to their colleagues, starting with some language about the growing complexity of the tax code and the compliance cost for taxpayers.

…since then, the economy has changed dramatically and Congress has made more than 15,000 changes to the tax code. The result is a tax base riddled with exclusions, deductions and credits. In addition, each year, it costs individuals and businesses more than $160 billion to comply with the tax code. The complexity, inefficiency and unfairness of the tax code are acting as a brake on our economy. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Sounds good, though they also could have mentioned other indicators of nightmarish complexity, such as the number of pages in the tax code, the number of special tax provisions, or the number of pages in the 1040 instruction manual.

I’m a bit mystified, however, at the low-ball estimate of $160 billion of compliance costs. As explained in this video, there are far higher estimates that are based on very sound methodology.

But perhaps I’m nit-picking. Let’s see with Senators Baucus and Hatch want to do.

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences that some refer to as “tax expenditures.”

I don’t like the term “tax expenditure” since it implies that the government taking money from person A and giving it to person B is equivalent to the government simply letting person B keep their own money. These two approaches may be economically equivalent in certain cases, but they’re not morally equivalent.

Once again, however, I may be guilty of nit-picking.

That being said, there is a feature of the “blank slate” approach which does generate legitimate angst. There’s a footnote in the letter that states that the Joint Committee on Taxation is in charge of determining so-called tax expenditures.

A complete list of these special tax provisions as defined by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

This is very troubling. The JCT may be non-partisan, but it’s definitely not non-ideological. These are the bureaucrats, for instance, who assume that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! Moreover, the JCT uses the “Haig-Simons” tax system as a benchmark, which means they start with the assumption that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

This is not nit-picking. The definition of “tax expenditure” is a critical policy decision, not something to be ceded to the other side before the debate even begins.

As illustrated by this chart, the tax code is very biased against saving and investment.

Between the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the double tax on dividends, and the death tax, it’s possible for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four different times.

This is a very foolish policy, particularly since every school of thought in the economics profession agrees that capital formation is a key to long-run growth. Even the Marxists and socialists!

To make matters worse, double taxation puts America at competitive disadvantage. To get a sense of how the U.S. tax system is a self-inflicted wound, check out these sobering international comparisons of death tax burdens and the degree of double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

Here’s what the Haig-Simons tax base means.

1. An assumption that new business investment should be penalized with depreciation instead of being treated neutrally with expensing.

2. An assumption that IRAs and 401(k)s are loopholes to be eliminated, when they’re actually ways to protect against double taxation.

3. An assumption that various other forms of double taxation – such as the capital gains tax – should be retained.

But that’s not the only preemptive capitulation to bad policy.

The “blank slate” assumes that the class-warfare bias in the tax code also should be part of the benchmark against which possible reforms will be judged.

…we asked the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and Finance Committee tax staff to estimate the relationship between tax expenditures and the current tax rates if the current level of progressivity is maintained. …The blank slate approach would allow significant deficit reduction or rate reduction, while maintaining the current level of progressivity.

Since the internal revenue code already imposes a disproportionate burden on upper-income taxpayers – even when compared to European welfare states, it doesn’t make sense to automatically assume an ideological agenda such as progressivity.

This has been a very long answer to a simple question, but it’s very important to realize that tax reform is a three-legged stool. If we want to minimize the economic damage of generating revenue for government, we should have 1) a low tax rate, 2) no distorting tax preferences, and 3) no distorting tax penalties such as double taxation.

Unfortunately, too many people focus only on the first and second legs of the stool. And while tax rates and deductions are important, so is double taxation.

I’m not asserting that the “blank slate” should have assumed no double taxation (sometimes referred to as the “Fisher-Ture” tax base or “consumption” tax base).

But I don’t think it would have been unreasonable for Senators Baucus and Hatch to have told other Senators that one of their choices would be to pick either the Haig-Simons approach or the Fisher-Ture approach.

Heck, even the Congressional Budget Office acknowledged that there are two ways of measuring tax expenditures. To reiterate, the choice of tax base should be a policy decision, not a built-in assumption.

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I shared a presidential debate fantasy in 2012 and a Texas sovereignty fantasy in 2011, and I even shared a fantasy two years ago involving about 50 percent of the population.

None of those fantasies have become reality, and I suspect that the message of this Branco cartoon also is an unattainable fantasy.

Flat Tax Crisis

Simply stated, a flat tax would be a wonderful outcome to this latest IRS scandal. But for reasons I’ve already explained, I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen, either now or in the future.

Doesn’t mean I’ll give up on the fight for tax reform, but I always try to be realistic.

P.S. I’ve already confessed that I have very abnormal fantasies. And I have admitted on TV that my fantasies are rarely fulfilled.

P.P.S. There is such a thing as a libertarian-specific fantasy.

P.P.P.S. For fans of the national sales tax, I’d also be delighted to get something like the Fair Tax (as you can tell from my position in this debate), but I think a national sales tax faces even greater uphill odds than a flat tax.

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As a long-time advocate of tax reform, I’m not a fan of distortionary loopholes in the tax code. Ideally, we would junk the 74,000-page internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax – meaning one low rate, no double taxation, and no favoritism.*

The right kind of tax reform would generate more growth and also reduce corruption in Washington. Politicians no longer would have the ability to create special tax breaks for well-connected contributors.

But we won’t get to the right destination if we have the wrong map, and this is why a new report about “tax expenditures” from the Congressional Budget Office is so disappointing.

As you can see from this excerpted table, CBO makes the same mistake as the Tax Policy Center and assumes that there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such, they list IRAs and 401(k)s as tax expenditures, even though those provisions merely enable people to avoid being double-taxed.

Likewise, the CBO report assumes that there should be double taxation of dividends and capital gains, so provisions to guard against such destructive policies also are listed as tax expenditures.

CBO Tax Expenditure List

The CBO report says that tax expenditures will total about $12 trillion over the next 10 years, but about one-third of that amount (which I’ve marked with a red X) don’t belong on the list.

By the way, at least the Tax Policy Center has an excuse for putting its thumb on the scale and issuing a flawed estimate of tax expenditures. It’s a project of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute, both of which are on the left side of the political spectrum. So it’s hardly a surprise that they use a benchmark designed to promote punitive tax policy.

But what’s CBO’s excuse?

To be fair, at least CBO admitted in the report that there’s a different way of seeing the world.

…tax expenditures are measured relative to a comprehensive income tax system. If tax expenditures were evaluated relative to an alternative tax system—for instance, a comprehensive consumption tax, such as a national retail sales tax or a value-added tax—some of the 10 major tax expenditures analyzed here would not be considered tax expenditures. For example, because a consumption tax would exclude all savings and investment income from taxation, the exclusion of net pension contributions and earnings would be considered part of the normal tax system and not a tax expenditure.

But admitting the existence of another approach doesn’t let CBO off the hook. At the very least, the bureaucracy should have produced a a parallel set of estimates for tax expenditures assuming no double taxation. That basic competence and fairness.

By the way, the Government Accountability Office is worse than CBO. When GAO did a report on corporate tax expenditures, that bureaucracy didn’t even acknowledge that there was an alternate way of looking at the data.

*Actually, the ideal approach would be to dramatically reduce the burden of government spending, shrinking the size and scope of the federal government back to what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Under that system, there presumably wouldn’t be a need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. This new report is not even close to being the worst thing produced by CBO. The bureaucrats on several occasions have asserted that higher taxes are good for growth, even to the point of implying that the growth-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! And CBO is slavishly devoted to Keynesian economics, notwithstanding several decades of evidence that you can’t make an economy richer by taking money out of one pocket and putting it in another pocket.

Yet for inexplicable reasons, Republicans failed to deal with CBO bias back when they were in charge.

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Did President Obama and his team of Chicago cronies deliberately target the Tea Party in hopes of thwarting free speech and political participation?

Was this part of a campaign to win the 2012 election by suppressing Republican votes?

Perhaps, but I’ve warned that it’s never a good idea to assume top-down conspiracies when corruption, incompetence, politics, ideology, greed, and self-interest are better explanations for what happens in Washington.

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney has a much more sober and realistic explanation of what happened at the IRS.

If you take a group of Democrats who are also unionized government employees, and put them in charge of policing political speech, it doesn’t matter how professional and well-intentioned they are. The result will be much like the debacle in the Cincinnati office of the IRS. …there’s no reason to even posit evil intent by the IRS officials who formulated, approved or executed the inappropriate guidelines for picking groups to scrutinize most closely. …The public servants figuring out which groups qualified for 501(c)4 “social welfare” non-profit status were mostly Democrats surrounded by mostly Democrats. …In the 2012 election, every donation traceable to this office went to President Obama or liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown. This is an environment where even those trying to be fair could develop a disproportionate distrust of the Tea Party. One IRS worker — a member of NTEU and contributor to its PAC, which gives 96 percent of its money to Democratic candidates — explained it this way: “The reason NTEU mostly supports Democratic candidates for office is because Democratic candidates are mostly more supportive of civil servants/government employees.”

Tim concludes with a wise observation.

As long as we have a civil service workforce that leans Left, and as long as we have an income tax system that requires the IRS to police political speech, conservative groups can always expect special IRS scrutiny.

And my colleague Doug Bandow, in an article for the American Spectator, adds his sage analysis.

The real issue is the expansive, expensive bureaucratic state and its inherent threat to any system of limited government, rule of law, and individual liberty. …the broader the government’s authority, the greater its need for revenue, the wider its enforcement power, the more expansive the bureaucracy’s discretion, the increasingly important the battle for political control, and the more bitter the partisan fight, the more likely government officials will abuse their positions, violate rules, laws, and Constitution, and sacrifice people’s liberties. The blame falls squarely on Congress, not the IRS.

I actually think he is letting the IRS off the hook too easily.

But Doug’s overall point obviously is true.

…the denizens of Capitol Hill also have created a tax code marked by outrageous complexity, special interest electioneering, and systematic social engineering. Legislators have intentionally created avenues for tax avoidance to win votes, and then complained about widespread tax avoidance to win votes.

So what’s the answer?

The most obvious response to the scandal — beyond punishing anyone who violated the law — is tax reform. Implement a flat tax and you’d still have an IRS, but the income tax would be less complex, there would be fewer “preferences” for the agency to police, and rates would be lower, leaving taxpayers with less incentive for aggressive tax avoidance. …Failing to address the broader underlying factors also would merely set the stage for a repeat performance in some form a few years hence. …More fundamentally, government, and especially the national government, should do less. Efficient social engineering may be slightly better than inefficient social engineering, but no social engineering would be far better.

Amen. Let’s rip out the internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

But here’s the challenge. We know the solution, but it will be almost impossible to implement good policy unless we figure out some way to restrain the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

At the risk of over-simplifying, we will never get tax reform unless we figure out how to implement entitlement reform.

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In recent months, I’ve displayed uncharacteristic levels of optimism on issues ranging from Obamacare to the Laffer Curve.

But this doesn’t mean I’m now a blind Pollyanna. We almost always face an uphill battle in our efforts to restrain the power and greed of the political class.

I don't see a simple system in America's future

I don’t see this simple system in America’s future

And in some areas, such as the fight for pro-growth and humane tax reform, I see very little reason for hope.

In honor of tax day, I explained my pessimism in an article for The Daily Caller.

I outlined four reasons to be glum, starting with the fact that tax reform yields big benefits in the long run, but that isn’t a very compelling argument for politicians that rarely think past the next election.

Our tax code is now a 74,000-page monstrosity, and it seems that politicians make the system more convoluted every year with new credits, deductions, exemptions, preferences, exclusions, and other special provisions. …In theory, it makes sense to scrape off these barnacles and restore the ship… Our political system, though, is dominated by lawmakers who tend not to think past the next election cycle.

I then mention that too many people now see the tax code as a tool for directly taking money from others.

…a growing number of Americans now see tax returns as a vehicle for getting money from the government. I’m not talking about the fiscal illusion that results when some people over-pay their taxes and then are happy to get a refund. …I’m talking about a different crowd. There are now millions of Americans who benefit from redistribution programs that are laundered through the tax code. …“refundable” credits allow people to get checks from the government even if they didn’t pay any tax. …Needless to say, those people don’t have much incentive to oppose the current system.

My third concern deals with the under-appreciated fact that the Washington establishment gets rich from the current system.

The metropolitan DC area is now the wealthiest region of the nation; it includes 10 of America’s 15 richest counties. …One of the main sources of that unearned — and undeserved — prosperity is the tax code… many people make big bucks manipulating the tax code. Lobbyists obviously would hate a simple and fair flat tax… Many of these insiders are former politicians and former Capitol Hill staffers — particularly those that worked on the tax-writing committees. They make big bucks, and the current staffers look forward to the day when they can cash in on their “government service” and start “earning” huge salaries. Needless to say, these people are not exactly advocates of reform.

Last but not least, I explain that high-tax governments are undermining tax competition with financial protectionism, thus giving them more leeway to impose bad policy.

Beginning with the Reagan and Thatcher tax cuts, the world experienced a virtuous period of tax competition that lasted for about 30 years. Even politicians in statist nations such as France and Germany felt compelled to lower tax rates… In recent years, however, high-tax nations and left-wing international bureaucracies such as the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have worked to undermine tax competition and make it easier for politicians to impose class-warfare tax policy. They first went after so-called tax havens… Now the OECD has a new plan to go after multinational companies and significantly boost their tax burdens, presumably through the creation of a global tax return and a policy called “formula apportionment.” …every time they make progress, politicians feel less pressure to lower tax rates and reform tax systems. Why bother improving the tax code, after all, if you think that taxpayers have no choice but to submit?

I also should have added another big challenge. In the absence of good entitlement reform, the burden of government spending will dramatically increase in coming decades and create pressure for additional tax hikes. That’s not an environment conducive to tax reform.

Unless, of course, you’re a politician and you somehow think adding a value-added tax on top of the current income tax can be considered reform.

P.S. I’ve referenced the flat tax in this post, but all of these obstacles also explain why there’s even less chance of a national sales tax.

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I’m very leery of corporate tax reform, largely because I don’t think there are enough genuine loopholes on the business side of the tax code to finance a meaningful reduction in the corporate tax rate.

That leads me to worry that politicians might try to “pay for” lower rates by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Based on a new study about so-called corporate tax expenditures from the Government Accountability Office, my concerns are quite warranted.

The vast majority of the $181 billion in annual “tax expenditures” listed by the GAO are not loopholes. Instead, they are provisions designed to mitigate mistakes in the tax code that force firms to exaggerate their income.

Here are the key findings.

In 2011, the Department of the Treasury estimated 80 tax expenditures resulted in the government forgoing corporate tax revenue totaling more than $181 billion. …approximately the same size as the amount of corporate income tax revenue the federal government collected that year. …According to Treasury’s 2011 estimates, 80 tax expenditures had corporate revenue losses. Of those, two expenditures accounted for 65 percent of all estimated corporate revenues losses in 2011 while another five tax expenditures—each with at least $5 billion or more in estimated revenue loss for 2011—accounted for an additional 21 percent of corporate revenue loss estimates.

Sounds innocuous, but take a look at this table from the report, which identifies the “seven largest corporate tax expenditures.”

GAO Tax Expenditure Table

To be blunt, there’s a huge problem in the GAO analysis. Neither depreciation nor deferral are loopholes.

I wrote a detailed post explaining depreciation earlier this month, citing three different experts on the issue. But if you want a short-and-sweet description, here’s how I described depreciation in my post on corporate jets.

If a company purchases a jet for $20 million, they should be able to deduct – or expense – that $20 million when calculating that year’s taxable income… A sensible tax system defines profit as total revenue minus total costs – including purchases of private jets. But today’s screwy tax code forces them to wait five years before fully deducting the cost of the jet (a process known as depreciation). Given that money today has more value than money in the future, this is a penalty that creates a tax bias against investment (the tax code also requires depreciation for purchases of machines, structures, and other forms of investment).

In other words, businesses should be allowed to immediately “expense” investment expenditures. What the GAO refers to as “accelerated depreciation” is simply the partial mitigation of a penalty, not a loophole.

The same is true about “deferral.” Here’s what I wrote about that issue in February 2010.

Under current law, the “foreign-source” income of multinationals is subject to tax by the IRS even though it already is subject to all applicable tax where it is earned (just as the IRS taxes foreign companies on income they earn in America). But at least companies have the ability to sometimes delay when this double taxation occurs, thanks to a policy known as deferral.

I added to those remarks later in the year.

From a tax policy perspective, the right approach is “territorial” taxation, which is the common-sense notion of only taxing activity inside national borders. It’s no coincidence that all pro-growth tax reform plans, such as the flat tax and national sales tax, use this approach. Unfortunately, America is one of the world’s few nations to utilize the opposite approach of “worldwide” taxation, which means that U.S. companies face the competitive disadvantage of having two nations tax the same income. Fortunately, the damaging impact of worldwide taxation is mitigated by a policy known as deferral, which allows multinationals to postpone the second layer of tax.

Simply stated, the U.S. government should not be trying to tax income earned in other countries. “Deferral” is the mitigation of a penalty, not a loophole.

So why would the GAO make these mistakes? Well, to be fair to the bureaucrats, they simply relied on the analysis of the Treasury Department.

But why does Treasury (and the Joint Committee on Taxation) make these mistakes? The answer is that they use the “Haig-Simons” tax base as a benchmark, and that approach assumes bad policies such as the double taxation of income that is saved and invested. If you want to get deep in the weeds of tax policy, I shared late last year some good analysis on Haig-Simons produced by my colleague Chris Edwards.

By the way, properly defining loopholes also is an issue for reform on the individual portions of the tax code. I’ve previously pointed out the flawed analysis of the Tax Policy Center, which put together a list of the 12 largest “tax expenditure” and included six items that don’t belong.

To conclude, the right tax base is what’s called “consumed income.” But that’s simply another way of saying that the system should only tax income one time, and it’s how income is defined for both the flat tax and national sales tax.

One final comment about GAO. It’s understandable that they used the Treasury Department’s methodology, but they also should have produced a list of tax expenditures based on a consumed-income tax base. That’s basic competence and fairness.

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I’m normally reluctant to write about “depreciation” because I imagine eyes glazing around the world. After all, not many people care about the tax treatment of business investment expenses.

But I was surprised by the positive response I received after writing a post about Obama’s demagoguery against “tax loopholes” for corporate jets. So with considerable trepidation let’s take another look at the issue.

First, a bit of background. Every economic theory agrees that investment is a key for long-run growth and higher living standards. Even Marxist and socialist theory agrees with this insight (though they foolishly think government somehow is competent to be in charge of investments).

Let’s look at two remarkable charts, starting with one that shows the very powerful link between total investment and wages for workers.

As you can see (click the chart to see a larger version), if we want people to earn more money, it definitely helps for there to be more investment. More “capital” means that workers have higher productivity, and that’s the primary determinant of wages and salary.

Our second chart shows how the internal revenue code treats income that is consumed compared to how it penalizes income that is saved and invested. Simply stated, the current system is very biased against capital formation because of the combined impact of capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, double taxes on dividends, and death taxes.

Indeed, one of the reasons why the right kind of tax reform will generate more prosperity is that double taxation of saving and investment is eliminated. With either a flat tax or national sales tax, economic activity is taxed only one time. No death tax, no capital gains tax, no double tax on dividends in either plan.

All of this background information helps underscore why it is especially foolish for the tax code to specifically penalize business investment. And this happens because companies have to “depreciate” rather than “expense” their investments.

Here’s how I described depreciation in my post on corporate jets.

If a company purchases a jet for $20 million, they should be able to deduct – or expense – that $20 million when calculating that year’s taxable income… A sensible tax system defines profit as total revenue minus total costs – including purchases of private jets. But today’s screwy tax code forces them to wait five years before fully deducting the cost of the jet (a process known as depreciation). Given that money today has more value than money in the future, this is a penalty that creates a tax bias against investment (the tax code also requires depreciation for purchases of machines, structures, and other forms of investment).

And I also addressed the issue when writing about the economic illiteracy in one of the Obama-Romney debates.

Now let’s see what some experts on the topic have to say.

Here’s some very sage analysis from Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute.

…a deal that cuts the corporate rate could end up doing more harm than good. The problem is that Congress and the Obama administration are thinking of pairing the rate cut with a slow-down of companies’ depreciation deductions. That’s a bad combination. A key goal of corporate tax reform should be to reduce the tax penalty on business investment. Investments in equipment, factories, and other forms of capital help power the long-run economic growth that boosts wages and living standards for American workers. …If depreciation is slowed down enough to offset the full revenue loss from the rate cut, then there’s no reduction in the investment penalty, on balance. The depreciation changes take back with the left hand everything that the rate cut gives with the right hand. …In fact, the policy makes the tax penalty on new investments bigger. …Why is this bad combination being considered? Maybe because the rate cut is easy to understand and the harm of slower depreciation is easy to overlook. …Yes, let’s cut the corporate tax rate. But, let’s not slow down depreciation to pay for it.

Amen. Proposals to lower America’s destructively high corporate tax rate are needed, but I don’t want politicians “paying for” the change with other policies that are similarly harmful to growth and competitiveness.

Margo Thorning of the American Council for Capital Formation adds some wisdom with her column in today’s Wall Street Journal.

…proposals that would increase the tax burden on capital-intensive industries—which are contributing to U.S. economic growth and employment—should be viewed with caution. …stretching out depreciation allowances reduces a company’s annual cash flow and raises the “hurdle rate” that new investments would have to meet before they are approved. For capital-intensive firms in sectors such as energy, manufacturing, utilities and transportation, the trade-off between delayed cash flow and lower corporate income-tax rates may result in cutbacks in capital spending. …Each additional $1 billion in investment is associated with 23,000 new jobs, according to data from the Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …Rather than drawing out depreciation schedules, a better, pro-growth approach to corporate tax reform would be to allow all investment to be expensed—in other words, deducted from income in the first year.

I share Margo’s concerns, which is why I’m very suspicious when the President says he wants to lower the corporate tax rate and “reform” the system.

Last but not least, Matt Mitchell (no relation) of the Mercatus Center recently added his two cents to the discussion.

The idea that “accelerated” depreciation is a loophole can be traced back to Stanley Surrey, the Harvard law professor whose work in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s influenced many…, including Senator Bill Bradley. …immediate expensing would mean abandoning “the attempt to tax business income.” That’s because it would essentially turn the corporate income tax into a corporate consumption tax. And that may be a good thing. Capital taxation is notoriously inefficient. This is one reason why Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka permitted immediate 100 percent expensing in their famous flat consumption tax.

You should realize, by the way, that the distorted view of what’s a loophole doesn’t just apply to depreciation. The Joint Committee on Taxation (the same folks who basically assume that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent) also tells lawmakers that it’s a loophole if you don’t double-tax capital gains, or if you allow people to avoid double taxation by utilizing IRAs.

With advice like that, no wonder the tax code is a mess.

Anyhow, congratulations are in order. If you’ve made it this far, you almost surely know more about depreciation than every single politician in Washington. Though, to be sure, that’s not exactly a big achievement.

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I’ve been very critical of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most recently, I criticized the Paris-based bureaucracy for making the rather remarkable assertion that a value-added tax would boost growth and employment.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now the bureaucrats have concocted another scheme to increase the size and scape of government. The OECD just published a study on “Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” that seemingly is designed to lay the groundwork for a radical rewrite of business taxation.

In a new Tax & Budget Bulletin for Cato, I outline some of my concerns with this new “BEPS” initiative.

…the BEPS report…calls for dramatic changes in corporate tax policy based on the presumption that governments are not seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD essentially argues that it is illegitimate for businesses to shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have more favorable tax laws. …The core accusation in the OECD report is that firms systematically—but legally—reduce their tax burdens by taking advantage of differences in national tax policies.

Ironically, the OECD admits in the report that revenues have been trending upwards.

…the report acknowledges that “… revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of gross domestic product have increased over time. …Other than offering anecdotes, the OECD provides no evidence that a revenue problem exists. In this sense, the BEPS report is very similar to the OECD’s 1998 “Harmful Tax Competition” report, which asserted that so-called tax havens were causing damage but did not offer any hard evidence of any actual damage.

To elaborate, the BEPS scheme should be considered Part II of the OECD’s anti-tax competition project. Part I was the attack on so-called tax havens, which began back in the mid- to late-1990s.

The OECD justified that campaign by asserting there was a need to fight illegal tax evasion (conveniently overlooking, of course, the fact that nations should not have the right to impose their laws on what happens in other countries).

The BEPS initiative is remarkable because it is going after legal tax avoidance. Even though governments already have carte blanche to change business tax policy.

…governments already have immense powers to restrict corporate tax planning through “transfer pricing” rules and other regulations. Moreover, there is barely any mention of the huge number of tax treaties between nations that further regulate multinational taxation.

So what does the OECD want?

…the OECD hints at its intended outcome when it says that the effort “will require some ‘out of the box’ thinking” and that business activity could be “identified through elements such as sales, workforce, payroll, and fixed assets.” That language suggests that the OECD intends to push global formula apportionment, which means that governments would have the power to reallocate corporate income regardless of where it is actually earned.

And what does this mean? Nothing good, unless you think governments should have more money and investment should be further penalized.

Formula apportionment is attractive to governments that have punitive tax regimes, and it would be a blow to nations with more sensible low-tax systems. …business income currently earned in tax-friendly countries, such as Ireland and the Netherlands, would be reclassified as French-source income or German-source income based on arbitrary calculations of company sales and other factors. …nations with high tax rates would likely gain revenue, while jurisdictions with pro-growth systems would be losers, including Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Estonia, Luxembourg, Singapore, and the Netherlands.

Since the United States is a high-tax nation for corporations, why should Americans care?

For several reasons, including the fact that it wouldn’t be a good idea to give politicians more revenue that will be used to increase the burden of government spending.

But most important, tax policy will get worse everywhere if tax competition is undermined.

…formula apportionment would be worse than a zero-sum game because it would create a web of regulations that would undermine tax competition and become increasingly onerous over time. Consider that tax competition has spurred OECD governments to cut their corporate tax rates from an average of 48 percent in the early 1980s to 24 percent today. If a formula apportionment system had been in place, the world would have been left with much higher tax rates, and thus less investment and economic growth. …If governments gain the power to define global taxable income, they will have incentives to rig the rules to unfairly gain more revenue. For example, governments could move toward less favorable, anti-investment depreciation schedules, which would harm global growth.

You don’t have to believe me that the BEPS project is designed to further increase the tax burden. The OECD admits that higher taxes are the intended outcome.

The OECD complains that “… governments are often under pressure to offer a competitive tax environment,” and that “failure to collaborate … could be damaging in terms of … a race to the bottom with respect to corporate income taxes.” In other words, the OECD is admitting that the BEPS project seeks higher tax burdens and the curtailment of tax competition.

Writing for Forbes, Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity highlights how the BEPS scheme will undermine tax competition and enable higher taxes.

…the OECD wants to undo taxpayer gains made in recent decades thanks to tax competition. Since the 1980′s, average global income taxes on both individuals and corporations have dropped significantly, improving incentives in the productive sector of the economy to generate economic growth. These pro-growth reforms are the result of tax competition, or the pressure to adopt competitive economic policies that is put on governments by an increasingly globalized society where both labor and capital are mobile. Tax competition is the only force working on the side of taxpayers, which explains the organized campaign by global elite to defeat it. …If taxpayers want to preserve gains made thanks to tax competition, they must be weary of the threat posed by global tax cartels though organizations such as the OECD.

Speaking of the OECD, this video tells you everything you need to know.

The final kicker is that the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries, so they’re insulated from the negative impact of the bad policies they want to impose on everyone else.

That’s even more outrageous than the fact that the OECD tried to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the supposed crime of standing in the public lobby of a public hotel.

Anguilla 2013P.S. I just gave a speech to the Anguilla branch of the Society for Trust and Estate Professionals, and much of my remarks focused on the dangers of the BEPS scheme.

I took this picture from my balcony. As you can see, there are some fringe benefits to being a policy wonk.

And I travel to Nevis on Sunday to give another speech.

Tough work, but somebody has to do it. Needless to say, withe possibility of late-season snow forecast for Monday in the DC area, I’m utterly bereft I won’t be there to enjoy the experience.

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I’m not a fan of loopholes in the tax code.

I’ve complained about the number of pages in the tax code, the number of provisions in the tax code, and I’ve even groused about the rising number of pages in the instruction manual for the 1040 tax form.

And I’ve specifically come out against tax preferences for ethanol, housing, municipal bonds, charity, and state and local taxes.

But just as you don’t necessarily know whether someone is tall or short without knowing the average height of a population, you can’t automatically identify loopholes without first defining an ideal tax system. In other words, you need a benchmark (referred to as “the tax base” or “taxable income”) in order to measure what’s a loophole.

Unfortunately, that’s not an easy task because there are two competing visions of the ideal benchmark. I’ve addressed this issue previously, in this post on the “tax expenditure con job,” but let’s dig into the weeds a bit.

  1. Those on the left, including the Joint Committee on Taxation, use what is sometimes called the “Haig-Simons” definition of a tax base. Also known as the “comprehensive income tax base,” this system assumes that there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested (as shown by this startling chart). Another way of saying this is that the Haig-Simons approach assumes the government should tax income plus changes in the value of assets. Moreover, the Haig-Simons system assumes “worldwide taxation” and that businesses can’t deduct investment costs as they occur.
  2. Those on the right, by contrast, support what is generally called “consumption-based” taxation. This doesn’t mean a tax collected at the cash register (though a national sales tax is an example of a tax with a “consumption base”). Instead, it simply refers to a system where income is taxed only one time. So, for example, a flat tax is a consumption-base tax since income is taxed only one time as it is earned, just as a national sales tax is a consumption-base tax since income is taxed only one time as it is spent. Moreover, a consumption-base system assumes “territorial taxation” and that business expenses should be deductible in the year the money changes hands.

While some features of the tax code – such as the healthcare exclusion – are loopholes according to both the Haig-Simons system and the consumption-base system, you get a divergence of opinion in key areas.

a) In a consumption-base world, there’s no double taxation and the capital gains tax therefore doesn’t exist. But from the perspective of the Haig-Simons tax base, the fact that capital gains are taxed at 23.8 percent instead of 39.6 percent is characterized as a loophole.

b) In a consumption-base world, there’s no double taxation and all savings gets the equivalent of IRA or 401(k) treatment. But from the perspective of Haig-Simons tax base, IRAs and 401(k)s are loopholes.

c) In a consumption-base world, there’s territorial taxation and no attempt to impose tax on income earned (and subject to tax) in other countries. But the Haig-Simons tax base assumes “worldwide taxation,” which means that “deferral” is a loophole rather than a way of mitigating a discriminatory penalty.

So why am I getting into boring details on this wonky issue? In part, because it helps people understand that tax reform is not just a matter of having a low tax rate. It’s also very important to define income correctly.

But I also think some background knowledge is necessary to explain why the White House is blowing smoke when they relentlessly demagogue against “corporate jets” as part of their never-ending campaign for class-warfare tax policy.

Let’s examine some excerpts from an ABC News report.

Listening to the White House, you’d think the key to averting the across-the-board spending cuts (the dreaded “sequester”) set to in place on March 1 is closing the tax break for owners of private jets. …Carney has brought up the corporate jet tax break at every single briefing this week. Listening to the White House, you might think that the “balanced” Democratic plan to avert the spending cuts would close that loophole for private jets. But you would be wrong. The Senate Democratic plan – which has been endorsed by the White House and is, in fact, the only Democratic plan actively under consideration right now – doesn’t touch corporate jets. …The tax break…allows the owners of private jets to depreciate their airplanes over five years instead of the standard seven years for commercial airplanes.

I don’t want you to focus on the demagoguery or the potential hypocrisy. Instead, consider the final sentence of the excerpt.

It turns out that the supposed “loophole” is really a penalty from a consumption-base perspective. If a company purchases a jet for $20 million, they should be able to deduct – or expense – that $20 million when calculating that year’s taxable income (after all, what is profit other than total revenue minus total costs?).

A sensible tax system defines profit as total revenue minus total costs – including purchases of private jets

But today’s screwy tax code forces them to wait five years before fully deducting the cost of the jet (a process known as depreciation). Given that money today has more value than money in the future, this is a penalty that creates a tax bias against investment (the tax code also requires depreciation for purchases of machines, structures, and other forms of investment).

Anyhow, because the tax bias imposes a five-year wait rather than a seven-year wait, the Obama White House would like us to believe that companies are getting some sort of egregious loophole.

Nonsense. In a good tax regime, companies should be able to deduct expenses in the year they are incurred. The fact that they have to wait five years is a penalty. But the White House wants us to perceive this penalty as a loophole or subsidy because it could be even more onerous.

By the way, if we’re worried about actual subsidies that benefit corporate jets, Tim Carney’s already explained that we should focus on the cronyists at the Export-Import Bank. And I heartily agree.

P.S. Defining the right “tax base” doesn’t imply anything about tax rates. You can have a so-called progressive rate structure or a single rate with either the Haig-Simons system or a consumption-base system.

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I’m a proponent of a pro-growth and non-corrupt tax code.

I mostly write and talk about the flat tax, though I’d be happy to instead accept a national sales tax if we could somehow get rid of the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even Justices such as John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsburg couldn’t rationalize that the income tax was constitutional.

But since there’s no chance of any good tax reform with Obama in the White House, there’s no need to squabble over the best plan. Instead, our short-term goal should be to educate voters so that we create a more favorable intellectual climate for genuine reform in 2017 and beyond.

That’s why I’ve argued in favor of lower tax rates and shared the latest academic research showing that tax policy has a significant impact on economic performance.

But tax reform also means getting rid of the rat’s nest of deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, exclusions, shelters, loopholes, and other distortions in the tax code.

Why? Because people should make decisions on how to earn income and how to spend income on the basis of what makes economic sense, not because they’re being bribed or penalized by the tax code. That’s just central planning through the back door.

And if you don’t think this is a problem, I invite you to peruse three startling images, each of which measures rising complexity over time.

  1. The number of pages in the tax code.
  2. The number of special tax breaks.
  3. The number of pages in the 1040 instruction booklet.

Today’s Byzantine system is good for tax lawyers, accountants, and bureaucrats, but it’s bad news for America. We need to wipe the slate clean and get rid of this corrupt mess.

But as I explain in this appearance on Fox Business News, we won’t make progress until we control the burden of government spending and unless we make sure that deductions are eliminated only if we use every penny of revenue to lower tax rates.

I’ve previously explained why it’s okay to get rid of itemized deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and state and local tax payments.

Let’s now take a moment to explain why the internal revenue code shouldn’t be artificially steering capital toward state and local governments at the expense of private investment.

Under current law, there’s no federal income tax imposed on interest from municipal bonds. No matter how rich you are, Uncle Sam doesn’t tax a penny of the interest you receive if you use your wealth to lend money to state and local governments.

Should the tax code steer money to Detroit politicians?

This “muni-bond exemption” has two unfortunate effects.

  • It makes it easier and cheaper for state and local governments to incur debt, thus encouraging more wasteful spending by cities such as Detroit and states such as California.
  • By making the debt of state and local governments more attractive than private business investment, the loophole undermines long-term growth by diverting capital to unproductive uses.

The politicians at the state and local level certainly understand what’s at stake. They’re lobbying to preserve this destructive tax break. Here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

Mr. Firestine [of Montgomery County, MD] is on the front lines of a lobbying campaign by local and state governments, bond dealers, insurers and underwriters that is trying to pre-empt any attempt to limit or even kill the tax exemption. …At present, the federal government forgoes about $32 billion a year in taxes by exempting the interest that investors earn from municipal bonds. …The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known as the Simpson-Bowles commission, has suggested taxing all municipal bond interest, not just the interest paid to people in the top bracket. …Officials of some other government groups, like the New York City Housing Development Corporation, have formed a coalition with Wall Street groups like the Bond Dealers of America to lobby on the issue. But there is the sense of an uphill battle. …Capping the tax exemption would cause high-bracket taxpayers to look for higher-yielding investments, he said, and the county would have to offer more interest to lure them back.

Based on the last sentence in the excerpt, I gather we’re supposed to think it would be bad news if we got rid of this tax preference and taxpayers shifted more of their money to private-sector investments.

Needless to say, that’s misguided. Only in the upside-down world of Washington do people think it is smart to create tax preferences that lead to more wasteful spending by state and local governments, while simultaneously imposing punitive forms of double taxation on saving and investment in the private sector.

By the way, this shouldn’t be an ideological issue. If this amazing chart is any indication, leftists who want workers to enjoy more income should be clamoring the loudest for a tax system that doesn’t tilt the playing field against capital formation.

P.S. While simplicity is a good goal for tax policy, you will understand why it shouldn’t be the only goal if you check out this potential Barack Obama tax reform plan.

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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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I’m a big fan of the flat tax as a way of neutering the punitive and convoluted internal revenue code in Washington.

But I’m even more aggressive at the state level.

That’s why I’m very excited about a new proposal from Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

He’s already implemented some good school choice reform, notwithstanding wretched and predictable opposition from the state’s teachers’ union.

Now he wants to get rid of the state’s personal and corporate income taxes.

This would be a big and bold step, and I shared some evidence recently showing that states with no income tax grow faster and create more jobs.

I also discussed Jindal’s proposal last week on Fox Business News.

Some people probably think Jindal is pushing this agenda merely because he may run for President in 2016.

My attitude is “so what?”

Income Tax? The answer is NO

So long as he implements better policy, I don’t care if he’s motivated by a Ouija board.

But since he has a reputation for being a policy wonk, I suspect his motivations are to make Louisiana a more prosperous state.

And if bold reform also happens to increase his national stature, I’m sure he’s more than happy to reap any political benefits.

If he succeeds, Louisiana will enjoy more growth.

Equally important, as I stated in the interview, his success would show that Obama’s class-warfare agenda may have some appeal in basket-case states such as California, but it doesn’t have much support among people who understand that growth is the only effective (and moral) way of achieving a better life.

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I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, though I try to make sure that politicians get much of the blame for America’s convoluted, punitive, and unfair tax code.

Heck, just look at these three images – here, here, and here – and you’ll find startling evidence that politicians make the tax system worse with each passing year.

But there is an office at the IRS that ostensibly exists to defend the interests of taxpayers. The Taxpayer Advocate Service, according to the government website, “an independent organization within the IRS and helps taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS and recommend changes that will prevent the problems.” The head of this office, Nina Olson, has the title of National Taxpayer Advocate.

Sounds good, right?

Well, not so fast. The TAS does some good things, but Ms. Olson spends at least part of her time advocating for the government.

The TAS just released its annual report, and here’s some of what the bureaucracy recommended, according to a Bloomberg story.

Among the other problems Olson identifies in the report are…the underfunding of the Internal Revenue Service… The IRS, which Olson compares to the accounts receivable department of a company, should be fenced off from more budget cuts by Congress, she writes in the report.

Don’t rub your eyes or clean your glasses. You read correctly. The folks at the IRS who supposedly are advocating for you are instead advocating for a bigger IRS budget.

I debunked this silly argument last year, explaining why Congress should reject the Obama Administration’s assertion that more money for the IRS would be an “investment” that would yield big returns.

But I want to be fair. Some of what the TAS does is worth applauding. The report also discusses the grotesque levels of complexity in the code. Here’s more of the Bloomberg story.

TAS IRS ComplexityThe U.S. tax system’s most serious problem is the 4-million-word code’s excessive complexity that makes it tough for taxpayers to comply with and difficult for the government to administer, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson wrote in an annual report to Congress. The tax code cost taxpayers and businesses $168 billion in compliance in 2010… “Lowering rates in exchange for broadening the tax base would be an excellent bargain,” says the report, released today in Washington. “We are confident that in the end, public support for a simpler code will be strong and deep.”

The TAS also produced this very depressing infographic (click to enlarge). It’s absolutely disgraceful that complying with the tax code requires the equivalent of 3 million full-time workers. It’s a vast understatement to call this a counterproductive misallocation of labor.

Or how about the fact that just the guidance for the income tax, when printed out, creates a stack of paper more than 12 inches high? And what about the nauseating little tidbit that the tax code has been changed more than once per day since 2001?

No wonder it’s such a corrupt mess. Isn’t it time we rip up the entire tax code and put in place something simple and fair like a flat tax? Here’s my case for real tax reform.

By the way, I’m also more than willing to replace the tax code with a national sales tax, perhaps something like the Fair Tax. I’m given speeches, testified to Congress, appeared on TV, and done all sorts of things to promote that idea.

But the one huge caveat is that we need to make sure that the politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and stick us with both an income tax and national sales tax. Which is what happened in Europe when governments implemented the value-added tax without repealing income taxes.

That’s why we would first need to get rid of the income tax and repeal the 16th Amendment. But then, because I don’t trust the Supreme Court (gee, I wonder why?), I would also want to replace the 16th Amendment with new language that would be so ironclad that even Chief Justice John Roberts couldn’t fabricate reasons why an income tax could ever return to plague the nation.

But since we can’t even get the votes to approve a watered-down balanced budget amendment, I’m not holding my breath for the day that the Constitution is amended to permanently kill the income tax.

And that’s why I think the flat tax is a safer option.

The worst thing that happens if we get a flat tax is that politicians change their mind and we degenerate back to the current system.

The worst thing that happens if we get a national sales tax is that politicians “forget” to eliminate the income tax, we wind up with both, and become France.

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Washington is filled with debate and discussion about the economic burden of the federal income tax, which collected $1.13 trillion in FY2012 ($1.37 trillion if you include the corporate income tax).

Yet politicians rarely consider the economic impact of payroll taxes, even though these levies totaled $.85 trillion during the same fiscal year.

Yes, we had a gimmicky payroll tax holiday for the past few years. And it’s true that Obama has signaled that he wants to increase the payroll tax burden at some point to prop up the Social Security system.

But there’s rarely, if ever, a discussion of wholesale reform.

That’s actually a good thing. Compared to the income tax, the payroll tax does far less damage. And it’s not just because it collects less money. On a per-dollar-raised basis, the payroll tax is considerably less destructive than the income tax.

Why? Because it’s actually a form of flat tax.

  • It has only one tax rate. There’s a 12.4 percent tax for Social Security and a 2.9 percent tax for Medicare, which means a flat tax of 15.3 percent.
  • There’s almost no double taxation. The payroll tax applies to wage and salary income, as well as personal earnings from business activities (sometimes known as “Schedule C” income). But dividends, interest, and capital gains are generally spared – other than the 3.8 percent Obamacare surtax.
  • There are no loopholes or deductions for politically connected interest groups.

And because of these three features, the tax is remarkably simple and doesn’t even require a tax form unless taxpayers have Schedule C income.

None of this, by the way, means the payroll tax is a good or desirable levy.

  • It takes for too much money from the American people and is far and away the biggest tax paid by the majority of American workers.
  • Those revenues are used for two programs – Social Security and Medicare – that are actuarially bankrupt and contributing to the nation’s long-run fiscal collapse.
  • The 15.3 percent tax undermines work incentives by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.
  • And the tax is very non-transparent, particularly since many taxpayers don’t even realize that the “F.I.C.A.” tax on their pay stub only reflects 50 percent of their payroll tax burden. In a hidden form of pre-withholding, employers pay an equal amount to the government on behalf of their workers – funds that otherwise would be part of worker compensation.

In other words, the payroll tax is a bad imposition. That being said, it still does considerably less damage, on a per-dollar-collected basis, than the income tax.

With that in mind, I’m puzzled that some folks want to keep the income tax and get rid of the payroll tax.

My friends at the Heritage Foundation, for instance, have a tax reform proposal that would fold the payroll tax into the income tax. Since they’re also proposing to turn the income tax into a form of flat tax, with one rate and no double taxation, the overall proposal clearly is a big improvement over today’s tax system. But all of the improvement is because of reforms to the income tax.

The Washington Examiner has an even stranger position. The paper recently editorialized in favor of abolishing the Social Security portion of the payroll tax and expanding the income tax.

The payroll tax — 12.4 percent, split between workers and their employers to help finance Social Security – is one of the worst taxes on the books for several reasons. A basic economic principle is that when the government taxes something, the nation gets less of it. Because the payroll tax makes it more expensive and administratively burdensome for businesses to hire workers, it’s a drag on employment. Also, even the employer’s share of the tax is effectively passed on to workers in the form of lower salaries and benefits.

There’s nothing overtly wrong with the above passage. The tax does all those bad things. But the income tax does all those things as well, but in an even more destructive fashion.

The editorial addresses a couple of potential objections, starting with the notion that the payroll tax is a revenue dedicated to social Security.

There are two main objections to scrapping the payroll tax. The first is the theoretical idea that payroll taxes are a dedicated revenue stream for Social Security. In practice, it just isn’t true. All government expenditures ultimately come from the same place. Payroll taxes help subsidize other government functions, and the government will use other tax revenue and borrowing to pay for Social Security when revenues are short.

They’re right that all taxes basically get dumped into the same pile of money and that the relationship between payroll taxes and Social Security benefits is imprecise.

But since my argument has nothing to do with this issue, I don’t think it matters.

Here’s the part of the editorial that doesn’t make sense.

The other objection is the massive revenue hit to the federal government. In 2010 (the last year before the recent payroll tax holiday), social insurance taxes raised $865 billion in revenue, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But there are a number of ways to recoup that revenue. As stated above, eliminating the payroll tax would make it easier to get rid of a lot of credits, loopholes and deductions. Also, if lower-income Americans aren’t paying payroll taxes, they can pay a bit more in income taxes. This would also deal with a conservative complaint that the income tax system needs to be reformed so everybody has at least some skin in the game.

This passage has a policy mistake and a political mistake.

The policy mistake is that the proposed swap almost surely would make the overall tax code more hostile to growth. The Examiner is proposing to get rid of an $865 billion tax that does a modest amount of damage per dollar collected, and somehow make up for that foregone revenue by collecting an additional $865 billion from the income tax system – which we know does a very large amount of damage per dollar collected.

To be sure, it’s possible to collect that extra money by eliminating distortions such as the state and local tax deduction or the healthcare exclusion. Compared to raising marginal tax rates, those are much-preferred ways of generating more revenue. But even in a best-case scenario – with politicians miraculously trying to collect an extra $865 billion without making the income tax system even worse, it’s hard to envision a better fiscal regime if we swap the payroll tax for a bigger income tax.

The political mistake is the assumption that more people will have “skin in the game” if the income tax is expanded. That’s almost surely not true. The poor don’t pay income tax, but the payroll tax grabs 15.3 percent of every penny earned by low-income households. And since very few taxpayers pay attention to which tax is shrinking their paychecks, it doesn’t really matter whether the “skin” is a payroll tax or an income tax.

Since the Examiner isn’t proposing a specific plan, there’s no way of making a definitive statement, but it’s 99 percent likely that eliminating the Social Security payroll tax would result in low-income households paying even less money to Washington. I think everybody should send less to Washington, but I don’t think shifting a greater share of the tax burden onto the middle class and the rich is the right way of achieving that goal.

I have one final objection, and this applies to both the Heritage Foundation plan and the Examiner proposal.

Notwithstanding everything I just wrote, I actually agree with them that we should eliminate the Social Security payroll tax. But we should get rid of the tax as part of a transition to a system of personal retirement accounts.

This is a reform that has been successfully implemented in about 30 nations and it also should happen in the United States. But an integral feature of this reform is that workers would be allowed to shift their payroll taxes into personal accounts. Needless to say, that’s not possible if the payroll tax has disappeared.

This video explains why genuine Social Security reform is so desirable.

And let’s not forget that the Medicare portion of the payroll tax could and should be part of a broader agenda of entitlement reform. But that’s also less likely if the payroll tax is folded into the income tax.

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I’m not sure I could pick out a significant victory for human freedom in 2012.

Maybe I’m missing something, but the only good policy that’s even worth mentioning was the decision in Wisconsin to rein in the special privileges and excessive compensation for government workers.

But there definitely have been lots of sad developments.

The hard part is picking the most disappointing story.

1. Was it the craven decision by John Roberts to put politics before the Constitution and cast the deciding vote for Obamacare? This certainly could be the most disappointing event of the year, but technically it didn’t represent a step in the wrong direction since the Supreme Court basically gave a green light to unlimited federal power back in the 1930s and 1940s. The Obamacare case is best characterized as a failure to do the right thing. A very tragic decision, to be sure, but it maintained the status quo.

2. Was it the lawless decision by the Internal Revenue Service to impose a horrible regulation that forces American banks to put foreign law above U.S. law? This was a very bad development in the battle for tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another in a long line of policies (such as FATCA) designed to increase the power of governments to impose and enforce bad tax policy.

3. Was it the Japanese government’s decision to double the value-added tax? I’m definitely not a fan of adding a VAT on top of the income tax, but Japan made that mistake years ago. The choice to increase the tax rate just shows why it’s dangerous to give politicians any new source of revenue. So this isn’t the worst policy development of 2012, particularly since the new Japanese government may suspend the tax hike.

4. Was it the delusional decision by 54 percent of California voters to impose a big, class-warfare tax hike? I thought the vote for Prop 30 was a very troubling development since it signaled that voters could be tricked into enacting class-warfare tax policy, even though they should have realized that more revenue for the state’s politicians would simply exacerbate the eventual fiscal collapse. But since I think this will be a learning experience on what not to do, I can’t put this at the top of my list.

5. Was it the French government’s punitive decision to impose a 75-percent top tax rate? This is a spectacularly misguided policy, and it’s already resulting in an exodus of entrepreneurs and other successful people. But just as I enjoy have California as a negative role model, I like using France as an example of bad policy. So it would be a bit hypocritical for me to list this as the worst policy of 2012.

6. Or was it the envy-motivated decisions by politicians in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic to replace flat tax systems with so-called progressive tax regimes? This is a strong candidate for the worst policy of the year. It’s very rare to see governments do the right thing, so it’s really tragic when politicians implement good reforms and later decide to reinstate class-warfare policies.

All things considered, I think this last option is the worst policy development of 2012. To be sure, I’m a bit biased since my work focuses on public finance issues and I’ve spent 20 years advocating for tax reform.

But I think there’s a strong case to be made, by anyone who believes in freedom, that politicians from Slovakia and the Czech Republic deserve the booby prize for worst public policy development of 2012.

Alvin Rabushka, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Flat Tax , summarizes the grim news.

On December 4, 2013, the center-left parliament of Slovakia modified the country’s historic 19% flat-rate tax…  Effective January 1, 2013, the income tax rate for corporations was raised from 19% to 23%, while that on individuals earning more than €39,600 (€1=$1.30) a year was raised to 25%, thereby creating two brackets of 19% and 25%. …On November 7, 2012, the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of the national parliament approved a proposal to impose a second higher rate of 22% on annual income exceeding Czech Koruna (CZK) 100,000 ($5,200) per month.  President Vaclav Klaus signed the bill on December 22, 2012, which will take effect on January 1, 2013.

What’s especially depressing about these two defeats is that the supposedly right-wing parties deserve the blame.

Two nations filled with brain-dead conservative politicians

In Slovakia, all but one of the right-leaning parties in the old government decided to support the Greek bailout, leading to the collapse of the government and the election of a new socialist government that then sabotaged tax reform.

And in the Czech Republic, the current right-of-center government decided to scrap the flat tax for “fairness” reasons. I’m sure that will really be comforting to the Czech people as the economy suffers from less growth.

To understand what the people of those nations are losing, here’s my video on the flat tax.

Now for a bit of good news. There are still more than 25 flat tax jurisdictions in the world, including two of my favorite places – Hong Kong and Estonia.

So there are still some pockets of rationality. It’s just very unfortunate that the scope of human liberty is getting smaller every year.

P.S. The absolute worst thing that happened in 2012, if we look beyond public policy, was Georgia falling 4 yards short of beating Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship.

P.P.S. Speaking of sports, the best thing about 2012 occurred in Virginia Beach back in October.

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