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Posts Tagged ‘National Sales Tax’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he looks specifically at taxing criminal activity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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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What do the flat tax and national sales tax (and even the value-added tax) have in common?

As I explain in this Senate Budget Committee testimony, they are all single-rate, consumption-base, loophole-free tax systems that fulfill the key principles of good tax policy.

But good theory doesn’t operate in a vacuum, which is why I make several additional points.

1. Echoing George Will, something like a VAT should never be implemented unless the income tax is completely abolished.

2. It’s impossible to have good tax policy if government is too big.

3. A proper definition of taxable income is necessary to understand what’s a loophole and what’s not.

4. Tax revenues already are projected to significantly increase over the next few decades because of “real bracket creep,” meaning than a rising burden of spending accounts for more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal challenge.

5. If you want the rich to pay more tax, keep tax rates reasonable.

On a personal note, I’m irked that my jacket is riding up on my shoulders. I’ve been trained to sit on the tail of my jacket when doing TV interviews, and I should have remembered that lesson during my testimony.

But at least I’m wearing my Bulldawg tie, so that compensates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s a lot better than being Greece.

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I like the overall approach of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. As I recently wrote, it focuses on lower tax rates, elimination of double taxation, and repeal of corrupt and inefficient loopholes.

But I included a very important caveat. The intermediate stage of his three-step plan would enable politicians to impose both an income tax and a national sales tax. I wrote in my earlier post that I had faith in Herman Cain’s motives, but I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of letting the crowd in Washington have an extra source of revenue.

After all, Europe’s welfare states began their march to fiscal collapse and economic stagnation after they added a version of a national sales tax on top of their pre-existing income taxes.

But it seems that I was too nice in my analysis of Mr. Cain’s plan. Josh Barro and Bruce Bartlett are both claiming that the business portion of Cain’s 9-9-9 is a value-added tax (VAT) rather than a corporate income tax.

In other words, instead of being a 9 percent flat tax-9 percent sales tax-9 percent corporate tax, Cain’s plan is a 9 percent flat tax-9 percent sales tax-9 percent VAT.

Let’s elaborate. The business portion of Cain’s plan apparently does not allow employers to deduct wages and salaries, which means – for all intents and purposes – that they would levy a 9 percent withholding tax on employee compensation. And that would be in addition to the 9 percent they presumably would withhold for the flat tax portion of Cain’s plan.

Employers use withholding in the current system, of course, but at least taxpayers are given credit for all that withheld tax when filling out their 1040 tax forms. Under Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, however, employees would only get credit for monies withheld for the flat tax.

In other words, there are two income taxes in Cain’s plan – the 9 percent flat tax and the hidden 9 percent income tax that is part of the VAT (this hidden income tax on wages and salaries, by the way, is a defining feature of a VAT).

This doesn’t make Cain’s plan bad from a theoretical perspective. The underlying principles are still sound – low tax rates, no double taxation, and no loopholes.

But if I was uneasy when I thought that the 9-9-9 plan added a sales tax on top of the income tax, then I am super-duper-double-secret-probation uneasy about adding a sales tax and a VAT on top of the income tax.

Here’s my video on the VAT, which will help you realize why this pernicious tax would be a big mistake.

Again, this doesn’t make Cain wrong if we’re grading based on economics or philosophy. My anxiety is a matter of real-world political analysis. I don’t trust politicians with new sources of revenue. Whether we give them big new sources of revenue or small new sources of revenue, they will always figure out ways of pushing up the tax rates so they can waste more money trying to buy votes.

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