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Archive for the ‘Flat Tax’ Category

I’m a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia’s government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. …Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia’s economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. …The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia’s different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia’s second-largest party, which is favored by the country’s sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation’s flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. …The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. …The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. …Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

So the bad news is that the flat tax could soon disappear in Estonia and Lithuania.

But the good news, based on my discussions with people in these two nations, is that the battle isn’t lost. At least not yet.

In both cases, policy can’t be changed unless all parties in the coalition government agree. Fortunately, they haven’t reached that point.

And hopefully that point will never be reached if Estonia and Lithuania want long-run success.

All of the Baltic nations get reasonably good scores from Economic Freedom of the World. Ditching the flat tax will cause their scores to decline.

Given that fiscal policy is only 20 percent of a nation’s grade, adopting some bad tax policy may not seem like the end of the world.

But the flat tax isn’t just good policy. It also has symbolic value, telling both domestic entrepreneurs and global investors that a country has a commitment to a system that won’t impose extra punishment just because a person contributes more to national economic output.

By the way, the LPGU Party is very correct to worry about emigration. The Baltic nations (like most countries in Eastern Europe) face a very large demographic problem. And every time a young person leaves for better opportunities elsewhere (even if that better opportunity is a big welfare check), that makes the long-run outlook even more challenging.

But imposing a more punitive tax system is exactly the opposite of what should happen if the goal is faster growth so that people don’t leave the nation.

Let’s close with a famous quote from John Ramsay McCulloch, a Scottish economist from the 1800s.

To be sure, progressive taxation didn’t lead to total catastrophe, so McCulloch’s warning may seem overwrought by today’s standards.

But the so-called progressive income tax did lead to the modern welfare state. And the modern welfare state, when combined with demographic change, is threatening immense economic and societal damage in many nations.

So what he wrote in 1863 may turn out to be very prescient for historians in 2063 who wonder why the western world collapsed.

P.S. If Estonia and Lithuania move in the wrong direction, Latvia could be a big winner. That nation already has received some positive attention for being fiscally responsible, and it also has withstood pressure from the IMF to impose bad tax policy. So Latvia is well positioned to reap the benefits if Estonia and Lithuania shoot themselves in the foot.

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While the political world is consumed by the various scandals and baggage of the two main presidential candidates, let’s play a game of make-believe. Let’s pretend that politicians aren’t crooks and clowns and instead actually want to make America’s economy more vibrant and productive so the American people can enjoy higher living standards.

What would they do? What should they do?

Those are very big questions with lots of answers, so let’s focus just on the issue of tax policy. If the goal is more growth and prosperity, there are two obvious choices.

And if these two policies are desirable, there are three ways to make them happen.

  • Pass a stand-alone tax cut.
  • Finance a tax cut with concomitant reductions in federal spending (i.e., a spending-reducing and deficit-neutral tax cut).
  • Finance a tax cut by eliminating special tax preferences (i.e., a revenue-neutral, spending-neutral, and deficit-neutral tax reform).

Needless to say, a combination of the three also is possible.

My preference is for a spending-reducing/deficit-neutral tax cut for the simple reason that lower spending and better tax policy is a win-win situation that would make us more like Hong Kong. And I certainly don’t mind going with a pure, stand-alone tax cut since it’s generally a good idea to “starve the beast.”

In the current political environment, however, I suspect the final choice may be the most practical option. That’s because reasonable leftists may be willing to go along with better tax policy so long as they can be convinced that the burden of government spending won’t be reduced. And self-styled deficit hawks may be willing to go along with better tax policy so long as they can be convinced that red ink won’t increase.

But this also can be a win-win situation since there are many distortionary preferences in the tax code that lure people into making economically inefficient decisions solely because of tax considerations. So if those provisions are repealed and all the money is used to finance lower tax rates and less double taxation, we’ll have a tax system that is much less punitive.

Heck, this is the premise of the flat tax. Wipe out the 70,000-plus pages of the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair system that taxes income only one time at one low rate.

This means getting rid of preferences such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, the charitable contributions deduction, and the state and local tax deduction.

Some people say eliminating tax preferences is too politically risky, however, akin to “touching the third rail.”

And it’s certainly true that the interest groups benefiting from a tilted playing field will fight to preserve their special preferences. But I’m not sure they would be able to scare voters into supporting their position.

The first thing to understand is that only 30.1 percent of taxpayers utilize itemized deductions. And those that do itemize on their tax returns tend to have higher-than-average incomes. And remember that these are the same people who will directly benefit from lower tax rates and less double taxation.

Interestingly, the Open Source Policy Center has an interactive site where you can see what happens to people in various income classes if selected itemized deductions are repealed.

Here are the results from repealing the state and local tax deduction. As you can see, rich people are the only ones who take a meaningful hit.

Yet are these upper-income taxpayers going to fight to preserve that deduction if they are offered a trade for lower tax rates and less double taxation?

I suppose it depends on the specific circumstances of each taxpayer, but I’m guessing a majority of them would prefer a friendlier and simpler tax code that didn’t punish wealth creation.

Moreover, if you look at where these people live, you find that they are highly concentrated in just a handful of states along with a few urban areas elsewhere in the country.

This suggests that policy makers from most states shouldn’t even care about itemized deductions. So there shouldn’t be any reason for them to oppose a tax reform plan that produces lower tax rates and less double taxation.

P.S. The hard-core left will not go along with revenue-neutral tax reform. They have such antipathy to success that some of them openly urge punitive taxes even if the economic damage is so severe that the government doesn’t collect any revenue.

P.P.S. With regards to the reasonable leftists and the deficit hawks, one can point out that good tax policy will generate better economic performance and therefore more taxable income (i.e., the Laffer Curve). But it’s only in rare (albeit sometimes very noteworthy) cases that the increase in taxable income is sufficiently large to offset the impact of lower tax rates, so revenues will still fall. And since these people don’t like tax cuts, even smaller-than-expected ones, they will still be opposed to pro-growth tax policy unless it is revenue-neutral.

P.P.P.S. The mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate.

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There’s no agreement on the most important variable for state tax competitiveness.

I’m sympathetic to the final option, in part because of my disdain for the income tax. And if an income tax is imposed, I prefer a simple and fair flat tax.

With that in mind, here’s a fascinating infographic I received via email. I don’t know if Reboot Illinois is left wing, right wing, or apolitical, but they did a very good job. I particularly like the map showing zero-income tax states (gray), flat tax states (red), and states with so-called progressive tax schemes (blue).

For what it’s worth, Illinois taxpayers should fight as hard as possible to preserve the state’s flat tax. If the politicians get the power to discriminate among income classes, it will just be a matter of time before all taxpayers are hit by higher rates.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Like any good libertarian, I generally focus on the size of government. I compare France with Hong Kong and that tells me that big is bad and small is good.

But regardless of whether a government is large or small, it’s desirable if it spends money efficiently and generates some benefit. I shared, for instance, a fascinating study on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank and was not surprised to see that nations with smaller public sectors got much more bang for the buck (with Singapore easily winning the prize for the most efficient government).

So I was very interested to see that WalletHub put together a report showing each state’s “return on investment” based on how effectively it uses tax monies to achieve desirable outcomes for education, health, safety, economy, and infrastructure, and pollution.

I’m not completely comfortable with the methodology (is it a state government’s fault if the population is more obese and therefore less healthy, for instance, and what about adjusting for demographic factors such as age and race?), but I nonetheless think the study is both useful and interesting.

Here are the best and worst states.

One thing that should stand out is that the best states are dominated by zero-income tax states and flat tax states.

The worst states, by contrast, tend to have punitive tax systems (Alaska is a bit of an outlier because it collects – and squanders – a lot of revenue from oil).

By the way, if you’re a Republican, you can probably give yourself a small pat on the back. The so-called red states do a bit better than the so-called blue states.

P.S. WalletHub put together some fascinating data on which cities get a good return on investment (i.e., bang for the back) for spending on police and education.

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I’m in Hong Kong for series of meeting and briefings on various economic and policy issues.

As you can imagine, I’m a huge fan of the jurisdiction’s simple 15 percent flat tax. It’s basically about as close to a pure flat tax as anyplace in the world. There is zero double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

That’s not an exaggeration. You don’t get double taxed on the interest you earn on your bank balances and other financial accounts. There’s no capital gains tax. There’s no death tax. And there’s no double taxation of dividends.

There are only a few deviations from a pure flat tax that even merit a mention. First, taxpayers with modest amounts of income don’t have to use the flat tax system. Instead, they can opt for a “progressive” tax system that has a top rate of 17 percent, but also has tax rates of 2 percent and 7 percent, and 12 percent.

Imagine, taxpayers getting to choose the system that works best for them, instead of the government forcing them into the system that requires the highest payment!

The other deviations are that businesses are not always allowed full expensing of business investment, and there also are a handful of deductions.

All things considered, though, Hong Kong gets almost everything right on tax policy, whereas the United States gets a majority of things wrong.

Oh, and I should mention that there are no payroll taxes in Hong Kong. Nor is there a value-added tax.

That’s all very impressive, but let’s actually focus on something that may be even more remarkable about Hong Kong.

It currently has a modest-sized government, with spending consuming less than 20 percent of economic output. That’s not as good as the United States 100 years ago, but it’s far better than where America is today.

That being said, Hong Kong has some major challenges. I’ve explained before that demographic changes will put pressure on fiscal policy in America, but demographic change is far more profound in Hong Kong.

As you can see from this data, it has the seventh-highest level of life expectancy in the world.

That’s good news, of course, but it does mean a lot of fiscal pressure, even for a jurisdiction that is justly famous for its very small welfare state.

But then you have to consider the fact that Hong Kong also has the fourth-lowest birthrate in the entire world.

In other words, Hong Kong faces a perfect storm of demographics. More and more non-working elderly over time, combined with fewer and fewer taxpayers to pull the wagon.

Given these unfriendly numbers, the Hong Kong government put together a working group to look at long-run fiscal issues.

In its recent report, the group presented a fiscal forecast that shows how the burden of government spending will slowly climb to nearly 24 percent of GDP over the next 25 years.

Here’s a chart showing actual data starting in the late 1990s and then projections until 2042.

To those of us from North America and Western Europe, where the overall burden of government spending, on average, consumes more than 40 percent of economic output, it seems like Hong Kong has a trivial problem.

But it’s still a problem and something has to change. Hong Kong could finance a bigger public sector by dipping into its large reserves (currently the jurisdiction has saved enough money to finance about two years of government spending) or by increasing the tax burden.

But hopefully Hong Kong will abide by Article 107 of its Basic Law (its constitution) and limit government spending so that it doesn’t grow faster than the private economy.

And there are some positive signs.

About 15 years ago, Hong Kong set up a system of private retirement accounts in order to create a self-funded source of retirement income.

Based on a recent government report on retirement income, here are some key features of this Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) system.

The MPF System is an employment-based, privately-managed mandatory defined contribution system. …Employers are required under the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Ordinance (Cap. 485) to arrange for their employees aged 18 or above but under 65 to join… The MPF System has been implemented for 15 years only. …about 2.55 million employees are enrolled in MPF schemes, representing 100% of the employees required by law to join the schemes. This is a very high rate by international standards. In addition, another 210 000 self-employed persons are also scheme members. …An employer and an employee are each required to contribute 5% of the relevant employee’s income… As at end October 2015, MPF assets had increased to $594.2 billion, of which about $123.1 billion were investment returns.

Here’s a chart from the report, showing the cumulative growth of assets, based on both contributions and investment returns.

Keep in mind, though, that it takes 7.8 Hong Kong dollars to equal 1 U.S. dollar, so $594.2 billion is not nearly as large as it sounds.

In part, this is because the system isn’t yet mature. Workers have only been making contributions from 15 years, while a working lifetime is 40-45 years.

But there also are concerns that the level of mandatory saving is insufficient. Here’s additional language from the report, which cites the private retirement systems in Australia and Denmark.

There are views that the contribution rate or the maximum relevant income level should be raised to strengthen the retirement protection function of the MPF System. Take the privately-managed mandatory occupational contributory pension plans in Denmark and Australia as examples. In Denmark, employers and employees generally contribute a total of 9% to 17%. In Australia, only employers make contributions and the contribution rate will be raised progressively from 9% in 2013 to the present 9.5% and further to 12% in 2025.

I’m personally agnostic on the precise level of mandatory savings. My goal is simply to shrink tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, particularly before demographic changes lead to a larger burden of government spending.

And since I have great fondness for Hong Kong (how can you not get a thrill up your leg about a jurisdiction that routinely gets the highest score in Economic Freedom of the World?), I want it to remain a beacon for advocates of economic liberty.

P.S. Lest anyone think I’m being too fawning, Hong Kong has several policies that are misguided. Public housing is pervasive, there’s government-run healthcare, and one peculiar legacy of British rule is that only one piece of land is privately owned. Fixing these warts would make Hong Kong even more vibrant.

P.P.S. Another quirky feature of Hong Kong policy is that currency is issued by private banks. If you pull a $20 bill from your wallet, you’ll see that it was printed by HSBC, Standard Chartered, or Bank of China. Unfortunately, this isn’t because Hong Kong has a market-driven system of competing currencies. But it does have a currency board, which – by standards of government-controlled monetary systems – is one of the least-worst options. Of course, that means Hong Kong’s money is only as good as the currency to which it’s linked. And since the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, that might be a cause for long-run concern.

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When I compared the tax reform proposals of various 2016 presidential candidates last month, Ben Carson got the best grade by a slight margin.

But I’ve now decided to boost his overall grade from a B+ to A-, or perhaps even A, because he’s finally released details and that means his grade for “specificity” jumps from a C to A-.

Here’s some of what’s been reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Monday called for imposing a 14.9% flat tax rate on income, ending taxes on capital gains and dividends and abolishing the charitable deduction and all tax credits.

By the way, the reporter goofed. Carson is proposing to end double taxation of dividends and capital gains, but all income would be taxed. What the reporter should have explained is that capital and business income would be taxed only one time.

But I’m digressing. Let’s review some additional details.

Mr. Carson’s flat tax would apply only to income above 150% of the poverty level… In some respects, Mr. Carson’s plan is similar to those of the other candidates, all of whom want to lower tax rates… But he goes farther, particularly with his willingness to rip up parts of the tax system that have been in place for a century. …In addition to eliminating the charitable deduction and investment taxation, Mr. Carson would also repeal the estate tax, the mortgage-interest deduction, the state and local tax deduction,  depreciation rules and the alternative minimum tax.

Wow, no distorting preferences for charity or housing. And no double taxation of any form, along with expensing instead of depreciation. Very impressive.

Carson has basically put forth a pure version of the plan first proposed by economists at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Perhaps most important of all, Carson’s plan is a flat tax and just a flat tax. He doesn’t create any new taxes that could backfire in the future.

Here’s what the Carson campaign wrote about his flat tax compared to the plans put forth by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Unlike proposals advanced by other candidates, my tax plan does not compromise with special interests on deductions or waffle on tax shelters and loopholes. Nor does it falsely claim to be a flat tax while still deriving the bulk of its revenues through higher business flat taxes that amount to a European-style value-added tax (VAT). Adding a VAT on top of the income tax would not only impose an immense tax increase on the American people, but also become a burdensome drag on the U.S. economy.

I would have used different language, warning about the danger of a much-higher future fiscal burden because Washington would have both an income tax and a VAT, but the bottom line is that I like Carson’s plan because the worst outcome is that future politicians might eventually recreate the current income tax.

What I don’t like about the Paul and Cruz plans, by contrast, is that future politicians could much more easily turn America into France or Greece.

Here’s my video that explains why the flat tax is the best system (at least until we shrink the federal government to such a degree that we no longer need any form of broad-based taxation).

P.S. If you want to get hyper-technical, Carson’s plan may not be a pure flat tax because he would require a very small payment from everybody (akin to what Governor Bobby Jindal proposed). Though if the “de minimis” payment is a fixed amount (say $50 per adult) rather than a second rate (say 1% on the poor), then I certainly would argue it qualifies as being pure.

P.P.S. Carson still has a chance to move his overall grade to A or A+ if he makes the plan viable by proposing an equally detailed plan (presumably consisting of genuine entitlement reform and meaningful spending caps) to deal with the problem of excessive government spending.

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With all of the GOP presidential candidates proposing varying plans to reduce the tax burden and reform the tax system, I’m constantly asked which one is best.

But that’s hard to answer because all of the proposals have features I like…as well as some features that leave me underwhelmed, or perhaps even worried.

My fantasy proposal is to have no income tax, or any broad-based tax, because we shrink the federal government to less than 5 percent of economic output (which is what existed for much of our nation’s history).

But since most of my fantasies won’t happen (at least in the near future), my intermediate goal is to junk the current tax system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax, which would mean a low tax rate, no double taxation, and no corrupt and distorting tax preferences.

The bad news is that there hasn’t been a stampede by candidates to embrace this type of fundamental tax reform. But the good news is that they all want to move in that direction.

The best site for seeing what the various candidates are proposing is the Tax Foundation, and you can click here to learn everything that you need to know about their plans. There’s less detail, but the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget also has a helpful summary that can be perused here.

Conservative Review put together some useful graphs to compare the major plans. Here’s the tax rate structure for households.

Though this is not very accurate since the value-added taxes in the plans put forth by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz mean the real tax rates on labor income would actually be 29 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

And here’s the degree of double taxation in the major plans.

What stands out in this chart is the fact all the candidates want to reduce double taxation, but Marco Rubio’s plan gets rid of that pernicious practice completely.

There are lots of additional metrics. Most of the candidates abolish the death tax, which is a very damaging form of double taxation.

They all lower or eliminate the corporate income tax.

Most of the candidates also replace depreciation with expensing, thus ensuring the proper treatment of business investment.

And the candidates generally scale back on favoritism in the tax code, particularly the deduction for state and local taxes.

To summarize, the plans have lots of good features, but none of them are perfect. Which is why they all get similar grades. Here’s my back-of-the-envelope assessment (with apologies to John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, etc, since I imposed my own arbitrary cutoff on which candidates merited close consideration).

Ben Carson gets the best grade because he says he wants a pure flat tax. But he doesn’t get an A because there are no details. In theory, you don’t need a lot of details because the plan is so simple, but the fact that he hasn’t even pinned down the rate (it was 10 percent, but is now 15 percent) leaves me uncertain. Moreover, he hasn’t put forth many details on how to reduce the burden of government spending, which would be necessary to make a low-rate flat tax viable.

By the way, Carly Fiorina would probably get a grade similar to Carson since she’s talked generically about a pure flat tax, and Rick Santorum’s more detailed support for a not-quite-pure flat tax also merits applause.

Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are almost identical (and John Kasich probably would be in the same category) because they make good progress (but not great progress) in almost all areas of the tax code.

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are more aggressive taking big steps in the right direction, but the value-added tax is a very worrisome feature of their plans.

Donald Trump has the biggest net tax cut, but seems to have no interest in controlling the burden of government spending. He also is the only candidate (to my knowledge) who doesn’t want to replace America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax system with a territorial tax regime.

And Marco Rubio is unique in that his plan is great on double taxation, but is a bit of a dud with regards to tax rates.

Last but not least, Mike Huckabee’s support for replacing the income tax with a national sales tax is theoretically appealing, but it’s either impractical (because there aren’t enough votes to repeal the 16th Amendment) or too risky (because the crowd in Washington would adopt a sales tax without completely repealing the income tax).

P.S. For those who really care about these issues, there’s a debate tomorrow morning (December 8th) between representatives of the Cruz, Paul, Bush, Rubio, and Kasich campaigns.

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Why does the tax code require more than 10,000,000 words and more than 75,000 pages?

There are several reasons and none of them are good. But if you had to pick one cause for all the mess, it would be the fact that politicians have worked with interest groups and lobbyists to create myriad deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, exemptions, and other loopholes.

This is a great deal for the lobbyists, who get big fees. It’s a great scam for politicians, who get lots of contributions. And it’s a great outcome for interest groups, who benefit from back-door industrial policy that distorts the economy.

But it’s not great for the American people or the American economy.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center explains that the net result is a Byzantine tax code that imposes very harsh compliance costs on the productive sector.

According to a 2012 study from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Treasury Department, …corporations alone spent $104 billion complying with the tax code in 2012. …The cost to individuals may be even higher. According to a 2013 study by Jason Fichtner and Jacob Feldman of the Mercatus Center, Americans face nearly $1 trillion annually in hidden tax-compliance costs. …Why does tax compliance cost so much? The answer is largely that the Internal Revenue Code…is riddled with exclusions, exemptions, deductions, preferential rates, and credits.

And she also points to a solution.

Genuine reform would cut out loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of those with political connections. It would also aim to provide lower tax rates, fewer tax brackets, and less double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Such measures would be good for growth, but they would also mean taking on the interest groups that benefit from swapping tax preferences for campaign cash.

Since I want to rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax, this is music to my ears.

Of course, achieving genuine tax reform won’t be easy.

There’s the obvious political obstacle since all the groups that benefit from the current system (politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, cronyists, interest groups, and other insiders) will fiercely resist reform.

There’s also a policy obstacle because many people oppose loopholes in theory but they haven’t paid sufficient attention to the nuts-and-bolts details.

With that in mind, let’s set out a set of guiding principles for the elimination of tax loopholes and the creation of a neutral tax system.

1. A loophole exists when income isn’t taxed – In libertarian Nirvana, the central government is so small that there’s no need for an income tax. Until we get to that point, though, we’re stuck with the internal revenue code and the goal should be to collect revenue (hopefully a modest amount) in a way that minimizes the economic damage per dollar collected. And that means a tax code that doesn’t have loopholes, which are best defined as provisions that enable people to avoid any tax based on how they earn income or how they spend income. In a neutral system, all income is taxed one time.

2. The economy performs better without a loophole-riddled tax code – Most people understand that high tax rates are bad for growth because they penalize people for earning income. They also generally understand that double taxation of saving and investment is bad for growth because it creates a bias against capital formation. But there’s not nearly enough appreciation of the fact that loopholes in the code are bad for growth since they are a back-door form of industrial policy that exist for the purpose of incentivizing people to make decisions on the basis of tax rather than on the basis of what makes economic sense. A neutral tax system means less economic damage.

3. It’s not a loophole to protect income from double taxation or to require income to be measured correctly – The bad news is that the current system forces taxpayers to overstate their income and it also imposes multiple layers of tax on income that is saved and invested. The good news is that there are provisions in the tax code – such as IRAs, 401(k)s, deferral, bonus depreciation – that seek to mitigate these biases. These parts of the system oftentimes are needlessly complex and they frequently will alleviate penalties in a discriminatory manner, but they are not loopholes. In a neutral system, all income is taxed only one time.

4. Loopholes should be eliminated as part of a plan to lower tax rates, not in order to give politicians more money – If loopholes are a corrupt and distorting dark cloud, the silver lining to that cloud is that all the special favors in the tax code deprive the government of tax revenue. Even the most egregious of loopholes, such as ethanol, have this redeeming feature. This is why loopholes should only be eliminated as part of an overall tax reform plan that also lowers tax rates and reduces double taxation. A neutral tax system shouldn’t enable bigger government.

There are some important implications that follow from these four guiding principles.

As a practical matter, we can now identify provisions in the tax code that are clearly loopholes, such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, and the state and local tax deduction (the mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate).

We also know that the capital gains tax rate isn’t a “preferential” loophole, but instead is the mitigation of a penalty that shouldn’t exist. Similarly, it’s not a loophole when companies deduct expenses when calculating income. And you’re not getting some sort of handout simply because Uncle Sam isn’t imposing double taxation on your retirement account. At the risk of repeating myself, all income should be taxed in a neutral system, but only one time.

Let’s close by looking at a few secondary – but still important – implications of a neutral tax code.

First, getting rid of loopholes won’t put a burden on poor and middle-income taxpayers for the simple reason that an overwhelming share of the benefits of these provisions go to high-income taxpayers.

I’ve already shown how the vast majority of charitable deductions are taken by those making more than $200,000 per year.

The same is true for the state and local tax deduction and the healthcare exclusion.

And the Washington Post just editorialized that the home mortgage interest deduction is a boon for rich taxpayers as well.

The mortgage interest deduction is also a significant cause of after-tax income inequality: The top 20 percent of earners get 75 percent of the benefits; the top 1 percent get 15 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. …Specifically, 10 metropolitan “hot spot” counties (among them Los Angeles in California and Fairfax in Virginia) with the greatest number of mortgages larger than $500,000 accounted for 45.1 percent of all such mortgages nationally. Just eight California urban and suburban counties accounted for 40 percent of the national total. Outside of such tony coastal precincts, the only big-mortgage hot spots were resort destinations such as Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Vail, Colo. — where many homes are vacation places, not primary residences.

To be sure, the Post is misguided in that it wants to restrict tax preferences in order to finance a larger burden of government spending.

So I’m not expecting the editors to join a coalition for pro-growth tax reform.

The second implication is that a neutral tax system means less corruption.

To cite one example, consider the oleaginous way that politicians deal with so-called tax extenders. Marc Short and Andy Koenig explain in a column they wrote for the New York Times.

Congress will soon take up the so-called tax extenders package, which has more than 50 tax breaks affecting a variety of industries and issues. …this bill mostly helps the wealthy and the well connected.

The fact that rich insiders benefit is no surprise, but what makes “tax extenders” so odious is that what began in 1988 as a supposedly one-time fix now has become a regular part of the process, a scam that gives lobbyists and politicians a way of generating fees and contributions.

The first tax-extender package…opened a door that lobbyists and lawmakers were all too willing to run through. …A 2014 analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness found that more than one out of every 10 lobbyists in Washington focused specifically on the extenders package. Given that this bill comes up about every year or two, special interests constantly have the opportunity to demand new handouts.

By the way, some of the extenders actually are good policy. They’re in the mitigation-of-penalties category I discussed above.

But those good provisions should be made permanent and the bad provisions should be jettisoned.

Unfortunately, that’s not in the interests of the politicians and lobbyists who benefit from an annual extender package, so the problem doubtlessly will fester.

Last but not least, let’s consider the moral component.

For those of us who believe in justice, it is ethically offensive that some rich and powerful taxpayer get better treatment simply because they know how to manipulate the political process.

This violates the important principle that the law should treat everyone alike. Yet another reason to have a simple and fair flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of being a nit-picker about my own writing, I should confess that a flat tax is not a purely neutral tax system. There will still be a penalty on earning income. But the penalty presumably will be modest if there is a low rate and that penalty won’t be exacerbated by penalties and loopholes that distort how people earn income and spend income.

P.P.S. Here, in one image, is all you really need to know about the economics of taxation.

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