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Archive for the ‘Higher Taxes’ Category

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) arguably is the worst feature of the internal revenue code. It’s an odious example of fiscal imperialism that is based on a very bad policy agenda.

But there is something even worse, a Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters that has existed for decades but recently has been dangerously modified. MCMAATM is a clunky acronym, however, so let’s go with GATCA. That’s because this agreement, along with companion arrangements, would lead to a Global Tax Compliance Act.

Or, as I’ve argued, it would be a nascent World Tax Organization.

And the United States would be the biggest loser. That’s because FATCA was bad legislation that primarily imposed heavy costs on – and caused much angst in – the rest of the world.

GATCA, by contrast, is an international pact that would impose especially heavy costs on the United States and threaten our status as the world’s biggest haven for investment.

Let’s learn more about this bad idea, which will become binding on America if approved by the Senate.

James Jatras explains this dangerous proposal in a column for Accounting Today.

Treasury’s real agenda is…a so-called “Protocol amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.” The Protocol, along with a follow-up “Competent Authority” agreement, is an initiative of the G20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with the support, unsurprisingly, of the Obama Administration. …the Protocol cannot be repaired. It is utterly inconsistent with any concept of American sovereignty or Americans’ constitutional protections. Ratification of the Protocol would mean acceptance by the United States as a treaty obligation of an international “common reporting standard,” which is essentially FATCA gone global—sometimes called GATCA. Ratifying the Protocol arguably would also provide Treasury with backdoor legal authority to issue regulations requiring FATCA-like reporting to foreign governments by U.S. domestic banks, credit unions, insurance companies, mutual funds, etc. This would mean billions of dollars in costs passed on to American taxpayers and consumers, as well as mandating the delivery of private data to authoritarian and corrupt governments, including China, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Nigeria.

The Foreign Relations Committee unfortunately has approved the GATCA Protocol.

But Rand Paul, like Horatius at the bridge protecting Rome, is throwing sand in the gears and isn’t allowing easy passage by the full Senate.

…the senator is right to insist that the OECD Protocol is dead on arrival.

Taxpayers all over the world owe him their gratitude.

In a column for Investor’s Business Daily, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns that this pernicious and risky global pact would give the IRS power to collect and automatically share massive amounts of our sensitive financial information with some of the world’s most corrupt, venal, and incompetent governments.

During a visit to the World Bank this week, I got a sobering lesson about the degree to which the people working at international bureaucracies, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, dislike tax competition. For years, these organizations — which are funded with our hard-earned tax dollars — have bullied low-tax nations into changing their tax privacy laws so uncompetitive nations can track taxpayers and companies around the world. …they never tire of trying to raise taxes on everyone else. Take the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all system of “automatic information exchange” that would necessitate the complete evisceration of financial privacy around the world. A goal of the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters is to impose a global network of data collection and dissemination to allow high-tax nations to double-tax and sometimes triple-tax economic activity worldwide. That would be a perfect tax harmonization scheme for politicians and a nightmare for taxpayers and the global economy.

But she closes with the good news.

Somehow the bureaucrats persuaded the lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve it. Thankfully, it’s currently being blocked by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Actually, all that’s being blocked is the ability to ram the Multilateral Convention through the Senate without any debate or discussion.

John Gray explains the procedural issues in a piece for Conservative Review.

Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT)…aren’t blocking these treaties at all. Instead, they are just objecting to the Senate ratifying them by “unanimous consent.” The Senate leadership has the authority to bring these tax treaties to the floor for full consideration – debate, amendments, and votes. That is what Senators Paul and Lee are asking for. …Unanimous consent means that the process takes all of about 10 seconds; there is no time to review the treaties, there is no time for debate, and not a second of time to offer amendments.  They simply want them to be expedited through the Senate without transparency. …As sitting U.S. Senators, they have the right to ask for debate and amendments to these treaties. …These treaties are dangerous to our personal liberties.  Senator Paul and Senator Lee deserve the transparency and debate they’ve requested.

Amen.

For those of us who want good tax policy, rejecting this pact is vital.

An ideal fiscal system not only has a low rate, but also taxes income only one time and only taxes income earned inside national borders.

Yet the OECD Protocol to the Multilateral Convention is based on the notion that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested, and that these taxes should be levied on an extraterritorial basis.

For fans of the flat tax, national sales tax, or other proposals for tax reform, this would be a death knell.

But this isn’t just a narrow issue of tax policy. On the broader issue of privacy and government power, Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard makes some very strong points in a column for the South China Morning Post.

I should be a paid-up supporter of the campaign to close down tax havens. I should be glad to see the back of 500-euro bills. …Nevertheless, I am deeply suspicious of the concerted effort to address all these problems in ways that markedly increase the power of states – and not just any states but specifically the world’s big states – at the expense of both small states and the individual.

He cites two examples, starting with the intrusive plan in the U.K. to let anybody and everybody know the owners of property.

The British government announced it will set up a publicly accessible register of beneficial owners (the individuals behind shell companies). In addition, offshore shell companies and other foreign entities that buy or own British property will henceforth be obliged to declare their owners in the new register. No doubt these measures will flush out or deter some villains. But there are perfectly legitimate reasons for a foreign national to want to own a property in Britain without having his or her name made public. Suppose you were an apostate from Islam threatened with death by jihadists, for example.

He also is uncomfortable with the “war against cash.”

…getting rid of bin Ladens is the thin end of a monetary wedge. …a number of economists…argue cash is an anachronism, heavily used in the black and grey economy, and easily replaced in an age of credit cards and electronic payments. But their motive is not just to shut down the mafia. It is also to increase the power of government. Without cash, no payment can be made without being recorded and potentially coming under official scrutiny. Without cash, central banks can much more easily impose negative interest rates, without fearing that bank customers may withdraw their money.

He’s right. The slippery slope is real. Giving governments some power invariably means giving governments a lot of power.

And that’s not a good idea if you’re a paranoid libertarian like me. But even if you have a more benign view of government, ask yourself if it’s a good idea to approve a global pact that is explicitly designed to help governments impose higher tax burdens?

Senators Paul and Lee are not allowing eight treaties to go forward without open debate and discussion. Seven of those pacts are bilateral agreements that easily could be tweaked and approved.

But the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention can’t be fixed. The only good outcome is defeat.

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Much of my work on fiscal policy is focused on educating audiences about the long-run benefits of small government and modest taxation.

But what about the short-run issue of how to deal with a fiscal crisis? I have periodically weighed in on this topic, citing research from places like the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund to show that spending restraint is the right approach.

And I’ve also highlighted the success of the Baltic nations, all of which responded to the recent crisis with genuine spending cuts (and I very much enjoyed exposing Paul Krugman’s erroneous attack on Estonia).

Today, let’s look at Cyprus. That Mediterranean nation got in trouble because of an unsustainable long-run increase in the burden of government spending. Combined with the fallout caused by an insolvent banking system, Cyprus suffered a deep crisis earlier this decade.

Unlike many other European nations, however, Cyprus decided to deal with its over-spending problem by tightening belts in the public sector rather than the private sector.

This approach has been very successful according to a report from the Associated Press.

…emerging from a three-year, multi-billion euro rescue program, Cyprus boasts one of the highest economic growth rates among the 19 eurozone countries — an annual rate of 2.7 percent in the first quarter. Finance Minister Harris Georgiades says Cyprus turned its economy around by aggressively slashing costs but also by avoiding piling on new taxes that would weigh ordinary folks down and put a serious damper on growth. “We didn’t raise taxes that would burden an already strained economy,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “We found spending cuts that weren’t detrimental to economic activity.”

Cutting spending and avoiding tax hike? This is catnip for Dan Mitchell!

But did Cyprus actually cut spending, and by how much?

That’s not an easy question to answer because the two main English-language data sources don’t match.

According to the IMF data, outlays were sliced to €8.1 billion in 2014, down from a peak of €8.5 in 2011. Though the IMF indicates that those numbers are preliminary.

The European Commission database shows a bigger drop, with outlays of €7.0 billion in 2015 compared to €8.3 billion in 2011 (also an outlay spike in 2014, presumably because of a bank bailout).

The bottom line is that, while it’s unclear which numbers are most accurate, Cyprus has experienced a multi-year period of spending restraint.

And having the burden of government grow slower than the private sector always has been and always will be the best gauge of good fiscal policy.

By contrast, there’s no evidence that tax increases are a route to fiscal probity.

Indeed, the endless parade of tax hikes in Greece shows that such an approach greatly impedes economic recovery.

Though not everybody in Cyprus supports prudent policy.

Critics have accused the government of working its fiscal gymnastics on the backs of the poor — essentially chopping salaries for public sector workers. Pambis Kyritsis, head of the left-wing PEO trade union, said the government’s “neo-liberal” policies coupled with the creditors’ harsh terms have widened the chasm between the have and have-nots to huge proportions. …Georgiades turned Kyritsis argument around to reinforce his point that there shouldn’t be any let-up in the government’s reform program and fiscal discipline.

In the European context, “liberal” or “neo-liberal” means pro-market and small government (akin to “classical liberal” or “libertarian” in the United States).

Semantics aside, it will be interesting to see whether Finance Minister Georgiades is correct about maintaining spending discipline as the economy rebounds.

As the above table indicates, there are several examples of nations getting good results by limiting the growth of government spending. But there are very few examples of long-run success since very few nations have politicians with the fortitude to control outlays if the economy is growing and generating an uptick in tax revenue (which is why states like California periodically get in trouble).

This is why the best long-run answer is some sort of constitutional spending cap, similar to what exists in Switzerland or Hong Kong.

The bottom line if that spending restraint is good short-run policy and good long-run policy. Though I doubt Hillary Clinton will learn the right lesson.

P.S. Cyprus also is a reasonably good role model for how to deal with a banking crisis.

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My favorite Margaret Thatcher moment might be when she pointed out there’s no such thing as public money, only taxpayer money.

Or perhaps when she exposed leftists for being so fixated on class warfare that they would be willing to hurt the poor if they could hurt the rich even more.

That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people instead chose Thatcher’s famous line about socialism and running out of other people’s money.

Which is a great line that cleverly pinpoints the ultimate consequence of statism. Just think Greece or Venezuela.

But what can we say about starting point rather than end point? Why do people get seduced by socialism in the first place?

For part of the answer, let’s turn to the famous quote from George Bernard Shaw about how “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.”

Very insightful, I hope you’ll agree.

Though it’s an observation on all governments, not just socialist regimes.

So I’m going to propose a new quote: “Socialism is fun so long as someone else is paying for it.”

And the reason I concocted that quote is because it’s a perfect description of many of the people supporting Bernie Sanders.

According to a poll conducted by Vox, they want freebies from the government so long as they aren’t the ones paying for them.

When we polled voters, we found most Sanders supporters aren’t willing to pay more than an additional $1,000 in taxes for his biggest proposals. That’s well short of how much more the average taxpayer would pay under his tax plan. …In other words, even Sanders supporters are saying they don’t want to pay as much to the federal government for health care as they are paying right now in the private sector. …The kicker for all of this? Some analysts believe Sanders’s plan will cost twice as much as his campaign estimates. …Sanders supporters are far and away the most likely to want free public college tuition. Still, 14 percent said they don’t want to pay additional taxes for it — and another half said they would only pay up to $1,000 a year…the majority of Sanders supporters in our poll (much less all voters) aren’t willing to pay enough to actually support those nationalized services.

As you can see from this chart, they want government to pick up all their medical expenses, but they’re only willing to pay $1,000 or less.

Gee, what profound and deep thinkers.

Maybe we should ask them if they also want private jets if they only have to pay $1,000. And Hollywood mansions as well.

The pie-in-the-sky fantasies of Bernie and his supporters are so extreme that even the statists at the Washington Post have editorialized against his proposals.

Mr. Sanders’s offerings to the American people are, quite simply, too good to be true, and much less feasible, politically or administratively, than he lets on. More expensive, as well. …Despite the substantial tax increases associated with Mr. Sanders’s policies, they would not be fully paid for — not even close. To the contrary, the tax hikes would be sufficient to cover just 46 percent of the spending increases, resulting in additional budget deficits of $18 trillion over 10 years. A deficit increase of that magnitude would cause an additional $3 trillion in interest payments over the same period — unless, of course, Mr. Sanders has another $18 trillion in tax increases or spending cuts up his sleeve.

The editorial writers at the Post, like so many people in Washington, make the mistake of fixating on the symptom of red ink instead of the underlying disease of excessive spending.

Would they actually favor his crazy ideas if he produced $18 trillion of additional tax hikes over the next 10 years?

Returning to the topic of whether Bernie voters actually would be willing to pay more tax, I recently appeared on Fox Business News to discuss the odd phenomenon of workers in the high-tech industry giving contributions to the anti-capitalist Senator from Vermont.

I confess that I don’t really know what would motivate someone to support Bernie Sanders, but I did share some thoughts.

  • Republicans in recent decades have been big spenders, so libertarian-minded voters in Silicon Valley may have decided to base their votes on social issues.
  • The high-tech industry may simply be sending “protection money” to leftist politicians, though that’s probably a motive only for senior executives.
  • It’s rather ironic that the left goes after companies like WalMart and Exxon when firms like Google and Apple have much bigger profit margins.

Don’t forget, by the way, that the only difference between Bernie and Hillary is how fast we travel on the road to Greece.

P.S. Unfortunately, I haven’t accumulated much Bernie humor, though the Sandersized version of Monopoly is quite clever.

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In my presentations about how to deal with budgetary deterioration and fiscal crisis, I often share with audiences a list of nations that have achieved very positive results with spending restraint.

The middle column shows how these countries limited the growth of government spending for multi-year periods.

The next column of numbers reveals how multi-year spending restraint leads to significant reductions in the amount of economic output that is diverted to the government.

And when you address the underlying problem of excessive government spending, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of red ink, as shown in the final column of numbers.

At this point, I usually ask the audience whether they’ve ever seen a similar table that purports to show nations that have obtained similarly good results with tax increases.

The answer is no, of course, though it’s not really a fair question to people who don’t study fiscal policy.

More important, I ask the same question when I have debates with my statist friends from left-wing organizations. They generally try to change the subject. Some of them bluster about “fairness.” And a few of them think Sweden is an acceptable answer until I point out that it became rich when government was small but began to lose ground once a large welfare state was imposed beginning in the 1960s (as explained in this video).

But Sweden wouldn’t be a good answer even if its economy hadn’t slowed down. That’s because the question is how to climb out of a fiscal hole. In which case Sweden actually provides evidence for my position!

To understand why tax increases aren’t the right way to deal with a fiscal mess, let’s look at Greece. From the moment the crisis began, Greek politicians started raising taxes. And they haven’t stopped, with many of the tax hikes being cheered by international bureaucracies.

This is a never-ending story.

With new chapters being written all the time. Here’s a report from Reuters on the latest “reform” package from Greece. As you might suspect, it’s basically a bunch of tax hikes. Here’s what the politicians approved on social insurance taxes.

Sets social security contributions at 20 percent of employees’ net monthly income – with 13.3 percent burdening employers and 6.7 percent employees. Reforms the social security contribution base from notional to actual incomes for the self-employed, including farmers and lawyers, forcing them to make a contribution to pension funds which is phased in over a five-year period to 20 percent of their income.

There are also income tax increases.

Lowers the income tax-free threshold, or personal allowance, to an average of around 8,800 euros a year from around 9,500; makes income bands narrower, increases tax coefficients. Lowest tax band is now 22 percent on a gross income of 20,000 a year compared to 22 percent for 25,000 euros which existed previously. The upper tax band, of 45 percent, is now imposed on gross incomes exceeding 40,000 as opposed to 42 percent on income above 42,000 under the previous arrangement. Includes EU farming subsidies on taxable income.

And there are further income tax hikes as part of the “solidarity” levy, which is basically another income tax.

Solidarity Levy…on net incomes ranges from the lowest 2.2 percent on incomes from 12,000 to 20,000 a year, to 5.0 percent up to 30,000, and 6.5 percent up to 40,000. The highest band is 10 percent on incomes above 220,000. By comparison, the highest band in that category was 8.0 percent before the new reform was pushed through, on earnings exceeding half a million euros.

And there also will be more double taxation.

Dividends Tax: Increases to 15 percent from 10 percent.

You would think this big package of tax hikes might satisfy the crowd in Athens for a year or two.

But that would be a very bad assumption. Amazingly, the politicians in Greece already are looking for additional victims, as reported by ABC News.

Already, a new bill is being prepared, calling for higher taxes on a range of products, from tobacco to beer to broadband Internet connections. This bill is expected to pass later in the month.

And they’re not exactly apologetic about their tax-aholic actions.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his ministers defended their plans, saying…that taxes were better than spending cuts. …Labor Minister George Katrougalos, who introduced the bill, said that…the bill’s provisions showed the way forward for social policy in a Europe dominated by pro-market “neoliberals.”

Sadly, Mr. Katrougalos may be correct. I won’t be surprised if the rest of Europe follows Greece off the cliff.

Though he’s smoking crack if he thinks the rest of the continent is dominated by neoliberals (i.e., classical liberals or libertarians).

Not that we’ve established that Greece has been trying to solve its fiscal mess with tax hikes, let’s look at the results.

Has debt been reduced? Hardly, though to be fair it seems to have stabilized.

In any event, we haven’t seen the big reductions in debt that are associated with spending restraint

And what about the economy? Here, the news is uniformly grim, doubtlessly in large part because of all the tax hikes.

It’s rather ironic this chart is based on periodic IMF forecasts since that bureaucracy is infamous for advocating endless tax hikes.

One wonders if the IMF bureaucrats will eventually learn some lessons?

I’m not holding my breath, just like I’m not optimistic that Greek politicians will address the real problem in their country of excessive dependency caused by a bloated public sector.

But maybe the rest of us (other than Hillary and Bernie) can learn what not to do.

P.S. For more information, here’s my five-picture explanation of the Greek mess.

P.P.S. And if you want to know why I’m so dour about Greece’s future, how can you expect good policy from a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies?

P.P.P.S. To offset the grim message of today’s column, let’s close with my collection of Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

As of 2012, there were €9 of tax hikes for every €1 of supposed spending cuts according to one estimate. That’s even worse than some of the terrible budget deals we’ve seen in Washington.

At this point, a clever statist will accuse me of sour grapes and state that I’m simply unhappy that politicians opted for policies I don’t like.

I’ll admit to being unhappy, but my real complaint is that higher tax burdens don’t work.

And you don’t have to believe me. We have some new evidence from an international bureaucracy based in Europe.

In a working paper for the European Central Bank, Maria Grazia Attinasi and Luca Metelli crunch the numbers to determine if and when “austerity” works in Europe.

…many Euro area countries have adopted fiscal consolidation measures in an attempt to reduce fiscal imbalances…in most cases, fiscal consolidation did not result, at least in the short run, in a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio…calls for a more temperate approach to fiscal consolidation have increased on the ground that the drag of fiscal restraint on economic growth could lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the debt-to-GDP ratio, as such fiscal consolidation may turn out to be self-defeating. …The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of fiscal consolidation on the general government debt-to-GDP ratio in order to assess whether and under which conditions self defeating effects are likely to materialise and whether they tend to be short-lived or more persistent over time.

Now let’s look at the results of their research.

It turns out that austerity does work, but only if it’s the right kind. The authors find that spending cuts are successful and higher tax burdens backfire.

The main finding of our analysis is that…In the case of revenue-based consolidations the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to be larger and to last longer than in the case of spending-based consolidations. The composition also matters for the long term effects of fiscal consolidations. Spending-based consolidations tend to generate a durable reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio compared to the pre-shock level, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not produce any lasting improvement in the sustainability prospects as the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to revert to the pre-shock level. …strategy is more likely to succeed when the consolidation strategy relies on a durable reduction of spending, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not appear to bring about a durable improvement in debt sustainability.

Unfortunately, European politicians generally have chosen the wrong approach.

This is an important policy lesson also in view of the fact that revenue-based consolidations tend to be the preferred form of austerity, at least in the short run, given also the political costs that a durable reduction in government spending entail.

Here are a few important observations from the study’s conclusion.

…the findings of our analysis are in line with those of the literature on successful consolidation, namely that the composition of fiscal consolidation matters and that a durable reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio is more likely to be achieved if consolidation is implemented on the expenditure side, rather than on the revenue side. In particular, when fiscal consolidation is implemented via an increase in taxation, the debt-to-GDP ratio reverts back to its pre-shock level only in the long run, thus failing to generate an improvement in the debt ratio, and producing what we call a self-defeating fiscal consolidation. …fiscally stressed countries benefit from an immediate reduction in the level of debt when reducing spending.

In other words, restraining the growth of spending is the best way to reduce red ink. Heck, it’s the only way.

When debating my leftists friends, I frequently share this table showing nations that have obtained very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

My examples are from all over the world and cover all sorts of economic conditions. And the results repetitively show that when you deal with the underlying problem of too much government, you automatically improve the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my statist pals to show me a similar table of data for countries that have achieved good results with higher taxes.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

Which is why the only good austerity is spending restraint.

P.S. Paul Krugman is remarkably sloppy and inaccurate when writing about austerity. Check out his errors when commenting on the United Kingdom, Germany, and Estonia.

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The value-added tax is a very dangerous levy for the simple reason that giving a big new source of revenue to Washington almost certainly would result in a larger burden of government spending.

That’s certainly what happened in Europe, and there’s even more reason to think it would happen in America because we have a looming, baked-in-the-cake entitlement crisis and many politicians don’t want to reform programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. They would much rather find additional tax revenues to enable this expansion of the welfare state. And their target is the middle class, which is why they very much want a VAT.

The most frustrating part of this debate is that there are some normally rational people who are sympathetic to the VAT because they focus on theoretical issues and somehow convince themselves that this new levy would be good for the private sector.

Here are the four most common economic myths about the value-added tax.

Myth 1: The VAT is pro-growth

Reihan Salam implies in the Wall Street Journal that taxing consumption is good for growth.

Mr. Cruz has roughly the right idea. He has come out in favor of a growth-friendly tax on consumption… Rather sneakily, he’s calling his consumption tax a “business flat tax,” but everyone knows that it’s a VAT.

And a different Wall Street Journal report asserts there’s a difference between taxing income and taxing consumption.

…a VAT taxes what people consume rather than how much they earn.

Reality: The VAT penalizes all productive economic activity

I don’t care whether proponents change the name of the VAT, but they are wrong when they say that taxes on consumption are somehow better for growth than taxes on income. Consider two simple scenarios. In the first example, a taxpayer earns $100 but loses $20 to the income tax. In the second example, a taxpayers earns $100, but loses $20 to the VAT. In one case, the taxpayer’s income is taxed when it is earned and in the other case it is taxed when it is spent. But in both cases, there is an identical gap between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. The economic damage is identical, with the harm rising as the marginal tax rate (either income tax rate or VAT rate) increases.

Advocates for the VAT generally will admit that this is true, but then switch the argument and say that there’s pervasive double taxation in the internal revenue code and that this tax bias against saving and investment does far more damage, per dollar collected, than either income taxes imposed on wages or VATs imposed on consumption.

They’re right, but that’s an argument against double taxation, not an argument for taxing consumption instead of taxing income. They then sometimes assert that a VAT is needed to make the numbers add up if double taxation is to be eliminated. But a flat tax does the same thing, and without the risk of giving politicians a new source of revenue.

Myth 2: The VAT is pro-savings and pro-investment

As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal story, advocates claim this tax is an economic elixir.

Supporters of a VAT…say it is better for economic growth than an income tax because it doesn’t tax savings or investment.

Reality: The VAT discourages saving and investment

The superficially compelling argument for this assertion is that the VAT is a tax on consumption, so the imposition of such a tax will make saving relatively more attractive. But this simple analysis overlooks the fact that another term for saving is deferred consumption. It is true, of course, that people who save usually earn some sort of return (such as interest, dividends, or capital gains). This means they will be able to enjoy more consumption in the future. But that does not change the calculation. Instead, it simply means there will be more consumption to tax. In other words, the imposition of a VAT does not alter incentives to consume today or consume in the future (i.e., save and invest).

But this is not the end of the story. A VAT, like an income tax or payroll tax, drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax income. This means, as already noted above, that a VAT also drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption – and this is true for current consumption and future consumption. This tax wedge means less incentive to earn income, and if there is less total income, this reduces both total saving and total consumption.

Again, advocates of a VAT generally will admit this is correct, but then resort to making a (correct) argument against double taxation. But why take the risk of a VAT when there are very simple and safe ways to eliminate the tax bias against saving and investment.

Myth 3: The VAT is pro-trade.

My normally sensible friend Steve Moore recently put forth this argument in the American Spectator.

…a better way to do this…is through a “border adjustable”…tax, meaning that it taxes imports and relieves all taxes on exports. …The guy who gets this is Ted Cruz. His tax plan…would not tax our exports. Cruz is right when he says this automatically gives us a 16% advantage.

Reality: The protectionist border-adjustability argument for a VAT is bad in theory and bad in reality.

For mercantilists worried about trade deficits, “border adjustability” is seen as a positive feature. But not only are they wrong on trade, they do not understand how a VAT works. Protectionists seem to think a VAT is akin to a tariff. It is true that the VAT is imposed on imports, but this does not discriminate against foreign-produced goods because the VAT also is imposed on domestic-produced goods.

Under current law, American goods sold in America do not pay a VAT, but neither do German-produced goods that are sold in America. Likewise, any American-produced goods sold in Germany are hit be a VAT, but so are German-produced goods. In other words, there is a level playing field. The only difference is that German politicians seize a greater share of people’s income.

So what happens if America adopts a VAT? The German government continues to tax American-produced goods in Germany, just as it taxes German-produced goods sold in Germany. There is no reason to expect a VAT to cause any change in the level of imports or exports from a German perspective. In the United States, there is a similar story. There is now a tax on imports, including imports from Germany. But there is an identical tax on domestically-produced goods. And since the playing field remains level, protectionists will be disappointed. The only winners will be politicians since they have more money to spend.

I explain this issue in greater detail in this video, beginning about 5:15, though I hope the entire thing is worth watching.

Myth 4: the VAT is pro-compliance

There’s a common belief, reflected in this blurb from a Wall Street Journal report, that a VAT has very little evasion or avoidance because it is self enforcing.

…governments like it because it tends to bring in more revenue, thanks in part to the role that businesses play in its collection. Incentivizing their efforts, businesses receive credits for the VAT they pay.

Reality: Any burdensome tax will lead to avoidance and evasion and that applies to the VAT.

I’m always amused at the large number of merchants in Europe who ask for cash payments for the deliberate purpose of escaping onerous VAT impositions. But my personal anecdotes probably are not as compelling as data from the European Commission.

To give an idea of the magnitude, here are some excerpts from a recent Bloomberg report.

Over the next two years, the Brussels-based commission will seek to streamline cross-border transactions, improve tax collection on Internet sales… In 2017, the EU plans to propose a single European VAT area, a reform of rates and add specifics to its anti-fraud strategy. …“We face a staggering fiscal gap: the VAT revenues are 170 billion euros short of what they could be,” EU Economic Affairs and Tax Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said. “It’s time to have this money back.”

For what it’s worth, the Europeans need to learn that burdensome levels of taxation will always encourage noncompliance.

Though, to be fair, much of the “tax gap” for the VAT in Europe exists because governments have chosen to adopt “destination-based” VATs rather than “origin-based” VATs, largely for the (ineffective) protectionist reasons outlined in Myth 3. And this creates a big opportunity to escape the VAT by classifying sales as exports, even if the goods and services ultimately are consumed in the home market.

P.S. At the risk of being wonky, it should be noted that there are actually two main types of value-added tax. In both cases, businesses collect the tax, and the tax incidence is similar (households actually bear the cost), but there are different collection methods. The credit-invoice VAT is the most common version (ubiquitous in Europe, for instance), and it somewhat resembles a sales tax in its implementation, albeit with the tax imposed at each stage of the production process. The subtraction-method VAT, by contrast, relies on a tax return sort of like the corporate income tax. The Joint Committee on Taxation has a good description of these two systems.

Under the subtraction method, value added is measured as the difference between an enterprise’s taxable sales and its purchases of taxable goods and services from other enterprises. At the end of the reporting period, a rate of tax is applied to this difference in order to determine the tax liability. The subtraction method is similar to the credit-invoice method in that both methods measure value added by comparing outputs (sales) to inputs (purchases) that have borne the tax. The subtraction method differs from the credit-invoice method principally in that the tax rate is applied to a net amount of value added (sales less purchases) rather than to gross sales with credits for tax on gross purchases (as under the credit-invoice method). The determination of the tax liability of an enterprise under the credit-invoice method relies upon the enterprise’s sales records and purchase invoices, while the subtraction method may rely upon records that the taxpayer maintains for income tax or financial accounting purposes.

P.P.S. Another wonky point is that the effort by states to tax Internet sales is actually an attempt to implement and enforce the kind of “destination-based” tax regime mentioned above. I explain that issue in this presentation on Capitol Hill.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

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If you follow the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, most of the tax discussion is about who has the best plan to squeeze the rich with ever-higher tax rates.

For those motivated by spite and envy, Bernie Sanders “wins” that debate since he wants bigger increases in the tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers.

For those of us who don’t earn enough to be affected by changes in the top tax rates, this may not seem to be a relevant discussion. Some of us like the idea of higher tax rates on our well-to-do neighbors because we expect to get a slice of the loot and we think it’s morally okay to use government to take other people’s money. Others of us don’t like those higher rates because we don’t resent success and we also worry about the likely impact on incentives to create jobs and wealth.

But all of us are making a mistake if we think that the policy proposals from Bernie and Hillary won’t mean higher taxes on ordinary Americans.

Here are three basic proposition to help explain why lower-income and middle-income taxpayers are the ones who face the biggest threat.

  1. Hillary and Bernie want government to be much bigger, because of both built-in expansions of entitlements and a plethora of new handouts and subsidies.
  2. There’s not much ability to squeeze more money from the “rich” and America already has the developed world’s most “progressive” tax system.
  3. The only practical way to finance bigger government is with big tax hikes on the middle class, both with higher income taxes and a value-added tax.

There’s not really any controversy about the first proposition. We know the two Democratic candidates are opposed to genuine entitlement reform, so that means the burden of government spending automatically will climb in coming decades. And we also know that Hillary and Bernie also want to create new programs and additional spending commitments, with the only real difference being that Bernie wants government to expand at a faster rate.

So let’s look at my second proposition, which may strike some people as implausible, particularly the assertion that America has the most “progressive” tax system. After all, don’t European nations impose higher tax rates on the “rich” than the United States?

Yes and no, but first let’s deal with the issue of whether the rich are a never-ending spigot of tax revenue. The most important thing to understand is that there’s a huge difference between tax rates and tax revenue. If you don’t believe me, simply look at the IRS data from the 1980s, which shows that upper-income taxpayers paid far more to Uncle Sam at a 28 percent tax rate in 1988 than they paid at a 70 percent tax rate in 1980.

And keep in mind that there are incredibly simple – and totally legal – steps that well-to-do taxpayers can take to dramatically lower their tax exposure.

The bottom line is that high tax rates penalize productive behavior and encourage inefficient tax planning, the net effect being that higher tax rates won’t translate into higher revenue.

Moreover, as shown by a different set of IRS data, the American tax system already is heavily biased against the so-called rich. Even when compared with other countries. There are some nations that impose higher top tax rates than America, to be sure, but that’s only part of the story. The “progressivity” of a tax system is based on what share of the burden is paid by the rich.

And if you look at this data from the Tax Foundation, particularly the two measures of progressivity in columns 1 and 3, you can see that the United States gets a greater share of taxes from the rich than any other developed nation.

By the way, the data is from the middle of last decade, so the numbers are probably different today. But since we’ve taken more people off the tax rolls in the past 10 years in America while also increasing tax rates on upper-income households, I would be shocked if the United States didn’t still have the most “progressive” tax code.

In any event, the most important takeaway from the Tax Foundation data is that America has the most “progressive” tax system not because we impose the highest tax rates on the rich, but rather for the simple reason that the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers is comparatively mild.

In other words, the tax burden on the rich in America is not particularly unusual. Some nations impose higher tax rates and some countries impose lower tax rates. But because other taxpayers in the U.S. pay very low effective tax rates, that’s why the overall tax code in the United States is so tilted against the rich.

Which brings us to the third proposition about the middle class being the main target of Hillary and Bernie.

Simply stated, the only practical way of financing bigger government is by raising the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income Americans. As already explained, there’s not much leeway to generate more tax revenue from the “rich.”

In other words, the rest of us have a bulls-eye painted on our backs. Our tax burden is relatively low by world standards and there are simple and effective ways that politicians could grab more of our income.

Let’s look at some of the details. The folks at the Pew Research Group crunched the data for 39 developed nations to compare tax burdens for various types of middle-income households. As you can see, taxpayers in the United States are relatively fortunate, particularly if they have kids.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

…most research has concluded that, at least among developed nations, the U.S. is on the low end of the range.  We looked at 2014 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s database of benefits, taxes and wages, which has standardized data from 39 countries going back to 2001 and allows comparisons across different family types. …We calculated this for four different family types: a single employed person with no children; two married couples with two children, one with both parents working and the other with one worker; and a single working parent. In all cases, the U.S. was below the 39-nation average – in some cases, well below. …Much of the difference in relative tax burdens among different countries is due to the taxes that fund social-insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare in the U.S. These taxes tend to be higher in other developed nations than they are in the U.S.

And here’s the most shocking part of the article. The aforementioned data only considers income taxes and payroll taxes.

…the OECD data don’t include…other national taxes, such as…value-added taxes.

This is a huge omission. The average VAT in Europe is now 21 percent, so the actual tax burden on taxpayers in other nations is actually much higher than shown in the chart prepared by Pew.

Let’s look at the scorecard.

  • Non-rich Europeans pay higher income tax rates.
  • Non-rich Europeans pay higher payroll taxes.
  • Non-rich Europeans pay the value-added tax.

And because all these taxes on lower-income and middle-income people are the only effective and realistic way to finance European-sized government, this is the future Hillary and Bernie want for America. Even though they won’t admit it.

P.S. I can’t resist pointing out that the countries most admired by Bernie Sanders, Denmark and Sweden, both have tax systems that are far less “progressive” than the United States according to the Tax Foundation data. And the reason for that relative lack of progressivity is because of a giant fiscal burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers. And that’s what will happen in the United States if entitlements aren’t reformed.

P.P.S. Since I’m a fan of the flat tax, does that mean I like the countries with lower scores in column 3 of the Tax Foundation table? Yes and no. A lower score obviously means that a nation’s tax code isn’t biased against successful taxpayers, but it’s also important to look at the overall size of the public sector. Sweden’s tax system isn’t very progressive, for instance, but everyone pays a lot because of a bloated government. It’s far better to be in Switzerland, which has the right combination of a modest-sized government and a non-discriminatory tax regime.

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