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Archive for the ‘Tax Reform’ Category

My views on the value-added tax are very simple and straightforward.

If we completely eliminated all income-based taxes, I would be willing to accept a VAT (or even a national sales tax) as a revenue source for government.

But unless that happens, I’m unalterably opposed because it’s far too risky to give politicians two major sources of tax revenue. Just look at what happened in Europe (and Japan). Before the VAT, the burden of government spending wasn’t that much higher in Europe than it was in the United States. Once VATs were adopted, however, that enabled a vast expansion of the welfare state.

This is why I’m worried about the Rand Paul and Ted Cruz tax plans. On paper, both plans are very good, dramatically lowering income tax rates, significantly curtailing double taxation, and also abolishing the corporate income tax. But I don’t like that they both propose a VAT to help make up the difference. It’s not that I think they have bad intentions, but I worry about what happens in the future when a bad President takes office and has the ability to increase both the income tax and the value-added tax. When the dust settles, we’re France or Greece!

By contrast, if we do some type of tax reform that doesn’t include a VAT, the worst thing that could happen when that bad president takes office is that we degenerate back to the awful tax code we have today. Which would be unfortunate, but not nearly as bad as today’s income tax with a VAT on top.

Bad since I’ve already addressed this issue, let’s focus on a part of the Paul and Cruz tax plans that has received very little attention.

Both of them propose to get rid of the payroll tax, which is the part of your paycheck that goes to “FICA” and is used to help fund Social Security and Medicare.

Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute has a column in U.S. News & World Report that explores the implications of this repeal.

Would you like to see the FICA item on your pay stub go away and be able to keep the 7.65 percent that the payroll tax takes out of your paycheck? If so, Republican presidential candidates Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have a deal for you – each of them has proposed getting rid of the tax. The senators’ plans would also eliminate the other 7.65 percent that the government collects from your employer, which you ultimately pay in the form of lower wages.

That sounds good, right? After all, who wouldn’t like to keep 15.3 percent of their income that is now being siphoned off for entitlement programs.

But here’s the catch. As Alan explains, other revenue sources would be needed to finance those programs, particularly Social Security.

The payroll tax finances two large benefit programs – 6.2 percent goes to Social Security and 1.45 percent goes to Medicare Part A. If the payroll tax went away, we would have to find another way to pay for those benefits. Paul and Cruz would turn to a value added tax, known as a VAT. …using it to pay for Social Security would have repercussions for the program that the candidates haven’t thought through. …once the payroll tax was gone, Social Security would no longer be a self-financed program with its own funding source. Instead, it would draw on the same general revenues as other government programs.

Viard thinks there are two problems with using VAT revenue to finance Social Security.

First, it means that there’s no longer a limit on how much money can be spent on the program.

…having a separate funding source for Social Security has been good budgetary policy. It’s kept the program out of annual budget fights while controlling its long-run growth – Social Security spending is limited to what current and past payroll taxes can support.

Second, replacing the payroll tax with a VAT eliminated the existing rationale for how benefits are determined.

And that will open a potential can of worms.

…what would happen to the benefit formula if the payroll tax disappeared and Social Security was financed by general revenue from the VAT? Paul and Cruz haven’t said. …One option would be to switch to a completely different formula, maybe a flat monthly benefit for all retirees. …that would be a big step, cutting benefits for high-wage workers and posing tricky transition issues.

I imagine there are probably ways to address these issues, though they might wind up generating varying degrees of controversy.

But I’m more concerned with an issue that isn’t addressed in Viard’s article.

I worry that eliminating the payroll tax would make it far harder to modernize Social Security by creating a system of personal retirement accounts.

With the current system, it would be relatively easy to give workers an option to shift their payroll taxes into a retirement account.

If the payroll tax is replaced by a VAT, by contrast, that option no longer exists and I fear reform would be more difficult.

By the way, this is also the reason why I was less than enthused about a tax reform plan proposed by the Heritage Foundation that would have merged the payroll tax into the income tax.

Yes, I realize that genuine Social Security reform may be a long shot, but I don’t want to make that uphill climb even more difficult.

The bottom line is that I don’t want changes to payroll taxes as part of tax reform, particularly when it would only be happening to offset the adverse distributional impact of the VAT, which is a tax that shouldn’t be adopted in the first place!

Instead, let’s do the right kind of tax reform and leave the payroll tax unscathed so we’ll have the ability to do the right kind of Social Security reform.

P.S. Some of you may be wondering why Senators Paul and Cruz included payroll tax repeal in their plans when that leads to some tricky issues. The answer is simple. As I briefly noted above, it’s a distribution issue. The VAT unquestionably would impose a burden on low-income households. That would not be nice (and it also would be politically toxic), so they needed some offsetting tax cut. And since low-income households generally don’t pay any income tax because of deductions, exemptions, and credits, repealing the payroll tax was the only way to address this concern about fairness for the less fortunate.

P.P.S. Since we have a “pay-as-you-go” Social Security system, with benefits for current retirees being financed by current workers, some people inevitably ask how those benefits will be financed if younger workers get to shift their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts. That’s what’s known as the “transition” issue, and it’s a multi-trillion-dollar challenge. But the good news (relatively speaking) is that coming up with trillions of dollars over several decades as part of a switch to personal accounts will be less of a challenge than coming up with $40 trillion (in today’s dollars) to bail out a Social Security system that is actuarially bankrupt.

P.P.P.S. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that class-warfare taxation is Obama’s (and Hillary’s) ostensible solution to Social Security’s shortfall.

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It’s not my role to pick sides in political fights, but I am very interested in trying to make bad ideas radioactive so that politicians won’t be tempted to do the wrong thing.

This is why I’m a big fan of the no-tax-hike pledge. The folks in Washington salivate at the prospect of getting more of our money, but they are less likely to act on their desires if they’re scared that breaking their promises means they’ll lose the next election.

It’s also why I want the value-added tax (VAT) to become a third-rail issue. Simply stated, it would be a catastrophic mistake to give Washington an additional source of tax revenue. Especially since the European evidence shows that it’s a money machine to expand the welfare state.

Given my concerns, I was understandably distressed that two lawmakers (and presidential candidates) who normally support smaller government, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, decided to include the VAT in their tax reform proposals.

But maybe I’ll get my wish after all. It seems that support for the VAT is becoming a big problem.

A report in the Wall Street Journal discusses this development.

The crux of the current dispute is Mr. Cruz’s business flat tax proposal. Under the plan, businesses would pay a 16% tax on their adjusted gross revenues after first subtracting payments to other businesses, but not profits or wages. Economically, that’s equivalent to a value-added tax.

It’s not just equivalent. It is a value-added tax, specifically a “subtraction-method” VAT.

Which is why Senator Cruz is vulnerable to criticism from both political rivals and advocates of small government..

“Republican candidates today try to hide their support for the value-added tax by renaming it a Business Flat Tax,” Mr. Rubio said. “But don’t be fooled. If it acts like a VAT, taxes like a VAT, and grows government like a VAT—it’s a VAT.” …Conservatives have long been dubious about value-added taxes, worrying that they might grow over time because less transparent taxes can be politically easier to increase, especially after their creators leave office.

There’s also a story in Politico about the VAT suddenly becoming a big part of the GOP nomination fight.

On Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) lobbed an opening salvo in what’s likely to become a new front of disagreement in the GOP primary race: taxes. “Believe it or not, multiple Republican candidates for president support new taxes on the American people,” Rubio said at an economic town hall in Sarasota, Florida. “Some even support imposing a new tax that generations of conservatives have fought against, called a Value Added Tax.” …Cruz has gone to great lengths to avoid calling this idea a value-added tax, or VAT—which has suspiciously European connotations—instead terming it a crisply Republican-sounding “business flat tax.” But economists widely agree it’s a VAT. …Stephen Moore defended the plan (and also another similar proposal from Sen. Rand Paul). That provoked strong responses from National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and the Cato Institute’s Daniel Mitchell.

There’s also been strong responses from folks who are perplexed that pro-VAT politicians are pretending that they don’t support a VAT.

Here’s how Josh Barro opened his column on this topic in the New York Times.

Like Rand Paul before him, Ted Cruz is promoting a tax plan that relies heavily on a value-added tax, or VAT. And like Mr. Paul, Mr. Cruz is not calling his VAT a VAT.

For what it’s worth, I don’t care what it’s called. I’m just worried that otherwise sensible people think it might be a good idea to give a new source of tax revenue to Washington.

Sort of like giving an alcoholic the keys to a liquor store. Or a book of matches to a pyromaniac.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute also is uncomfortable with the notion of giving Washington a major source of additional tax revenue.

…once the VAT is put in place, it is practically impossible to get rid of it. In countries that have it, the VAT rises over time incrementally and gives government immense power. Cruz and Paul are in favor of smaller government, but their suggested VATs would expand government clout. …parliaments, congresses, and assemblies don’t get rid of other taxes. They add the VAT on top of existing levies. …Due to their hidden nature, VATs tend to grow over time… From 1975 to the present, VAT rates have risen in the U.K. from 8% to 20%. …when imposed in 1967, Denmark’s VAT was 10%; it is now 25%… In 1968, Germany levied a 10% VAT…their VAT has risen “only” to 19%… Cruz and Paul make the VAT the centerpiece of their tax-reform plans. But America needs to move away from European policies, not towards them.

And former Congressman Chris Chocola (and former head of the Club for Growth) has similar concerns. He’s a supporter of Marco Rubio, so he obviously has a political interest in undermining other candidates in the GOP race, but what he wrote for National Review is spot on.

Liberals have dreamed of imposing a VAT for decades. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says that “a value-added tax plays into” her vision of tax reform. President Obama has called a VAT a “novel” idea. The Left loves that a VAT can raise enormous sums of money for the government in a hidden way. Because it’s embedded in the cost of everything we buy, Washington can increase the VAT rate and then blame businesses for the higher consumer prices they bring. …in fact, high consumption taxes are what allowed European governments to grow so large. Once countries like France realized that there was a limit to how much money they could squeeze from the income tax, they used the VAT to extract resources from a broader swath of the population.

Bartlett Cleland of the Institute for Policy Innovation adds to these arguments.

The VAT is attractive to those who…[w]ant to grow government… Whether or not those proposing such taxes are interested in expanding the scope of government is almost irrelevant, because once the tools for such expansion are in place they can be used by future politicians to grow government subtly.  Similarly, whether a tax is labeled as a VAT or not is also irrelevant if the function is the same—for example by not allowing companies to deduct wages.

Last but not least, Irwin Stelzer makes a very important observation in an article for the Weekly Standard.

The VAT would give politicians and lobbyists an entirely new tax system that could be used (just like the income tax) to swap loopholes for campaign cash.

…a VAT…will not eliminate income taxes, or the IRS, or the K Street lobbyists that thrive on writing special provisions into the code to advantage their clients at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer. It will, instead, massively multiply the number of rules-writing revenue agents and further enrich their special-privilege-seeking lobbyists.

With this in mind, he poses a hypothetical question.

…if you believe that (1) a consumption tax would completely replace all income taxes, rather than be added to our current tax code, (2) arguments on behalf of children, health advocates, safety advocates, the elderly, and others would fall on deaf political ears, and (3) the K Street crowd would quietly sublet their spaces to worthier tenants and, like the obsolete old soldiers they will have become, simply fade away, then by all means support an American value-added tax.

Stelzer offers some sage advice in his conclusion.

…lack of transparency is the politicians’ friend and makes it far easier to raise VAT rates than income tax rates. Perhaps it would be best if presidential wannabes would get on with the hard, tedious work of reforming our hideous tax code rather than adding a consumption tax to our burdens.

Speaking of which, the folks at National Review have a solution to this mess. They correctly note that a VAT would be a huge mistake.

…a key feature of Cruz’s plan: its reliance on a value-added tax. …The wage earner would pay the tax through either lower wages or higher prices or both (relative to what they would be without this new tax). …The effective tax on labor income would be much higher than the headline…rate. …It is the hidden nature of the tax that has traditionally worried conservatives. Most people would not know what their wages would have bought them if this tax were lower, or if it did not exist. …it might prove much easier for politicians— say, a liberal successor to President Cruz — to raise this tax over time… The fact that European countries use this tax to finance their swollen welfare states reinforces this fear.

So they outline a way to fix what’s wrong with the plans that contain a VAT.

…there is a way for Cruz to retain the economic and fiscal advantages of his proposal while eliminating this danger. (This road lies open for Senator Paul, too.) …let businesses deduct wages when they pay their taxes and use the income tax to make up for it. This modification would keep the effective rate of taxes on labor income the same; it would just make it transparent. …it would make it a little less likely that over time government would grow larger and larger and taxes climb higher and higher.

Let’s close with (at least to me) a very persuasive point.

I wrote two months ago that one of America’s most statist presidents, Richard Nixon, supported a VAT.

Now let’s see what one of America’s best presidents, Ronald Reagan, had to say about that levy.

…a value-added tax actually gives a government a chance to blindfold the people and grow in stature and size. …the other thing with that tax is, it’s hidden in the price of a product. And that tax can quietly be increased, and all the people know is that the price went up, and they don’t know whether the price went up because somebody got a raise, or whether the company wanted to increase profits, or whether it was government. …I think I’ve said before, taxes should hurt in the sense that people should be able to see them and know what they’re paying.

Amen.

If you need more information, here’s my video on the VAT.

P.S. If you don’t believe Irwin Stelzer’s argument that a VAT would morph into a Byzantine mess, check out this recent article from the EU Observer that’s entitled, “EU’s new VAT rules forcing thousands out of business.”

P.P.S. And if you don’t believe the VAT is a money machine for bigger government, check out this data from the IMF.

P.P.P.S. Marco Rubio is right to criticize plans that include a VAT, but that doesn’t mean his plan is free of warts. For what it’s worth, the candidate with the best plan is Ben Carson. Not that anyone’s decision should be based solely on tax policy.

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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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Sometimes the best way to help the cause of freedom is to stop a bad idea. And that’s why I’m vociferously opposed to a value-added tax.

Here’s what I wrote today for National Review. I start by explaining that it’s a bad idea to give Washington a big new tax to finance a larger burden of government spending.

It’s especially good news that the United States has resisted the value-added tax (VAT), which is tempting because of its revenue-generating capacity. …Hostility to the VAT is justified by the European experience. Back in the mid 1960s, the burden of government spending in Europe was only slightly above the American level. But as VATs were implemented, the welfare state expanded, and now government consumes a much higher share of economic output on the other side of the Atlantic.

European politicians embraced the VAT because it’s the only way to finance leviathan-sized government.

…there’s a limit to how much revenue can be generated by an income tax. As honest leftists will admit (at least off the record), the Laffer Curve is real. …Indeed, income-tax revenues (personal and corporate) average less than 12 percent of GDP in OECD nations. …In other words, the only effective way to finance European-sized government is to have European-style taxation. Which is exactly why the Left desperately wants a VAT.

I then express dismay that a couple of very attractive candidates have inserted this pernicious tax in their otherwise good proposals.

…some conservatives think the VAT is an acceptable risk if it’s part of a bigger tax-reform plan. Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, for instance, both have proposals that would lower personal-income-tax rates, reduce double taxation of income that is saved and invested, and eliminate corporate income taxes and payroll taxes. …Paul and Cruz would offset some of the revenue loss by imposing VATs.

The two Senators actually have good plans, at least on paper. My concern is about what happens once either one of them left the White House.

…something that looks pretty on a blackboard might not be so appealing once you add the sordid reality of politics to the equation. To be blunt, unless there’s a magic guarantee that principled conservatives such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (and their philosophical clones) would always hold the presidency, a VAT would be a very risky gamble. …What happens in the future when a statist wins the White House? …Raising the VAT rate would be a comparatively simple option for our hypothetical left-wing president. And because it has such a broad tax base (all “value added” in the economy, including wages paid to workers), even small rate increase would generate a lot of revenue to finance bigger government. …And I’m sure this future statist president also would boost tax rates on the “rich” and also impose higher levels of double taxation.

Incidentally, any good tax reform plan can be distorted by bad politicians in the future. But the downside risk of a VAT is monumentally greater because of its revenue-generating capacity.

…there’s a downside risk to other types of tax reform. But it’s a matter of magnitude. If we did something like Ben Carson’s flat tax or the more incremental tax-reform plans of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, it’s obviously possible for a future leftist to undo those reforms, in which case we could degenerate back to the current system. That’s obviously bad news, but it’s not nearly as bad as what might happen with the Cruz and Paul plans. When the wrong politicians got back in charge, they’d restore all the bad features of the income tax and also use the VAT as a money machine to expand the welfare state. And when the dust settles, we’d be France.

I realize that some people won’t believe what I just wrote. Maybe you lean left and you’re used to dismissing my arguments. Or maybe you’re a huge fan of Rand Paul or Ted Cruz and you think I’m somehow trying to knock them down because of some sinister agenda.

So maybe you’ll be more persuaded when a left-leaning columnist reaches the same conclusion. Here is some of what Catherine Rampell just wrote for the Washington Post.

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have a really compelling tax proposal. …an interesting, serious and provocative idea: a value-added tax. …The VAT is also one of the first proposals out of the International Monetary Fund’s bag of tricks for countries that need to raise money. …it’s good these candidates have given voice to The Tax That Dare Not Speak Its Name. There’s only so much revenue a country can wring out of an income tax system, particularly one as Swiss-cheesed as ours. A well-designed VAT could help get our fiscal house in order.

This must be some sign of harmonic convergence. We both recognize that Paul and Cruz are proposing a VAT, and we both understand that there’s a limit to how much money can be raised from an income tax, and we both concur that a VAT will give politicians a way of dramatically boosting the tax burden.

But we don’t really agree. Because I’m horrified about the prospect of a new tax whereas Ms. Rampell thinks the VAT would be good because she favors bigger government.

By the way, Catherine confirms one of the fears I expressed in my article. The VAT would actually lead politicians to make the income tax even worse because of their fixation on distributional issues.

The main downside of a VAT is that it hurts the poor more than the rich, because the poor spend a larger share of their incomes on basic necessities. There’s an easy way to counteract that problem, though: Just make the income tax system more progressive.

By the way, while she’s right that the VAT is a money machine for big government, I can’t resist pointing out a mistake in her column.

Unlike an income tax, it doesn’t discourage saving or working

No, that’s not true. One of the good features of a VAT (assuming all other taxes could be abolished) is that it would generate revenue in a way that minimizes the negative impact on incentives.

But it would still drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

This is also the case for the flat tax. A “good” tax system is only “pro growth” in the sense that it does less damage than the current system.

Just in case you haven’t reached the point of VAT exhaustion, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is such a bad idea.

But if you don’t want to spend a few minutes watching a video, just keep this image in mind anytime sometime tells you we should roll the dice and adopt a VAT.

P.S. None of this suggests that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz should be rejected by voters. All candidates have some warts. I like the Jeb Bush tax plan, but I’m worried by his failure to take the no-tax pledge. I like the Marco Rubio tax plan, but I’m not a big fan of his big tax credits for kids. And I could come up with similar complaints about other candidates.

All I’m saying is that Paul and Cruz have one part of their agenda that should be jettisoned.

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I was in Montreal last week for a conference on tax competition, where I participated in a debate about whether the corporate income tax should be abolished with my crazy left-wing friend Richard Murphy.

But I don’t want to write about that debate, both because I was asked to take a position I don’t really support (I actually think corporate income should be taxed, but in a far less destructive fashion than the current system) and because the audience voted in favor of Richard’s position (the attendees were so statist that I felt like a civil rights protester before an all-white Alabama jury in 1965).

Instead, I want to highlight some of material presented by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, who also ventured into hostile territory to give a presentation on the reforms that have been implemented in his state.

Here are some slides from his presentation, starting with this summary of the main changes that have taken place. As you can see, personal income tax rates are being reduced and income taxes on small businesses have been abolished.

By the way, I don’t fully agree with these changes since I think all income should be taxed the same way. In other words, if there’s going to be a state income tax, then the guy who runs the local pet store should pay the same rate as the guy who works at the assembly plant.

But since the Governor said he ultimately wants Kansas to be part of the no-income-tax club, I think he agrees with that principle. When you’re enacting laws, though, you have to judge the results by whether policy is moving in the right direction, not by whether you’ve reached policy nirvana.

And there’ no doubt that the tax code in Kansas is becoming less onerous. Indeed, the only state in recent years that may have taken bigger positive steps is North Carolina.

In any event, what can we say about Brownback’s tax cuts? Have they worked? We’re still early in the process, but there are some very encouraging signs. Here’s a chart the Governor shared comparing job numbers in Kansas and neighboring states.

These are positive results, but not overwhelmingly persuasive since we don’t know why there are also improving numbers in Missouri and Colorado (though I suspect TABOR is one of the reasons Colorado is doing especially well).

But this next chart from Governor Brownback is quite compelling. It looks at migration patters between Kansas and Missouri. Traditionally, there wasn’t any discernible pattern, at least with regard to the income of migrants.

But once the Governor reduced tax rates and eliminated income taxes on small business, there’s been a spike in favor of Kansas. Which is particularly impressive considering that Kansas suffered a loss of taxable income to other states last decade.

But here’s the chart that is most illuminating. In addition to being home to the team that won the World Series, Kansas City is interesting because the metropolitan area encompasses both parts of Missouri and parts of Kansas.

So you can learn a lot by comparing not only migration patters between the two states, but also wage trends in the shared metropolitan area.

And if this chart is any indication, workers on the Kansas side are enjoying a growing wage differential.

So what’s the bottom line?

Like with all issues, it would be wrong to make sweeping claims. There are many issues beyond tax that impact competitiveness. Moreover, we’ll know more when there is 20 years of data rather than a few years of data.

That being said, Kansas clearly is moving in the right direction. All you have to do is compare economic performance in Texas and California to see that low-tax states out-perform high-tax states.

Indeed, if Kansas can augment good tax policies with a Colorado-style spending cap, the state will be in a very strong position.

P.S. This joke also helps explain the difference between California and Texas.

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