Archive for the ‘Tax Reform’ Category

I’m pleasantly surprised by the tax plans proposed by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump.

In varying ways, all these candidate have put forth relatively detailed proposals that address high tax rates, punitive double taxation, and distorting tax preferences.

But saying the right thing and doing the right thing are not the same. I just did an interview focused on Donald Trump’s tax proposal, and one of my first points was that candidates may come up with good plans, but those proposals are only worthwhile if the candidates are sincere and if they intend to do the heavy lifting necessary to push reform through Congress.

Today, though, I want to focus on another point, which I raised starting about the 0:55 mark of the interview.

For the plans to be credible, candidates also need to have concomitant proposals to restrain the growth of federal spending.

I don’t necessarily care whether they balance the budget, but I do think proposals to reform and lower taxes won’t have any chance of success unless there are also reasonable plans to gradually shrink government spending as a share of economic output.

As part of recent speeches in New Hampshire and Nevada, I shared my simple plan to impose enough spending restraint to balance the budget in less than 10 years.

But those speeches were based on politicians collecting all the revenue projected under current law.

By contrast, the GOP candidates are proposing to reduce tax burdens. On a static basis, the cuts are significant. According to the Tax Foundation, the 10-year savings for taxpayers would be $2.97 trillion with Rand Paul’s plan, $3.67 trillion under Jeb Bush’s plan, $4.14 trillion with Marco Rubio’s plan, all the way up to $11.98 trillion for Donald Trump’s plan.

Those sound like very large tax cuts (and Trump’s plan actually is a very large tax cut), but keep in mind that those are 10-year savings. And since the Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the federal government will collect $41.58 trillion over the next decade, the bottom line, as seen in this chart, is that all of the plans (other than Trump’s) would still allow the IRS to collect more than 90 percent of projected revenues.

Now let’s make the analysis more realistic by considering that tax cuts and tax reforms will generate faster growth, which will lead to more taxable income.

And the experts at the Tax Foundation made precisely those calculations based on their sophisticated model.

Here’s an updated chart showing 10-year revenue estimates based on “dynamic scoring.”

The Trump plan is an obvious outlier, but the proposals from Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio all would generate at least 96 percent of the revenues that are projected under current law.

Returning to the original point of this exercise, all we have to do is figure out what level of spending restraint is necessary to put the budget on a glide path to balance (remembering, of course, that the real goal should be to shrink the burden of spending relative to GDP).

But before answering this question, it’s important to understand that the aforementioned 10-year numbers are a bit misleading since we can’t see yearly changes. In the real world, pro-growth tax cuts presumably lose a lot of revenue when first enacted. But as the economy begins to respond (because of improved incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship), taxable income starts climbing.

Here’s an example from the Tax Foundation’s analysis of the Rubio plan. As you can see, the proposal leads to a lot more red ink when it’s first implemented. But as the economy starts growing faster and generating more income, there’s a growing amount of “revenue feedback.” And by the end of the 10-year period, the plan is actually projected to increase revenue compared to current law.

So does this mean some tax cuts are a “free lunch” and pay for themselves? Sound like a controversial proposition, but that’s exactly what happened with some of the tax rate reductions of the Reagan years.

To be sure, that doesn’t guarantee what will happen if any of the aforementioned tax plans are enacted. Moreover, one can quibble with the structure and specifications of the Tax Foundation’s model. Economists, after all, aren’t exactly famous for their forecasting prowess.

But none of this matters because the Tax Foundation isn’t in charge of making official revenue estimates. That’s the job of the Joint Committee on Taxation, and that bureaucracy largely relies on static scoring.

Which brings me back to today’s topic. The good tax reform plans of certain candidates need to be matched by credible plans to restrain the growth of federal spending.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be that difficult. I explained last month that big tax cuts were possible with modest spending restraint. If spending grows by 2 percent instead of 3 percent, for instance, the 10-year savings would be about $1.4 trillion.

And since it’s good to reduce tax burdens and also good to restrain spending, it’s a win-win situation to combine those two policies. Sort of the fiscal equivalent of mixing peanut butter and chocolate in the famous commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

P.S. Returning to my interview embedded above, I suppose it’s worthwhile to emphasize a couple of other points.

P.P.S. Writing about the prospect of tax reform back in April, I warned that “…regardless of what happens with elections, I’m not overly optimistic about making progress.”

Today, I still think it’s an uphill battle. But if candidates begin to put forth good plans to restrain spending, the odds will improve.

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I’m delighted that so many presidential candidates are talking about partial tax reform and I’ve specifically analyzed the plans put forth by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump.

These proposals all make the tax code less punitive, and that would be good news for job creation, growth, and American competitiveness.

But that doesn’t mean any of them are perfect. They all fall short of the pure flat tax, which is the gold standard for full tax reform. Another problem is that these proposals won’t be plausible or sustainable unless unaccompanied by some prudent plans to restrain the growth of federal spending.

Today, though, I want to focus on another shortcoming. The various plans need to be augmented by long-overdue restrictions on the IRS, which has become and abusive and rogue bureaucracy.

Consider a few examples.

These horror stories provide plenty of evidence that the internal revenue service should have its wings clipped.

But let’s add another straw to the camel’s back. The tax collection agency in the midst of an audit fight with Microsoft and the IRS is making a mockery of its own rules and flagrantly abusing the company’s legal rights.

This is bad news for one of America’s most successful firms, but it also is creating a very dangerous precedent that could victimize many other companies – large and small – in the future.

Writing for The Hill, Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity highlights some of the IRS’s most offensive actions.

First, the IRS is flouting its own rules as part of its persecution of Microsoft.

Government officials, counter to federal law, are trying to bully the company into extending an audit process that should have ended over 6 years ago. …Federal law provides a three-year time period for the completion of an audit, yet IRS officials have been digging through the company’s files for over nine years.

Second, the IRS won’t even tell the company how much money it wants!

Seattle-based Microsoft had to force a hearing on this matter because the IRS refused to submit a final tax bill to Microsoft for a dispute over taxes owed from 2004 to 2006. The IRS has been dragging out this audit process for close to a decade, and continues to pressure the company to sign waivers extending the audit infinitum.

Third, the IRS has been whining about supposedly inadequate budgets, but the bureaucrats are paying a private law firm millions of dollars to participate in this never-ending audit.

In 2014, the government in an unprecedented move hired Quinn Emanuel, a L.A.-based litigation firm to help audit the company. The IRS has billions in budget, teams of lawyers and accountants, yet they decided spend $2.2 million dollars outsourcing their legal team to lawyers that charge in excess of $1000 an hour.  It should come as no shock to anyone following the IRS scandal that Quinn Emanuel is chock full of lawyers who are also large contributors to the party in power.

Fourth, the IRS’s rogue behavior may become standard practice if the bureaucrats don’t face any repercussions for stepping over the line.

This fight actually has little to do with Microsoft. It has everything to do with the prospect of the IRS abusing power, wasting taxpayer money and setting dangerous precedents for enforcement against small businesses. …The actions of the IRS that put this matter into court threatens to set a dangerous precedent on the power of the federal government with regard to tax issues. Congress needs to protect citizens against IRS overreach, and now a potential new procedure that will allow private tax information to be shared with outside law firms.

Wow, what a damning indictment against a vindictive bureaucracy.

And while Microsoft is a big company with plenty of money to defend itself, this is still outrageous. Particularly since the IRS will employ these thuggish tactics against less powerful taxpayers if it isn’t slapped down for by either Congress or the courts.

By the way, I should say something about the underlying dispute. The IRS is not happy about the prices that Microsoft charged when doing intra-firm sales between the parent company and foreign subsidiaries.

Yet if the bureaucrats really think Microsoft abused the “transfer pricing” rules, then the IRS should come up with its own estimate and – if necessary – they can go to court to see who’s right.

For what it’s worth, I suspect the IRS isn’t presenting Microsoft with a bill precisely because the bureaucrats ultimately wouldn’t prevail in a legal fight. The agency probably hopes a never-ending audit eventually will force the company to voluntarily over-pay just to end the torture.

Since I’m a policy wonk, I can’t resist noting that the only reason this kind of dispute even exists is because the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the entire world. So companies naturally seek to maximize the income they earn in other nations (sort of like entrepreneurs and investors decide it’s better to do business in low-tax states such as Texas rather than fiscal hellholes such as Illinois).

And there’s nothing wrong – legally or ethically – with taxpayers choosing not to overpay the federal government.

The IRS can, of course, ask politicians to change the law if their goal is to grab more money. But as explained by Brian McNicoll in a column for the Washington Times, it shouldn’t try to confiscate more loot with endless harassment and dubious tactics.

If Microsoft’s business strategies are a problem for the IRS, it is up to Congress to change the tax law. But as long as those strategies are legal, no one should question Microsoft for doing what it can to limit its tax obligation. …there is reason Congress gives the IRS three years — not eight and certainly not carte blanche to go on indefinitely. …If the IRS has something on Microsoft, by all means bring it forward. But if it doesn’t, it needs to close the books on this near-decade of harassment and send Microsoft a bill for its taxes.

Returning to our main point, this is why tax reform should be accompanied by reforms to rein in the IRS’s improper behavior.

P.S. They haven’t put forth many details, but some candidates have indicated support for the kind of radical tax reform that would de-fang the IRS. Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and John Kasich have all stated that they like the flat tax. And Mike Huckabee embraces a national sales tax to replace the current tax code.

And if there’s wholesale replacement of the internal revenue code, then a lot of the problems with the IRS automatically disappear.

P.P.S. Since we’re criticizing the IRS, I can’t resist sharing some oldies but goodies.

P.P.P.S. And since I’m digging through my archives, here’s my collection of IRS humor, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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It’s been a challenge to assess Donald Trump’s fiscal policies since they’ve been an eclectic and evolving mix of good and bad soundbites.

Though I did like what he said about wanting to pay as little tax as possible because the government wastes so much of our money.

On the other hand, some of his comments about raising tax burdens on investors obviously rubbed me the wrong way.

But now “The Donald” has unveiled a real plan and we have plenty of details to assess. Here are some of the key provisions, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. We’ll start with the features that represent better tax policy and/or lead to lower tax burdens, such as somewhat lower statutory tax rates on households and a big reduction in the very high tax rate imposed on companies, as well as a slight reduction in the double tax on capital gains.

…no federal income tax would be levied against individuals earning less than $25,000 and married couples earning less than $50,000. The Trump campaign estimates that would reduce taxes to zero for 31 million households that currently pay at least some income tax. The highest individual income-tax rate would be 25%, compared with the current 39.6% rate. …Mr. Trump also would cut the top capital gains rate to 20%, from the current 23.8%. And he would eliminate the alternative minimum tax. …For businesses, Mr. Trump’s 15% rate is among the lowest that have been proposed so far.

But there are also features that would move tax policy in the wrong direction and/or raise revenue.

Most notably, Trump would scale back certain deductions as taxpayers earn more money. He also would increase the capital gains tax burden for partnerships that receive “carried interest.” And he would impose worldwide taxation on businesses.

To pay for the proposed tax benefits, the Trump plan would eliminate or reduce deductions and loopholes to high-income taxpayers, and would curb some deductions and other breaks for middle-class taxpayers by capping the level of individual deductions, a politically dicey proposition. Mr. Trump also would end the “carried interest” tax break, which allows many investment-fund managers to pay lower taxes on much of their compensation. …The Trump plan would raise revenues in at least a couple of significant ways. It would limit the value of individual deductions, with middle-class households keeping all or most of their deductions, higher-income taxpayers keeping around half of theirs, and the very wealthy losing a significant chunk of theirs. It also would wipe out many corporate deductions. …The plan also proposes capping the amount of interest payments that businesses can deduct now, a change phased in over a long period, and would impose a corporate tax on future foreign earnings of American multinationals.

Last but not least, there are parts of Trump’s plan that leave current policy unchanged.

Which could be characterized as “sins of omission” since many of these provisions in the tax code – such as double taxation, the tax bias against business investment, and tax preferences – should be altered.

…the candidate doesn’t propose to end taxation of individuals’ investment income… Mr. Trump would not…allow businesses to expense all their new equipment purchases, as some other Republicans do. …All taxpayers would keep their current deductions for mortgage-interest on their homes and charitable giving.

So what’s the net effect?

The answer depends on whether one hopes for perfect policy. The flat tax is the gold standard for genuine tax reform and Mr. Trump’s plan obviously falls short by that test.

But the perfect isn’t the enemy of the good. If we compare what he’s proposing to what we have now, the answer is easy. Trump’s plan is far better than the status quo.

Now that I’ve looked at the good and bad policies in Trump’s plan, I can’t resist closing with a political observation.  Notwithstanding his rivalry with Jeb Bush, it’s remarkable that Trump’s proposal is very similar to the plan already put forth by the former Florida Governor.

I’m not sure either candidate will like my interpretation, but I think it’s flattery. Both deserve plaudits for proposing to make the internal revenue code less onerous for the American economy.

P.S. Here’s what I wrote about the plans put forth by Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.

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In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I highlighted the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior such as work and entrepreneurship.

2. Pervasive double taxation that undermines saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that lure people into using resources inefficiently.

These problems all need to be addressed, along with additional problems with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms and civil liberties.

Based on these criteria, I’ve already reviewed the tax reform plan put forth by Marco Rubio. And I’ve analyzed the proposal introduced by Rand Paul.

Now let’s apply the same treatment to the “Reform and Growth Act of 2017” that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has unveiled in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Bush identifies three main goals, starting with lower tax rates.

First, I want to lower taxes and make the tax code simple, fair and clear. …We will cut individual rates from seven brackets to three: 28%, 25% and 10%. At 28%, the highest tax bracket would return to where it was when President Ronald Reagan signed into law his monumental and successful 1986 tax reform.

This is a positive step, effectively wiping out the tax-rate increases imposed by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Then Governor Bush takes aim at tax loopholes.

Second, I want to eliminate the convoluted, lobbyist-created loopholes in the code. For years, wealthy individuals have deducted a much greater share of their income than everyone else. We will retain the deductibility of charitable contributions but cap the deductions used by the wealthy and Washington special interests, enabling tax-rate cuts across the board for everyone.

This also is a step in the right direction, though it’s unclear what Bush is proposing – if anything – for other big tax loopholes such as the mortgage interest deduction, the healthcare exclusion, the state and local tax deduction, and the municipal bond exemption.

The final big piece of Jeb’s plan deals with America’s punitive treatment of business income.

Third, I believe that the tax code should no longer be an impediment to the nation’s competitiveness with China, Europe and the rest of the world. …To stop American companies from moving out of the country, I will cut the corporate tax rate from 35%—the highest in the industrial world—to 20%, which is five percentage points below China’s. We will end the practice of world-wide taxation on U.S. businesses, which fosters the insidious tactic called corporate “inversions.” …We will also allow businesses to fully and immediately deduct new capital investments—a critical step to increase worker productivity and wages.

All of these reforms are very good for growth.

A lower corporate tax rate, particularly combined with territorial taxation and “expensing” of investment expenditures, will make American companies far more competitive.

More important, these reforms will fix flaws in the tax code that reduce capital formation. And that will mean more investment and higher wages for American workers.

There are other positive features mentioned in the column that are worth celebrating. Governor Bush’s plan eliminates the death tax, which is an especially punitive form of double taxation.

His proposal also gets rid of the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which is a convoluted part of the tax code seemingly designed to grab more money from taxpayers in a very complicated fashion.

Now let’s move to a part of Bush’s plan that seems bad, but arguably is good. He’s proposing to get rid of interest deductibility for companies, which will increase double taxation (remember, investors who buy corporate bonds pay tax on the interest payments they receive from firms).

…we will eliminate most corporate tax deductions—which is where favor-seeking and lobbying are most common—and remove the deduction for borrowing costs. That deduction encourages business models dependent on heavy debt.

So why is this feature arguably good when one of the key goals of tax reform is eliminating double taxation?

For two reasons. First, we already have double taxation of dividends (i.e., equity-financed investment), so imposing double taxation on borrowing (i.e., debt-financed investment) creates a level playing field and addresses the bias for debt in the tax code.

To be sure, it would be best to level the playing field by having no double taxation of any kind, but presumably the Bush team also was paying attention to revenue constraints.

And this is the second reason why this portion of the plan arguably is good. The revenue implications of this change are non-trivial, so one could argue that it is helping to finance pro-growth changes such as a lower corporate tax rate and immediate expensing of business investment.

Let’s close by highlighting some unambiguously worrisome features of the Bush plan.

According to his column, an additional 15 million Americans no longer will have any income tax liability, largely because the plan almost doubles the standard deduction. It’s good for people not to have to pay tax, of course, but we already have a system where almost half of all households are exempt from the income tax. So the concern is that we have a growing share of the population that perceives government as a no-cost dispenser of goodies.

And one of those goodies is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a form of income redistribution operated through the tax code. And Bush is proposing to expand the EITC, though there aren’t any details about this part of his plan.

Presumably Bush is including these provisions to somewhat fend off the class-warfare attack that his plan provides big tax cuts for the “rich” while not doing enough for the rest of the population. Yet upper-income taxpayers already pay the lion’s share of the income tax.

Even the IRS has acknowledged that the top 3 percent pay more than half the burden!

So a fair tax cut, by definition, will benefit the rich since they’re the ones who are carrying the load.

In any event, the purpose of good tax policy is to generate faster growth by improving incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship, and that’s where you get the big benefits for lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

Simply stated, the close you get to a Hong Kong-style flat tax, the closer you get to robust Hong Kong-type growth rates.

The bottom line is that Bush’s tax plan isn’t a touchdown. Like the Rubio plan and Paul plan, it’s not a Hall-Rabushka flat tax, which is the gold standard for tax reform. But it’s a big step in that direction. Bush takes the ball from the wrong side of the field and puts it on the right side of the field.

If implemented (and accompanied by the spending restraint needed to make the plan sustainable), Bush’s proposal would be a significant boost for the American economy and American taxpayers.

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If you took a poll of Washington’s richest and most powerful people, you would probably find more than 90 percent of them support tax increases.

At first glance, this doesn’t make sense. Why would a group of upper-income people want tax hikes? Are they self-loathing and guilt-ridden?

Perhaps, but there’s a better explanation. These are people whose lavish lifestyles are because of big government. And when government gets even bigger, they have more chances to obtain unearned wealth.

So it makes perfect sense for them to support tax increases. They may send an additional 5 percent of their income to the IRS, but their income will be 20 percent higher because of all the money sloshing around Washington.

Once you understand their motivations, it’s easy to understand why Washington insiders are so supportive of “bipartisan budget deals” and why they salivate so much for a value-added tax.

And you can also see why they’re so anxious to get a President who hasn’t signed the no-tax-hike pledge.

Which may explain why Jeremy Scott, the editor of Tax Notes, is upset that Governor Jeb Bush is now expressing opposition to tax hikes. Here’s some of what he wrote for Forbes, starting with a description of Bush’s original open-to-tax-hikes position.

Before announcing his candidacy, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he wouldn’t agree to Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes, and he hinted that he would, in fact, trade $10 of spending cuts for $1 of tax increases. …he went out of his way earlier this year to talk about his flexibility on fiscal policy.

That part of Mr. Scott’s column is accurate.

I also noticed Gov. Bush’s stance at the time, albeit it caused me to worry because politicians will never impose meaningful spending restraint and reform entitlements if they think tax increases are feasible.

Anyhow, Scott then points out that Gov. Bush seems to have moved to an anti-tax hike position.

At an August 2 conference…, Bush flatly said no when asked if he would accept tax hikes as part of a budget deal. “We’ve raised taxes. What we need to be doing is entitlement reform, curbing the growth of spending, creating a high-growth scenario,” the former governor elaborated.

I’m not sure if what Bush said puts him firmly in the no-tax-hike camp, but it’s certainly true that his rhetoric has moved in the right direction.

Which doesn’t make Scott happy. And here’s where he veers from accurate reporting to sloppy and bizarre assertions.

If Jeb Bush needs to shore up his right flank on taxes, it reveals that the GOP has veered far from its positional flexibility that made the 1980s so successful for tax reform efforts. President Reagan was willing to accept tax increases as part of grand bargains on taxes and fiscal policy. …the GOP…won’t control 60 seats in the upper chamber. That means they will need at least some Democratic support. And no party will want to undertake tax reform without at least some bipartisanship. A Jeb Bush victory in 2016 seemed like the best-case scenario for people who want some kind of broad tax reform. His retreat on a willingness to compromise is a major blow to those hopes.

Wow, that’s a lot of misleading statements in a short excerpt.

Let’s correct some of Mr. Scott’s mistakes.

  1. The 1986 Tax Reform Act was revenue neutral. In other words, it was designed so that the government didn’t get any additional money. Scott is completely wrong to assert that a willingness to raise taxes is a prerequisite for tax reform.
  2. Scott is correct that Reagan acquiesced to some tax increases, but he conveniently fails to share the data showing that “grand bargains” with tax hikes invariably failed to produce good results. The only deal that led to a balanced budget was the 1997 agreement that lowered taxes.
  3. It is incorrect to assert that 60 votes are needed in the Senate to enact major fiscal legislation. Yes, the filibuster still exists, but budget rules explicitly allow “reconciliation” bills that don’t require supermajority support.
  4. A pro-tax hike candidate is only the “best-case scenario” if one thinks that voters should be tricked by using tax reform as a Trojan Horse for tax increases.

The final point is the one that really matters. To reiterate what I stated earlier, the Washington establishment is unified in its support of higher taxes for the obvious reason that more money flowing to Washington is good news for politicians, bureaucrats, consultants, lobbyists, cronyists, special interests, contractors, and other insiders.

Simply stated, a bigger government means they get richer (and they’ve been quite successful, as you can see from this depressing map).

Here’s the bottom line.

Using the term “grand bargain” also doesn’t change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

And (mis)using the term “tax reform” doesn’t change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

Nor does a reference to “flexibility” change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

I could continue, but you get the point.

P.S. Let’s close by shifting to another topic. Many people express disbelief when I argue that politicians such as Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders are not socialists.

In my defense, I’m making a technical point about the economic definition of socialism, which means government ownership of the means of production. And the vast majority of American leftists don’t seem overly interested in having government steel companies, government banks, or government farms. They prefer instead to allow private ownership combined with high levels of taxation and regulation.

If you want to see a real socialist, look on the other side of the Atlantic, where the Labour Party appears poised to elect a complete loon as its leader. The U.K.-based Independent reports that Jeremy Corbyn favors “common ownership” of industry.

…the man who has set alight the leadership race says the party needs to reinstate a clear commitment to public ownership of industry in a move which would reverse one of the defining moments in Labour’s history. …Corbyn reveals that he wants to reinstate Clause Four, the hugely symbolic commitment to socialism scrapped under Tony Blair 20 years ago, in its original wording or a similar phrase that weds the Labour Party to public ownership of industry. …The old Clause Four stated that the party was committed to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”

I can’t think of any Democrats who admit to favoring similar language for their party platform.

Though I should acknowledge that we have a government-run rail company in America, a government-run postal service, a government-run retirement system, and a government-run air traffic control system, all of which would be better in the private sector. And I’m sure Obama, Sanders, and many other politicians would be opposed to privatization.

So maybe the most accurate way of describing leftist politicians in America is to say that they’re redistributionists with a side order of socialism.

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Our nation very much needs fundamental tax reform, so it’s welcome news that major public figures – including presidential candidates – are proposing to gut the internal revenue code and replace it with plans that collect revenue in less-destructive ways.

A few months ago, I wrote about a sweeping proposal by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Today, let’s look at the plan that Senator Rand Paul has put forward in a Wall Street Journal column.

He has some great info on why the current tax system is a corrupt mess.

From 2001 until 2010, there were at least 4,430 changes to tax laws—an average of one “fix” a day—always promising more fairness, more simplicity or more growth stimulants. And every year the Internal Revenue Code grows absurdly more incomprehensible, as if it were designed as a jobs program for accountants, IRS agents and tax attorneys.

And he explains that punitive tax policy helps explain why our economy has been under-performing.

…redistribution policies have led to rising income inequality and negative income gains for families. …We are already at least $2 trillion behind where we should be with a normal recovery; the growth gap widens every month.

So what’s his proposal?

…repeal the entire IRS tax code—more than 70,000 pages—and replace it with a low, broad-based tax of 14.5% on individuals and businesses. I would eliminate nearly every special-interest loophole. The plan also eliminates the payroll tax on workers and several federal taxes outright, including gift and estate taxes, telephone taxes, and all duties and tariffs. I call this “The Fair and Flat Tax.” …establish a 14.5% flat-rate tax applied equally to all personal income, including wages, salaries, dividends, capital gains, rents and interest. All deductions except for a mortgage and charities would be eliminated. The first $50,000 of income for a family of four would not be taxed. For low-income working families, the plan would retain the earned-income tax credit.

Kudos to Senator Paul. This type of tax system would be far less destructive than the current system.

That being said, it’s not perfect. Here are three things I don’t like.

  1. The Social Security payroll tax already is a flat tax, so it’s unclear why it should be wrapped into reform of the income tax, particularly if that change complicates the possibility of shifting to a system of personal retirement accounts.
  2. There would still be some double taxation of dividends, capital gains, and interest, though the destructive impact of that policy would be mitigated because of the low 14.5 percent rate.
  3. The earned-income credit (a spending program embedded in the tax code) should be eliminated as part of a plan to shift all means-tested programs back to the states.

But it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, particularly since the debate in Washington so often is about bad ideas and worse ideas.

So the aforementioned three complaints don’t cause me much heartburn.

But there’s another part of the Paul plan that does give me gastro-intestinal discomfort. Here’s a final excerpt from his column.

I would also apply this uniform 14.5% business-activity tax on all companies…. This tax would be levied on revenues minus allowable expenses, such as the purchase of parts, computers and office equipment. All capital purchases would be immediately expensed, ending complicated depreciation schedules.

You may be wondering why this passage is worrisome. After all, it’s great news that the very high corporate tax rate is being replaced by a low-rate system. Replacing depreciation with expensing also is a huge step in the right direction.

So what’s not to like?

The answer is that Senator Paul’s “business-activity tax” doesn’t allow a deduction for wages and salaries. This means, for all intents and purposes, that he is turning the corporate income tax into a value-added tax (VAT).

In theory, this is a good step. After all, the VAT is a consumption-based tax which does far less damage to the economy, on a per-dollar-collected basis, than the corporate income tax.

But theoretical appeal isn’t the same as real-world impact.

Simply stated, the VAT is a money machine for big government.

All of which helps to explain why it would be a big mistake to give politicians this new source of revenue.

Indeed, this is why I was critical of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan four years ago.

It’s why I’ve been leery of Congressman Paul Ryan’s otherwise very admirable Roadmap plan.

And it’s one of the reasons why I feared Mitt Romney’s policies would have facilitated a larger burden of government.

These politicians may have had their hearts in the right place and wanted to use the VAT to finance pro-growth tax reforms. But I can’t stop worrying about what happens when politicians with bad motives get control.

Particularly when there are safer ways of achieving the same objectives.

Here’s some of what I wrote last year on this exact topic.

…the corporate income tax is a self-inflicted wound to American prosperity, but allow me to point out that incremental reform is a far simpler – and far safer – way of dealing with the biggest warts plaguing the current system.

Lower the corporate tax rate.

Replace depreciation with expensing.

Replace worldwide taxation with territorial taxation.

So here’s the bottom line. If there’s enough support in Congress to get rid of the corporate income tax and impose a VAT, that means there’s also enough support to implement these incremental reforms.

There’s a risk, to be sure, that future politicians will undo these reforms. But the adverse consequences of that outcome are far lower than the catastrophic consequences of future politicians using a VAT to turn America into France.

To wrap things up, there’s no doubt that Senator Paul has a very good proposal. And I know his heart is in the right place.

But watch this video to understand why his proposal has a very big wart that needs to be excised.

For what it’s worth, I’m mystified why pro-growth policy makers don’t simply latch onto an unadulterated flat tax.

That plan has all the good features needed for tax reform without any of the dangers associated with a VAT.

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

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In my ultimate fantasy world, Washington wouldn’t need any sort of broad-based tax because we succeeded in shrinking the federal government back to the very limited size and scope envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

In my more realistic fantasy world, we might not be able to restore constitutional limits on Washington, but at least we could reform the tax code so that revenues were generated in a less destructive fashion.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of a simple and fair flat tax, which has several desirable features.

The rate is as low as possible, to minimize penalties on productive behavior.

There’s no double taxation, so no more bias against saving and investment.

And there are no distorting loopholes that bribe people into inefficient choices.

But not everyone is on board, The class-warfare crowd will never like a flat tax. And Washington insiders hate tax reform because it undermines their power.

But there are also sensible people who are hesitant to back fundamental reform.

Consider what Reihan Salam just wrote for National Review. He starts with a reasonably fair description of the proposal.

The original flat tax, championed by the economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, which formed the basis of Steve Forbes’s flat-tax proposal in 1996, is a single-rate tax on consumption, with a substantial exemption to make the tax progressive at the low end of the household-income distribution.

Though if I want to nit-pick, I could point out that the flat tax has effective progressivity across all incomes because the family-based exemption is available to everyone. As such, a poor household pays nothing. A middle-income household might have an effective tax rate of 12 percent. And the tax rate for Bill Gates would be asymptotically approaching 17 percent (or whatever the statutory rate is).

My far greater concerns arise when Reihan delves into economic analysis.

…the Hall-Rabushka tax would be highly regressive, in part because high-income households tend to consume less of their income than lower-income households and because investment income would not be taxed (or rather double-taxed).

This is a very schizophrenic passage since he makes a claim of regressivity even though he acknowledged that the flat tax has effective progressivity just a few sentences earlier.

And since he admits that the flat tax actually does tax income that is saved and invested (but only one time rather than over and over again, as can happen in the current system), it’s puzzling why he says the system is “highly regressive.”

If he simply said the flat tax was far less progressive (i.e., less discriminatory) than the current system, that would have been fine.

Here’s the next passage that rubbed me the wrong way.

…there is some dispute over whether ending the double taxation of savings would yield significant growth dividends. Chris William Sanchirico of Penn Law School takes a skeptical view in a review of the academic research on the subject, in part because cutting capital-income taxation as part of a revenue-neutral reform would require offsetting increases in labor-income taxation, which would dampen long-term economic growth in their own right.

I’m not even sure where to start. First, Reihan seems to dismiss the role of dynamic scoring in enabling low tax rates on labor. Second, he cites just one professor about growth effects and overlooks the overwhelming evidence from other perspectives. And third, he says the flat tax would be revenue neutral, when virtually every plan that’s been proposed combines tax reform with a tax cut.

On a somewhat more positive note, Reihan then suggests that lawmakers instead embrace “universal savings accounts” as an alternative to sweeping tax reform.

Instead of campaigning for a flat tax, GOP candidates ought to consider backing Universal Savings Accounts (USAs)… The main difference between USAs and Roth IRAs is that “withdrawals could be made at any time for any reason,” a change that would make the accounts far more attractive to far more people. …Unlike a wholesale shift to consumption taxation, USAs with a contribution limit are a modest step in the same general direction, which future reformers can build on.

I have no objection to incremental reform to reduce double taxation, and I’ve previously written about the attractiveness of USAs, so it sounds like we’re on the same page. And if you get rid of all double taxation and keep rates about where they are now, you get the Rubio-Lee tax plan, which I’ve also argued is a positive reform.

But then he closes with an endorsement of more redistribution through the tax code.

Republicans should put Earned Income Tax Credit expansion and other measures to improve work incentives for low-income households at the heart of their tax-reform agenda.

I want to improve work incentives, but it’s important to realize that the EIC is “refundable,” which is simply an inside-the-beltway term for spending that is laundered through the tax code. In other words, the government isn’t refunding taxes to people. It’s giving money to people who don’t owe taxes.

As an economist, I definitely think it’s better to pay people to work instead of subsidizing them for not working. But we also need to understand that this additional spending has two negative tax implications.

  1. When politicians spend more money, that either increases pressure for tax increases or it makes tax cuts more difficult to achieve.
  2. The EIC is supposed to boost labor force participation, but the evidence is mixed on this point, and any possible benefit with regards to the number of people working may be offset by reductions in actual hours worked because the phase out of the EIC’s wage subsidy is akin to a steep increase in marginal tax rates on additional labor supply.

In any event, I don’t want the federal government in the business of redistributing income. We’ll get much better results, both for poor people and taxpayers, if state and local government compete and innovate to figure out the best ways of ending dependency.

The rest of Reihan’s column is more focused on political obstacles to the flat tax. Since I’ve expressed pessimism on getting a flat tax in my lifetime, I can’t really argue too strenuously with those points.

In closing, I used “friendly fight” in the title of this post for a reason. I don’t get the sense that Mr. Salam is opposed to good policy. Indeed, I would be very surprised if he preferred the current convoluted system over the flat tax.

But if there was a spectrum with “prudence” and “caution” on one side and “bold” and “aggressive” on the other side, I suspect we wouldn’t be on the same side. And since it’s good for there to be both types of people in any movement, that’s a good thing.

P.S. I got a special treat this morning. I was at Reagan Airport for a flight to Detroit at the same time as a bunch of America’s World War II vets arrived on an Honor Flight to visit the WWII Memorial.

Here’s my rather pathetic attempt to get a photo of one of the vets being greeted.

Since I’ll never be in demand as a photographer, you should watch this video to learn more about this great private initiative to honor World War II veterans.

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