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Archive for the ‘Value-Added Tax’ Category

As I’ve written before, our fight to restrain the size and scope of government will be severely hamstrung – perhaps even mortally wounded – if the crowd in Washington ever succeeds in getting a value-added tax as a new source of revenue.

This is why many statists are pushing so hard for the VAT. It’s a money machine for big government.

But what makes this battle especially frustrating is that there are some otherwise sensible people who are on the wrong side of the issue. I was stunned, for instance, when Rand Paul and Ted Cruz included VATs as part of their presidential tax plans.

And I’ve been less surprised, but still disappointed, to find support for a VAT from people such as Tom Dolan, Greg Mankiw, and Paul Ryan, as well as Kevin Williamson, Josh Barro, and Andrew Stuttaford. And I wrote that Mitch Daniels, Herman Cain, and Mitt Romney were not overly attractive presidential candidates because they expressed openness to the VAT (methinks it is time to create a VAT Hall of Shame).

Now I have three more people to add to the list.

In a column for the Washington Times, Professor Peter Morici argues for a VAT instead of the income tax.

The current system imposes terribly high rates and a myriad of special-interest credits and deductions. It requires expensive record keeping that drives taxpayers mad and complex auditing functions at the Internal Revenue Service that have proven susceptible to political abuse… The most effective reform would be to simply junk the personal and corporate income taxes in favor of a VAT. The Treasury annually collects about $2 trillion through personal and corporate taxes. This could be replaced by an 11 percent national sales tax on all private purchases and payments.

This is good in theory, but it’s a high-risk fantasy. The politicians in DC who want a VAT are not proposing to get rid of other taxes. Instead, they want the VAT in addition to income taxes.

So unless Morici has some plan to fully repeal income taxes (and to amend the Constitution to prohibit income taxes from being imposed in the future), his support for a VAT plays into the hands of those who want a new levy to finance bigger government (which is exactly what happened in Europe).

Even more troubling, he confirms my fears that the border-adjustable tax serves as a stalking horse for a VAT.

Several House Republicans, led by Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, propose to do essentially this for the corporate but not the personal income tax. …This proposal has…flaws. …The answer is simple — generalize Mr. Brady’s reforms to include the personal income tax as well. Junk it and impose a VAT of 11 percent on all economic activities.

Maybe now people will appreciate my concerns about the BAT.

Last but not least, I can’t resist pointing out that Morici is flat wrong about the VAT and trade. Heck, even Paul Krugman agrees with me on that topic.

Foreign governments rely more on value-added taxes (VAT), which approximates a national sales tax. Those are rebatable on exports and applied to imports under World Trade Organization rules… This places U.S.-based businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Now let’s look at another column with a misguided message.  Writing for The Hill, Jim Carter of Emerson and former Congressman Geoff Davis argue for a VAT.

…enact a payroll tax holiday similar to the one Americans enjoyed in 2011 and 2012. Only this time the tax holiday would be permanent. …How can the government make up for the revenue lost from the payroll tax cut? One idea: eliminate the deduction that businesses get for the wages and benefits they pay their employees. …this would generate a massive $11.6 trillion in revenue over 10 years.

Call me crazy, but I get very nervous about plans that generate “massive…revenue” for Washington. Especially when the plan proposed by Carter and Davis is actually a subtraction-method VAT.

And just like Morici, they think the House Better Way Plan paves the way for that pernicious levy.

Abolishing labor deductibility also generates enough revenue to lower the tax rates on business income five percentage points below the rates envisioned by the House Republican “blueprint” for tax reform… Add the House blueprint’s other provisions…this modified House blueprint would be roughly revenue-neutral.

Moreover, Carter and Davis don’t even pretend that the income tax might be abolished. They prefer instead to go after the payroll tax, which is far less damaging.

Moreover, they want to add other statist policies to their VAT scheme.

Add President Trump’s childcare proposals and a Republican commitment to link tax reform to additional infrastructure funding, and congressional Democrats would have little excuse not to work with Republicans.

Of course Democrats would be interested. They would be getting the VAT they desperately need if they want to take entitlement reform off the table. And they also are being offered bad childcare policy and bad infrastructure policy as a bonus.

Now let’s look at a Washington Post column by Alan Murray.

…in tax policy, as in health-care policy, the United States is notoriously ineffective and inefficient. As the world’s richest nation, the United States has more capacity to tax than any other country. But…we rank near the bottom of industrialized nations in our effectiveness at doing so. …Reid…devotes a chapter to the value-added tax, which he calls “the most successful taxation innovation of the last sixty years.” …it turns out to be relatively easy to enforce. …Reid quotes former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan saying a VAT is the “least worst” way to raise taxes. “It has been adopted in every major nation on earth and in most small nations as well,” he says.

Yes, you read correctly. He’s grousing that the federal government isn’t demonstrating “effectiveness” when it comes to maximizing its “capacity to tax.”

This is the same statist mentality that led the World Bank to rank the United States near the bottom for “tax effort.”

For what it’s worth, I’m grateful that America hasn’t copied Europe by trying to squeeze every possible penny from taxpayers. And I’m specifically thankful that we haven’t copied them by imposing a VAT to finance bigger government.

I was amused by this passage in Murray’s column.

Critics of Reid’s plan, of course, won’t be hard to find. …Conservatives will attack the value-added tax as a money machine that leads to bigger government.

Of course supporters of limited government will make that complaint. That’s why statists want a VAT. Heck, Murray’s column openly states that the VAT would boost America’s “capacity to tax.”

For those who favor restraints on government, the last thing we want is a government that figures out ways to extract more revenue from the economy’s productive sector.

Let’s close by citing some research published last year.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Ed Lazear of Stanford University warns that a VAT, even if part of an otherwise attractive tax plan, almost surely will lead to an increased burden of government spending.

…keeping a value-added tax low and substituting it for other more-regressive taxes has proven almost impossible. All 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, except the U.S., have a VAT. …26 countries have higher VATs now than they did when they first instituted the tax. …The U.K., Italy and Denmark have all raised their VATs by 10 percentage points or more. The VAT, wherever it has been implemented, has been a money machine for big government.

What about the notion that VATs simply replace other taxes?

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

…for every 1 percentage point that the VAT increases, the tax burden rises by about 0.8 of a percentage point. Were it a pure substitute tax, raising the VAT would have no effect on total taxes collected because other taxes would be reduced by a corresponding amount. Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens. …America may be headed toward a European-style VAT tax and ever-larger government.

Prof. Lazear has some additional data posted at the Hoover Institution website. Here’s a chart that should frighten every fiscally responsible person.

And don’t forget the chart I shared showing how the VAT has jumped significantly in Europe in the past few years.

To conclude, here’s my video on why the value-added tax is so dangerous to good fiscal policy.

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

P.P.S. And my clinching argument is that Reagan opposed a VAT and Nixon supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

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My crusade against the border-adjustable tax (BAT) continues.

In a column co-authored with Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus, I explain in today’s Wall Street Journal why Republicans should drop this prospective source of new tax revenue.

…this should be an opportune time for major tax cuts to boost American growth and competitiveness. But much of the reform energy is being dissipated in a counterproductive fight over the “border adjustment” tax proposed by House Republicans. …Republican tax plans normally receive overwhelming support from the business community. But the border-adjustment tax has created deep divisions. Proponents claim border adjustability is not protectionist because it would automatically push up the value of the dollar, neutralizing the effect on trade. Importers don’t have much faith in this theory and oppose the GOP plan.

Much of the column is designed to debunk the absurd notion that a BAT is needed to offset some mythical advantage that other nations supposedly enjoy because of their value-added taxes.

Here’s what supporters claim.

Proponents of the border-adjustment tax also are using a dodgy sales pitch, saying that their plan will get rid of a “Made in America Tax.” The claim is that VATs give foreign companies an advantage. Say a German company exports a product to the U.S. It doesn’t pay the American corporate income tax, and it receives a rebate on its German VAT payments. But an American company exporting to Germany has to pay both—it’s subject to the U.S. corporate income tax and then pays the German VAT on the product when it is sold.

Sounds persuasive, at least until you look at both sides of the equation.

When the German company sells to customers in the U.S., it is subject to the German corporate income tax. The competing American firm selling domestically pays the U.S. corporate income tax. Neither is hit with a VAT. In other words, a level playing field.

Here’s a visual depiction of how the current system works. I include the possibility that that German products sold in America may also get hit by the US corporate income tax (if the German company have a US subsidiary, for instance). What’s most important, though, is that neither American-produced goods and services nor German-produced goods and services are hit by a VAT.

Now let’s consider the flip side.

What if an American company sells to a customer in Germany? The U.S. government imposes the corporate income tax and the German government imposes a VAT. But guess what? The German competitor selling domestically is hit by the German corporate income tax and the German VAT. That’s another level playing field. This explains why economists, on the right and left, repeatedly have debunked the idea that countries use VATs to boost their exports.

Here’s the German version of the map. Once again, I note that it’s possible – depending on the structure of the US company – for American products to get hit by the German corporate income tax. But the key point of the map is to show that American-produced goods and services and German-produced goods and services are subject to the VAT.

By the way, it’s entirely possible that an American company in Germany or a German company in America may pay higher or lower taxes depending on whether there are special penalties or preferences. Those companies may also pay more or less depending on the cleverness of their tax lawyers and tax accountants.

But one thing can be said with total certainty: The absence of an American VAT does not result in a “Made-in-America” tax on American companies. Even Paul Krugman agrees that VATs don’t distort trade.

Moreover, Veronique and I point out that the lack of a VAT creates a big advantage for the United States.

One big plus for Americans is that Washington does not impose a VAT, which would enable government to grow. This is a major reason that the U.S. economy is more vibrant than Europe’s. In Germany, the VAT raises so much tax revenue that the government consumes 44% of gross domestic product—compared with 38% in America.

And to the extent that there is a disadvantage, it’s not because of some sneaky maneuver by foreign governments. It’s because of a self-inflicted wound.

America’s top corporate income tax of 35% is the highest in the developed world. If state corporate income taxes are added, the figure hits nearly 40%, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That compares very unfavorably with other nations. Europe’s average top corporate rate is less than 19%, and the global average is less than 23%… That’s the real “Made in America Tax,” and it’s our own fault.

The column does acknowledge that BAT supporters have their hearts in the right place. They are proposing that new source of revenue to help finance a lower corporate tax rate, as well as expensing.

But there’s a much better way to enable those pro-growth reforms.

If Congress simply limits the growth of outlays to about 2% a year, that would create enough fiscal space to balance the budget over 10 years and adopt a $3 trillion tax cut. If Republicans want a win-win, dropping the border-adjustment tax is the way to get one.

And what if Republicans aren’t willing to restrain spending? Then maybe the sensible approach is to simply cut the corporate tax rate and declare victory.

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When I warn about the fiscal and economic consequences of America’s poorly designed entitlement programs (as well as the impact of demographic changes), I regularly suggest that the United States is on a path to become Greece.

Because of Greece’s horrible economy, this link has obvious rhetorical appeal.

But there’s another nation that may be a more accurate “role model” of America’s future. This other country, like the United States, is big, relatively rich, and has its own currency.

For these and other reasons, in an article for The Hill, I suggest that Japan is the nation that may offer the most relevant warning signs. I explain first that Japan shows the failure of Keynesian economics.

…ever since a property bubble burst in the late 1980s, Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums, and its politicians deserve much of the blame. They’ve engaged in repeated binges of so-called Keynesian stimulus. But running up the national credit card hasn’t worked any better in Japan than it did for President Barack Obama. Instead of economic rejuvenation, Japan is now saddled with record levels of debt.

In other words, Japan already is a basket case and may be the next Greece. And all this foolish policy has been cheered on by the IMF.

I then highlight how Japan shows why a value-added tax is a huge mistake.

Japan’s politicians also decided to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on the nation. As so often happens when a VAT gets adopted, it turns into a money machine, as legislators start ratcheting the rate higher and higher. That happened in Europe back in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s happening in Japan today.

And regular readers know my paranoid fear of the VAT taking hold in the United States.

But here’s the main lesson in the column.

The combination of demographic changes and redistribution programs is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

…the biggest economic threat to the country is the way Japan’s welfare state interacts with demographic changes. It’s not that the welfare state is enormous, particularly compared with European nations, but the system is becoming an ever-increasing burden because the Japanese people are living longer and having fewer children. …America faces some of the same problems. …if we don’t reform our entitlement programs, it’s just a matter of time before we also have a fiscal crisis.

To be sure, as I note in the article, Japan’s demographic outlook is worse. And that nation’s hostility to any immigration (even from high-skilled people) means that Japan can’t compensate (as America has to some degree) for low birth rates by expanding its population.

Indeed, the demographic situation in Japan is so grim that social scientists have actually estimated the date on which the Japanese people become extinct.

Mark August 16, 3766 on your calendar. According to…researchers at Tohoku University, that’s the date Japan’s population will dwindle to one. For 25 years, the country has had falling fertility rates, coinciding with widespread aging. The worrisome trend has now reached a critical mass known as a “demographic time bomb.” When that happens, a vicious cycle of low spending and low fertility can cause entire generations to shrink — or disappear completely.

Though I guess none of us will know whether this prediction is true unless we live another 1750 years. But it doesn’t matter if the estimate is perfect. Japan’s demographic outlook is very grim.

By the way, the problem of aging populations and misguided entitlements exists in almost every developed nation.

But I mentioned in the article for The Hill that there are two exceptions. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low birthrates and aging populations. But neither jurisdiction faces a fiscal crisis for the simple reason that people largely are responsible for saving for their own retirement.

And that, of course, is the main lesson. The United States desperately needs genuine entitlement reform. While I’m not overflowing with optimism about Trump’s view on these issues, hope springs eternal.

P.S. In yesterday’s column about Germany, I listed bizarre policies in Germany in the postscripts. My favorite example from Japan is the regulation of coffee enemas. And the Japanese government has even proven incompetent at giving away money.

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Back in 2009, I shared the results of a very helpful study by Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Liberal Institute (by the way, “liberal” in Europe means pro-market or “classical liberal“).

Pierre ranked the then-30 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development based on their tax burdens, their quality of governance, and their protection of financial privacy.

Switzerland was the top-ranked nation, followed by Luxembourg, Austria, and Canada.

Italy and Turkey were tied for last place, followed by Poland, Mexico, and Germany.

The United States, I’m ashamed to say, was in the bottom half. Our tax burden was (and still is) generally lower than Europe, but there’s nothing special about our quality of governance compared to other developed nations, and we definitely don’t allow privacy for our citizens (though we’re a good haven for foreigners).

Pierre’s publication was so helpful that I’ve asked him several times to release an updated version.

I don’t know if it’s because of my nagging, but the good news is that he’s in the final stages of putting together a new Tax Oppression Index. He just presented his findings at a conference in Panama.

But before divulging the new rankings, I want to share this slide from Pierre’s presentation. He correctly observes that the OECD’s statist agenda against tax competition is contrary to academic research in general, and also contrary to the Paris-based bureaucracy’s own research!

Yet the political hacks who run the OECD are pushing bad policies because Europe’s uncompetitive governments want to prop up their decrepit welfare states. And what’s especially irksome is that the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries while pushing for higher fiscal burdens elsewhere in the world.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at Pierre’s new rankings.

As you can see, Switzerland is still at the top, though now it’s tied with Canada. Estonia (which wasn’t part of the OECD back in 2009) is in third place, and New Zealand and Sweden also get very high scores.

At the very bottom, with the most oppressive tax systems, are Greece and Mexico (gee, what a surprise), followed by Israel and Turkey.

The good news, relatively speaking, is that the United States is tied with several other nations for 11th place with a score of 3.5.

So instead of being in the bottom half, as was the case with the 2009 Tax Oppression Index, the U.S. is now in the top half.

But that’s not because we’ve improved policy. It’s more because the OECD advocates of statism have been successful in destroying financial privacy in other nations. Even Switzerland’s human rights laws on privacy no longer protect foreign investors.

As such, Pierre’s new index basically removes financial privacy as a variable and augments the quality of governance variable with additional data about property rights and the rule of law.

P.S. When measuring the tax burden, the reason that America ranks above most European nations is not because they impose heavier taxes on rich people and businesses (indeed, the U.S. has a much higher corporate tax rate). Instead, we rank above Europe because they impose very heavy taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers (mostly because of the value-added tax, which helps to explain why I am so unalterably opposed to that destructive levy).

P.P.S. Also in 2009, Pierre Bessard authored a great defense of tax havens for the New York Times.

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In the world of tax policy, there’s an intense debate about the “border-adjustable” provision that is part of the tax plan put forth by House Republicans, which basically would tax imports and exempt revenues generated by exports.

It’s a bit wonky, but the simplest explanation is that GOPers want to replace the current corporate income tax with a “destination-based cash flow tax” (DBCFT) that would – for all intents and purposes – tax what is consumed in the United States rather than what is produced in the United States.

I’m very sympathetic to what Republicans are trying to accomplish, particularly their desire to eliminate the tax bias against income that is saved and invested. But I greatly prefer the version of consumption-base taxation found in the flat tax.

My previous columns on the plan have highlighted the following concerns.

  • Left-leaning advocates like “destination-based” tax systems such as the DBCFT because such systems undermine tax competition and give politicians more ability to increase tax rates.
  • The “border adjustability” in the plan is contrary to the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and there’s a significant risk that politicians might try to “fix” the plan by turning it into a value-added tax.

Here’s what I said about the proposal in a recent interview for CNBC.

This provision is not in Trump’s plan, but I’ve been acting on the assumption that the soon-to-be President eventually would embrace the Better Way Plan simply because it presumably would appeal to his protectionist sentiments.

So I’m quite surprised that he’s just poured cold water on the plan. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

President-elect Donald Trump criticized a cornerstone of House Republicans’ corporate-tax plan… The measure, known as border adjustment, would tax imports and exempt exports as part of a broader plan to encourage companies to locate jobs and production in the U.S. But Mr. Trump, in his first comments on the subject, called it “too complicated.” “Anytime I hear border adjustment, I don’t love it,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Friday. …Retailers and oil refiners have lined up against the measure, warning it would drive up their tax bills and force them to raise prices because they rely so heavily on imported goods.

If we read between the lines, it appears that Trump may be more knowledgeable about policy than people think.

Proponents of the Better Way Plan sometimes use protectionist-sounding rhetoric to sell the plan (e.g., taxing imports, exempting exports), but they argue that it’s not really protectionist because the dollar will become more valuable.

But Trump apparently understands this nuance and doesn’t like that outcome.

Independent analyses of the Republican tax plan say it would lead the dollar to appreciate further—which would lower the cost of imported goods, offsetting the effects of the tax on retailers and others. In his interview with the Journal on Friday, Mr. Trump said the U.S. dollar was already “too strong” in part because China holds down its currency, the yuan. “Our companies can’t compete with them now because our currency is too strong. And it’s killing us.”

I don’t agree with Trump about trade deficits (which, after all, are mostly the result of foreigners wanting to invest in the American economy), but that’s a separate issue.

When I talk to policy makers and journalists about this issue, one of the most common questions is why the DBCFT would cause the dollar to rise.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Martin Feldstein addresses that topic.

…as every student of economics learns, a country’s trade deficit depends only on the difference between total investment in the country and the saving done by its households, businesses and government. This textbook rule that “imports minus exports equals investment minus savings” is not a theory or a statistical regularity but a basic national income accounting identity that holds for every country in every year. That holds because a rise in a country’s investment without an equal rise in saving means that it must import more or export less. Since a border tax adjustment wouldn’t change U.S. national saving or investment, it cannot change the size of the trade deficit. To preserve that original trade balance, the exchange rate of the dollar must adjust to bring the prices of U.S. imports and exports back to the values that would prevail without the border tax adjustment. With a 20% corporate tax rate, that means that the value of the dollar must rise by 25%.

This is a reasonable description, though keep in mind that there are lots of factors that drive exchange rates, so I understand why importers are very nervous about the proposal.

By the way, Feldstein makes one point that rubs me the wrong way.

The tax plan developed by the House Republicans is similar in many ways to President-elect Trump’s plan but has one additional favorable feature—a border tax adjustment that exempts exports and taxes imports. This would give the U.S. the benefit that other countries obtain from a value-added tax (VAT) but without imposing that extra levy on domestic transactions.

The first sentence of the excerpt is correct, but not the second one. A value-added tax does not give nations any sort of trade benefit. Yes, that kind of tax generally is “border adjustable” under WTO rules, but as I’ve previously noted, that doesn’t give foreign production an advantage over American production.

Here’s some of what I wrote about this issue last year.

For mercantilists worried about trade deficits, “border adjustability” is seen as a positive feature. But not only are they wrong on trade, they do not understand how a VAT works. …Under current law, American goods sold in America do not pay a VAT, but neither do German-produced goods that are sold in America. Likewise, any American-produced goods sold in Germany are hit be a VAT, but so are German-produced goods. In other words, there is a level playing field. The only difference is that German politicians seize a greater share of people’s income. So what happens if America adopts a VAT? The German government continues to tax American-produced goods in Germany, just as it taxes German-produced goods sold in Germany. …In the United States, there is a similar story. There is now a tax on imports, including imports from Germany. But there is an identical tax on domestically-produced goods. And since the playing field remains level, protectionists will be disappointed. The only winners will be politicians since they have more money to spend.

If you want more information, I also discuss the trade impact of a VAT in this video.

For what it’s worth, even Paul Krugman agrees with me on this point.

P.S. It is a good idea to have a “consumption-base” tax (which is a public finance term for a system that doesn’t disproportionately penalize income that is saved and invested). But it’s important to understand that border adjustability is not necessary to achieve that goal. The flat tax is the gold standard of tax reform and it also is a consumption-based tax. The difference is that the flat tax is an “origin-based” tax and the House plan is a “destination-based” tax.

P.P.S. Speaking of which, proponents of the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act are using a destination-based scheme in hopes of creating a nationwide sales tax cartel so that states with high rates can make it much harder for consumers to buy goods and services where tax rates are lower.

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I don’t often use the literary tactic of referring to something as the “best-ever.” Indeed, the only time that phrase appeared in the title of a column was back in 2014 when I smugly wrote about the collapse of government-run single-payer healthcare in Vermont. Recalling what Justice Brandeis wrote about states being the “laboratories of democracy,” I asserted that the disaster in the Green Mountain State taught the entire nation a valuable lesson about the dangers of bad policy and that this was the “best-ever argument for federalism.”

Well, it’s time to once again use this superlative because consumers in California get the “best-ever receipt” when they make purchases at Firearms Unknown. Here’s the example that’s gone viral, and I’ve highlighted the relevant portion that gives an amusing description of California’s onerous sales tax.

By the way, not everything you see on the Internet is true (yes, shocking news). And since the folks at Independent Journal Review didn’t want to make the mistake of sharing without checking (like I did when trying to mock Justin Trudeau), they actually did some due diligence.

Many times, viral photos are too good to be true. So we contacted Firearms Unknown in National City, CA, to find out if this was one of those times. Sure enough, a representative with Firearms Unknown confirmed the receipt’s authenticity to Independent Journal Review. Then, he let out a chuckle. I guess if you’re going to operate a gun shop in a far-left state like California, you better have a good sense of humor. Bravo, Firearms Unknown.

Yes, kudos to the store, but I also want to take this opportunity to make a serious point about tax visibility.

One of the many reasons to oppose a value-added tax is that the tax almost always is hidden from consumers. When taxpayers make purchases in Europe, they don’t know that VATs are responsible, on average, for about 21 percent of the purchase price.

So it’s good that consumers in America know there’s a sales tax, both because it’s visible on their receipts and also because they can see the difference between the price on the shelf and the price at the cash register.

Though this system isn’t perfect. How many Americans, after all, know how much sales tax they paid last year?

The visibility issue also exists with the income tax. In theory, we all know what we paid the previous year based on our annual tax returns. But because of withholding, most Americans don’t really pay attention to that very important number and instead focus on whether they’re getting a refund. They actually think a big refund is a great outcome, even though it simply means that they gave the government an interest-free loan by over-paying their taxes during the year!

This is one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of Hong Kong, in part because of the flat tax. Not only is there a low rate and no double taxation, but there’s also no withholding. Instead, taxpayers write checks to the government twice annually. So they are fully aware of the cost of government, which may explain why the fiscal burden of government is relatively low (it also helps that there is a constitutional spending cap).

In the United States, the only levies that are visible (at least some of the time) are property taxes. Taxpayers usually have to make annual or semiannual payments on cars and houses (though property taxes on homes are sometimes built into mortgage payments).

And when you have to write a lump-sum check to the government, that’s a wonderful opportunity for people to ponder whether they’re actually getting good value for their money.

And since the answer almost always is no, it’s easy to understand why politicians are big fans of policies (such as VATs and withholding) that disguise the burden of taxation.

P.S. In the body of previous columns, I have used the “best-ever” superlative a handful of times.

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I wrote yesterday to praise the Better Way tax plan put forth by House Republicans, but I added a very important caveat: The “destination-based” nature of the revised corporate income tax could be a poison pill for reform.

I listed five concerns about a so-called destination-based cash flow tax (DBCFT), most notably my concerns that it would undermine tax competition (folks on the left think it creates a “race to the bottom” when governments have to compete with each other) and also that it could (because of international trade treaties) be an inadvertent stepping stone for a government-expanding value-added tax.

Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has just authored a new study on the DBCFT. Here’s his summary description of the tax.

The DBCFT would be a new type of corporate income tax that disallows any deductions for imports while also exempting export-related revenue from taxation. This mercantilist system is based on the same “destination” principle as European value-added taxes, which means that it is explicitly designed to preclude tax competition.

Since CF&P was created to protect and promote tax competition, you won’t be surprised to learn that the DBCFT’s anti-tax competition structure is a primary objection to this new tax.

First, the DBCFT is likely to grow government in the long-run due to its weakening of international tax competition and the loss of its disciplinary impact on political behavior. … Tax competition works because assets are mobile. This provides pressure on politicians to keep rates from climbing too high. When the tax base shifts heavily toward immobile economic activity, such competition is dramatically weakened. This is cited as a benefit of the tax by those seeking higher and more progressive rates. …Alan Auerbach, touts that the DBCFT “alleviates the pressure to reduce the corporate tax rate,” and that it would “alter fundamentally the terms of international tax competition.” This raises the obvious question—would those businesses and economists that favor the DBCFT at a 20% rate be so supportive at a higher rate?

Brian also shares my concern that the plan may morph into a VAT if the WTO ultimately decides that is violates trade rules.

Second, the DBCFT almost certainly violates World Trade Organization commitments. …Unfortunately, it is quite possible that lawmakers will try to “fix” the tax by making it into an actual value-added tax rather than something that is merely based on the same anti-tax competition principles as European-style VATs. …the close similarity of the VAT and the DBCFT is worrisome… Before VATs were widely adopted, European nations featured similar levels of government spending as the United States… Feeding at least in part off the easy revenue generate by their VATs, European nations grew much more drastically over the last half century than the United States and now feature higher burdens of government spending. The lack of a VAT-like revenue engine in the U.S. constrained efforts to put the United States on a similar trajectory as European nations.

And if you’re wondering why a VAT would be a bad idea, here’s a chart from Brian’s paper showing how the burden of government spending in Europe increased once that tax was imposed.

In the new report, Brian elaborates on the downsides of a VAT.

If the DBCFT turns into a subtraction-method VAT, its costs would be further hidden from taxpayers. Workers would not easily understand that their employers were paying a big VAT withholding tax (in addition to withholding for income tax). This makes it easier for politicians to raise rates in the future. …Keep in mind that European nations have corporate income tax systems in addition to their onerous VAT regimes.

And he points out that those who support the DBCFT for protectionist reasons will be disappointed at the final outcome.

…if other nations were to follow suit and adopt a destination-based system as proponents suggest, it will mean more taxes on U.S. exports. Due to the resulting decline in competitive downward pressure on tax rates, the long-run result would be higher tax burdens across the board and a worse global economic environment.

Brian concludes with some advice for Republicans.

Lawmakers should always consider what is likely to happen once the other side eventually returns to power, especially when they embark upon politically risky endeavors… In this case, left-leaning politicians would see the DBCFT not as something to be undone, but as a jumping off point for new and higher taxes. A highly probable outcome is that the United States’ corporate tax environment becomes more like that of Europe, consisting of both consumption and income taxes. The long-run consequences will thus be the opposite of what today’s lawmakers hope to achieve. Instead of a less destructive tax code, the eventual result could be bigger government, higher taxes, and slower economic growth.

Amen.

My concern with the DBCFT is partly based on theoretical objections, but what really motivates me is that I don’t want to accidentally or inadvertently help statists expand the size and scope of government. And that will happen if we undermine tax competition and/or set in motion events that could lead to a value-added tax.

Let’s close with three hopefully helpful observations.

Helpful Reminder #1: Congressional supporters want a destination-based system as a “pay for” to help finance pro-growth tax reforms, but they should keep in mind that leftists want a destination-based system for bad reasons.

Based on dozens of conversations, I think it’s fair to say that the supporters of the Better Way plan don’t have strong feelings for destination-based taxation as an economic principle. Instead, they simply chose that approach because it is projected to generate $1.2 trillion of revenue and they want to use that money to “pay for” the good tax cuts in the overall plan.

That’s a legitimate choice. But they also should keep in mind why other people prefer that approach. Folks on the left want a destination-based tax system because they don’t like tax competition. They understand that tax competition restrains the ability of governments to over-tax and over-spend. Governments in Europe chose destination-based value-added taxes to prevent consumers from being able to buy goods and services where VAT rates are lower. In other words, to neuter tax competition. Some state governments with high sales taxes in the United States are pushing a destination-based system for sales taxes because they want to hinder consumers from buying goods and services from states with low (or no) sales taxes. Again, their goal is to cripple tax competition.

Something else to keep in mind is that leftist supporters of the DBCFT also presumably see the plan as being a big step toward achieving a value-added tax, which they support as the most effective way of enabling bigger government in the United States.

Helpful Reminder #2: Choosing the right tax base (i.e., taxing income only one time, otherwise known as a consumption-base system) does not require choosing a destination-based approach.

The proponents of the Better Way plan want a “consumption-base” tax. This is a worthy goal. After all, that principle means a system where economic activity is taxed only one time. But that choice is completely independent of the decision whether the tax system should be “origin-based” or “destination-based.”

The gold standard of tax reform has always been the Hall-Rabushka flat tax, which is a consumption-base tax because there is no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. It also is an “origin-based” tax because economic activity is taxed (only one time!) where income is earned rather than where income is consumed.

The bottom line is that you can have the right tax base with either an origin-based system or a destination-based system.

Helpful Reminder #3: The good reforms of the Better Way plan can be achieved without the downside risks of a destination-based tax system.

The Tax Foundation, even in rare instances when I disagree with its conclusions, always does very good work. And they are the go-to place for estimates of how policy changes will affect tax receipts and the economy. Here is a chart with their estimates of the revenue impact of various changes to business taxation in the Better Way plan. As you can see, the switch to a destination-based system (“border adjustment”) pulls in about $1.2 trillion over 10 years. And you can also see all the good reforms (expensing, rate reduction, etc) that are being financed with the various “pay fors” in the plan.

I am constantly asked how the numbers can work if “border adjustment” is removed from the plan. That’s a very fair question.

But there are lots of potential answers, including:

  • Make a virtue out of necessity by reducing government revenue by $1.2 trillion.
  • Reduce the growth of government spending to generate offsetting savings.
  • Find other “pay fors” in the tax code (my first choice would be the healthcare exclusion).
  • Reduce the size of the tax cuts in the Better Way plan by $1.2 trillion.

I’m not pretending that any of these options are politically easy. If they were, the drafters of the Better Way plan probably would have picked them already. But I am suggesting that any of those options would be better than adopting a destination-based system for business taxation.

Ultimately, the debate over the DBCFT is about how different people assess political risks. House Republicans advocating the plan want good things, and they obviously think the downside risks in the future are outweighed by the ability to finance a larger level of good tax reforms today. Skeptics appreciate that those proponents want good policy, but we worry about the long-run consequences of changes that may (especially when the left sooner or late regains control) enable bigger government.

P.S. This is not the first time that advocates of good policy have bickered with each other. During the 2016 nomination battle, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz plans proposed tax reform plans that fixed many of the bad problems in the tax code. But they financed some of those changes by including value-added taxes in their plans. In the short run, either plan would have been much better than the current system. But I was critical because I worried the inclusion of VATs would eventually give statists a tool to further increase the burden of government.

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