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Archive for the ‘Value-Added Tax’ Category

I argued last year that leftists should be nice to rich people because upper-income taxpayers finance the vast majority of the American welfare state according to government data.

Needless to say, my comment about being “nice” was somewhat sarcastic. But I was making a serious point about the United States having a very “progressive” fiscal system. The top-20 percent basically pay for government and those in the bottom half are net recipients of that involuntary largesse.

I also pointed out a huge difference between the United States and Europe. Governments on the other side of the Atlantic impose much higher burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Here’s some of what I wrote.

…the big difference between the United States and Europe is not taxes on the rich. We both impose similar tax burden on high-income taxpayers, though Europeans are more likely to collect revenue from the rich with higher income tax rates and the U.S. gets a greater share of revenue from upper-income taxpayers with double taxation on interest, dividends, and capital gains (we also have a very punitive corporate tax system, though it doesn’t collect that much revenue). The real difference between America and Europe is that America has a far lower tax burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers. Tax rates in Europe, particularly the top rate, tend to take effect at much lower levels of income. European governments all levy onerous value-added taxes that raise costs for all consumers. Payroll tax burdens in many European nations are significantly higher than in the United States.

So do this mean European politician don’t like ordinary people?

I could make a snarky comment about the attitudes of the political elite, but I’ll resist that temptation and instead point out that taxes in Europe are much higher for the simple reason that government is much bigger and that means some segment of the population has to surrender more of its income.

But here’s the $64,000 question that we want to investigate today: Why are European governments pillaging lower-income and middle-class taxpayers instead of going after the “evil rich” and “greedy corporations”?

Part of the answer is that there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government. But the most important factor is the Laffer Curve. Politicians can impose higher tax rates on upper-income taxpayers and companies, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher revenue. Simply stated, well-to-do taxpayers have considerable ability to earn less income and/or report less income when tax burdens increase, and they do the opposite when tax burdens decrease.

That’s true in the United States, and it’s true in European countries such as Sweden, France, Russia, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

So even if politicians want to fleece upper-income taxpayers, that’s not a successful method of generating a lot of revenue.

Which is why a shift from a medium-sized welfare state (such as what exists in the United States) to a large-sized welfare state (common in Europe) means huge tax increases on ordinary taxpayers.

I’ve made this point before, but now I have some additional evidence thanks to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Paris-based bureaucracy is probably my least-favorite international organization because of its advocacy for statism, but it collects and publishes lots of useful statistics about fiscal policy in the industrialized world.

And here are three charts from the new study that tell a very persuasive story (and a depressing story for ordinary taxpayers).

First, we can see how the average tax burden has increased substantially over the past 50 years.

And who is paying all that additional money to politicians?

As you can see from this second chart, income tax revenues have become a less-important source of revenue over time while social insurance taxes (mostly paid by lower-income and middle-class taxpayers) have become a more-important source of revenue.

The third chart shows the evolution of the value-added tax burden. This levy takes a big bite out of the paychecks of ordinary people and the rate keeps climbing over time (and if we looked just at European governments that are part of the OECD, the numbers are even more depressing).

Now let’s put this data in context.

The United States now has a medium-sized welfare state financed mostly by upper-income taxpayers.

But because of dramatic demographic changes, we are doomed to have a large-sized welfare state. At least that’s what will happen if we don’t reform entitlement programs.

And if we leave policy on auto-pilot and there’s a substantial increase in the burden of government spending, it’s simply a matter of time before politicians figure out new ways of taking more money from lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Yes, they may also impose higher rates on “rich” taxpayers, but that will be mostly for symbolic purposes since those levies won’t generate substantial revenue.

Last but not least, don’t forget that European fiscal burdens will mean anemic European economic performance.

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Whenever I see an otherwise sensible person express support for a value-added tax, it triggers a Pavlovian response. And it’s not a favorable reaction.

But I just read a pro-VAT column and I liked it.

So what happened? Have I surrendered to big government? Did I ingest some magic mushrooms?

Actually, I think you’ll agree that I’m still the same lovable guy. Yes, Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (also a Cato adjunct scholar) has a column in the Wall Street Journal that embraces a VAT. But unlike all of the others I just cited, he includes a condition that is mandatory, necessary, vital, and non-negotiable. It’s so important that it deserves the opposite of fine-print treatment.

…eliminate entirely the personal and corporate income tax, estate tax and all other federal taxes. …it is essential that the VAT replace rather than add to the current tax system, as it does in Europe.

Amen. John hits the nail on the head.

The VAT isn’t theoretically bad. Like the flat tax, it would have one rate. There also would be no double taxation of saving and investment. And it also can be designed to have no loopholes.

In other words, the good news is that the VAT – when compared to the internal revenue code – is a less-destructive way of generating revenue.

The bad news, though, is that the VAT is capable of generating a lot of revenue. And as we’ve seen in Europe, that’s a recipe for enabling a larger burden of government spending.

Which is why the idea of a VAT should only be on the table if the plan would first abolish all other federal taxes. Which is what John is proposing.

Except I’d take it one step farther. Just like I’ve argued when contemplating a national sales tax, I’d only allow the VAT if we first repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsberg couldn’t rule in favor of an income tax at some point in the future.

By the way, John is right that the economy would grow faster if the income tax was totally abolished. The current system is filled with warts.

Much of the current tax mess results from taxing income. Once the government taxes income, it must tax corporate income or people would incorporate to avoid paying taxes. Yet the right corporate tax rate is zero. Every cent of corporate tax comes from people via higher prices, lower wages, or lower payments to shareholders. And a corporate tax produces an army of lawyers and lobbyists demanding exemptions. An income tax also leads to taxes on capital income. Capital income taxes discourage saving and investment. But the government is forced to tax capital income because otherwise people can hide wages… The estate tax can take close to half a marginal dollar of wealth. This creates a strong incentive to blow the family money on a round-the-world cruise, to spend lavishly on lawyers, or to invest inefficiently to avoid the tax. …A reformed tax code should involve no deductions—including the holy trinity of mortgage interest, employer-provided health insurance, and charitable deductions. The interest groups for each of these deductions are strong. But if the government doesn’t tax income in the first place, these deductions vanish without a fight.

By the way, I will quibble with a couple of things he wrote.

First, I don’t necessarily think the correct corporate tax rate is zero. What’s important is eliminating either the corporate tax or the tax on dividends. That way the income is only taxed once. And since it’s probably administratively easier to tax the income once at the business level rather than once at the shareholder level, I’m not fixated on abolishing the corporate tax.

Second, it’s very important to get rid of double taxation (what he calls “capital income”), but you don’t need a VAT to make that happen. There’s no double taxation with a flat tax.

Third, he should have explicitly included the state and local tax deduction in his list of loopholes to abolish (I’m guessing he assumed it would be the first deduction on the chopping block and therefore didn’t need to be mentioned).

There’s another part of John’s column that deserves attention. He points out that you need to have small government if you want a low tax burden.

…if the federal government is going to spend 20% of gross domestic product, the VAT will sooner or later have to be about 20%. Tax reform is stymied because politicians mix arguments over the rates with arguments over the structure of taxes. This is a mistake. They should first agree to fix the structure of the tax code, and later argue about rates—and the spending those rates must support.

At the risk of being pedantic, I think the VAT rate would have to be significantly above 20 percent, both because the tax base will be smaller than GDP and also because there will be loopholes or rebates. But the point he’s making is spot on. You can’t have a low tax rate and a big government. I’ve made the same point when writing about Belgium and Germany, nations where middle-class taxpayers are pillaged because the welfare state is too big.

My bottom line on this issue is that Professor Cochrane has produced a column showing that a VAT is theoretically worth considering, but only if all other federal taxes are permanently abolished.

But since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I don’t think there’s any reason to ease up on my dogmatic (and pragmatic) opposition to that levy.

P.S. 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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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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