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Archive for the ‘VAT’ Category

Public finance experts sometime differ in how to describe a value-added tax.

  • Is it a hidden form of a national sales tax, imposed at each stage of the production process?
  • Is it a hidden withholding tax on income, imposed at each stage of the production process?

Both answers are actually correct. The VAT is both a tax on consumption and a tax on income because – notwithstanding its other flaws – it has the right “tax base.”

In other words, like the flat tax, a VAT taxes all economic activity, but only one time (i.e., no double taxation of income that is saved and invested). And it usually has a single rate, which is another feature of a flat tax.

That’s why a VAT (in theory!) would be acceptable if it was used to finance the complete abolition of the income tax.

But that’s not a realistic option. Heck, it’s not even an unrealistic option.

Instead, many politicians in the United States want to keep the income tax and also impose a VAT so they can finance a bigger burden of government – which is exactly what’s been happening in Europe.

Unfortunately, they’re getting some support from the American Enterprise Institute. Alan Viard, a resident scholar at AEI, has a new column urging the adoption of a VAT.

Let’s review what he wrote and explain why he’s wrong.

The U.S. faces a large long-term imbalance between projected federal tax revenue and federal spending… To narrow the fiscal imbalance, we should follow the lead of 160 other countries by adopting a value-added tax (VAT), a consumption tax that is economically similar to a retail sales tax. …Adopting a VAT would significantly curb the debt buildup.

I’ve never been impressed with the argument that the U.S. should adopt a policy simply because other nations have done the same thing.

The United States is much richer than other countries in large part because we haven’t replicated their mistakes. So why start now?

But let’s deal with Viard’s assertion that a VAT would “significantly curb the debt buildup.”

I recently showed the opposite happened in Japan. They adopted a VAT (and have repeatedly increased the VAT rate), but debt has increased.

But I think the strongest evidence is from Europe since we have several additional decades of data. Those nations started imposing VATs in the late 1960s and they now all have very high VAT rates.

And what’s happened to debt?

Well, as you can see from the chart, big increases in the tax burden were matched by even bigger increases in government debt.

The moral of the story is that Milton Friedman was right when he warned that, “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

So why would Viard support a VAT when the evidence overwhelmingly shows that a big tax increase will worse a nation’s fiscal outlook?

He argues that a VAT would be the least-worst way to finance bigger government.

Although tax increases on the affluent place the burden on those with the most ability to pay, they impede long-run economic growth by penalizing saving and investment and distorting business decisions. The economic costs become larger as tax rates are pushed higher. …The VAT is more growth-friendly than high-income tax increases because it does not penalize saving and investment and poses fewer economic distortions.

He’s right that a VAT doesn’t do as much damage as class-warfare tax, but he’s wildly wrong to assert that it is “growth-friendly.”

Simply stated, a VAT will drive a further wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. That not only will discourage work. It also will discourage saving and investment.

The only positive thing to say is that a VAT doesn’t discourage those good things as much as some other types of tax increases.

But that’s sort of like saying that it’s better to lose your hand in an accident instead of losing your entire arm. Call me crazy, but I think the best outcome is to avoid the accident in the first place.

In other words, the bottom line is that we shouldn’t have any tax increase. Especially since 100 percent of America’s fiscal problem is the consequence of excessive government spending.

I’ll close by debunking the notion that a VAT is a simple tax.

As you can see from this European map, VATs can impose huge complexity burdens on businesses.

Yes, the map shows that some nations have relatively simple VATs, but American politicians already have shown with the income tax that they can’t resist turning a tax system into a Byzantine nightmare. Of course they would do the same with the VAT, creating special loopholes and penalties to please their donors.

P.S. Here’s my video from 2009, which explains how a VAT works and why it would be a bad idea.

Everything I said back then is even more true today.

P.P.S. The clinching argument is that one of America’s best presidents opposed a VAT and one of America’s worst presidents supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

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

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Back in 2012, I warned that the value-added tax (a hidden version of a national sales tax) was enabling bad fiscal policy in Japan, in large part because politicians wouldn’t make much-needed entitlement reforms if they had the option of raising the VAT.

Later that year, I repeated my warning, noting that politicians in Japan were becoming increasingly vocal about grabbing more money.

Unsurprisingly, these warnings had no effect. In 2013, Japan’s politicians announced the VAT would increase the following year.

Did the increase in the tax burden generate any subsequent good results?

Nope. The economy remained stagnant and debt continued to increase.

Needless to say, Japan’s politicians didn’t learn from this mistake. Notwithstanding my warnings in 2018 and 2019, they just increased the VAT yet again.

So how’s that working out for them?

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Mike Bird discusses the economic impact of the most-recent increase in the value-added tax.

Japan’s economy shrank sharply in the final three months of 2019, logging its second-worst quarter in the past decade. That would be easier to stomach if it weren’t because of a mistake policy makers have now made three times. In October, Japan raised its sales tax to 10% from 8%—and spending tanked. Household consumption fell 11.5% on an annualized basis in the October-December quarter, fueling a 6.3% fall in annualized gross domestic product. Sales-tax increases in 1997 and 2014 likewise knocked the economy off course. The three worst quarters for household consumption in the past quarter-century were those in which sales tax was raised. …the thinking that led to such destructive behavior is bizarrely resilient.

Here’s the accompanying chart, which shows how every increase in the VAT caused a drop in consumption.

For what it’s worth, I don’t find this chart very persuasive.

Yes, consumption drops in the short run when there’s an increase in the VAT, but there doesn’t seem to be any impact on the long-run trend.

Moreover, I don’t think consumer spending is an important variable, at least not in the sense of driving the economy.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Japan’s VAT mistake.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue earlier this week.

The third time wasn’t the charm for Tokyo’s long-running attempt to increase its consumption tax. Data released Monday show Japan’s economy contracted in the last three months of 2019 as the tax hike hammered growth—as many warned and like the previous two times the tax has been raised since its 1989 introduction, in 1997 and 2014. …Wage growth is anemic despite a tight labor market, and the Labor Ministry calculates that inflation-adjusted pay fell 3.5% from 2012-2018. The tax rise creates a new and higher squeeze on household incomes. …The usual suspects are now calling for more Keynesian spending on public works and social spending. Three decades of similar blowouts have created the fiscal mess that always becomes justification for more consumption-tax hikes. …It’s too late for Japan to avoid the costs of Mr. Abe’s economic failures. But other governments can learn the lessons that Japan’s leaders refuse to heed.

Unfortunately, other leaders aren’t learning the right lessons.

Especially not in Europe, where politicians have been increasing the VAT with disturbing regularity.

Needless to say, those VAT increases are having the same impact in Europe as they are in Japan – bigger government, more debt, and anemic economic performance.

Let’s close by citing three additional sentences from the WSJ editorial.

The fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF want even further VAT increases in Japan.

The International Monetary Fund thinks the consumption-tax rate will have to rise to 15% over the next decade, and to 20% by 2050. But first the fund’s wizards say Tokyo must expand its Keynesian spending to make the economy “strong” enough to bear the tax hikes to pay for the spending. Got that?

I wrote last year about the IMF’s perverse fixation on ever-increasing VAT burdens in Japan, so I’m not surprised that the international bureaucracy is continuing its campaign.

Indeed, this chart shows why the pro-tax crowd at the IMF is in love with the VAT. Simply stated, it’s a very effective money machine for bigger government.

It enables politicians to siphon money from the productive sector of the economy, whether we’re looking at poor nations or rich nations.

By contrast, it’s difficult to generate more revenue from the personal income tax because of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. Some VAT advocates actually claim the levy is good for growth. That’s a nonsensical claim. VATs drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. What they really mean to say is that VATs don’t do as much damage, on a per-dollar-raised basis, as conventional income taxes (with punitive rates and double taxation).

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I wrote yesterday about Japan’s experience with the value-added tax, mostly to criticize the International Monetary Fund.

The statist bureaucrats at the IMF are urging a big increase in Japan’s VAT even though the last increase was only imposed two months ago (in a perverse way, I admire their ability to stay on message).

Today, I want to focus on a broader lesson regarding the political economy of the value-added tax. Because what’s happened in Japan is further confirmation that a VAT would be a terrible idea for the United States.

Simply stated, the levy would be a recipe for bigger government and more red ink.

Let’s look at three charts. First, here’s a look at how politicians in Japan have been pushing the VAT burden ever higher.

What’s been the result? Have politicians used the money to lower other taxes? Have they used the money to reduce government debt?

Hardly. As was the case in Europe, the value-added tax in Japan is associated with an increase in the burden of spending.

Here’s a chart (based on the IMF’s own data) showing that government is now consuming almost 35 percent of economic output, up from about 30 percent of GDP when the VAT was first imposed.

I’ve added a trend line (automatically generated by Excel) to illustrate what’s been happening. It’s not a big effect, but keep in mind the VAT never climbed above 5 percent until 2014.

Now let’s look at some numbers that are very unambiguous.

Japan’s politicians imposed the VAT in part because they claimed it was a way of averting more red ink.

Yet our final chart shows what’s happened to both gross debt and net debt since the VAT was imposed.

To be sure, the VAT was only one piece of a large economic puzzle. If you want to finger the main culprits for all this red ink, look first at Keynesian spending binges and economic stagnation.

But we also know the politicians were wrong when they said a VAT would keep debt under control

I’ll close with a political observation.

The left wants a value-added tax for the simple reason that it’s the only way to finance European-type levels of redistribution (yes, they also want class-warfare taxes on the rich, but that’s mostly for reasons of spite since even they recognize that such levies don’t actually generate much revenue).

But it’s very unlikely that a VAT will be imposed on the United States by the left. At least not acting alone.

The real danger is that we’ll wind up with a VAT because some folks on the right offer their support. These people don’t particularly want European-type levels of redistribution, but they think that’s going to happen. So one of their motives is to figure out ways to finance a large welfare state without completely tanking the economy.

They are right that a VAT doesn’t impose the same amount of damage, on a per-dollar-collected basis, as higher income tax rates. Or increases in double taxation (though it’s important to realize that it would still penalize productive behavior by increasing the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption).

But their willingness to surrender is nonetheless very distressing.

The bottom line is that the most important fiscal issue facing America is the need for genuine entitlement reform. Achieving that goal is an uphill battle. But if politicians get a big new source of revenue, that uphill battle becomes an impossible battle.

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It seems that the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have an ongoing contest to see which bureaucracy can be the biggest cheerleader for bad fiscal policy.

  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to promote more spending.
  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to push higher tax burdens.
  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to advocate class warfare.

You can even see them competing to encourage bad policy in various nations.

In Japan, for instance, the OECD has been pushing for higher taxes while the IMF has been pushing for Keynesian spending.

But now the IMF is upping the ante by adding its bad advice on tax policy.

Japan’s politicians raised the value-added tax just two months ago.

But that’s not enough for the IMF. The bureaucrats already are urging a far bigger increase in the levy.

Japan needs to raise its consumption tax further to fund growing social security costs, the International Monetary Fund recommended… The tax “would need to increase gradually” to 15% by 2030 and 20% by 2050, the IMF said in a report. …IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva praised the smooth implementation of the Oct. 1 hike that took the consumption tax to 10% from 8%.

Needless to say, one of the main lessons from this sordid experience is that it’s never a good idea to give politicians a new source of revenue.

Look at what’s happened ever since the VAT was first imposed in 1989.

And now the IMF wants to push the rate up to 15 percent. And then 20 percent.

By the way, it’s worth noting that Japan’s politicians actually welcome this bad advice.

The nation faces a big demographic crunch (increasing life expectancy and low birth rates), and that means entitlement spending is on track to consume an ever-larger share of economic output.

To give you an idea of what’s happening, here’s a chart from the IMF’s report on Japan. It only looks at health-related spending, so keep in mind that the red line would be significantly hihger if Japan’s version of Social Security was included.

The bottom line is that Japan’s politicians want options to finance a growing burden of government spending.

And since decades of failed Keynesian policy have saddled the nation with record levels of debt, ever-larger sources of tax revenue are their preferred choice.

Sadly, the IMF is more than happy to rationalize that bad approach.

P.S. Japan’s politicians could reform entitlements, of course, but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Instead, expect this “depressing chart” to get even more depressing.

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While he’s not as outwardly radical as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang has joined together two very bad ideas – universal handouts and a value-added tax.

Needless to say, I was not overflowing with praise when asked to comment.

At the risk of understatement, giving every adult a $12,000-per-year entitlement would be a recipe for bigger government and more dependency.

Even Joe Biden understands that this would erode societal capital.

And the ever-sensible Swiss, in a 2016 referendum, overwhelmingly rejected universal handouts.

Needless to say, it also would be a catastrophic mistake to give Washington several new sources of revenue to finance this scheme. A big value-added tax would be especially misguided.

Let’s take a closer look at Yang’s plan. As I noted in the interview, the Tax Foundation crunched the numbers.

Andrew Yang said he wants to provide each American adult $1,000 per month in a universal basic income (UBI) he calls a “Freedom Dividend.” He argued that this proposal could be paid for with…a combination of new revenue from a VAT, other taxes, spending cuts, and economic growth. …We estimate that his plan, as described, could only fund a little less than half the Freedom Dividend at $1,000 a month. A more realistic plan would require reducing the Freedom Dividend to $750 per month and raising the VAT to 22 percent.

If you’re interested, here are more details about his plan.

…individuals would need to choose between their current government benefits and the Freedom Dividend. As such, some individuals may decline the Freedom Dividend if they determine that their current government benefits are more valuable. The benefits that individuals would need to give up are Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needed Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and SNAP for Women, Infants, and Child Program (WIC). To cover the additional cost of the Freedom Dividend, Yang would raise revenue in five ways: A 10 percent VAT…A tax on financial transactions…Taxing capital gains and carried interest at ordinary income rates…Remove the wage cap on the Social Security payroll tax…A $40 per metric ton carbon tax.

By the way, Yang has already waffled on some of his spending offsets, recently stating that the so-called Freedom Dividend wouldn’t replace existing programs.

In any event, the economic and budgetary effects would be bad news.

…his overall plan would reduce the long-run size of the economy and the tax base. The three major taxes in his plan (VAT, carbon tax, and payroll tax increase), while efficient sources of revenue, would tend to reduce labor force participation by reducing the after-tax returns to working. Using the Tax Foundation Model, we estimate that the weighted average marginal tax rate on labor income would increase by about 8.6 percentage points. The resulting reduction in hours worked would ultimately reduce output by 3 percent. We estimate that Yang would lose about $124 billion each year in revenue due to the lower output.

Here’s how the Tax Foundation scores the plan.

As you can see, the VAT, the financial transactions tax, the higher capital gains tax, and the increase in the payroll tax burden don’t even cover half the cost of the universal handout.

P.S. When the Tax Foundation say a tax is an “efficient source of revenue,” that means that it would result in a modest level of economic damage on a per-dollar-collected basis. This is why they show a rather modest amount of negative revenue feedback (-$124 billion).

I think they’re being too kind. Extending the Social Security payroll tax to all income would result in a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and other high-income taxpayers. As explained a few days ago, those are the people who are very responsive to changes in tax rates.

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There’s general agreement among public finance experts that personal income taxes and corporate income taxes, on a per-dollar-collected basis, do the most economic damage.

And I suspect there’s a lot of agreement that this is because these levies often have high marginal tax rates and often are accompanied by a significant bias against income that is saved and invested.

Payroll tax and consumption taxes, by contrast, are thought to be less damaging because they generally don’t have “progressive rates” and they are “neutral,” meaning they rarely involve any double taxation of saving and investment.

But “less damaging” is not the same as “no damage.”

Such taxes still drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption, so they do result in less economic activity (what economists refer to as “deadweight loss“).

And the deadweight loss can be significant if the overall tax burden is sufficiently onerous (as is the case in many European nations).

Interestingly, the (normally pro-tax) International Monetary Fund just released a study on this topic. It looked at the impact of taxes on work in the new member states (NMS) of the European Union. Here’s a summary of what the authors wanted to investigate.

Given demographic and pension pressures facing many EU28 countries amidst low labor market participation rates together with still high tax wedges, the call to review public policies has gained renewed prominence in the EU political debate. …tax wedges remain high and participation rates, while having increased importantly in a few countries over 2000-17 , are still around or below 70 percent in many of them. This hints at the need for addressing structural problems to improve economic fortunes. In this paper we focus our attention on hours worked (per working age population). …At country level, hours worked reflect labor supply decisions and could be thought of a measure of labor utilization. Long-run changes in labor supply are driven by incentives, of which taxes are perceived to be central. Assessing the importance of taxation on hours is key to provide new insights for potential policy actions.

And here’s what they found.

We study the role of taxes in accounting for differences in hours worked across NMS over the 1995-17 period… We find that consumption and labor taxes significantly discourage labor supply and can explain close to 21 percent of the observed variation of hours across NMS. …Higher tax rates reduce households’ net labor income and real purchasing power, inducing them to substitute consumption for leisure, which cannot be taxed. …Our findings show that, conditional on other factors, taxes are an important determinant of hours. Point estimates suggest a high elasticity of hours to taxes (close to 0.5), which is robust to the inclusion of other factors.

What’s interesting about the new member states of Eastern Europe is that many of them have flat taxes and low corporate rates.

So the personal and corporate income taxes are not a major burden.

But they so have relatively high payroll taxes (a.k.a., social insurance taxes) and relatively onerous value-added taxes.

So it’s hardly a surprise that these levies are the ones most associated with deadweight loss.

We find that social security contributions deter hours the most, followed by consumption taxes and, to a lesser extent, personal income taxes. …Consumption and personal income taxes are found to affect hours per worker, but not employment rates. On the other hand, social security contributions are negatively associated with employment rates, but do not seem to affect hours per worker. …In line with the literature, we document that women’s employment rate is more sensitive to changes in tax policies. We find the elasticity of employment rate to social security contributions to be 7 percent larger for women vis-à-vis men.

Here’s one of the charts from the study.

And here’s an explanation of what it means.

Figure 4 shows the evolution of hours and effective taxes. Hours worked increased substantially for Group 1, while it remained stable in Group 2 (Panel (a)). In both groups, the effect of the GFC is noticeable as hours sharply declined after 2008. Panel (b) shows the evolution of the average effective tax rate in each group. Interestingly, countries in Group 1, which observed an increase in hours, had lower effective tax rates (below 40 percent) throughout the period. In addition, we observe a negative correlation between hours and taxes for most of the sample. For Group 1, the large increase in hours – between year 2000 and the GFC – happened at the same time taxes declined

Here’s another chart from the IMF report.

And here’s some of the explanatory text.

Figure 5 depicts the relationship between hours worked and taxes across countries. In Panel (a), we observe a negative correlation between hours and taxes in levels for each group, with the negative correlation being stronger in Group 2 than in Group 1 (it has a steeper slope). Panel (b) shows total log changes in hours and taxes throughout the period. It also displays a negative correlation.

Looking at the conclusion, a key takeaway from the study is that there is a substantial loss of economic activity because of theoretically benign (but in reality onerous) taxes on consumption and labor.

Our modelling exercise shows that taxes influence the long-run trend in hours and our econometric exercise shows that the findings are robust to the inclusion of other labor market determinants. Furthermore, we document an elasticity of hours to overall taxes close to 0.5. We find that differences in tax burden can explain up to 21 percent in the variation of hours worked across NMS. The main takeaway of this study is that excessive tax burden, either in the form of consumption or labor taxes, can lead to substantial deadweight losses in terms of labor supply. .. overall tax burden – and not only labor taxes – should be considered when thinking about incentives from tax schemes.

Yes, incentives do matter.

And it’s good that an IMF report is providing good evidence for lower tax rates.

But I’m not optimistic we’ll get pro-growth changes. There’s been a lack of good reform this decade from the new member states from Eastern Europe. Combined with demographic decline (and the associated pressure for higher tax rates), this does not bode well.

P.S. While the professional economists at the IMF often produce good research and sensible advice, the bureaucracy’s political leaders almost always ignore those findings and instead push for bad tax policy. Including in the new member states from Eastern Europe.

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A couple of weeks ago, I used a story about a local tax issue in Washington, DC, to make an important point about how new tax increases cause more damage than previous tax increases because “deadweight losses” increase geometrically rather than arithmetically.

Simply stated, if a tax of X does Y amount of damage, then a tax of 2X will do a lot more damage than 2Y.

This is the core economic reason why even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree that class-warfare taxes are so destructive. When you take a high tax rate and make it even higher, the damage grows exponentially.

As such, I was very interested to see a new study on this topic from the World Bank. It starts by noting that higher tax rates are the wrong way to address fiscal shortfalls.

…studies have used the narrative approach for individual or multi-country analyses (in all cases, focusing solely on industrial economies, and mostly on industrial European countries). These studies find large negative tax multipliers, ranging between 2 and 5. This recent consensus pointing to large negative tax multipliers, especially in industrial European countries, naturally entails important policy prescriptions. For example, as part of a more comprehensive series of papers focusing on spending and tax multipliers, Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi (2015) point that policies based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of short run output losses than tax based adjustments.

The four authors used data on value-added taxes to investigate whether higher tax rates did more damage or less damage in developing nations.

A natural question is whether large negative tax multipliers are a robust empirical regularity… In order to answer this highly relevant academic and policy question, one would ideally need to conduct a study using a more global sample including industrial and, particularly, developing countries. …This paper takes on this challenge by focusing on 51 countries (21 industrial and 30 developing) for the period 1970-2014. …we focus our efforts on building a new series for quarterly standard value-added tax rates (henceforth VAT rates). …We identify a total of 96 VAT rate changes in 35 countries (18 industrial and 17 developing).

The economists found that VAT increases did the most damage in developing nations.

…when splitting the sample into industrial European economies and the rest of countries, we find tax multipliers of 3:6 and 1:2, respectively. While the tax multiplier in industrial European economies is quite negative and statistically significant (in line with recent studies), it is about 3 times smaller (in absolute value) and borderline statistically significant for the rest of countries.

Here’s a chart showing the comparison.

Now here’s the part that merits close attention.

The study confirms that the deadweight loss of VAT hikes is higher in developed nations because the initial tax burden is higher.

Based on different types of macroeconomic models (which in turn rely on different mechanisms), the output effect of tax changes is expected to be small at low initial levels of taxation but exponentially larger when initial tax levels are high. Therefore, the distortions and disincentives imposed by taxation on economic activity are directly, and non-linearly, related to the level of tax rates. By the same token, for a given level of initial tax rates, larger tax rate changes have larger tax multipliers. …In line with theoretical distortionary and disincentive-based arguments, we find, using our novel worldwide narrative, that the effect of tax changes on output is indeed highly non-linear. Our empirical findings show that the tax multiplier is essentially zero under relatively low/moderate initial tax rate levels and more negative as the initial tax rate and the size of the change in the tax rate increase. …This evidence strongly supports distortionary and disincentive-based arguments regarding a nonlinear effect of tax rate changes on economic activity…the economy will inevitably suffer when taxes are increased at higher initial tax rate levels.

What makes these finding especially powerful is that value-added taxes are less destructive than income taxes on a per-dollar-raised basis.

So if taking a high VAT rate and making it even higher causes a disproportionate amount of economic damage, then imagine how destructive it is to increase top income tax rates.

P.S. The fact that a VAT is less destructive than an income tax is definitely not an argument for enacting a VAT. That would be akin to arguing that it would be fun to break your wrist because that wouldn’t hurt as much as the broken leg you already have.

I’ve even dealt with people who actually argue that a VAT isn’t economically destructive because it imposes the same tax on current consumption and future consumption. I agree with them that it is a good idea to avoid double taxation of saving and investment, but that doesn’t change the fact that a VAT increases the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

And that means less incentive to earn income in the first place.

Which is confirmed by the study.

Panels A and B in Figure 18 show the relationship between the VAT rate a and the perceived effect of taxes on incentives to work and invest, respectively, for a sample of 123 countries for the year 2014. Supporting our previous findings, the relationship is highly non-linear. While the perceived effect of taxes on the incentives to work and invest barely changes as VAT rates increase at low/moderate levels (approximately until the VAT rate reaches 14 percent), it falls rapidly for high levels of VAT rates.

Here’s the relevant chart from the report.

The moral of the story is that all tax increases are misguided, but class-warfare taxes wreak the most economic havoc.

P.S. Not everyone understands this common-sense observation. For instance, the bureaucrats at the Congressional Budget Office basically argued back in 2010 that a 100 percent tax rate was the way to maximize growth.

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The value-added tax was first imposed in Europe starting about 50 years ago. Politicians in nations like France approve of this tax because it is generally hidden, so it is relatively easy to periodically raise the rate.

And that’s the reason I am vociferously opposed to the VAT. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the burden of government spending dramatically increased in Europe once politicians got their hands on a new source of revenue.

Simply stated, I don’t want that to happen in America.

Now I have new evidence to support that position.

We’ll start by crossing the Pacific to see what’s happening in Japan, as reported by Reuters.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to proceed with next year’s scheduled sales tax hike “by all means”… Abe said his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won last year’s lower house election with a pledge to use proceeds from the sales tax increase to make Japan’s social welfare system more sustainable. …his plan to raise the tax to 10 percent from 8 percent in October next year. Abe twice postponed the tax hike after an increase to 8 percent from 5 percent in 2014 tipped Japan into recession.

I give Prime Minister Abe credit for honesty. He openly admits that he wants more revenue to finance even bigger government.

But that doesn’t make it a good idea. Japan has been experimenting with bigger government for the past 25-plus years and it hasn’t led to good results. The VAT was just 3 percent in 1997 and the Prime Minster now wants it to be three times higher.

All of which is sad since Japan used to be one of the world’s most market-oriented nations.

You also won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD is being a cheerleader for a higher VAT in Japan.

Speaking of which, let’s look at what a new OECD report says about value-added taxes.

VAT revenues have reached historically high levels in most countries… Between 2008 and 2015, the OECD average standard VAT rate increased by 1.5 percentage points, from 17.6% to a record level of 19.2%, accelerating a longer term rise in standard VAT rates… VAT rates were raised at least once in 23 countries between 2008 and 2018, and 12 countries now have a standard rate of at least 22%, against only six in 2008… Raising standard VAT rates was a common strategy for countries…as increasing VAT rates provides immediate revenue.

And here’s a chart from the study that tells you everything you need to know about how politicians behave once they have a new source of tax revenue.

Incidentally, there’s another part of the report that should be highlighted.

For all intents and purposes, the OECD admits that higher taxes are bad for growth and that class-warfare taxes are the most damaging method of taxation.

…increasing VAT rates…has generally been found to be less detrimental to economic growth than raising direct taxes.

What makes this excerpt amusing (at least to me) is that the bureaucrats obviously want readers to conclude that higher VAT burdens are okay. But by writing “less detrimental to growth,” they are admitting that all tax increases undermine prosperity and that “raising direct taxes” (i.e., levies that target the rich such as personal income tax) is the worst way to generate revenue.

Which is what I’ve been pointing out!

Last but not least, I’ll recycle my video explaining why a VAT would be very bad news for the United States.

Everything that has happened since that video was released in 2009 underscores why it would be incredibly misguided to give Washington a big new source of tax revenue. And that’s true even if the people pushing a VAT have their hearts in the right place.

The only exception to my anti-VAT rigidity is if the 16th Amendment is repealed, and then replaced by something that unambiguously ensures that the income tax is permanently abolished. A nice goal, but I’m not holding my breath.

P.S. One of America’s most statist presidents, Richard Nixon, wanted a VAT. That’s a good reason for the rest of us to be opposed.

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I never saw The Nightmare Before Christmas, a 1993 film. But that’s fine, because I am already dealing with my own nightmare with the holiday just around the corner.

What’s haunting me in the specter of a value-added tax, which some reporters now think is a clear and present danger (my concern, not theirs).

We’ll start with this disconcerting report a couple of days ago from Politico.

Is the real lesson from tax reform that Americans rely too much on the income tax to fund their government? …Most other industrial nations lighten the load on their income tax by combining it with some form of consumption taxes… “If you want a code that is predictable and simple and competitive with rates on the global market place, you have to bring in other sources of income, other than the income tax,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “A progressive consumption tax is the most logical way to move forward but we’re not there yet. I think ultimately we’ll get there.”

By the way, there’s a huge mistake in the above excerpt.

I don’t know if it’s because of dishonesty of incompetence, but the reporter is wrong to claim that other nations “lighten the load of their income tax.” Here’s a chart, based on OECD data, comparing the burden of personal income tax for the U.S. and Western Europe.

In other words, governments adopt VATs because politicians want to spend more.

And what sort of spending will we get?

Our statist friends are salivating at the thought of financing a bigger welfare state.

As a rule, the regressive nature of consumption taxes makes them less attractive to Democrats. But given concerns about climate change, a carbon tax is one consumption tax that has begun to attract some following. And economist Henry Aaron at the non-profit Brookings Institution said Democrats are “short-sighted” if they reject consumption taxes… Given the aging population and desire to do more to help workers adjust to technologies that threaten their jobs, the needs are there. “The bulk of redistribution occurs on the expenditure side of the budget,” Aaron said. “Those of us who want more progressivity would rather see a progressive tax … but the impact on income redistribution is going to be overwhelmed by what is done with revenue on the expenditure side. That’s going to completely overwhelm any regressivity in the collection mechanism.”

And here are some excerpts from a Yahoo column from earlier this month.

We’re being warned that politicians will use the next fiscal crisis to impose a VAT.

…at some point, the United States will have to reduce annual deficits that could swell to $1 trillion per year as early as 2019. Republicans would prefer to solve that problem by cutting social spending. But that seems unlikely. To make a difference, cuts in programs such as Social Security and Medicare would have to be vast, which would outrage voters. A more likely solution is a national consumption tax, otherwise known as a value-added tax, or VAT. “A 5% VAT would raise an enormous amount of money,” says Jeremy Scott, a tax attorney who is vice president of editorial at the publisher Tax Analysts. “The next major fiscal crisis might be followed by a VAT.”

Gee, isn’t that wonderful. The politicians will spend us into a fiscal cul-de-sac, and then use that spending crisis as an excuse to seize more of our money.

And I can’t resist sharing this passage to remind folks that those of us who opposed the “border-adjustment tax” were on the side of the angels. The BAT was basically a pre-VAT.

House Republicans actually proposed a tax similar to a VAT in the tax plan they introduced in 2016, and carried into 2017 as the starting point for the Trump tax cuts. That tax alone would have raised $1.2 trillion in new revenue during the first decade and more during the second decade — a large pot of new funds that would have allowed significant cuts elsewhere in the tax code. That tax was controversial, however, and Trump declared it too complicated. So House Republicans dropped it. Still, old ideas have a way of coming back around in Washington.

Yes, it is certainly the case that bad ideas never go away in Washington.

Let’s close with an amusing poem from Reddit‘s libertarian page.

P.S. If minimalist poetry isn’t your cup of tea, you can enjoy some cartoons about the VAT by clicking herehere, and here.

P.P.S. The 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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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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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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The Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by Ways & Means Chairman Kevin Brady and Speaker Paul Ryan, have proposed a “Better Way” tax plan that has many very desirable features.

And there are many other provisions that would reduce penalties on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. No, it’s not quite a flat tax, which is the gold standard of tax reform, but it is a very pro-growth initiative worthy of praise.

That being said, there is a feature of the plan that merits closer inspection. The plan would radically change the structure of business taxation by imposing a 20 percent tax on all imports and providing a special exemption for all export-related income. This approach, known as “border adjustability,” is part of the plan to create a “destination-based cash flow tax” (DBCFT).

When I spoke about the Better Way plan at the Heritage Foundation last month, I highlighted the good features of the plan in the first few minutes of my brief remarks, but raised my concerns about the DBCFT in my final few minutes.

Allow me to elaborate on those comments with five specific worries about the proposal.

Concern #1: Is the DBCFT protectionist?

It certainly sounds protectionist. Here’s how the Financial Times described the plan.

The border tax adjustment would work by denying US companies their current ability to deduct import costs from their taxable income, meaning companies selling imported products would effectively be taxed on the full value of the sale rather than just the profit. Export revenues, meanwhile, would be excluded from company tax bases, giving net exporters the equivalent of a subsidy that would make them big beneficiaries of the change.

Charles Lane of the Washington Post explains how it works.

…the DBCFT would impose a flat 20 percent tax only on earnings from sales of output consumed within the United States… It gets complicated, but the upshot is that the cost of imported supplies would no longer be deductible from taxable income, while all revenue from exports would be. This would be a huge incentive to import less and export more, significant change indeed for an economy deeply dependent on global supply chains.

That certainly sounds protectionist as well. A tax on imports and a special exemption for exports.

But proponents say there’s no protectionism because the tax is neutral if the benchmark is where products are consumed rather than where income is earned. Moreover, they claim exchange rates will adjust to offset the impact of the tax changes. Here’s how Lane explains the issue.

…the greenback would have to rise 25 percent to offset what would be a new 20 percent tax on imported inputs — propelling the U.S. currency to its highest level on record. The international consequences of that are unforeseeable, but unlikely to be totally benign for everyone. Bear in mind that many other countries — China comes to mind — can and will manipulate exchange rates to protect their own short-term interests.

For what it’s worth, I accept the argument that the dollar will rise in value, thus blunting the protectionist impact of border adjustability. It would remain to be seen, though, how quickly or how completely the value of the dollar would change.

Concern #2: Is the DBCFT compliant with WTO obligations?

The United States is part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and we have ratified various agreements designed to liberalize world trade. This is great for the global economy, but it might not be good news for the Better Way plan because WTO rules only allow border adjustability for indirect taxes like a credit-invoice value-added tax. The DBCFT, by contrast, is a version of a corporate income tax, which is a direct tax.

The column by Charles Lane explains one of the specific problems.

Trading partners could also challenge the GOP plan as a discriminatory subsidy at the World Trade Organization. That’s because it includes a deduction for wages paid by U.S.-located firms, importers and exporters alike — a break that would obviously not be available to competitors abroad.

Advocates argue that the DBCFT is a consumption-base tax, like a VAT. And since credit-invoice VATs are border adjustable, they assert their plan also should get the same treatment. But the WTO rules say that only “indirect” taxes are eligible for border adjustability. The New York Times reports that the WTO therefore would almost surely reject the plan.

Michael Graetz, a tax expert at the Columbia Law School, said he doubted that argument would prevail in Geneva. “W.T.O. lawyers do not take the view that things that look the same economically are acceptable,” Mr. Graetz said.

A story in the Wall Street Journal considers the potential for an adverse ruling from the World Trade Organization.

Even though it’s economically similar to, and probably better than, the value-added taxes (VATs) many other countries use, it may be illegal under World Trade Organization rules. An international clash over taxes is something the world can ill afford when protectionist sentiment is already running high. …The controversy is over whether border adjustability discriminates against trade partners. …the WTO operates not according to economics but trade treaties, which generally treat tax exemptions on exports as illegal unless they are consumption taxes, such as the VAT. …the U.S. has lost similar disputes before. In 1971 it introduced a tax break for exporters that, despite several revamps, the WTO ruled illegal in 2002.

And a Washington Post editorial is similarly concerned.

Republicans are going to have to figure out how to make such a huge de facto shift in the U.S. tax treatment of imports compliant with international trade law. In its current iteration, the proposal would allow corporations to deduct the costs of wages paid within this country — a nice reward for hiring Americans and paying them well, which for complex reasons could be construed as a discriminatory subsidy under existing World Trade Organization doctrine.

Concern #3: Is the DBCFT a stepping stone to a VAT?

If the plan is adopted, it will be challenged. And if it is challenged, it presumably will be rejected by the WTO. At that point, we would be in uncharted territory.

Would that force the folks in Washington to entirely rewrite the tax system? Would they be more surgical and just repeal border adjustability? Would they ignore the WTO, which would give other nations the right to impose tariffs on American exports?

One worrisome option is that they might simply turn the DBCFT into a subtraction-method value-added tax (VAT) by tweaking the law so that employers no longer could deduct  expenses for labor compensation. This change would be seen as more likely to get approval from the WTO since credit-invoice VATs are border adjustable.

This possibility is already being discussed. The Wall Street Journal story about the WTO issue points out that there is a relatively simple way of making the DBCFT fit within America’s trade obligations, and that’s to turn it into a value-added tax.

One way to avoid such a confrontation would be to revise the cash flow tax to make it a de facto VAT.

The Economist shares this assessment.

…unless America switches to a full-fledged VAT, border adjustability may also be judged to breach World Trade Organisation rules.

Steve Forbes is blunt about this possibility.

One tax initiative that should be strangled before it sees the light of day is to give a tax rebate to exporters and to impose taxes on imports. …It’s a bad idea. Why do we want to make American consumers pay more for products while subsidizing foreign buyers? It also could put us on the slippery slope to our own VAT.

And that’s not a slope we want to be on. Unless the income tax is fully repealed (sadly not an option), a VAT would be a recipe for turning America into a European-style welfare state.

Concern #4: Does the DBCFT undermine tax competition and give politicians more ability to increase tax burdens?

Alan Auerbach, an academic from California who previously was an adviser for John Kerry and also worked at the Joint Committee on Taxation when Democrats controlled Capitol Hill, is the main advocate of a DBCFT (the New York Times wrote that he is the “principal intellectual champion” of the idea).

He wrote a paper several years ago for the Center for American Progress, a hard-left group closely associated with Hillary Clinton. Auerbach explicitly argued that this new tax scheme is good because politicians no longer would feel any pressure to lower tax rates.

This…alternative treatment of international transactions that would relieve the international pressure to reduce rates while attracting foreign business activity to the United States. It addresses concerns about the effect of rising international competition for multinational business operations on the sustainability of the current corporate tax system. With rising international capital flows, multinational corporations, and cross-border investment, countries’ tax rates and tax structures are of increasing importance. Indeed, part of the explanation for declining corporate tax rates abroad is competition among countries for business activity. …my proposed reforms…builds on the [Obama] Administration’s approach…and alleviates the pressure to reduce the corporate tax rate.

This is very troubling. Tax competition is a very valuable liberalizing force in the world economy. It partially offsets the public choice pressures on politicians to over-tax and over-spend. If governments no longer had to worry that taxable activity could escape across national borders, they would boost tax rates and engage in more class warfare.

Also, it’s worth noting that the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act, which is designed to undermine tax competition and create a sales tax cartel among American states, uses the same “destination-based” model as the DBCFT.

Concern #5: Does the DBCFT create needless conflict and division among supporters of tax reform?

As I pointed out in my remarks at the Heritage Foundation, there’s normally near-unanimous support from the business community for pro-growth tax reforms.

That’s not the case with the DBCFT.

The Washington Examiner reports on the divisions in the business community.

Major retailers are skeptical of the House Republican plan to revamp the tax code, fearing that the GOP call to border-adjust corporate taxes could harm them even if they win a significant cut to their tax rate. As a result, retailers, oil refiners and other industries that import goods to sell in the U.S. could provide a major obstacle to the Republican effort to reform taxes. …The effect of the border adjustment, retailers fear, would be that the goods they import to sell to consumers would face a 20 percent mark-up, one that would force retailers like Walmart, the Home Depot and Sears…to raise prices and lose customers.

A story from CNBC highlights why retailers are so concerned.

…retailers are nervous. Very nervous. …About 95 percent of clothing and shoes sold in the U.S. are manufactured overseas, which means imports make up a vast majority of many U.S. retailers’ merchandise. …If the GOP plan were adopted as it’s currently laid out, Gap pays 20 percent corporate tax on the $5 profit from the sweater, or $1. Plus, 20 percent tax on the $80 cost it paid for that sweater from the overseas supplier, or $16. That means the tax goes from $1.75 to $17 for that sweater, more than three times the profit on that sweater. Talk about a hit to margins. …Retailers certainly aren’t taking a lot of comfort in the economic theory of dollar appreciation. …the tax reform plan will dilute specialty retailers’ earnings by an average of 132 percent. …Athletic manufacturers could take a 40 percent earnings hit… Gap, Carter’s , Urban Outfitters , Fossil and Under Armour are most at risk under the plan.

And here’s another article from the Washington Examiner that explains why folks in the energy industry are concerned.

…the border adjustment would raise costs for refiners that import oil. In turn, that could raise prices for consumers. The border adjustment would amount to a $10-a-barrel tax on imported crude oil, raising costs for drivers buying gasoline by up to 25 cents a gallon, the energy analyst group PIRA Energy Group warned this week. The report warned of a “potential huge impact across the petroleum industry,” even while noting that the tax reform plan faces many obstacles to passage.

Concern #6: What happens when other nations adopt their versions of a DBCFT?

Advocates of the DBCFT plausibly argue that if the WTO somehow approves their plan, then other nations will almost certainly copy the new American system.

That will be a significant blow to tax competition, which would be very bad news for the global economy.

But is also has negative implications for the fight to protect America from a VAT. The main selling point for advocates of the DBCFT is that we need a border-adjustable tax to offset the supposed advantage that other nations have because of border-adjustable VATs (both Paul Krugman and I agree that this is nonsense, but it still manages to be persuasive for some people).

So what happens when other nations turn their corporate income taxes into DBCFTs, which presumably will happen? We’re than back where we started and misguided people will say we need our own VAT to balance out the VATs in other nations.

The bottom line is that a DBCFT is not the answer to America’s wretched business tax system. There are simply too many risks associated with this proposal. I’ll elaborate tomorrow in Part II and also explain some good ways of pursuing tax reform without a DBCFT.

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There was some genuinely good news in 2016, which is more than I can say for 2015 (my “best” development for that year was some polling data, followed by some small-ball tinkering).

Though the good news for 2016 was mostly overseas. Here are the four things from around the world that made me happy this year.

And while we didn’t have any major positive developments in the United States, there was a bit of good news. Yes, it’s “small-ball tinkering,” but I’m always glad for any progress.

So those are the noteworthy good things that happened this year. Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger. What was the bad news of 2016?

Well, the good news (so to speak) is that there was not a lot of bad news. At least if we’re focusing on actual policy changes.

But there are three developments that cause me to worry about the future.

Tomorrow I will write about my hopes and fears for 2017.

Let’s close today’s column with a few special categories.

If there was an award for the most disgusting news of 2016, the NAACP would be the clear winner for their decision to sacrifice black children in order to collect blood money from teacher unions.

And if we also had a prize for most moronic leftist in 2016, there would be another easy winner. Trevor Noah inadvertently showed why gun control doesn’t work even though he wanted to make the opposite point.

Last but not least, if there was a category for surprising news in 2016, there’s no question that Paul Krugman would win that prize for writing something sensible about tax policy.

P.S. My most popular post in 2016 (which also set the all-time record) was the very clever image showing that the enemies of liberty are looters, regardless of their economic status.

P.P.S. My most surreal moment in 2016 was getting attacked on the front page of the Washington Post. I must be doing something right.

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I’m not the biggest fan of Paul Krugman in his role as a doctrinaire advocate of leftist policy (he used to be within the mainstream and occasionally point out the risks of government intervention in his former role as an academic economist).

It’s not just that he believes in big government. He also has an unfortunate habit of misinterpreting (the charitable explanation) data when advocating higher taxes and more spending.

  • In 2015, he cherry-picked job numbers to make it seem as if Obama’s policies were producing good employment data.
  • Earlier that year, Krugman asserted that America was outperforming Europe because our fiscal policy was more Keynesian, yet the data showed that the United States had bigger spending reductions and less red ink.
  • In 2014, he asserted that a supposed “California comeback” in jobs somehow proved my analysis of a tax hike was wrong, yet only four states at the time had a higher unemployment rate than California.
  • And here’s my favorite: In 2012, Krugman engaged in the policy version of time travel by blaming Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

As you can see, he’s not exactly a paragon of sound thinking and careful analysis.

But there must be a blue moon in the forecast because the New York Times columnist has an accurate criticism of Donald Trump’s tax plan.

Before sharing Krugman’s critique, here’s the position of the Trump campaign, which asserts that the World Trade Organization has rigged the rules against America by allowing nations to give rebates to exporters so that there is no value-added tax (VAT) on good and services sold to consumers in other nations.

…there is a more subtle tax problem pulling US corporations offshore. It relates to the unequal treatment of the US income tax system by the World Trade Organization (WTO). …While the US operates primarily on an income tax system, all of America’s major trading partners depend heavily on a “value-added tax” or VAT system. Under current rules, the WTO allows America’s trading partners to effectively create backdoor tariffs to block American exports and backdoor subsidies to penetrate US markets. Here’s how this exploitation works: VAT rates are typically between 15% and 25%. …Under WTO rules, any foreign company that manufactures domestically and exports goods to America (or elsewhere) receives a rebate on the VAT it has paid. This turns the VAT into an implicit export subsidy. At the same time, the VAT is imposed on all goods that are imported and consumed domestically so that a product exported by the US to a VAT country is subject to the VAT. This turns the VAT into an implicit tariff on US exporters over and above the US corporate income taxes they must pay. Thus, under the WTO system, American corporations suffer a “triple whammy”: foreign exports into the US market get VAT relief, US exports into foreign markets must pay the VAT, and US exporters get no relief on any US income taxes paid. The practical effect of the WTO’s unequal treatment of America’s income tax system is to give our major trading partners a 15% to 25% unfair tax advantage in international transactions.

In the wonky jargon of public finance, VATs are said to be “border adjustable.” And here’s Krugman’s caustic observation about the above argument.

I’ve been writing about Donald Trump’s claim that Mexico’s value-added tax is an unfair trade policy, which is just really bad economics. …a VAT has the same effects as a sales tax. Now, nobody thinks that sales taxes are an unfair trade practice. …Trump wasn’t saying ignorant things off the top of his head: he was saying ignorant things fed to him by his incompetent economic advisers. …Should we be reassured that Trump wasn’t actually winging it here, just taking really bad advice? Not at all.

I don’t know whether it’s fair to criticize Trump’s economic advisers (after all, are they the ones who developed this position, or were they simply told to justify what Trump was saying?), but I certainly agree with Krugman that other nations don’t gain a trade advantage simply because they have a VAT.

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

So, yes, Krugman is right. At least on this particular issue.

Actually, he’s even right about another part of his column, when he pointed out that if a VAT is supposedly good for competitiveness, then this should give New York (with a high sales tax) an advantage over Delaware (with no sales tax). As Krugman points out, this is absurd.

…nobody thinks that sales taxes are an unfair trade practice. New York has fairly high sales taxes; Delaware has no such tax. Does anyone think that this gives New York an unfair advantage in interstate competition?

Indeed, the answer to Krugman’s rhetorical question is that lots of people recognize that Delaware has the advantage. This is why politicians in many states (especially those with punitive sales taxes) are pushing for the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act in hopes of forcing merchants in states like Delaware to become deputy tax collectors for states like New York (this would be an odious expansion of extraterritorial tax powers for state governments).

I don’t want to get all wonky, but this fight revolves around whether consumption taxes should be levied where goods and services are sold (the origin-based approach) or whether the taxes should be collected based on where the consumer lives (the destination-based approach). High-tax governments prefer the latter because they want to make it difficult for their residents to shop where the tax burden is lower.

By the way, politicians in Europe and elsewhere impose destination-based VATs for the same reason. They don’t like tax competition. So that’s yet another reason (above and beyond the fact that they are money machines for big government) to dislike the VAT.

I suspect, incidentally, that Krugman favors destination-based consumption taxes over origin-based systems, so even though he’s right about VATs and trade, he probably compensates by being wrong on an issue that really matters.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Myth 1: The VAT is pro-growth

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

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

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

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

Reality: The VAT penalizes all productive economic activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality: The VAT discourages saving and investment

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

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

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

Myth 3: The VAT is pro-trade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth 4: the VAT is pro-compliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is a very strange political season. Some of the Senators running for the Republican presidential nomination are among the most principled advocates of smaller government in Washington.

Yet all of them have proposed tax plans that, while theoretically far better than the current system, have features that I find troublesome. Marco Rubio, for instance, leaves the top tax rate at 35 percent, seven-percentage points higher than when Ronald Reagan left town.

Meanwhile, both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul (now out of the race) put forth plans that would subject America to value-added tax.

This has caused a kerfuffle in Washington, particularly among folks who normally are allies. To find common ground, the Heritage Foundation set up a panel to discuss this VAT controversy.

You can watch the entire hour-long program here, or you can just watch my portion below and learn why I want Senator Cruz to fix that part of his plan.

Allow me to elaborate on a couple of the points from my speech.

First, a good tax system is impossible in a nation with a big welfare state. If the public sector consumes 50 percent of economic output, that necessarily means very high marginal tax rates.

Second, all pro-growth tax reform plans tax income only one time, either when earned or when spent, which means those plans all are consumption-base taxes in the jargon of public finance economists. Which is also just another way of saying that these tax plans get rid of double taxation.

On this basis, a VAT is fine in theory. Moreover, it could even be good in reality (or, to be technical, far less destructive than the current system in reality) if all income taxes were totally abolished.

Third, since Cruz’s plan leave other taxes in place, I’m worried that future politicians would do exactly what happened in Europe – use the new revenue source to finance an expansion of the welfare state.

Proponents of the Cruz VAT correctly point out that the plan simultaneously will abolish both the corporate income and the payroll tax, which sort of addresses my concern.

But keep in mind this is only an acceptable swap if you think, 1) the plan will survive intact as it move through the legislative process, and 2) the VAT won’t raise more money than the taxes that are abolished.

I’m not sure either assumption is valid.

Last but not least, proponents of the Cruz VAT plan keep denying that the plan includes a VAT. If you recall from my remarks, I think this is silly. It is a VAT.

To bolster my argument, here’s what Alan Viard wrote for the American Enterprise Institute.

Cruz’s proposed VAT would have a 16 percent tax-inclusive rate, and Paul’s proposed VAT would have a 14.5 percent tax-inclusive rate. Both VATs would be administered through the subtraction method rather than the credit invoice method used by most countries with VATs. The use of the subtraction method would not alter the fundamental economic properties of the VAT. A VAT is equivalent to an employer payroll tax plus a business cash flow tax.

Let’s close by citing some very wise words from Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!). Here are the key parts of his column for Forbes.

Conservatives are worried about national consumption taxes for several reasons, principally: these taxes’ ability to raise large sums of revenue and the ease with which politicians can raise the rates. Because national consumption taxes are efficient and can be applied to a larger base than is typical of state and local sales taxes they can raise large sums of money. While liberals think this is a plus, conservatives are rightly wary of taxes that could supply government with more money. More importantly, conservatives are suspicious of the semi-hidden nature of consumption taxes and the ability to raise them incrementally.

Bingo.

The bottom line is that even if we decide to call the VAT by another name, it won’t alter the fact that some of us think it’s too risky to give politicians an additional revenue source.

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The left is very clever about accepting “compromise,” so long as the result is a larger burden of government.

This is one of the reasons why I’m so concerned about Senator Cruz’s proposal for a value-added tax. Even though he wants a VAT for good reasons (to finance lower tax rates and also to reduce the tax bias against saving and investment), my fear is that the statists will say yes, then quickly use the VAT to finance a big expansion of the welfare state.

Which is exactly what happened in Europe.

Some folks think I’m being paranoid, to which there are two responses. First, there’s the old joke that even paranoid people have enemies.

But the second and more serious response is to point out that lots of statists openly say they want a VAT to make government bigger.

Indeed, some of these folks already are semi-embracing Cruz’s VAT because of their desire to have a new source of revenue for Washington. Consider, for instance, these excerpts from an editorial in USA Today.

The VAT is a kind of national sales tax used by virtually every other nation in the world because it can raise lots of money …partly because deficits are set to explode again as Baby Boomers retire, the VAT is back. Texas Republican Ted Cruz, winner of the Iowa GOP caucuses, is proposing a VAT… The concept has a lot going for it. …Cruz’s plan is flawed, but he’s on to something. A more progressive, phased-in VAT deserves to be part of any future conversation

You don’t have to read between the lines to understand that the editors at USA Today want a VAT to expand the public sector. The editorial even favorably cites Senator Cardin and former Treasury official Michael Graetz.

Do they want a VAT for the same reasons as Senator Cruz?

Not exactly. Senator Cardin acknowledges that the VAT could lead to a spigot of new tax revenue (“enacting a consumption tax could mean enacting a new and easy-to-adjust lever to raise taxes irresponsibly”), but he claims to have a mechanism that supposedly will guard against ever-higher tax burdens.

The Progressive Consumption Tax Act addresses this concern with a circuit breaker that returns overages from the PCT to taxpayers when revenues exceed predetermined levels.

This is a joke. The politicians in Washington get to set the “predetermined levels,” so it goes without saying that those levels will go from predetermined to redetermined in a blink of an eye, just as we’ve seen in other nations.

And what about Michael Graetz’s plan? Well, here are a few excerpts from an article he wrote.

…tax increases will be necessary to…address the nation’s unsustainable fiscal condition fairly… With this plan in place, our ability to raise additional revenue would be increased…

To be fair, Graetz is not a leftist. He basically wants a VAT because it’s a less-destructive way of financing bigger government.

I agree. It’s highly likely that a $100 billion VAT hike would do less damage than a $100 billion increase in income taxes, but why on earth would anyone want higher taxes to fund bigger government, particularly when we know sensible entitlement reforms could fix the nation’s long-run fiscal problem?

No wonder Avik Roy, writing for Forbes, is so worried about a VAT.

Sen. Ted Cruz…favors replacing the corporate income tax with what Cruz calls a “business flat tax,” and what Canadians and Europeans call a “value-added tax.” But the real debate isn’t about terminology; it’s about whether or not Cruz’s approach would drive an explosion of government taxes—and spending—over the mid- to long-term.

One reason it’s a money machine is that it’s actually a hidden tax on wages and salaries.

…businesses would no longer be able to deduct the cost of labor. As my colleague Ryan Ellis has detailed, that amounts to a “16 percent wage tax withheld at the employer level under the Cruz plan.”

And that creates a very large tax base, so any increase in the tax rate transfers a lot of money from the private sector to Washington.

…the most important problem with the Cruz plan is how Democrats would take advantage of it. Cruz envisions a VAT tax rate of 16 percent. But his plan would hand progressives a simple tool to raise taxes to far higher rates in the future. …the vast majority of federal revenue will hit voters indirectly, because it will come from businesses. From a political standpoint, Cruz’s plan would pave the way to higher tax rates in the future. …every one percent increase in the VAT would yield $1.6 trillion in new revenue over a decade. The temptation for a Democratic president and Congress to raise VAT rates to higher levels will be enormous.

And Avik echoes one of my concerns, warning that a VAT will greatly undermine and perhaps even kill any opportunity for genuine entitlement reform.

Under Cruz’s tax system, there would be absolutely no pressure on Washington to reform Medicare and Medicaid. Why reform entitlements when you can simply increase the “business flat tax” rate from 16 percent to 17 percent to 18 percent to 19 percent? This is exactly what has happened in Canada and Europe, where VAT rates started out low, and have gone up and up over time.

I should point out (as he does in his column) that Avik supports Marco Rubio, so he has a political motive to trash the VAT.

Indeed, he even makes some anti-VAT arguments that strike me as unfair, so I’ve omitted them from this analysis.

But the parts I have shared are completely accurate and they are more than adequate to make a very powerful case against giving Washington a new source of revenue.

Let’s close with some wisdom from the 1980s. I wrote that one of America’s worst presidents wanted a VAT to expand the welfare state. And I also mentioned that one of the best presidents in American history was on the right side of the issue. And it’s worth listening to the Gipper’s wisdom on this issue.

P.S. Here’s a short update to my recent post about the craziness of Keynesian economics. You may recall that the economic illiterates at the International Monetary Fund said diverting money from the private sector to finance government outlays on refugees would be good for growth.

Well, we now have estimates of how much will be spent on this so-called stimulus.

Shelter, medical care and integration policies for refugees will cost the German state €22 billion in 2016, and €27.6 billion in 2017.

Gee, according to the perpetual motion machine of Keynesianism, maybe the German government should put the entire population on welfare and the economy will really boom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that will open a potential can of worms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A report in the Wall Street Journal discusses this development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With this in mind, he poses a hypothetical question.

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

Stelzer offers some sage advice in his conclusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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What were the most noteworthy events from 2015?

Regarding bad news, there’s unfortunately a lot of competition. But if I’m forced to pick the very worst developments, here’s my list.

Resuscitation of the Export-Import Bank – I did a premature victory dance last year when I celebrated the expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s authority.  I should have known that corrupt cronyism was hard to extinguish. Sure enough, Republicans and Democrats conspired to re-authorize the Ex-Im Bank and transfer wealth from ordinary Americans to politically connected corporations.

Expansion of IMF authority – I also did a premature victory dance in 2014 when I lauded the fact that Congress did not approve increased bailout authority for the International Monetary Fund. Sadly, as part of the year-end spending agreement, Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s authority so it could continue to push for higher taxes around the world.

Busting the spending caps (again) – When I wrote last August that maintaining the spending caps was a key test of GOP integrity, I should have known that they would get a failing grade. Sure enough, Republicans deliberately fumbled the ball at the goal line and agreed to higher spending. Again.

Supreme Court ignores law to bail out Obamacare (again) – Back in 2012, the Supreme Court had a chance to rule whether Obamacare was an impermissible expansion of the power of the federal government. In a truly odious decision, Chief Justice John Roberts ignored the Constitution’s limits on federal powers and decided we could be coerced to buy health insurance. Last year, he did it again, this time by bailing out a key part of Obamacare by deciding to arbitrarily ignore the wording of the law.

Business-as-usual transportation bill – The desire of Congress to fund pork-barrel transportation projects is at least somewhat constrained by the amount of revenue generated by the gas tax. There was an opportunity for reform in 2015 because proposed spending was much higher than the trajectory of gas tax revenue, but rather than even engage in a discussion of good policy options, politicians merely bickered over what combination of tax hikes and budget gimmicks they could put together to keep the pork projects flowing.

Creeping support on the right for the value-added tax – When I wrote early last year that the 2016 election might create an opportunity for tax reform, I was being hopeful that we might get something close to a simple and fair flat tax. Yet probably the biggest news so far in this election cycle is that a couple of candidates who presumably favor small government – Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – have proposed to impose a value-added tax without fully repealing the income tax.

There’s very little good news to celebrate. Here’s my tragically sparse list, and you’ll notice that my list of victories is heavy on style and light on substance. But let’s take what we can get.

Semi-decent Republican budgets – The budget resolution produced by Congress technically doesn’t embrace specific policies, but the it’s nonetheless noteworthy that the House and Senate approved numbers that – at least conceptually – are based on genuine Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Support for spending caps – Notwithstanding the fact that GOP politicians won’t even abide by the limited spending caps that already exist, I’m somewhat encouraged by the growing consensus for comprehensive spending caps akin to the ones in place in Switzerland and Hong Kong. Heck, even international bureaucracies now agree spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

Good election results from the Wolverine State – It was great to see Michigan voters reject a gas tax increase that was supported by the political elite.

More companies escaping the IRS – I heartily applaud when companies figure out how to re-domicile in jurisdictions with better tax law to escape America’s high corporate tax rate and self-destructive worldwide tax system. And I’m glad these “inversions” continue to take place even though the Obama Administration is trying to stop them.

A glimmer of reality at the New York Times – I realize I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel in my search for good news, but the fact that the New York Times published a column acknowledging that feminist economic policies backfire against women hopefully is a sign that sensible thinking is possible in the establishment media.

Gun control flopping – It’s great to see that the left has totally failed in its effort to undermine 2nd Amendment rights.

Limits on asset forfeiture – The final bit of good news from 2015 was the just-before-Christmas announcement by the Obama Administration that the odious practice of asset forfeiture would be modestly curtailed.

I would offer predictions for 2016, but since my big prediction from last year that we would have gridlock was sadly inaccurate, I think I’ll avoid making a fool of myself this year.

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With all of the GOP presidential candidates proposing varying plans to reduce the tax burden and reform the tax system, I’m constantly asked which one is best.

But that’s hard to answer because all of the proposals have features I like…as well as some features that leave me underwhelmed, or perhaps even worried.

My fantasy proposal is to have no income tax, or any broad-based tax, because we shrink the federal government to less than 5 percent of economic output (which is what existed for much of our nation’s history).

But since most of my fantasies won’t happen (at least in the near future), my intermediate goal is to junk the current tax system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax, which would mean a low tax rate, no double taxation, and no corrupt and distorting tax preferences.

The bad news is that there hasn’t been a stampede by candidates to embrace this type of fundamental tax reform. But the good news is that they all want to move in that direction.

The best site for seeing what the various candidates are proposing is the Tax Foundation, and you can click here to learn everything that you need to know about their plans. There’s less detail, but the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget also has a helpful summary that can be perused here.

Conservative Review put together some useful graphs to compare the major plans. Here’s the tax rate structure for households.

Though this is not very accurate since the value-added taxes in the plans put forth by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz mean the real tax rates on labor income would actually be 29 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

And here’s the degree of double taxation in the major plans.

What stands out in this chart is the fact all the candidates want to reduce double taxation, but Marco Rubio’s plan gets rid of that pernicious practice completely.

There are lots of additional metrics. Most of the candidates abolish the death tax, which is a very damaging form of double taxation.

They all lower or eliminate the corporate income tax.

Most of the candidates also replace depreciation with expensing, thus ensuring the proper treatment of business investment.

And the candidates generally scale back on favoritism in the tax code, particularly the deduction for state and local taxes.

To summarize, the plans have lots of good features, but none of them are perfect. Which is why they all get similar grades. Here’s my back-of-the-envelope assessment (with apologies to John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, etc, since I imposed my own arbitrary cutoff on which candidates merited close consideration).

Ben Carson gets the best grade because he says he wants a pure flat tax. But he doesn’t get an A because there are no details. In theory, you don’t need a lot of details because the plan is so simple, but the fact that he hasn’t even pinned down the rate (it was 10 percent, but is now 15 percent) leaves me uncertain. Moreover, he hasn’t put forth many details on how to reduce the burden of government spending, which would be necessary to make a low-rate flat tax viable.

By the way, Carly Fiorina would probably get a grade similar to Carson since she’s talked generically about a pure flat tax, and Rick Santorum’s more detailed support for a not-quite-pure flat tax also merits applause.

Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are almost identical (and John Kasich probably would be in the same category) because they make good progress (but not great progress) in almost all areas of the tax code.

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are more aggressive taking big steps in the right direction, but the value-added tax is a very worrisome feature of their plans.

Donald Trump has the biggest net tax cut, but seems to have no interest in controlling the burden of government spending. He also is the only candidate (to my knowledge) who doesn’t want to replace America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax system with a territorial tax regime.

And Marco Rubio is unique in that his plan is great on double taxation, but is a bit of a dud with regards to tax rates.

Last but not least, Mike Huckabee’s support for replacing the income tax with a national sales tax is theoretically appealing, but it’s either impractical (because there aren’t enough votes to repeal the 16th Amendment) or too risky (because the crowd in Washington would adopt a sales tax without completely repealing the income tax).

P.S. For those who really care about these issues, there’s a debate tomorrow morning (December 8th) between representatives of the Cruz, Paul, Bush, Rubio, and Kasich campaigns.

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In early 2013, a reader asked me the best place to go if America suffered a Greek-style economic collapse.

I suggested Australia might be the best option, even if I would be too stubborn to take my own advice.

Perhaps because of an irrational form of patriotism, I’m fairly certain that I will always live in the United States and I will be fighting to preserve (or restore) liberty until my last breath.

But while I intend to stay in America, there is one thing that would make me very pessimistic about my country’s future.

Simply stated, if politicians ever manage to impose a value-added tax on the United States, the statists will have won a giant victory and it will be much harder to restrain big government.

But you don’t have to believe me. Folks on the left openly admit that a VAT is necessary to make America more like Europe.

Check out these excerpts from an article in Foreign Affairs by Professor Lane Kenworthy of the University of Arizona. He explicitly wants bigger government and recognizes the VAT is the only way to finance a European-sized welfare state.

…modern social democracy means a commitment to the extensive use of government…U.S. policymakers will recognize the benefits of a larger government role… Americans will need to pay more in taxes.The first and most important step would be to introduce a national consumption tax in the form of a value-added tax (VAT)… Washington…cannot realistically squeeze an additional ten percent of GDP in tax revenues solely from those at the top.

Pay special attention to the final sentence in that excerpt. Kenworthy is an honest statist. He knows that the Laffer Curve is real and that taxing the rich won’t generate the amount of revenue he wants.

That’s why the VAT is the key to financing bigger government. Heck, even the International Monetary Fund inadvertently provided very powerful evidence that a VAT is the recipe for bigger government.

Want more proof? Well, check out the recent New York Times column by John Harwood (the same guy who was criticized for being a biased moderator of CNBC’s GOP debate).

He starts by pointing out that Senators Cruz and Paul are proposing European-type value-added taxes.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky do it most explicitly by proposing variations on “value-added tax” systems used by European countries.

But here’s the part that should grab your attention. He cites some folks on the left who admit that there’s no way to finance big expansions of the welfare state without a VAT.

Democratic economists…say…income trends…complicate their ability to raise enough revenue to finance government programs without increasing burdens on the middle class as well as the affluent. “We’ve come close to maxing out the amount of progressivity we can get from the existing tax system,” said Peter Orszag, President Obama’s first budget director. …as looming baby boomer retirements promise to swell Social Security and Medicare expenses beyond the current tax system’s ability to finance them, is in new thinking that expands the scope of possible solutions. “There’s no way we can keep the promises we’ve made to senior citizens and others without a new revenue source,” said Mr. Burman of the Tax Policy Center.

So if the statists are salivating for a VAT to make government bigger, why on earth are some otherwise sensible people pushing for this pernicious new tax?!?

Some journalists have asked this same question. Here are some passages from a Slate report.

…conservative policy thinkers…worry that it might accidentally set the stage for much, much higher taxes in the future should Democrats ever take back control of Washington. …Cruz would impose a new, roughly 19 percent “business flat tax.” This is his campaign’s creative rebranding of what the rest of the world typically calls a “value-added tax,” or VAT. And…it scares the living hell out of some conservatives.

The article notes that Cruz and Paul have decent intentions.

…for Cruz—and for Rand Paul, who…would similarly like to combine a VAT and flat income tax—the main appeal is that it could theoretically raise a lot of money to finance tax cuts elsewhere.

But good intentions don’t necessarily mean good results.

And just like you don’t give matches to a child, you don’t give a giant new tax to Washington.

How much could Cruz’s proposal net the government? The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation thinks $25.4 trillion over 10 years. … in the hands of a Democratic president, it could become a hidden money-making machine for the government. Passing a national sales tax would be hard, they say. But once it’s in place, slowly ratcheting it up to pay for additional spending would be relatively easy. “To be blunt, unless there’s a magic guarantee that principled conservatives such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (and their philosophical clones) would always hold the presidency, a VAT would be a very risky gamble,” Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote recently. …The ironic thing here is that Ted Cruz, anti-tax preacher, may be doing his best to craft a tax plan that leaves Americans in the dark about the actual cost of running their government. Simultaneously, he might be making political room for Democrats to start talking about a VAT tax of their own.

By the way, this isn’t the first time that a Republican has broached the idea of a VAT.

One of the worst Presidents in American history, Richard Nixon, wanted a VAT to finance bigger government. Here are some passages from an article in the 1972 archives of Congressional Quarterly.

President Nixon…asked both the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations and his Commission on School Finance, a group he appointed in 1970, to study and report on a proposal for a value added tax. …The tax had the advantages that…it yielded relatively large amounts of revenue. …Two major reasons were apparent for the Nixon administration’s consideration of a value added tax. The first was the condition of federal finances. …Projected costs of existing and proposed programs were expected to absorb all revenues from existing taxes and other sources. This meant that no new programs could be inaugurated without new taxes to finance them or reduction of existing programs to release funds. Though initially pledged for education, revenues from an expanding value added tax might provide future funding for other programs.

My colleague, Chris Edwards, deserves credit for unearthing this disturbing bit of fiscal history. Here’s some of what he wrote about Nixon’s sinister effort.

Richard Nixon appears to have been the first U.S. leader to push for a VAT, which is not surprising given that he was perhaps the most statist GOP president of the 20th century. …Thankfully, the Nixon proposal went nowhere in Congress, the ACIR came out against it, and it was dropped. America’s economy dodged a bullet. If Nixon had been successful, the rate would probably have soared over time from an initial 3 percent to maybe 20 percent today—just as rates in Europe have risen—and that would have fueled growth in new and expanded entitlement programs. 

Amen. Chris hits the nail on the head.

It doesn’t really matter what the initial rate is. The VAT is an easy tax to raise because it’s so non-transparent.

Moreover adopting a VAT is a sure-fire way of enabling higher income tax rates because the statists will say it’s “unfair” to raise the VAT burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers unless there’s a concomitant increase in the income tax burden on the evil rich.

Which is exactly what happens in Europe. Look at how recent VAT hikes have been paired with higher income tax rates.

But here’s the chart that should scare any sensible person.

The bottom line is that the VAT is the Ebola Virus of big government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some honest statists understand and acknowledge that you can’t have bigger government unless you target middle-income taxpayers.

And why do all these statists want higher taxes on ordinary people?

The answer is that they understand you can’t finance a giant welfare state unless there’s a huge increase in the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers.

Which is exactly what’s happened in Europe.

Of course, you don’t need to favor that outcome to predict (of fear) that it will happen. My opposition to tax hikes, for instance, is precisely because I don’t want America to have a Greek-style fiscal future.

It’s a simple matter of math. The income tax simply isn’t capable of generating enough revenue to fulfill the fantasies of folks like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, explains that the middle class will need to be targeted if politicians actually want to finance an ever-expanding welfare state.

Democrats retort that raising taxes on the rich will provide needed revenues to expand progressive government. …They obviate the need for middle-class tax increases to pay for government. …of Democrats’ faith in soaking the rich. …The trouble is that the math doesn’t match the rhetoric, as a new Brookings Institution study shows. In it, economists William Gale, Melissa Kearney and Peter Orszag asked this question: What would happen if the top income tax rate were increased from 39.6 percent to 50 percent? The answer — less than you think. …it would raise about $100 billion in tax revenues…, but it’s actually slightly less than a quarter of the $439 billion budget deficit for fiscal 2015. …Even if the $100 billion were directly distributed to the poorest fifth of Americans (an average $2,650 per household), the effect on overall inequality would be “exceedingly modest,” the authors say. …tax policies don’t come close to covering the real costs of government.

In other words, there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government, even if you somehow assume that huge tax hikes don’t have negative effects on taxable income (and the evidence from the 1980s shows that upper-income taxpayers have very strong responses to changes in tax rates).

So, given all this evidence, what’s Samuelson’s bottom line?

If middle-class Americans need or want bigger government, they will have to pay for it. Sooner or later, a tax increase is coming their way.

And he’s right.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that some good lawmakers want to give the other side a value-added tax.

One of my colleagues at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, wrote a column on this topic for National Review. Here are some key excerpts.

Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are strong advocates of limited government. …That is why their embrace of the value-added tax (VAT) in their presidential campaigns is so baffling. VATs are the revenue engine of big-government welfare states, not a proper funding source for the small federal government that both senators favor for America. …the candidates hide behind innocuous names — “business flat tax” for Cruz and “business transfer tax” for Paul.

But calling something a “business tax” doesn’t mean the burden is borne by businesses.

The tab for taxes collected from businesses is ultimately passed through to individuals in the form of lower wages, reduced dividends, or higher prices. …VATs have huge bases. That’s because — unlike income taxes — they do not allow businesses to deduct employee compensation when calculating the taxable amount. …The result would be that tax revenues from businesses under the Cruz and Paul VATs would be enormous.

In other words, the VAT is – among other things – a withholding tax on labor income. And that’s why this levy generates a huge amount of revenue.

To make matters worse, this giant tax is hidden from voters.

Because Cruz and Paul shift much of the collection to businesses, more of the tax burden gets hidden from citizens and voters. …If the government is going to take our money, it should mug us on the street in broad daylight, rather than sneak into our homes at night and burglarize us unnoticed. The VAT would encourage more burglary.

And this hidden tax also will give statists an easy method of financing an ever-expanding burden of government spending

Cruz and Paul want smaller government, but down the road, other politicians looking to shore up entitlement programs will say, “They could be financed with just a small tax increase on businesses.” But each “small” increase in the VAT rate would transfer huge amounts of additional cash from the private economy to the government.

Amen.

When I wrote about Sen. Cruz’s plan and Sen. Paul’s plan, I specifically pointed out that the VATs needed to be jettisoned.

But Chris makes an even stronger case. And he’s correct. Adopting a VAT would be a cataclysmic error for advocates of limited government.

It would be a truly perverse tragedy if the other side eventually gets a VAT because well-meaning (but misguided) conservatives paved the way.

P.S. The left also is salivating for a broad-based energy tax.

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