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Archive for the ‘VAT’ Category

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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