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Posts Tagged ‘Flat Tax’

Last year, I said the nation’s most important referendum was the proposal to emasculate Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (I was delighted when voters said no to the pro-spending lobbies and preserved TABOR).

This year’s most important referendum is taking place in November in Illinois, where pro-spending lobbies are very anxious to repeal the state’s flat tax.

If they succeed, the steady flow of taxpayers out of Illinois will become a torrent.

That’s because the flat tax is the only semi-decent feature of the state’s fiscal policy. If it goes, there won’t be any hope.

My buddy from the Illinois Policy Institute, Orphe Divounguy, has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal about the dismal fiscal and economic outlook in the Land of Lincoln.

Long the economic hub of the Midwest, Illinois has lost more than 850,000 residents to other states during the past decade. The state has been shrinking for six consecutive years and suffered the largest raw population decline of any state in the 2010s. …Growing government debt and a crushing tax burden are depressing economic growth. State spending is up, but personal-income growth is lagging. Since 2000, Illinois’s per capita personal income growth has been 21% lower than the national average. …ratings firms are paying attention. Illinois’s credit rating is one notch above junk. …Illinois’s public pension payments already consume nearly a third of the state budget, yet the unfunded liability—which the state currently pegs at $137 billion, though others put the figure much higher—continues to rise. …Since 2000, Illinois has increased pension spending by more than 500%.

Orphe then points out that politicians in the state have been raising taxes with depressing regularity.

Needless to say, that never seems to solve the problem (a point I recently made when looking at fiscal policy in Washington).

Illinois has a culture of trying—and failing—to tax its way out of its problems. In 2011 then-Gov. Pat Quinn approved a temporary tax hike aimed at making a dent in the state’s $8 billion in unpaid bills. By 2014, Illinois still had a $6.6 billion bill backlog, and lawmakers were calling for families and businesses to give up more money. Another permanent income-tax increase came in 2017, but again more taxes failed to solve Illinois’s problems. The problems, in fact, got worse. In his freshman year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law 20 new taxes and fees totaling nearly $4.6 billion, including a doubling of the gasoline tax. Now Mr. Pritzker wants a progressive income tax he claims will really solve the issue.

The bottom line is that politicians in Illinois want ever-increasing taxes to finance ever-increasing pensions for state and local bureaucrats.

This cartoon from Eric Allie nicely summarizes the attitude of the state’s corrupt political class.

To be sure, there are plenty of states that have big fiscal holes because politicians have showered bureaucrats with overly generous compensation packages.

What presumably makes Illinois unique, Orphe explains, is that retired government workers get annual adjustments that are much greater than inflation.

Which means that there’s a simple and fair solution.

Illinois taxpayers can save $50 billion over 25 years, and dollars can be freed to support their eroding public services. Policy makers can finally shrink Illinois’s pension liability by reducing the main driver of its growth: the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. Currently, the COLA doesn’t reflect any actual cost-of-living increase, since it isn’t pegged to inflation. By simply replacing the existing guaranteed 3% compounding postretirement raise with a true COLA pegged to inflation, among other modest changes, Illinois can save $2.4 billion in the first year alone. No current retiree would see a decrease in his pension check. Current workers would preserve their core benefit.

P.S. I don’t know how long this policy has existed. If it’s a long-standing policy, Illinois bureaucrats actually were net losers in the pre-Reagan era when the U.S. suffered from high inflation.

P.P.S. The ultimate solution is to shift bureaucrats to “defined contribution” retirement plans, akin to the IRAs and 401(K)s that exist in the private sector.

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The most important referendum in 2019 was the effort to get Colorado voters to eviscerate the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Fortunately, the people of the Centennial State comfortably rejected the effort to bust the state’s successful spending cap.

The most important referendum in 2020 will ask voters in Illinois whether they want to get rid of the state’s flat tax and give politicians the leeway to arbitrarily impose higher rates on targeted taxpayers.

I’ve written many times about how a flat tax is far less destructive than so-called progressive taxation.

And I’ve also written that Illinois’ flat tax, enshrined in the state constitution, is the only decent feature of an otherwise terrible fiscal system.

So if the politicians convince voters to get rid of the flat tax, it will hasten the state’s economic decline (if you want more information, I strongly recommend perusing the numerous reports prepared by the Illinois Policy Institute).

Today, though, I want to focus on politics rather than economics.

To be more specific, I want to expose how supporters of higher taxes are using disingenuous tactics.

For instance, the state’s governor, J.B. Pritzker, warns that he’ll have to impose big spending cuts if voters don’t approve the referendum.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the state’s next budget will be balanced, but said if voters don’t approve a progressive income tax in November, he would have to reduce state spending across the board in future years. …the governor said 15 percent cuts in state spending would be needed across the board. …Illinois’ most recent budget called for spending about $40 billion dollars in state money. The state spends another $40 billion of federal tax money. …Pritzker is set to deliver his budget address on Feb. 19. He said he will propose a balanced budget to begin in July without relying on revenue from the proposed progressive income tax.

For what it’s worth, I actually think it would be good news if the state was forced to reduce the burden of government spending.

But that’s actually not the case.

How do I know Pritzker is lying?

Because his own budget documents project that state revenues (highlighted in red) are going to increase by nearly 2 percent annually under current law.

In other words, he wants a tax increase so he can increase overall spending at an even faster pace.

Of course, his tax increase also will increase the pace of taxpayers fleeing the state, which is why the referendum is actually a form of slow-motion fiscal suicide.

But let’s set that aside and examine another lie. Or, to be more accurate, a delayed lie.

The politicians in Illinois already have approved legislation to impose tax increases on the state’s most successful taxpayers, though the higher rates won’t actually become law until and unless the referendum is approved.

In hopes of bribing voters to approve the referendum, supporters assert that the other 97 percent of state taxpayers will get a cut.

That’s true. Most taxpayers will get a tiny reduction compared to the current 4.95 percent tax rate.

But how long will that last? Especially considering that the state’s long-run fiscal outlook is catastrophically bad?

The bottom line is that approving the referendum is like unlocking all the cars in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The expensive models will be the immediate targets, but it’s just a matter of time before everyone’s vehicle gets hit.

Indeed, this warning has such universal application that I’m going to make it my sixth theorem.

By the way, this theorem also applies when an income tax gets imposed, as happened with the United States in 1913 (and also a lesson that New Jersey residents learned in the 1970s and Connecticut residents learned in the 1990s).

P.S. Here are my other theorems.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.

P.P.S. Pritzker is a hypocrite because he does everything he can to minimize his own tax burden while asking for the power to take more money from everyone else.

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Following their recent assessment of the best and worst countries, the Tax Foundation has published its annual State Business Tax Climate Index, which is an excellent gauge of which states welcome investment and job creation and which states are unfriendly to growth and prosperity.

Here’s the list of the best and worst states. Unsurprisingly, states with no income tax rank very high, as do states with flat taxes.

It’s also no surprise to see New Jersey in last place. The state has fallen dramatically, especially considering that it was like New Hampshire as recently as the 1960s, with no state income tax and no state sales tax.

And the bad scores for New York, California, and Connecticut also are to be expected. The Nutmeg State is an especially sad story. There was no state income tax 30 years ago. Once politicians got that additional source of revenue, however, Connecticut suffered a big economic decline.

Here’s a description of the methodology, along with the table showing how different factors are weighted.

…the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems and provides a road map for improvement.The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top 10 states. Property taxes and unemployment insurance taxes are levied in every state, but there are several states that do without one or more of the major taxes: the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, or the sales tax. …This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top 10 while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases.The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, nonneutral taxes with comparatively high rates. New Jersey, for example, is hampered by some of the highest property tax burdens in the country, has the second highest-rate corporate income tax in the country and a particularly aggressive treatment of international income, levies an inheritance tax, and maintains some of the nation’s worst-structured individual income taxes.

For those who want to delve into the details, here are all the states, along with their rankings for the five major variables.

If you want to know which states are making big moves, Georgia enjoyed the biggest one-year jump (from #36 to #32) and Kansas suffered the biggest one-year decline (from #27 to #34). Keep in mind that it’s easier to climb if you’re near the bottom and easier to fall if you’re near the top.

Looking over a longer period of time, the states with the biggest increases since 2014 are North Carolina (+19, from #34 to #15), Wisconsin (+12, from #38 to #26), Kentucky (+9, from #35 to #24), Nebraska (+8, from #36 to #28), Delaware (+7, from #18 to #11), and Rhode Island (+6, from #45 to #39).

The states with the biggest declines are Kansas (-9, from #25 to #34), Hawaii (-8, from #29 to #37), Massachusetts (-8, from #28 to #36), and Idaho (-6, from #15 to #21).

We’ll close with the report’s map, showing the rankings of all the states.

P.S. My one quibble with the Index is that there’s no variable to measure the burden of government spending, which would give a better picture of overall economic liberty. This means that states that finance large public sectors with energy severance taxes (which also aren’t included in the Index) wind up scoring higher than they deserve. As such, I would drop Wyoming and Alaska in the rankings and instead put South Dakota at #1 and Florida at #2.

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Regarding fundamental tax reform, there have been some interesting developments at the state level in recent years.

Utah, North Carolina, and Kentucky have all junked their so-called progressive systems and joined the flat tax club.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Illinois politicians are desperately trying to gut that state’s flat tax.

And the same thing is true in Massachusetts.

The Tax Foundation has a good explanation of what’s been happening in the Bay State and why it matters for the competitiveness, job creation, and entrepreneurship.

A joint constitutional convention of Massachusetts lawmakers has voted 147-48 to approve H.86, dubbed the Fair Share Amendment, to impose a 4 percent income tax surcharge on annual income beyond $1 million. The new tax would be levied in addition to the existing 5.05 percent flat rate, bringing Massachusetts’ total top rate to 9.05 percent. …Massachusetts requires legislatively-referred constitutional amendments be passed in consecutive sessions, meaning that the same measure would need to be approved in the 2021-2022 legislative session before it would be sent to voters in November of 2022. The millionaires’ tax, though targeted at a wealthy minority of tax filers in the Bay State, would cause broader harm to Massachusetts’ tax structure and economic climate. It would eliminate Massachusetts’ primary tax advantage over regional competitors… The Bay State’s low, flat income tax on individuals and pass-through businesses is the most competitive element of its tax code, giving the Commonwealth a clear strength compared to surrounding states and regional competitors. Income tax rate reductions in recent years have helped shed the moniker of “Taxachusetts” while setting up the Bay State to be a beneficiary of harmful tax rate increases in surrounding states. However, a 9.05 percent top rate would be uncompetitive even in a high-tax region. The amendment would hit Massachusetts pass-through businesses with the sixth-highest tax rate of any state.

Here’s a map showing top tax rates in the region (New Hampshire has an important asterisk since the 5-percent rate only applies to interest and dividends), including where Massachusetts would rank if the new plan ever becomes law.

The Boston Globe reports that lawmakers are very supportive of this scheme to extract more money, while the business community is understandably opposed.

A measure to revive a statewide tax on high earners received a glowing reception on Beacon Hill Thursday, suggesting an easy path ahead despite staunch opposition from business groups. “We are in desperate need for revenue for our districts,” said Senator Michael D. Brady of Brockton, one of the proposal’s more than 100 sponsors and a member of the Joint Committee on Revenue…. “We have tremendous unmet needs in our Commonwealth that are hurting families, hurting our communities, and putting our state’s economic future at risk,” said Senator Jason M. Lewis of Winchester, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the proposal. …business groups…came armed with arguments that hiking taxes on the state’s highest earners would drive entrepreneurs — and the jobs and tax revenue they create — out of the state, as well as unfairly harm small- and mid-sized business owners whose business income passes through their individual tax returns. “Look, we’re trying to prevent Massachusetts from becoming Connecticut,” said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

Meanwhile, the Boston Herald reports that the Republican governor is opposed to this class-warfare tax.

Gov. Charlie Baker cautioned the Legislature against asking for more money from taxpayers with the so-called millionaire tax… “I’ve said that we didn’t think we should be raising taxes on people and I certainly don’t think we should be pursuing a graduated income tax,” Baker told reporters yesterday. …Members of Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community organizations, religious groups and labor unions, are staunchly supporting the tax that is estimated to raise approximately $2 billion a year. …The Massachusetts Republican Party is sounding the alarm on what they’re calling, “the Democrats’ newest scheme,” to “dump” the state’s flat tax system.

The governor’s viewpoint is largely irrelevant, however, since he can’t block the legislature from moving forward with their class-warfare scheme.

But that doesn’t mean the big spenders in Massachusetts have a guaranteed victory.

Yes, the next session’s legislature is almost certain to give approval, but there’s a final step needed before the flat tax is gutted.

The voters need to say yes.

And in the five previous occasions when they’ve been asked, the answer has been no.

Overwhelmingly no.

Even in 1968 and 1972, proposals for a so-called progressive tax were defeated by a two-to-one margin.

Needless to say, that doesn’t mean voters will make the right choice in 2022.

The bottom line is that if the people of Massachusetts want investors, entrepreneurs, and other job creators to remain in the state, they should again vote no.

But if they want to destroy jobs and undermine the Bay State’s competitiveness, they should vote yes.

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Proponents of bigger government sometimes make jaw-dropping statements.

I even have collections of bizarre assertions by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

What’s especially shocking is when statists twist language, such as when they claim all income is the “rightful property” of government and that people who are allowed to keep any of their earnings are getting “government handouts.”

A form of “spending in the tax code,” as they sometimes claim.

Maybe we should have an “Orwell Award” for the most perverse misuse of language on tax issues.

And if we do, I have two potential winners.

The governor of Illinois actually asserted that higher income taxes are needed to stop people from leaving the state.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker…blamed the state’s flat income tax for Illinois’ declining population. …“The people who have been leaving the state are actually the people who have had the regressive flat income tax imposed upon them, working-class, middle-class families,” Pritzker said. Pritzker successfully got the Democrat-controlled state legislature to pass a ballot question asking voters on the November 2020 ballot if Illinois’ flat income tax should be changed to a structure with higher rates for higher earners. …Pritzker said he’s set to sign budget and infrastructure bills that include a variety of tax increases, including a doubling of the state’s gas tax, increased vehicle registration fees, higher tobacco taxes, gambling taxes and other tax increases

I’ve written many times about the fight to replace the flat tax with a discriminatory graduated tax in Illinois, so no need to revisit that issue.

Instead, I’ll simply note that Pritzker’s absurd statement about who is escaping the state not only doesn’t pass the laugh test, but it also is explicitly contradicted by IRS data.

In reality, the geese with the golden eggs already are voting with their feet against Illinois. And the exodus will accelerate if Pritzker succeeds in killing the state’s flat tax.

Another potential winner is Martin Kreienbaum from the German Finance Ministry. As reported by Law360.com, he asserted that jurisdictions have the sovereign right to have low taxes, but only if the rules are rigged so they can’t benefit.

A new global minimum tax from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is not meant to infringe on state sovereignty…, an official from the German Federal Ministry of Finance said Monday. The OECD’s work plan…includes a goal of establishing a single global rate for taxation… While not mandating that countries match or exceed it in their national tax rates, the new OECD rules would allow countries to tax the foreign income of their home companies if it is taxed below that rate. …”We respect the sovereignty for states to completely, freely set their tax rates,” said Martin Kreienbaum, director general for international taxation at the German Federal Ministry of Finance. “And we restore sovereignty of other countries to react to low-tax situations.” …”we also believe that the race to the bottom is a situation we would not like to accept in the future.”

Tax harmonization is another issue that I’ve addressed on many occasions.

Suffice to say that I find it outrageous and disgusting that bureaucrats at the OECD (who get tax-free salaries!) are tying to create a global tax cartel for the benefit of uncompetitive nations.

What I want to focus on today, however, is how the principle of sovereignty is being turned upside down.

From the perspective of a German tax collector, a low-tax jurisdiction is allowed to have fiscal sovereignty, but only on paper.

So if a place like the Cayman Islands has a zero-income tax, it then gets hit with tax protectionism and financial protectionism.

Sort of like having the right to own a house, but with neighbors who have the right to set it on fire.

P.S. Trump’s Treasury Secretary actually sides with the French and supports this perverse form of tax harmonization.

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Earlier today at the Friedman Conference in Australia, I spoke on the proper design of a tax system.

My goal was to explain the problem of double taxation.

I’ve repeatedly shared a flowchart to illustrate the pervasive double taxation in the current system (my example is for the United States, but many other nations make the same mistake).

And to help explain why this is economically misguided, I developed a (hopefully) compelling visual based on how to harvest apples.

But I’ve always wondered if I was presenting the information in an accessible and understandable manner. So for today’s presentation, I decided to experiment with some different visuals.

Here’s how I illustrated the current system.

As you can see, there are several additional layers of tax on people who save and invest their after-tax income.

And I explained to the crowd that this is very foolish since every economic theory agrees that saving and investment are key to long-run growth.

Even socialism. Even Marxism. (Socialists and Marxists are foolish to think government can be in charge of allocating capital, but at least they realize that future growth requires saving and investment.)

In other words, you don’t achieve good tax policy solely by having a low tax rate.

Yes, that’

s important, but genuine tax reform also means no bias against saving and investment.

Here’s another visual. This one shows the difference between the current system and the flat tax. As you can see, all the added layers of tax on saving and investment are jettisoned under true tax reform.

By the way, there are some people who prefer a national sales tax over a flat tax.

I question the political viability of that approach, but I’ve always defended the sales tax.

Why? Because it’s conceptually identical to the flat tax.

As you can see from this next visual, the difference between the two systems is that the flat tax grabs a bit of money when income is earned and the sales tax grabs a bit of money when income is spent (either today or in the future).

Remember, the goal is to eliminate the bias against saving and investing.

To economists who specialize in public finance, this is known as shifting to a “consumption base” system.

But I’ve never liked that language. What really happens under true tax reform is that we tax income, but using the right definition.

The current system, by contrast, is known as a “comprehensive income tax” with a “Haig-Simons” tax base. But that simply means a system that taxes some forms of income over and over again.

Time for one final point.

Some people like a value-added tax because it avoids the problem of double taxation.

That’s certainly true.

But this final visual shows that adding a VAT to the current system doesn’t solve the problem. All that happens is that politicians have a new source of revenue to expand the welfare state.

If a VAT was used to replace the current tax system, that might be a very worthwhile approach.

But that’s about as likely as me playing the outfield later this year for the New York Yankees.

P.S. The VAT visual is overly simplified and it sidesteps the logistical issue of whether politicians would go for a credit-invoice VAT or a subtraction-method VAT. But the visual is correct in terms of how a VAT would interact with the current system.

P.P.S. All you need to know about the VAT is that Reagan was against it and Nixon was for it.

 

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If the people who advocate higher taxes really think it’s a good idea to give politicians more cash, why don’t they voluntarily send extra money with their tax returns?

Massachusetts actually makes that an easy choice since state tax forms give people the option of paying extra, yet tax-loving politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry never avail themselves of that opportunity.

And the Treasury Department has a website for people who want to give extra money to the federal government, yet proponents of higher taxes (at least for you and me) never lead by example.

For lack of a better phrase, let’s call this type of behavior – not choosing to pay extra tax – conventional hypocrisy.

But what about politicians who support higher taxes while dramatically seeking to reduce their own tax payments? I guess we should call that nuclear-level hypocrisy.

And if there was a poster child for this category, it would be J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois governor who is trying to replace his state’s flat tax with a money-grabbing multi-rate tax.

The Chicago Sun Times reported late last year that Pritzker has gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure his money isn’t confiscated by government.

…more than $330,000 in property tax breaks and refunds that…J.B. Pritzker received on one of his Gold Coast mansions — in part by removing toilets… Pritzker bought the historic mansion next door to his home, let it fall into disrepair — and then argued it was “uninhabitable” to win nearly $230,000 in property tax breaks. …The toilets had been disconnected, and the home had “no functioning bathrooms or kitchen,” according to documents Pritzker’s lawyers filed with Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.

Wow, maybe I should remove the toilets from my house and see if the kleptocrats in Fairfax County will slash my property taxes.

And since I’m an advocate of lower taxes (for growth reasons and for STB reasons), I won’t be guilty of hypocrisy.

Though Pritzker may be guilty of more than that.

According to local media, the tax-loving governor may face legal trouble because he was so aggressive in dodging the taxes he wants other people to pay.

Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, his wife and his brother-in-law are under federal criminal investigation for a dubious residential property tax appeal that dogged him during his gubernatorial campaign last year, WBEZ has learned. …The developments demonstrate that the billionaire governor and his wife may face a serious legal threat arising from their controversial pursuit of a property tax break on a 126-year-old mansion they purchased next to their Gold Coast home. …The county watchdog said all of that amounted to a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers out of more than $331,000. …Pritzker had ordered workers to reinstall one working toilet after the house was reassessed at a lower rate, though it’s unclear whether that happened.

This goes beyond nuclear-level hypocrisy – regardless of whether he’s actually guilty of a criminal offense.

Though he’s not alone. Just look at the Clintons. And Warren Buffett. And John Kerry. And Obama’s first Treasury Secretary. And Obama’s second Treasury Secretary.

Or tax-loving international bureaucrats who get tax-free salaries.

Or any of the other rich leftists who want higher taxes for you and me while engaging in very aggressive tax avoidance.

To be fair, my leftist friends are consistent in their hypocrisy.

They want ordinary people to send their kids to government schools while they send their kids to private schools.

And they want ordinary people to change their lives (and pay more taxes) for global warming, yet they have giant carbon footprints.

P.S. There is a quiz that ostensibly identifies hypocritical libertarians.

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how New York is committing slow-motion fiscal suicide.

The politicians in Illinois must have noticed because they now want (another “hold my beer” moment?) to accelerate the already-happening collapse of their state.

The new governor, J.B. Pritzker, wants to undo the state’s 4.95 percent flat tax, which is the only decent feature of the Illinois tax system.

And he has a plan to impose a so-called progressive tax with a top rate of 7.95.

Here are some excerpts from the Chicago Tribune‘s report., starting with the actual plan.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker embarked on a new and potentially bruising political campaign Thursday by seeking to win public approval of a graduated-rate income tax that he contended would raise $3.4 billion by increasing taxes for the wealthy…for his long-discussed plan to replace the state’s constitutionally mandated flat-rate income tax. Currently, all Illinois residents are taxed at 4.95 percent… Pritzker’s proposal is largely reliant on raising taxes significantly on residents making more than $250,000 a year, with those earning $1 million and up taxed at 7.95 percent of their total income. …The corporate tax rate would increase from the current 7 percent to 7.95 percent, matching the top personal rate. …The governor’s proposal would give Illinois the second-highest top marginal tax rate among its neighboring states.

And here’s what would need to happen for the change to occur.

Before Pritzker’s plan can be implemented, three-fifths majorities in each chamber of the legislature must approve a constitutional amendment doing away with the flat tax requirement. The measure would then require voter approval, which couldn’t happen until at least November 2020. …Democrats hold enough seats in both chambers of the legislature to approve the constitutional amendment without any GOP votes. Whether they’ll be willing to do so remains in question. Democratic leaders welcomed Pritzker’s proposal… voters in 2014 endorsed the idea by a wide margin in an advisory referendum.

The sensible people on the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board are not very impressed, to put it mildly.

…how much will taxes increase under a rate structure Pritzker proposed? You might want to cover your eyes. About $3.4 billion annually… That extraction of dollars from taxpayers’ pockets would be in addition to roughly $5 billion raised annually in new revenue under the 2017 income tax hike. …How did Springfield’s collection of all that new money work out for state government and taxpayers? Here’s how: Illinois remains deeply in debt, continues to borrow to pay bills, faces an insurmountable unfunded pension liability and is losing taxpayers who are fed up with paying more. The flight of Illinoisans to other states is intensifying with 2018’s loss of 45,116 net residents, the worst of five years of consistent, dropping population. …Illinois needs to be adding more taxpayers and businesses, not subtracting them. When politicians raise taxes, they aren’t adding. A switch to a graduated tax would eliminate one of Illinois’ only fishing lures to attract taxpayers and jobs: its constitutionally protected flat income tax. …Pritzker’s proposal, like each tax hike before it, was introduced with no meaningful reform on the spending side of the ledger. This is all about collecting more money. …In fact, the tax hike would come amid promises of spending new billions.

And here’s a quirk that is sure to backfire.

For filers who report income of more than $1 million annually, the 7.95 percent rate would not be marginalized; meaning, it would be applied to every dollar, not just income of more than $1 million. Line up the Allied moving vans for business owners and other high-income families who’ve had a bellyful of one of America’s highest state and local tax burdens.

The Tax Foundation analyzed this part of Pritzker’s plan.

This creates a significant tax cliff, where a person making $1,000,000 pays $70,935 in taxes, while someone earning one dollar more pays $79,500, a difference of $8,565 on a single dollar of income.

That’s quite a marginal tax rate. I suspect even French politicians (as well as Cam Newton) might agree that’s too high.

Though I’m sure that tax lawyers and accountants will applaud since they’ll doubtlessly get a lot of new business from taxpayers who want to avoid that cliff (assuming, of course, that some entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners actually decide to remain in Illinois).

While the tax cliff is awful policy, it’s actually relatively minor compared to the importance of this table in the Tax Foundation report. It shows how the state’s already-low competitiveness ranking will dramatically decline if Pritzker’s class-warfare plan is adopted.

The Illinois Policy Institute has also analyzed the plan.

Unsurprisingly, there will be fewer jobs in the state, with the losses projected to reach catastrophic levels if the new tax scheme is adjusted to finance all of the Pritzker’s new spending.

And when tax rates go up – and they will if states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and California are any indication – that will mean very bad news for middle class taxpayers.

The governor is claiming they will be protected. But once the politicians get the power to tax one person at a higher rate, it’s just a matter of time before they tax everyone at higher rates.

Here’s IPI’s look at projected tax rates based on three different scenarios.

The bottom line is that the middle class will suffer most, thanks to fewer jobs and higher taxes.

Rich taxpayer will be hurt as well, but they have the most escape options, whether they move out of the state or rely on tax avoidance strategies.

Let’s close with a few observations about the state’s core problem of too much spending.

Steve Cortes, writing for Real Clear Politics, outlines the problems in his home state.

…one class of people has found a way to prosper: public employees. …over 94,000 total public employees and retirees in Illinois command $100,000+ salaries from taxpayers…former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who earned a $140,000 pension for his eight years of service in the Illinois legislature. …Such public-sector extravagance has fiscally transformed Illinois into America’s Greece – only without all the sunshine, ouzo, and amazing ruins.

So nobody should be surprised to learn that the burden of state spending has been growing at an unsustainable rate.

Indeed, over the past 20 years, state spending has ballooned from $34 billion to $86 billion according to the Census Bureau. At the risk of understatement, the politicians in Springfield have not been obeying my Golden Rule.

And today’s miserable fiscal situation will get even worse in the near future since Illinois is ranked near the bottom when it comes to setting aside money for lavish bureaucrat pensions and other retirement goodies.

Indeed, paying off the state’s energized bureaucrat lobby almost certainly is the main motive for Pritzker’s tax hike. As as happened in the past, this tax hike is designed to finance bigger government.

Yet that tax hike won’t work.

Massive out-migration already is wreaking havoc with the state’s finances. And if Pritzker gets his tax hike, the exodus will become even more dramatic.

P.S. Keep in mind, incidentally, that all this bad news for Illinois will almost certainly become worse news thanks to the recent tax reform. Restricting the state and local tax deduction means a much smaller implicit federal subsidy for high-tax states.

P.P.S. I created a poll last year and asked people which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse. Illinois already has a big lead, and I won’t be surprised if that lead expands if Pritzker is able to kill the flat tax.

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Normally when I write about Georgia, it’s to wax poetic about the Glorious Bulldogs. But I’m currently in Tbilisi, the capital of the nation of Georgia, which is wedged between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

So allow me to take this opportunity to highlight the benefits of sweeping pro-market reform. Georgia is ranked #8 according to Economic Freedom of the World and it doesn’t get nearly enough attention considering that lofty score.

This chart from EFW shows Georgia’s score since the reform wave started in 2004.

The fact that Georgia’s score jumped by one full point over 11 years is impressive, but it’s even more impressive to see how the country’s relative ranking has increased from #56 to #8.

Here are the numbers for 2004 and 2015. As you can see, there were particularly dramatic improvements in trade, regulation, and quality of governance (legal system and property rights).

My friend from Georgia, Gia Jandieri, said one of the worst legacies of Soviet rule was corruption. He and his colleagues at the local pro-market think tank explained to policymakers that reducing the size and scope of government was a good strategy to address this problem.

And they were right.

Georgia was ranked near the bottom by Transparency International in 2004, scoring just a 2 (on a 1-10 scale) and tied for #133 out of 146 nations. Now Georgia’s score has jumped to 56 (on a 1-100 scale), which puts it #46 out of 180 nations.

And a big reason why corruption has plummeted is that you no longer need all sorts of permits when setting up a business. Indeed, Georgia ranks #9 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business.

For what it’s worth, Georgia is only three spots behind the United States (the previous year, they were eight spots behind America).

And I definitely shouldn’t forget to mention that Georgia is part of the global flat tax revolution.

So what does all this mean? Well, according to both the IMF data and the Maddison database, per-capita GDP in Georgia has more than doubled since pro-market reforms were enacted.

In other words, ordinary people have been the winners, thanks to a shift to capitalism.

P.S. Since I just wrote about my visit to the anti-Nazi/anti-Marxist House of Terror Museum in Budapest, I should mention that the “lowlight” of my visit to Georgia was seeing Stalin’s boyhood home earlier today. I realize “thumbs down” is a grossly inadequate way of expressing disapproval for a tyrant who butchered millions of people, but I didn’t want to get arrested for urinating in public.

I wonder if Hitler’s boyhood home still exists? I could visit and then say I covered both ends of the socialist spectrum.

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The best policy for a state (assuming it wants growth and competitiveness) is to have no income tax. Along with a modest burden of government spending, of course.

The next-best approach is for a state to have a flat tax. If nothing else, a flat tax inevitably will have a reasonable rate since it’s politically difficult to pillage everyone (though Illinois is trying very hard to be an exception to that rule).

Moreover, a flat tax also sends a signal that politicians in the state don’t (or can’t) play the divide-and-conquer game of periodically raising taxes on different income groups.

Today, we have some good news. Kentucky has ditched its so-called progressive income tax and joined the flat tax club. The Tax Foundation has the details (including the changes in the state’s ranking).

…legislators in Kentucky overrode Governor Matt Bevin’s veto to pass HB 366, a tax reform package, in the last few days of the session. Ultimately, HB 366…increases Kentucky’s ranking on the State Business Tax Climate Index from 33rd to 18th. …Here’s how HB 366 changes Kentucky’s tax code: Replacing the current six-bracket individual income tax, which has a top rate of 6.0 percent, with a 5 percent single rate individual income tax; …Replacing the current three-bracket corporate income tax, with its top rate of 6.0 percent, with a 5 percent flat rate; …Expanding the sales tax base to include select services…; and Raising the cigarette tax from 60 cents to $1.10 per pack. …the changes in this tax reform package dramatically improve the state’s tax climate. By broadening bases while lowering rates, starting to correct the inequities in the sales tax base, and taking steps to make the state more friendly to investment, policymakers in the state took a responsible approach to comprehensive tax reform.

Kentucky will have a better tax system, but there is a dark lining to the silver cloud of reform.

The legislation is a net tax increase, meaning state politicians will have more money to spend (which is a variable that is not included in the Tax Foundation’s Business Tax Climate Index).

As a big fan of the no-tax-hike pledge, that makes me sympathetic to some of those who opposed the legislation.

But I confess that I’m nonetheless happy that there’s now another state with a flat tax.

Which motivated me to create a five-column ranking for states with regards to the issue of personal income tax.

The best states are in the first column, since they don’t impose any income tax. The second-best option is a flat tax, and then I have three options for so-called progressive tax regimes. A “low-rate” state means the top bracket is less than 5 percent and a “class-warfare” state means the top bracket is higher than 8 percent (with other states in a middle group).

Kentucky has moved from the fourth column to the second column, which is a nice step. Very similar to what North Carolina did a few years ago.

Kansas, by contrast, recently went from the fourth column to the third column and then back to the fourth column.

And I may have to create a special sixth column for states such as California.

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I strongly applauded the tax reform plan that was enacted in December, especially the lower corporate tax rate and the limit on the deduction for state and local taxes.

But I’m not satisfied. Our long-run goal should be fundamental tax reform. And that means replacing the current system with a simple and fair flat tax.

And the recent tax plan only took a small step in that direction. How small? Well, the Tax Foundation just calculated that it only improved the United States from #30 to #25 in their International Tax Competitiveness Ranking. In other words, we have a long way to go before we catch up to Estonia.

 

It’s possible, of course, to apply different weights and come up with a different list. I think the Tax Foundation’s numbers could be improved, for instance, by including a measure of the aggregate tax burden. And that presumably would boost the U.S. score.

But the fact would remain that the U.S. score would be depressingly low. In other words, the internal revenue code is still a self-imposed wound and huge improvements are still necessary.

That’s why we need another round of tax reform, based on the three core principles of good tax policy.

  1. Lower tax rates
  2. Less double taxation
  3. Fewer loopholes

But how is tax reform possible in a fiscal environment of big government and rising deficits?

This is a challenge. In an ideal world, there would be accompanying budget reforms to save money, thus creating leeway for tax reform to be a net tax cut.

But even in the current fiscal environment, tax reform is possible if policy makers finance pro-growth reforms by closing undesirable loopholes.

Indeed, that’s basically what happened in the recent tax plan. The lower corporate rate was financed by restricting the state and local tax deduction and a few other changes. The budget rules did allow for a modest short-run tax cut, but the overall package was revenue neutral in the long run (i.e., starting in 2027).

It’s now time to repeat this exercise.

The Congressional Budget Office periodically issues a report on Budget Options, which lists all sort of spending reforms and tax increases, along with numbers showing what those changes would mean to the budget over the next 10 years.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this report because it is too limited on the spending side. You won’t find fleshed-out options to shut down departments, for instance, which is unfortunate given the target-rich environment (including TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture).

And on the tax side, it has a lengthy list of tax hikes, generally presented as ways to finance an ever-expanding burden of government spending. The list must be akin to porn for statists like Bernie Sanders.

It includes new taxes.

And it includes increases in existing taxes.

But the CBO report also includes some tax preferences that could be used to finance good tax reforms.

Here are four provisions of the tax code that should be the “pay-fors” in a new tax reform plan.

We’ll start with two that are described in the CBO document.

Further reductions in itemized deductions – The limit on the state and local tax deduction should be the first step. The entire deduction could be repealed as part of a second wave of tax reform. And the same is true for the home mortgage interest deduction and the charitable contributions deduction.

Green-energy pork – The House version of tax reform gutted many of the corrupt tax preferences for green energy. Unfortunately, those changes were not included in the final bill. But the silver lining to that bad decision is that those provisions can be used to finance good reforms in a new bill.

Surprisingly, the CBO report overlooks or only gives cursory treatment to a couple of major tax preferences that each could finance $1 trillion or more of pro-growth changes over the next 10 years.

Municipal bond interest – Under current law, there is no federal tax on the interest paid to owners of bonds issued by state and local governments. This “muni-bond” loophole is very bad tax policy since it creates an incentive that diverts capital from private business investment to subsidizing the profligacy of cities like Chicago and states like California.

Healthcare exclusion – Current law also allows a giant tax break for fringe benefits. When companies purchase health insurance plans for employees, that compensation escapes both payroll taxes and income taxes. Repealing – or at least capping – this exclusion could raise a lot of money for pro-growth reforms (and it would be good healthcare policy as well).

What’s potentially interesting about the four loopholes listed above is that they all disproportionately benefit rich people. This means that if they are curtailed or repealed and the money as part of tax reform, the left won’t be able to argue that upper-income taxpayers are getting unfair benefits.

Actually, they’ll probably still make their usual class-warfare arguments, but they will be laughably wrong.

The bottom line is that we should have smaller government and less taxation. But even if that’s not immediately possible, we can at least figure out revenue-neutral reforms that will produce a tax system that does less damage to growth, jobs, and competitiveness.

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To put it mildly, Italy’s economy is moribund. There’s been almost no growth for the entire 21st century.

Bad government policy deserves much of the blame.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, Italy is ranked only 54th, the worst score in Western Europe other than Greece. The score for fiscal policy is abysmal and regulatory policy and rule of law are also problem areas.

Moreover, thanks to decades of excessive government spending, the nation also has very high levels of public debt. Over the last few years, it has received official and unofficial bailouts from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, and Italy is considered at high risk for a budgetary meltdown when another recession occurs.

And let’s not forget that the country faces a demographic death spiral.

You don’t have to believe me (though you should).

Others have reached similar conclusions. Here are excerpts from some VoxEU research.

Italy will increasingly need to rely on growth fundamentals to sustain its public debt. Unfortunately, the fundamentals do not look good. Not only was Italy severely battered by Europe’s double dip recession (its GDP is lower today than it was in 2005) but when we look at the growth of labour productivity…, we can see that Italy has been stagnating since the mid-90s. …At the end of 2016, Italy’s central government debt was the third-largest in the world…, at $2.3 trillion. …a debt crisis in Italy could trigger a global financial catastrophe, and could very possibly lead to the disintegration of the Eurozone. To avoid such a scenario, Italy must revive growth…a tentative policy prescription is for Italy, to remove those institutional barriers (such as corruption, judicial inefficiency and government interference in the financial sector) that stifle merit and contribute to cronyism.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute paints a grim picture.

Italy’s economic performance since the Euro’s 1999 launch has been appalling. …an over-indebted Italian economy needs a coherent and reform-minded government to get the country quickly onto a higher economic growth path. …since 2000, German per capita income has increased by around 20 percent, that in Italy has actually declined by 5 percent. Talk about two lost economic decades for the country. …if Italy is to get itself onto a higher economic growth path, it has to find ways improve the country’s labor market productivity… It has to do so through major economic reforms, especially to its very rigid labor market…being the Eurozone’s third largest economy, Italy is simply too big to fail for the Euro to survive in its present form. However, it is also said that being roughly ten times the size of the Greek economy, a troubled Italian economy would be too big for Germany to save.

Even the IMF thinks pro-market reforms are needed.

Average Italians still earn less than two decades ago. Their take-home pay took a dip during the crisis and has still not yet caught up with the growth in key euro area countries. …a key question for policymakers is how to enhance incomes and productivity… In the decade before the global financial crisis, Italy’s spending grew faster than its income, in important part because of increases in pensions. …The tax burden is heavy…a package of high-quality measures on the spending and revenue side the country could balance the need to support growth on the one hand with the imperative of reducing debt on the other. Such a package includes…lower pension spending that is the second highest in the euro area; and lower tax rates on labor, and bringing more enterprises and persons into the tax net. …together with reforms of wage bargaining and others outlined above, can raise Italian incomes by over 10 percent, create jobs, improve competitiveness, and substantially lower public debt.

There’s a chance, however, that all this bad news may pave the way for good news. There are elections in early March and Silvio Berlusconi, considered a potential frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, has proposed a flat tax.

Bloomberg has some of the details.

A flat tax for all and 2 million new jobs are among the top priorities in the draft program of former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party… The program aims to relaunch the euro region’s third-biggest economy…and recoup the ground lost in the double-dip, record-long recession of the 2008-2013 period. …Forza Italia’s plan doesn’t cite a level for the planned flat income tax for individuals, Berlusconi has said in recent television interviews it should be 23 percent or even below that. The written draft plan says a flat tax would also apply to companies. The program pursues the balanced budget of the Italian state and calls public debt below 100 percent of GDP a “feasible” goal. It is currently above 130 percent.

Wow. As a matter of principle, I think a 23-percent rate is too high.

But compared to Italy’s current tax regime, 23 percent will be like a Mediterranean version of Hong Kong.

So can this happen? I’m not holding my breath.

The budget numbers will be the biggest obstacle to tax reform. The official number crunchers, both inside the Italian government and at pro-tax bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, will fret about the potential for revenue losses.

In part, those concerns are overblown. The high tax rates of the current system have hindered economic vitality and helped to produce very high levels of evasion. If a simple, low-rate flat tax is adopted, two things will happen.

  • There will be more revenue than expected because of better economic performance.
  • There will be more revenue than expected because of a smaller underground economy.

These things are especially likely in Italy, where dodging tax authorities is a national tradition.

That being said, “more revenue than expected” is not the same as “more revenue.” The Laffer Curve simply says that good policy produced revenue feedback, not that tax cuts always pay for themselves (that only happens in rare circumstances).

So if Italy wants tax reform, it will also need spending reform. As I noted when commenting on tax reform in Belgium, you can’t have a bloated public sector and a decent tax system.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too difficult. I pointed out way back in 2011 that some modest fiscal restraint could quickly pay big dividends for the nation.

But can a populist-minded Berlusconi (assuming he even wins) deliver? Based on his past record, I’m not optimistic.

Though I’ll close on a hopeful note. Berlusconi and Trump are often linked because of their wealth, their celebrity, and their controversial lives. Well, I wasn’t overly optimistic that Trump was going to deliver on his proposal for a big reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Yet it happened. Not quite the 15 percent rate he wanted, but 21 percent was a huge improvement.

Could Berlusconi – notwithstanding previous failures to reform bad policies – also usher in a pro-growth tax code?

To be honest, I have no idea. We don’t know if he is serious. And, even if his intentions are good, Italy’s parliamentary system is different for America’s separation-of-powers systems and his hands might be tied by partners in a coalition government. Though I’m encouraged by the fact that occasional bits of good policy are possible in that nation.

And let’s keep in mind that there’s another populist party that could win the election And its agenda, as reported by Bloomberg, includes reckless ideas like a “basic income.”

…economic malaise is increasingly common across Italy, where unemployment tops 11 percent and the number of people living at or below the poverty line has nearly tripled since 2006, to 4.7 million last year, or almost 8 percent of the population… “Poverty will be center stage in the campaign,” says Giorgio Freddi, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna. …Five Star is a fast-growing group fueled by anger at the old political class. …a €500 ($590) monthly subsidy to the disadvantaged…is a key plank in Five Star’s national platform, and the group’s leaders have promised to quickly implement such a program if they take power. Beppe Grillo, the former television comedian who co-founded the party, says fighting poverty should be a top priority. A basic income can “give people back their dignity,”… The Five Star program echoes universal basic income schemes being considered around the world. …Five Star says the plan would cost €17 billion a year, funded in part by…tax hikes on banks, insurance companies, and gambling.

Ugh. Basic income is a very troubling idea.

I’ve already speculated about whether Italy has “passed the point of no return.” If the Five Star Movement wins the election and makes government even bigger, I think I’ll have an answer to that question.

Which helps to explain why I wrote that Sardinians should secede and become part of Switzerland (where a basic income scheme was overwhelmingly rejected).

In conclusion, I suppose I should point out that a flat tax would be very beneficial for Italy’s economy, but other market-friendly reforms are just as important.

P.S. Some people, such as Eduardo Porter in the New York Times, actually argue that the United States should be more like Italy. I’m not kidding.

P.P.S. When asked about my favorite anecdote about Italian government, I’m torn. Was it when a supposedly technocratic government appointed the wrong man to a position that shouldn’t even exist? Or was it when a small town almost shut down because so many bureaucrats were arrested for fraud?

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Earlier this year, I pointed out that Trump and Republicans could learn a valuable lesson from Maine Governor Paul LePage on how to win a government shutdown.

Today, let’s look at a lesson from North Carolina on how to design and implement pro-growth tax policy.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Senator Thom Tillis from the Tarheel State explains what happened when he helped enact a flat tax as Speaker of the State House.

In 2013, when I was speaker of the state House, North Carolina passed a serious tax-reform package. It was based on three simple principles: simplify the tax code, lower rates, and broaden the base. We replaced the progressive rate schedule for the personal income tax with a flat rate of 5.499%. That was a tax-rate cut for everyone, since the lowest bracket previously was 6%. We also increased the standard deduction for all tax filers and repealed the death tax. We lowered the 6.9% corporate income tax to 6% in 2014 and 5% in 2015. …North Carolina’s corporate tax fell to 3% in 2017 and is on track for 2.5% in 2019. We paid for this tax relief by expanding the tax base, closing loopholes, paring down spending, reducing the cost of entitlement programs, and eliminating “refundable” earned-income tax credits for people who pay no taxes.

Wow, good tax policy enabled by spending restraint. Exactly what I’ve been recommending for Washington.

Have these reforms generated good results?  The Senator says yes.

More than 350,000 jobs have been created, and the unemployment rate has been cut nearly in half. The state’s economy has jumped from one of the slowest growing in the country to one of the fastest growing.

What about tax revenue? Has the state government been starved of revenue?

Nope.

…a well-mobilized opposition on the left stoked fears that tax reform would cause shrinking state revenues and require massive budget cuts. This argument has been proved wrong. State revenue has increased each year since tax reform was enacted, and budget surpluses of more than $400 million are the new norm. North Carolina lawmakers have wisely used these surpluses to cut tax rates even further for families and businesses.

Senator Tillis didn’t have specific details on tax collections in his column. I got suspicious that he might be hiding some unflattering numbers, so I went to the Census Bureau’s database on state government finances. But it turns out the Senator is guilty of underselling his state’s reform. Tax revenue has actually grown faster in the Tarheel State, compared the average of all other states (many of which have imposed big tax hikes).

Another example of the Laffer Curve in action.

And here’s a chart from North Carolina’s Office of State Budget and Management. As you can see, revenues are rising rather than falling.

By the way, I’m guessing that the small drop in 2014 and the big increase in 2015 were caused by taxpayers delaying income to take advantage of the new, friendlier tax system. We saw the same thing in the early 1980s when some taxpayer deferred income because of the multi-year phase-in of the Reagan tax cuts.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to North Carolina.

Here’s what the Tax Foundation wrote earlier this year.

After the most dramatic improvement in the Index’s history—from 41st to 11th in one year—North Carolina has continued to improve its tax structure, and now imposes the lowest-rate corporate income tax in the country at 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. This rate cut improves the state from 6th to 4th on the corporate income tax component, the second-best ranking (after Utah) for any state that imposes a major corporate tax. (Six states forego corporate income taxes, but four of them impose economically distortive gross receipts taxes in their stead.) An individual income tax reduction, from 5.75 to 5.499 percent, is scheduled for 2017. At 11th overall, North Carolina trails only Indiana and Utah among states which do not forego any of the major tax types.

And in a column for Forbes, Patrick Gleason was even more effusive.

…the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature enacted a new budget today that cuts the state’s personal and corporate income tax rates. Under this new budget, the state’s flat personal income tax rate will drop from 5.499 to 5.25% in January of 2019, and the corporate tax rate will fall from 3% to 2.5%, which represents a 16% reduction in one of the most harmful forms of taxation. …This new budget, which received bipartisan support from a three-fifths super-majority of state lawmakers, builds upon the Tar Heel State’s impressive record of pro-growth, rate-reducing tax reform. …It’s remarkable how much progress North Carolina has made in improving its business tax climate in recent years, going from having one of the worst businesses tax climates in the country (ranked 44th), to one of the best today (now 11th best according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation).

Most importantly, state lawmakers put the brakes on spending, thus making the tax reforms more political and economically durable and successful.

Since they began cutting taxes in 2013, North Carolina legislators have kept annual increases in state spending below the rate of population growth and inflation. As a result, at the same time North Carolina taxpayers have been allowed to keep billions more of their hard-earned income, the state has experienced repeated budget surpluses. As they did in 2015, North Carolina legislators are once again returning surplus dollars back to taxpayers with the personal and corporate income tax rate cuts included in the state’s new budget.

Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this 2016 editorial from the Charlotte Observer. If nothing else, the headline is an amusing reminder that journalists have a hard time understanding that higher tax rates don’t necessarily mean more revenue and that lower tax rates don’t automatically lead to less revenue.

A curious trend you might have noticed of late: North Carolina’s leaders keep cutting taxes, yet the state keeps taking in more money. We saw it happen last year, when the state found itself with a $400 million surplus, despite big cuts in personal and corporate tax rates. …Now comes word that in the first six months of the 2016 budget year (July to December), the state has taken in $588 million more than it did in the same period the previous year. …the overall surge in tax receipts certainly shouldn’t go unnoticed, especially since most of the increased collections for the 2016 cycle so far come from higher individual income tax receipts. They’re up $489 million, 10 percent above the same period of the prior year.

Though the opinion writers in Charlotte shouldn’t feel too bad. Their counterparts at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have made the same mistake. As did a Connecticut TV station.

P.S. My leftist friends doubtlessly will cite Kansas as a counter-example to North Carolina. According the narrative, tax cuts failed and were repealed by a Republican legislature. I did a thorough analysis of what happened in the Sunflower State earlier this year. I pointed out that tax cuts are hard to sustain without some degree of spending restraint, but also noted that the net effect of Brownback’s tenure is a permanent reduction in the tax burden. If that’s a win for the left, I hope for similar losses in Washington. It’s also worth comparing income growth in Kansas, California, and Texas if you want to figure out what tax policies are good for ordinary people.

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While I realize there’s zero hope of ripping up America’s awful tax code and getting a simple and fair flat tax, I’m nonetheless hopeful that there will be some meaningful incremental changes as part of the current effort to achieve some sort of tax reform.

A package that lowers the corporate rate, replaces depreciation with expensing, and ends the death tax would be very good for growth, and those good reforms could be at least partially financed by eliminating the state and local tax deduction and curtailing business interest deductions so that debt and equity are on a level playing field.

All that sounds good, and a package like this should be feasible since Republicans control both Congress and the White House (especially now that the BAT is off the table), but I warn in this interview that there are lots of big obstacles that could cause tax reform to become a disaster akin to the Obamacare repeal effort.

Here’s my list of conflicts that need to be solved in order to get some sort of plan through Congress and on to the President’s desk.

  • Carried interest – Trump wants to impose a higher capital gains tax on a specific type of investment, but this irks many congressional GOPers who have long understood that any capital gains tax is a form of double taxation and should be abolished. The issue apparently has some symbolic importance to the President and it could become a major stumbling block if he digs in his heels.
  • Tax cut or revenue neutrality – Budget rules basically require that tax cuts expire after 10 years. To avoid this outcome (which would undermine the pro-growth impact of any reforms), many lawmakers want a revenue-neutral package that could be permanent. But that means coming up with tax increases to offset tax cuts. That’s okay if undesirable tax preferences are being eliminated to produce more revenue, but defenders of those loopholes will then lobby against the plan.
  • Big business vs small business – Everyone agrees that America’s high corporate tax rate is bad news for competitiveness and should be reduced. The vast majority of small businesses, however, pay taxes through “Schedule C” of the individual income tax, so they want lower personal rates to match lower corporate rates. That’s a good idea, of course, but would have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.
  • Budget balance – Republicans have long claimed that a major goal is balancing the budget within 10 years. That’s certainly achievable with a modest amount of spending restraint. And it’s even relatively simple to have a big tax cut and still achieve balance in 10 years with a bit of extra spending discipline. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s very little appetite for spending restraint in the White House or Capitol Hill, and this may hinder passage of a tax plan.
  • Middle class tax relief – The main focus of the tax plan is boosting growth and competitiveness by reducing the burden on businesses and investment. That’s laudable, but critics will say “the rich” will get most of the tax relief. And even though the rich already pay most of the taxes and even though the rest of us will benefit from faster growth, Republicans are sensitive to that line of attack. So they will want to include some sort of provision designed for the middle class, but that will have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.

There’s another complicating factor. At the risk of understatement, President Trump generates controversy. And this means he doesn’t have much power to use the bully pulpit.

Though I point out in this interview that this doesn’t necessarily cripple tax reform since the President’s most important role is to simply sign the legislation.

Before the 2016 election, I was somewhat optimistic about tax reform.

A few months ago, I was very pessimistic.

I now think something will happen, if for no other reason than Republicans desperately want to achieve something after botching Obamacare repeal.

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Every so often, I mock the New York Times for biased or sloppy analysis.

Now there’s a new column by David Leonhardt that cries out for correction.

He’s very upset that upper-income people are enjoying higher incomes over time.

A…team of inequality researchers…has been getting some attention recently for a chart… It shows the change in income between 1980 and 2014 for every point on the distribution, and it neatly summarizes the recent soaring of inequality. …the very affluent, and only the very affluent, have received significant raises in recent decades. This line captures the rise in inequality better than any other chart or simple summary that I’ve seen. …only very affluent families — those in roughly the top 1/40th of the income distribution — have received…large raises. …The basic problem is that most families used to receive something approaching their fair share of economic growth, and they don’t anymore.

And here’s the chart that ostensibly shows that the economy is broken.

And what is the solution for this alleged problem? Class-warfare taxation and bigger government, of course.

…there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s growth — the fact that our economic bounty flows overwhelmingly to a small share of the population. Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation.

Whenever I see this type of data, I’m automatically suspicious for two reasons.

  1. The people at various income levels in 1980 aren’t the same as the people at those income levels in 2014. In other words, there is considerable income mobility, with some high-income people falling to the middle of the pack, or even below, and some low-income people climbing the middle of the income distribution, or even higher. At the very least, this type of chart exaggerates the degree to which “the rich are getting richer.”
  2. Moreover, rich people getting rich doesn’t imply that poor people are losing income. This chart shows that all income percentiles generally enjoy more income with each passing year, so it isn’t grossly misleading like the charts that incorrectly imply income gains for the rich are at the expense of the poor. Nonetheless, a reader won’t have any way of knowing that more inequality and poverty reduction can go hand in hand.

But I think this chart from the New York Times inadvertently shows something very interesting.

As shown in the excerpt above, Mr. Leonhardt wants us to look at this data and support bigger government and class warfare.

Yet look at the annual data. The chart above has the numbers for 1980 and 2014. To the right, I’ve put together the numbers for 1987, 1996, and 2004.

One obvious conclusion is that prosperity (as shown by rising income levels) was much more broadly and equally shared in the 1980s and 1990s, back when the economy was moving in the direction of free markets and smaller government under both Reagan and Clinton.

But look at what happened last decade, and what’s been happening this decade. Government has been expanding (as measured by falling scores from Economic Freedom of the World).

And that’s the period, thanks to Bush-Obama statism, when lower-income people began to lag and income gains were mostly concentrated at the top of the income redistribution.

As the very least, this certainly suggests that Leonhardt’s policy agenda is misguided. Assuming, of course, the goal is to enable more prosperity for the less fortunate.

I’ll add another point. I suspect that big income gains for the rich in recent years are the result of easy-money policies from the Federal Reserve, which have – at least in part – pushed up the value of financial assets.

The bottom line is that Leonhardt seems motivated by ideology, so he bends the data in hopes of justifying his leftist agenda.

What makes this sad is that the New York Times used to be far more sensible.

Back in 1982, shortly after the Professors Hall and Rabushka unveiled their plan for a flat tax, here’s what the New York Times opined.

Who can defend a tax code so complicated that even the most educated family needs a professional to decide how much it owes? …President Reagan’s tax package will eventually roll back rates to the level of the late 1970’s, but it will not simplify the code or rid it of provisions that penalize hard work and reward unproductive investment. …the income base that is taxed has been so eroded by exceptions and preferences that the rates on what is left to tax must be kept high. Thus, the tax on an extra dollar of income for a typical family earning $20,000 is 28 percent and progressively higher for the more affluent. …The most dramatic fresh start, without changing the total amount collected, would be a flat-rate tax levied on a greatly broadened income base. Senator Helms of North Carolina would rid the law of virtually every tax preference and tax all income at about 12 percent. Representative Panetta of Cali-fornia would retain a few preferences and tax at a flat 19 percent. Either approach would greatly improve the efficiency of the system, simplifying calculations and increasing the incentive to earn.

And here’s what the editors wrote about Governor Jerry Brown’s modified flat tax in 199s. They started by praising the core principles of the flat tax.

Taking Jerry Brown seriously means taking his flat tax proposal seriously. Needlessly, he’s made that hard to do. By being careless, the former California Governor has bent a good idea out of shape. …Mr. Brown’s basic idea — creating a simplified code that encourages saving — is exactly right. …The present tax code is riddled with wasteful contradictions and complexity. For example, profit from corporate investment is taxed twice — when earned by the corporation and again when distributed to shareholders. That powerfully discourages savings and investment — the exact opposite of what the economy needs to grow. The remedy is, in a word, integration, meshing personal and corporate codes so that the brunt of taxes falls on consumption, not saving. …there is a reform that achieves all these objectives. Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, economists at the Hoover Institution, have proposed an integrated code that applies a single rate to both personal and corporate income. Their plan wipes away most deductions and exemptions, permitting a low tax rate of 19 percent. …Under the Hall-Rabushka plan, individuals would pay taxes on earnings and corporations would pay tax on interest, dividends and profits. That way, every dollar of income would be taxed once and only once.

And they rightly criticized Governor Brown for violating those principles.

Jerry Brown borrowed some of the elements of Hall-Rabushka. He too would eliminate wasteful exemptions, adopt a single rate and favor saving by exempting corporate investment. But at that point, he turns glib. He would impose on corporations a value-added tax, similar to a national sales tax. That eliminates the elegant symmetry of Hall-Rabushka. Indirectly, Mr. Brown’s variation would tax some income twice — which is why his supposed 13 percent rate would collect revenue equal to about 20 percent of total income.

Wow, this isn’t what I would write, but it’s within shouting distance.

The editors back then understood the importance of low marginal tax rates and they recognized that double taxation is a bad thing.

Now check out what the New York Times believes today about tax reform.

First and foremost, the editors want more money taken from the productive economy to expand the D.C. swamp.

Real reform would honestly confront the fact that in the next decade we will need roughly $4.5 trillion more revenue than currently projected to meet our existing commitment…. Even more would be needed if the government were to make greater investments.

And even though class-warfare taxation is unlikely to generate much revenue, the editors want both higher tax rates and more double taxation.

…it would make sense to increase the top rates on them and eliminate a break on income from investments. …the richest 1 percent pay 33 percent of their total income in taxes; if rates were changed so they paid 40 percent, it would generate $170 billion of revenue in the first year.

The editors want to take one of the most anti-competitive features of the current system and make it even worse.

It would also be a good idea to scale back accelerated depreciation allowances that let businesses write off investments faster than assets actually wear out. Speedy write-offs for luxuries like corporate jets could be eliminated altogether.

They also want to further undermine the ability of U.S. companies to compete on a level playing field in foreign markets.

…they should agree to close…the ability of corporations to defer tax on profits earned abroad.

In a display of knee-jerk statism, the editors also want new tax burdens to finance an ever-larger burden of government. Such as an energy tax.

New forms of taxation are also needed. Even prominent Republicans like James Baker III, George Shultz and Henry Paulson Jr. support a carbon tax imposed on emissions to reduce greenhouse gases. …revenue generated by carbon taxes could be used for other purposes as well, including investments in renewable energy and public transportation.

And a tax on financial transactions.

Revenue can also be raised by imposing a tax on the trading of stocks, bonds and derivatives. …Estimates show that a financial transaction tax of even 0.01 percent per trade ($10 on a $100,000 trade) could raise $185 billion over 10 years, enough to finance prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year olds, with money left over.

But the granddaddy of new taxes would be the value-added tax, a money machine for bigger government.

A value-added tax would be akin to a national sales tax, but harder to evade than traditional sales taxes and thus an efficient revenue raiser.

I’m genuinely curious whether there is any type of tax increase the NYT wouldn’t support.

But that’s not really the point of this column. The real lesson is that it’s sad that the editors have gone from being rationally left to being ideologically left.

P.S. I confess that I especially enjoy when the New York Times inadvertently publishes pieces that show the benefits of free markets and personal liberty.

Which is sort of what happened with Leonhardt’s data, which shows more broadly shared prosperity when economic liberty was increasing.

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Fundamental tax reform such as a flat tax should accomplish three big goals.

The good news is that almost all Republicans believe in the first two goals and at least pay lip services to the third goal.

The bad news is that they nonetheless can’t be trusted with tax reform.

Here’s why. Major tax reform is based on the assumption that achieving the first two goals will lower tax revenue and achieving the third goal will generate tax revenue. A reform plan doesn’t have to be “revenue neutral,” of course, but politicians would be very reluctant to vote for a package that substantially reduced tax revenue. So serious proposals have revenue-raising provisions that are roughly similar in magnitude to the revenue-losing provisions.

Here’s the problem.   Notwithstanding lip service, Republicans are not willing to go after major tax loopholes like the healthcare exclusion. And that means that they are looking for other sources of revenue. In some cases, such as the proposal in the House plan to put debt and equity on a level playing field, they come up with decent ideas. In other cases, such as the border-adjustment tax, they come up with misguided ideas.

And some of them are even talking about very bad ideas, such as a value-added tax or carbon tax.

This is why it would be best to set aside tax reform and focus on a more limited agenda, such as a plan to lower the corporate tax rate. I discussed that idea a few weeks ago on Neil Cavuto’s show, and I echoed myself last week in another appearance on Fox Business.

Lest you think I’m being overly paranoid about Republicans doing the wrong thing, here’s what’s being reported in the establishment press.

The Hill is reporting that the Trump Administration is still undecided on the BAT.

The most controversial aspect of the House’s plan is its reliance on border adjustability to tax imports and exempt exports. …the White House has yet to fully embrace it. …If the administration opts against the border-adjustment proposal, it would have to find another way to raise revenue to pay for lowering tax rates.

While I hope the White House ultimately rejects the BAT, that won’t necessarily be good news if the Administration signs on to another new source of revenue.

And that’s apparently under discussion.

The Washington Post last week reported that the White House was looking at other ideas, including a value-added tax and a carbon tax… Even if administration officials are simply batting around ideas, it seems clear that Trump’s team is open to a different approach.

The Associated Press also tries to read the tea leaves and speculates whether the Trump Administration may try to cut or eliminate the Social Security payroll tax.

The administration’s first attempt to write legislation is in its early stages and the White House has kept much of it under wraps. But it has already sprouted the consideration of a series of unorthodox proposals including a drastic cut to the payroll tax, aimed at appealing to Democrats.

I’m not a big fan of fiddling with the payroll tax, and I definitely worry about making major changes.

Why? Because it’s quite likely politicians will replace it with a tax that is even worse.

This would require a new dedicated funding source for Social Security. The change, proposed by a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the Trump administration, would transform Brady’s plan on imports into something closer to a value-added tax by also eliminating the deduction of labor expenses. This would bring it in line with WTO rules and generate an additional $12 trillion over 10 years, according to budget estimates.

Last but not least, the New York Times has a story today on the latest machinations, and it appears that Republicans are no closer to a consensus today than they were the day Trump got inaugurated.

…it is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a simpler system, or even lower tax rates, this time next year. The Trump administration’s tax plan, promised in February, has yet to materialize; a House Republican plan has bogged down, taking as much fire from conservatives as liberals… Speaker Paul D. Ryan built a tax blueprint around a “border adjustment” tax… With no palpable support in the Senate, its prospects appear to be nearly dead. …The president’s own vision for a new tax system is muddled at best. In the past few months, he has called for taxing companies that move operations abroad, waffled on the border tax and, last week, called for a “reciprocal” tax that would match the import taxes other countries impose on the United States.

The report notes that Trump may have a personal reason to oppose one of the provisions of the House plan.

Perhaps the most consequential concern relates to a House Republican proposal to get rid of a rule that lets companies write off the interest they pay on loans — a move real estate developers and Mr. Trump vehemently oppose. Doing so would raise $1 trillion in revenue and reduce the appeal of one of Mr. Trump’s favorite business tools: debt.

From my perspective, the most encouraging part of the story is that the lack of consensus may lead Republicans to my position, which is simply to cut the corporate tax rate.

With little appetite for bipartisanship, many veterans of tax fights and lobbyists in Washington expect that Mr. Trump will ultimately embrace straight tax cuts, with some cleaning up of deductions, and call it a victory.

And I think that would be a victory as well, even though I ultimately want to junk the entire tax code and replace it with a flat tax.

P.S. In an ideal world, tax reform would be financed in large part with spending restraint. Sadly, Washington, DC, isn’t in the same galaxy as that ideal world.

P.P.S. To further explain why Republicans cannot be trusted, even if they mean well, recall that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both included VATs in the tax plans they unveiled during the 2016 presidential campaign.

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February 5 Addendum: For my left-wing friends and others who are bending over backwards to misread this column, saying nice things about Russia’s flat tax doesn’t mean (as noted below) that Russia’s overall economic policy is admirable. And it obviously doesn’t imply anything favorable about Russia’s dismal political system or Putin himself. I like the Russia flat tax for the same reason that I like trade liberalization in China and Social Security reform in Chile. Every so often, bad governments stumble upon a good policy and I think that’s laudable because I want people to have better lives. Sadly, I don’t think the Putin-Trump “bromance” will lead to a flat tax in the US, but that would be an unexpected and nice silver lining to that dark cloud.

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I’m obviously a big fan of a simple and fair flat tax.

In part, my support for fundamental reform is driven by my desire for a low rate, for no double taxation, and for the elimination of loopholes. Those are the economic reasons for reform.

But I also am very much motivated by the moral case for tax reform. It offends me that we have 70,000-plus pages of special favors for the friends and contributors of politicians. I value the rule of law, so I want everyone in America to play by the same rules.

And I confess that I’m jealous that other nations have adopted this common-sense reform while we’re still stuck with a punitive and unfair internal revenue code.

But the silver lining to this dark cloud is that we can learn from the experiences of other nations.

A recent report looks at what’s happened in Russia following the introduction of the flat tax.

On December 23, 2016, in his annual end-of-year press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that despite his “many doubts” at the initial stage of introducing a flat 13-percent personal income tax in 2001, tax reform in Russia has been a major success. …Putin claimed that in 2001, when the tax reform was introduced, he was “concerned that the budget would lose revenue, because those who earn more would have to pay less.” He said he was also concerned “whether social justice would be ensured and so on.” However, as the reform gained traction, “personal-income tax collection has increased – pay attention – seven times,” Putin said. …Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, told Polygraph.info that two factors contributed to a significant increase in personal income tax revenue: “the low rate made tax evasion and avoidance much less attractive, and increased incentives to earn income.”

I appreciated the chance to talk to the reporter and get quoted in the story, but I am naturally suspicious about the claims of government officials. So I wondered about Putin’s claim about a seven-fold increase in income tax receipts.

I know there were good results in the first few years after reform. I authored a study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity last decade, and there was data at the time showing an impressive increase in revenues from the personal income tax. That data certainly bolstered the argument for tax reform.

But we now have almost another full decade of data. Has the Russian flat tax continued to produce good results? Is the low tax rate continuing to encourage both the earning of income and reporting of income?

To answer these questions, I had my intern cull through various IMF Article IV consultation reports on Russia to get up-to-date data on personal income tax receipts in Russia. And what did I learn? Was Putin wrong?

Yes, Putin’s claim of a seven-fold increase in tax receipts was completely misleading. There was actually a 10-fold jump in personal income tax revenue.

In other words, the flat tax is a success. In today’s Washington, you would say the Russian government is winning bigly.

But there are caveats.

  • Russia has experienced significant inflation, at least compared to the United States. So if you factor out increases in the price level, personal income tax revenues are “only” about three times higher today than they were before the flat tax was implemented.
  • Moreover, a flat tax is not a panacea. Notwithstanding the good results it has delivered, Russia has an unimpressive ranking of #102 from Economic Freedom of the World. In other words, there’s still a long way to go if Russia wants to become a rich nation.

But these caveats don’t change the main conclusion, which is that the Russian flat tax works. Just as it works in Hong Kong. And just as it works in Jersey. It works wherever it is tried.

Let’s look at another example. Writing for Forbes, Fahim Mostafa explains that the Hungarian flat tax also has been a big success.

A fair number of Eastern European nations have…chosen this system of taxation over its progressive counterpart. Among the latest to join this club is Hungary, replacing progressive rates from 17% to 32% with a flat tax of 16% on income effective from 2012 onward… There is reason to believe that the implementation of this system has largely benefited the Eastern European nation. …The results from the following years have been remarkable. Total government revenue in 2015 (the last year for which OECD data is available at this time) stood at 23.8% higher than the maximum prior to the flat tax reform… According to the OECD, public debt in Hungary has been decreasing steadily since 2011. Increased revenues allow for this debt to be paid. …The flat tax has boosted consumption in Hungary, greatly increasing taxes collected from sales. Total tax revenue has shot up despite the massive cuts made to income tax. Politicians seeking to implement this policy in their own nation would do well to point out the example of Hungary.

I’ll add two comments.

First, the same caveats I applied to Russia apply to Hungary. The country is ranked #57 from Economic Freedom of the World, so it’s great that there’s a successful flat tax, but a lot more reform is needed for Hungary to become a role model for overall market-friendly reform.

Second, the author should probably make a change to the column. Instead of writing that “tax revenue has shot up despite the massive cuts,” it might be more accurate to write that “tax revenue has shot up because of the massive cuts.”

Yes, every so often you can find examples of nations being on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve, either because tax rates are ridiculously high (the U.S. before Reagan) or because a nation is developing or transitioning and needs low tax burdens to boost growth and encourage compliance.

It’s never my goal to boost revenue for governments, of course, but there’s surely a lesson to be learned about the benefits of low tax rates when both taxpayers and the government wind up with more money.

P.S. If we really want to learn from other places about the ideal tax system, we should check out Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands.

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On December 24, I wrote that all I wanted for Christmas is a spending cap.

Alas, Santa did not manage to stuff that long-overdue policy down my chimney.

But I’m not surprised. For years, the flat tax was on my Christmas list and that never happened either. I guess I must have been bad. Or maybe Santa is a leftist or socialist.

So instead of simple and fair tax system under the tree, I kept getting lumps of coal in my stocking, which are cleverly disguised as new provisions of a metastasizing internal revenue code.

I’m still allowed to dream, however, so I want to share a new video about the flat tax from Prager University. It’s narrated by Steve Forbes, who (along with Dick Armey) helped popularize the flat tax in the 1990s.

Very compelling. Perhaps even more so than my video on the flat tax.

So what are the chances that we’ll ever get this type of reform?

In a column she wrote last year for Time, Amity Shlaes was somewhat optimistic that a flat tax has untapped support. She cited the fact that most GOP candidates either endorsed some form of flat tax or proposed changes that would move us closer to a flat tax.

The simple levy hasn’t been this popular since 1996, when Steve Forbes campaigned with the promise of a universal 17% income tax rate. Several of this campaign’s flat taxers are actually out-Forbesing Forbes. Ted Cruz is calling for a flat 10%. Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul also propose some kind of flat rate. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump pay their respects with plans that reduce the number of tax brackets.

She explains why the current approach is arbitrary and unfair.

…tinkering is the great weakness of a progressive structure. For if one authority wins license to tinker, so may another. Eventually every interest group convinces others that it is only fair to introduce its ornaments, its exceptions, or its doodads to a tax code. A progressive structure grows organically and disproportionately, becoming a monument to…crony capitalism.

And even though people get tricked when they equate “progressivity” and “progress,” there’s an underlying belief in equal treatment that pushes them in the direction of a flat tax.

In a paper recently presented at the American Accounting Association, scholars Michael and Theresa Roberts report that nearly 8 in 10 business students they polled believe a progressive income tax to be fairer than a flat tax. Still, when asked to actually ascertain a fair amount for a tax payment, the vast majority of the same pollees, even self-identified liberals, picked an amount that correlated to a flat, or even a regressive, rate. This suggests that while Americans like the sound of the word “progressive,” even educated citizens don’t necessarily love progressivity’s effect. Whatever they say at a party, people may quietly prefer proportionality to disproportionality… The Roberts-Roberts paper concludes that “a majority of both liberal and conservative Americans may view a flat income tax rate as fairer than progressive income tax rates.”

Amity’s point about “self-identified liberals” is a natural segue to a Forbes column by Rick Ungar. He approaches the topic from a left-of-center perspective and has considerable sympathy for the flat tax. Not because he likes proportionality, per se, but because he recognizes that the current system has been perverted by special interests.

I’ve long been open to the possibility of trying something new… How can a progressive come to the conclusion that the flat tax might be a better way to go? …American progressives have long had an allergic reaction to the very notion of a flat tax…and with good reason. On it’s face, a flat tax (and the many variations of policy included under the name flat tax) is, indeed, a regressive system more likely than not to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the less wealthy. …However, you have to ask whether or not our current progressive system is truly progressive or, in reality, a system that has been so perverted by special interest tax breaks and benefits as to no longer be legitimately described as progressive. …what do you think is contained in all of those 74,000 plus pages in the United States tax code? …When the higher earner is, in reality, paying at a lower tax rate than her employees who earn far less, thanks to all the special interest perversions built into the tax code, that is very much a regressive tax system. …maybe the time has come to try something new.

Though Ungar isn’t quite willing to embrace the flat tax.

There are, however, some conditions to my willingness to get on board—two to be exact. First, I worry about how the flat tax would impact on those who do not earn much money and have to support their families on a salary that makes both feeding and housing that family a constant, painful challenge. …my second concern…what assurances do we have that this new system will not be corrupted just as the present system was corrupted?

The first concern is easy to address. Every flat tax plan has a generous allowance for all households based on family size. This “zero-bracket amount” would be more generous than the combined standard deduction and personal exemptions in the current tax system. Indeed, because of my concerns about people viewing government as being free, I actually think the amount of tax-free income people would be able to earn is too large. So Mr. Ungar probably can relax on that point.

The second concern, though, is much harder to solve. The risk of a flat tax is that the system somehow will get compromised and degenerate back to the mess we have now. I like to think the American people, after finally being freed from today’s awful system, would vigorously fight to preserve the flat tax. But I also confess there are no guarantees. But here’s the deal. The worst thing that happens is that the current system re-emerges. That obviously would be a big disappointment, but that downside risk is rather tame compared to the downside risk of a national sales tax or value-added tax, which is that politicians would pull a bait and switch, never get rid of the income tax, and then we wind up with a French-style tax system (and the bloated government it finances).

Let’s close by considering a new argument for the flat tax.

Preston Cooper of E21 explains that a single rate protects people in expensive parts of the country from disproportionately harsh taxation.

…data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) show that in states such as Arkansas and Mississippi, $100 can buy $115 worth of goods, while in New York and Hawaii, the same dollar value will only get you $86 worth. …This provides yet another argument for a flat tax. …areas with higher prices also tend to have higher incomes, because employers must compensate for their employees’ reduced purchasing power. Therefore, people earning $44,000 in West Virginia can afford the same standard of living as someone earning $58,000 in Hawaii, despite the gap in nominal income. But the federal government does not account for these regional price disparities when setting tax policy. The progressive federal income tax means that those who earn a higher income in nominal terms will pay a higher tax rate. However, the varying cost of living across the United States means that those who earn a higher nominal income may not actually be any richer, yet will still have to pay the taxes for it. This violates an important goal of tax policy known as horizontal equity: people with the same income ought to pay the same amount in taxes.

Using the example of a single adult, Cooper shows that people living in high-cost-of-living states can pay hundreds of dollars in extra tax compared to people with similar levels of purchasing power in low-cost-of-living states.

Looking at this data, I’m temped to say “serves them right” since the list is dominated by blue states that routinely elect politicians who support class-warfare tax policies and lots of redistribution.

But that knee-jerk reaction is misguided. A fundamental libertarian principle is that the law should treat everyone equally.

So how can this work?

A potential solution is to adjust federal tax brackets in different states for differences in purchasing power. But price disparities do not end at the state level: prices also differ by metropolitan area. People in New York City pay higher prices than people in Buffalo. This phenomenon exists even within cities, as anyone who has compared apartment prices in Manhattan and Queens can attest. There are far too many jurisdictions to effectively adjust tax brackets for cost-of-living differences. A better remedy is to apply a flat income tax at the federal level. Under such a tax everyone would pay the same proportion of their income to the federal government, eliminating the interregional redistribution that comes with progressive taxation.

This makes sense.

When I argue for the flat tax, I tend to focus on the economic benefits (low rate, no double taxation, and no loopholes) and the moral benefits (less corruption, more fairness, and better compliance).

Now I can augment that fairness argument because the government shouldn’t arbitrarily penalize people based on where they live.

So, yes, we should have a flat tax. Other nations shouldn’t have all the fun.

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I’m a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia’s government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. …Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia’s economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. …The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia’s different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia’s second-largest party, which is favored by the country’s sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation’s flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. …The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. …The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. …Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

So the bad news is that the flat tax could soon disappear in Estonia and Lithuania.

But the good news, based on my discussions with people in these two nations, is that the battle isn’t lost. At least not yet.

In both cases, policy can’t be changed unless all parties in the coalition government agree. Fortunately, they haven’t reached that point.

And hopefully that point will never be reached if Estonia and Lithuania want long-run success.

All of the Baltic nations get reasonably good scores from Economic Freedom of the World. Ditching the flat tax will cause their scores to decline.

Given that fiscal policy is only 20 percent of a nation’s grade, adopting some bad tax policy may not seem like the end of the world.

But the flat tax isn’t just good policy. It also has symbolic value, telling both domestic entrepreneurs and global investors that a country has a commitment to a system that won’t impose extra punishment just because a person contributes more to national economic output.

By the way, the LPGU Party is very correct to worry about emigration. The Baltic nations (like most countries in Eastern Europe) face a very large demographic problem. And every time a young person leaves for better opportunities elsewhere (even if that better opportunity is a big welfare check), that makes the long-run outlook even more challenging.

But imposing a more punitive tax system is exactly the opposite of what should happen if the goal is faster growth so that people don’t leave the nation.

Let’s close with a famous quote from John Ramsay McCulloch, a Scottish economist from the 1800s.

To be sure, progressive taxation didn’t lead to total catastrophe, so McCulloch’s warning may seem overwrought by today’s standards.

But the so-called progressive income tax did lead to the modern welfare state. And the modern welfare state, when combined with demographic change, is threatening immense economic and societal damage in many nations.

So what he wrote in 1863 may turn out to be very prescient for historians in 2063 who wonder why the western world collapsed.

P.S. If Estonia and Lithuania move in the wrong direction, Latvia could be a big winner. That nation already has received some positive attention for being fiscally responsible, and it also has withstood pressure from the IMF to impose bad tax policy. So Latvia is well positioned to reap the benefits if Estonia and Lithuania shoot themselves in the foot.

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While the political world is consumed by the various scandals and baggage of the two main presidential candidates, let’s play a game of make-believe. Let’s pretend that politicians aren’t crooks and clowns and instead actually want to make America’s economy more vibrant and productive so the American people can enjoy higher living standards.

What would they do? What should they do?

Those are very big questions with lots of answers, so let’s focus just on the issue of tax policy. If the goal is more growth and prosperity, there are two obvious choices.

And if these two policies are desirable, there are three ways to make them happen.

  • Pass a stand-alone tax cut.
  • Finance a tax cut with concomitant reductions in federal spending (i.e., a spending-reducing and deficit-neutral tax cut).
  • Finance a tax cut by eliminating special tax preferences (i.e., a revenue-neutral, spending-neutral, and deficit-neutral tax reform).

Needless to say, a combination of the three also is possible.

My preference is for a spending-reducing/deficit-neutral tax cut for the simple reason that lower spending and better tax policy is a win-win situation that would make us more like Hong Kong. And I certainly don’t mind going with a pure, stand-alone tax cut since it’s generally a good idea to “starve the beast.”

In the current political environment, however, I suspect the final choice may be the most practical option. That’s because reasonable leftists may be willing to go along with better tax policy so long as they can be convinced that the burden of government spending won’t be reduced. And self-styled deficit hawks may be willing to go along with better tax policy so long as they can be convinced that red ink won’t increase.

But this also can be a win-win situation since there are many distortionary preferences in the tax code that lure people into making economically inefficient decisions solely because of tax considerations. So if those provisions are repealed and all the money is used to finance lower tax rates and less double taxation, we’ll have a tax system that is much less punitive.

Heck, this is the premise of the flat tax. Wipe out the 70,000-plus pages of the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair system that taxes income only one time at one low rate.

This means getting rid of preferences such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, the charitable contributions deduction, and the state and local tax deduction.

Some people say eliminating tax preferences is too politically risky, however, akin to “touching the third rail.”

And it’s certainly true that the interest groups benefiting from a tilted playing field will fight to preserve their special preferences. But I’m not sure they would be able to scare voters into supporting their position.

The first thing to understand is that only 30.1 percent of taxpayers utilize itemized deductions. And those that do itemize on their tax returns tend to have higher-than-average incomes. And remember that these are the same people who will directly benefit from lower tax rates and less double taxation.

Interestingly, the Open Source Policy Center has an interactive site where you can see what happens to people in various income classes if selected itemized deductions are repealed.

Here are the results from repealing the state and local tax deduction. As you can see, rich people are the only ones who take a meaningful hit.

Yet are these upper-income taxpayers going to fight to preserve that deduction if they are offered a trade for lower tax rates and less double taxation?

I suppose it depends on the specific circumstances of each taxpayer, but I’m guessing a majority of them would prefer a friendlier and simpler tax code that didn’t punish wealth creation.

Moreover, if you look at where these people live, you find that they are highly concentrated in just a handful of states along with a few urban areas elsewhere in the country.

This suggests that policy makers from most states shouldn’t even care about itemized deductions. So there shouldn’t be any reason for them to oppose a tax reform plan that produces lower tax rates and less double taxation.

P.S. The hard-core left will not go along with revenue-neutral tax reform. They have such antipathy to success that some of them openly urge punitive taxes even if the economic damage is so severe that the government doesn’t collect any revenue.

P.P.S. With regards to the reasonable leftists and the deficit hawks, one can point out that good tax policy will generate better economic performance and therefore more taxable income (i.e., the Laffer Curve). But it’s only in rare (albeit sometimes very noteworthy) cases that the increase in taxable income is sufficiently large to offset the impact of lower tax rates, so revenues will still fall. And since these people don’t like tax cuts, even smaller-than-expected ones, they will still be opposed to pro-growth tax policy unless it is revenue-neutral.

P.P.P.S. The mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate.

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There’s no agreement on the most important variable for state tax competitiveness.

I’m sympathetic to the final option, in part because of my disdain for the income tax. And if an income tax is imposed, I prefer a simple and fair flat tax.

With that in mind, here’s a fascinating infographic I received via email. I don’t know if Reboot Illinois is left wing, right wing, or apolitical, but they did a very good job. I particularly like the map showing zero-income tax states (gray), flat tax states (red), and states with so-called progressive tax schemes (blue).

For what it’s worth, Illinois taxpayers should fight as hard as possible to preserve the state’s flat tax. If the politicians get the power to discriminate among income classes, it will just be a matter of time before all taxpayers are hit by higher rates.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Like any good libertarian, I generally focus on the size of government. I compare France with Hong Kong and that tells me that big is bad and small is good.

But regardless of whether a government is large or small, it’s desirable if it spends money efficiently and generates some benefit. I shared, for instance, a fascinating study on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank and was not surprised to see that nations with smaller public sectors got much more bang for the buck (with Singapore easily winning the prize for the most efficient government).

So I was very interested to see that WalletHub put together a report showing each state’s “return on investment” based on how effectively it uses tax monies to achieve desirable outcomes for education, health, safety, economy, and infrastructure, and pollution.

I’m not completely comfortable with the methodology (is it a state government’s fault if the population is more obese and therefore less healthy, for instance, and what about adjusting for demographic factors such as age and race?), but I nonetheless think the study is both useful and interesting.

Here are the best and worst states.

One thing that should stand out is that the best states are dominated by zero-income tax states and flat tax states.

The worst states, by contrast, tend to have punitive tax systems (Alaska is a bit of an outlier because it collects – and squanders – a lot of revenue from oil).

By the way, if you’re a Republican, you can probably give yourself a small pat on the back. The so-called red states do a bit better than the so-called blue states.

P.S. WalletHub put together some fascinating data on which cities get a good return on investment (i.e., bang for the back) for spending on police and education.

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I’m in Hong Kong for series of meeting and briefings on various economic and policy issues.

As you can imagine, I’m a huge fan of the jurisdiction’s simple 15 percent flat tax. It’s basically about as close to a pure flat tax as anyplace in the world. There is zero double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

That’s not an exaggeration. You don’t get double taxed on the interest you earn on your bank balances and other financial accounts. There’s no capital gains tax. There’s no death tax. And there’s no double taxation of dividends.

There are only a few deviations from a pure flat tax that even merit a mention. First, taxpayers with modest amounts of income don’t have to use the flat tax system. Instead, they can opt for a “progressive” tax system that has a top rate of 17 percent, but also has tax rates of 2 percent and 7 percent, and 12 percent.

Imagine, taxpayers getting to choose the system that works best for them, instead of the government forcing them into the system that requires the highest payment!

The other deviations are that businesses are not always allowed full expensing of business investment, and there also are a handful of deductions.

All things considered, though, Hong Kong gets almost everything right on tax policy, whereas the United States gets a majority of things wrong.

Oh, and I should mention that there are no payroll taxes in Hong Kong. Nor is there a value-added tax.

That’s all very impressive, but let’s actually focus on something that may be even more remarkable about Hong Kong.

It currently has a modest-sized government, with spending consuming less than 20 percent of economic output. That’s not as good as the United States 100 years ago, but it’s far better than where America is today.

That being said, Hong Kong has some major challenges. I’ve explained before that demographic changes will put pressure on fiscal policy in America, but demographic change is far more profound in Hong Kong.

As you can see from this data, it has the seventh-highest level of life expectancy in the world.

That’s good news, of course, but it does mean a lot of fiscal pressure, even for a jurisdiction that is justly famous for its very small welfare state.

But then you have to consider the fact that Hong Kong also has the fourth-lowest birthrate in the entire world.

In other words, Hong Kong faces a perfect storm of demographics. More and more non-working elderly over time, combined with fewer and fewer taxpayers to pull the wagon.

Given these unfriendly numbers, the Hong Kong government put together a working group to look at long-run fiscal issues.

In its recent report, the group presented a fiscal forecast that shows how the burden of government spending will slowly climb to nearly 24 percent of GDP over the next 25 years.

Here’s a chart showing actual data starting in the late 1990s and then projections until 2042.

To those of us from North America and Western Europe, where the overall burden of government spending, on average, consumes more than 40 percent of economic output, it seems like Hong Kong has a trivial problem.

But it’s still a problem and something has to change. Hong Kong could finance a bigger public sector by dipping into its large reserves (currently the jurisdiction has saved enough money to finance about two years of government spending) or by increasing the tax burden.

But hopefully Hong Kong will abide by Article 107 of its Basic Law (its constitution) and limit government spending so that it doesn’t grow faster than the private economy.

And there are some positive signs.

About 15 years ago, Hong Kong set up a system of private retirement accounts in order to create a self-funded source of retirement income.

Based on a recent government report on retirement income, here are some key features of this Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) system.

The MPF System is an employment-based, privately-managed mandatory defined contribution system. …Employers are required under the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Ordinance (Cap. 485) to arrange for their employees aged 18 or above but under 65 to join… The MPF System has been implemented for 15 years only. …about 2.55 million employees are enrolled in MPF schemes, representing 100% of the employees required by law to join the schemes. This is a very high rate by international standards. In addition, another 210 000 self-employed persons are also scheme members. …An employer and an employee are each required to contribute 5% of the relevant employee’s income… As at end October 2015, MPF assets had increased to $594.2 billion, of which about $123.1 billion were investment returns.

Here’s a chart from the report, showing the cumulative growth of assets, based on both contributions and investment returns.

Keep in mind, though, that it takes 7.8 Hong Kong dollars to equal 1 U.S. dollar, so $594.2 billion is not nearly as large as it sounds.

In part, this is because the system isn’t yet mature. Workers have only been making contributions from 15 years, while a working lifetime is 40-45 years.

But there also are concerns that the level of mandatory saving is insufficient. Here’s additional language from the report, which cites the private retirement systems in Australia and Denmark.

There are views that the contribution rate or the maximum relevant income level should be raised to strengthen the retirement protection function of the MPF System. Take the privately-managed mandatory occupational contributory pension plans in Denmark and Australia as examples. In Denmark, employers and employees generally contribute a total of 9% to 17%. In Australia, only employers make contributions and the contribution rate will be raised progressively from 9% in 2013 to the present 9.5% and further to 12% in 2025.

I’m personally agnostic on the precise level of mandatory savings. My goal is simply to shrink tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, particularly before demographic changes lead to a larger burden of government spending.

And since I have great fondness for Hong Kong (how can you not get a thrill up your leg about a jurisdiction that routinely gets the highest score in Economic Freedom of the World?), I want it to remain a beacon for advocates of economic liberty.

P.S. Lest anyone think I’m being too fawning, Hong Kong has several policies that are misguided. Public housing is pervasive, there’s government-run healthcare, and one peculiar legacy of British rule is that only one piece of land is privately owned. Fixing these warts would make Hong Kong even more vibrant.

P.P.S. Another quirky feature of Hong Kong policy is that currency is issued by private banks. If you pull a $20 bill from your wallet, you’ll see that it was printed by HSBC, Standard Chartered, or Bank of China. Unfortunately, this isn’t because Hong Kong has a market-driven system of competing currencies. But it does have a currency board, which – by standards of government-controlled monetary systems – is one of the least-worst options. Of course, that means Hong Kong’s money is only as good as the currency to which it’s linked. And since the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, that might be a cause for long-run concern.

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When I compared the tax reform proposals of various 2016 presidential candidates last month, Ben Carson got the best grade by a slight margin.

But I’ve now decided to boost his overall grade from a B+ to A-, or perhaps even A, because he’s finally released details and that means his grade for “specificity” jumps from a C to A-.

Here’s some of what’s been reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Monday called for imposing a 14.9% flat tax rate on income, ending taxes on capital gains and dividends and abolishing the charitable deduction and all tax credits.

By the way, the reporter goofed. Carson is proposing to end double taxation of dividends and capital gains, but all income would be taxed. What the reporter should have explained is that capital and business income would be taxed only one time.

But I’m digressing. Let’s review some additional details.

Mr. Carson’s flat tax would apply only to income above 150% of the poverty level… In some respects, Mr. Carson’s plan is similar to those of the other candidates, all of whom want to lower tax rates… But he goes farther, particularly with his willingness to rip up parts of the tax system that have been in place for a century. …In addition to eliminating the charitable deduction and investment taxation, Mr. Carson would also repeal the estate tax, the mortgage-interest deduction, the state and local tax deduction,  depreciation rules and the alternative minimum tax.

Wow, no distorting preferences for charity or housing. And no double taxation of any form, along with expensing instead of depreciation. Very impressive.

Carson has basically put forth a pure version of the plan first proposed by economists at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Perhaps most important of all, Carson’s plan is a flat tax and just a flat tax. He doesn’t create any new taxes that could backfire in the future.

Here’s what the Carson campaign wrote about his flat tax compared to the plans put forth by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Unlike proposals advanced by other candidates, my tax plan does not compromise with special interests on deductions or waffle on tax shelters and loopholes. Nor does it falsely claim to be a flat tax while still deriving the bulk of its revenues through higher business flat taxes that amount to a European-style value-added tax (VAT). Adding a VAT on top of the income tax would not only impose an immense tax increase on the American people, but also become a burdensome drag on the U.S. economy.

I would have used different language, warning about the danger of a much-higher future fiscal burden because Washington would have both an income tax and a VAT, but the bottom line is that I like Carson’s plan because the worst outcome is that future politicians might eventually recreate the current income tax.

What I don’t like about the Paul and Cruz plans, by contrast, is that future politicians could much more easily turn America into France or Greece.

Here’s my video that explains why the flat tax is the best system (at least until we shrink the federal government to such a degree that we no longer need any form of broad-based taxation).

P.S. If you want to get hyper-technical, Carson’s plan may not be a pure flat tax because he would require a very small payment from everybody (akin to what Governor Bobby Jindal proposed). Though if the “de minimis” payment is a fixed amount (say $50 per adult) rather than a second rate (say 1% on the poor), then I certainly would argue it qualifies as being pure.

P.P.S. Carson still has a chance to move his overall grade to A or A+ if he makes the plan viable by proposing an equally detailed plan (presumably consisting of genuine entitlement reform and meaningful spending caps) to deal with the problem of excessive government spending.

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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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Why does the tax code require more than 10,000,000 words and more than 75,000 pages?

There are several reasons and none of them are good. But if you had to pick one cause for all the mess, it would be the fact that politicians have worked with interest groups and lobbyists to create myriad deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, exemptions, and other loopholes.

This is a great deal for the lobbyists, who get big fees. It’s a great scam for politicians, who get lots of contributions. And it’s a great outcome for interest groups, who benefit from back-door industrial policy that distorts the economy.

But it’s not great for the American people or the American economy.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center explains that the net result is a Byzantine tax code that imposes very harsh compliance costs on the productive sector.

According to a 2012 study from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Treasury Department, …corporations alone spent $104 billion complying with the tax code in 2012. …The cost to individuals may be even higher. According to a 2013 study by Jason Fichtner and Jacob Feldman of the Mercatus Center, Americans face nearly $1 trillion annually in hidden tax-compliance costs. …Why does tax compliance cost so much? The answer is largely that the Internal Revenue Code…is riddled with exclusions, exemptions, deductions, preferential rates, and credits.

And she also points to a solution.

Genuine reform would cut out loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of those with political connections. It would also aim to provide lower tax rates, fewer tax brackets, and less double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Such measures would be good for growth, but they would also mean taking on the interest groups that benefit from swapping tax preferences for campaign cash.

Since I want to rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax, this is music to my ears.

Of course, achieving genuine tax reform won’t be easy.

There’s the obvious political obstacle since all the groups that benefit from the current system (politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, cronyists, interest groups, and other insiders) will fiercely resist reform.

There’s also a policy obstacle because many people oppose loopholes in theory but they haven’t paid sufficient attention to the nuts-and-bolts details.

With that in mind, let’s set out a set of guiding principles for the elimination of tax loopholes and the creation of a neutral tax system.

1. A loophole exists when income isn’t taxed – In libertarian Nirvana, the central government is so small that there’s no need for an income tax. Until we get to that point, though, we’re stuck with the internal revenue code and the goal should be to collect revenue (hopefully a modest amount) in a way that minimizes the economic damage per dollar collected. And that means a tax code that doesn’t have loopholes, which are best defined as provisions that enable people to avoid any tax based on how they earn income or how they spend income. In a neutral system, all income is taxed one time.

2. The economy performs better without a loophole-riddled tax code – Most people understand that high tax rates are bad for growth because they penalize people for earning income. They also generally understand that double taxation of saving and investment is bad for growth because it creates a bias against capital formation. But there’s not nearly enough appreciation of the fact that loopholes in the code are bad for growth since they are a back-door form of industrial policy that exist for the purpose of incentivizing people to make decisions on the basis of tax rather than on the basis of what makes economic sense. A neutral tax system means less economic damage.

3. It’s not a loophole to protect income from double taxation or to require income to be measured correctly – The bad news is that the current system forces taxpayers to overstate their income and it also imposes multiple layers of tax on income that is saved and invested. The good news is that there are provisions in the tax code – such as IRAs, 401(k)s, deferral, bonus depreciation – that seek to mitigate these biases. These parts of the system oftentimes are needlessly complex and they frequently will alleviate penalties in a discriminatory manner, but they are not loopholes. In a neutral system, all income is taxed only one time.

4. Loopholes should be eliminated as part of a plan to lower tax rates, not in order to give politicians more money – If loopholes are a corrupt and distorting dark cloud, the silver lining to that cloud is that all the special favors in the tax code deprive the government of tax revenue. Even the most egregious of loopholes, such as ethanol, have this redeeming feature. This is why loopholes should only be eliminated as part of an overall tax reform plan that also lowers tax rates and reduces double taxation. A neutral tax system shouldn’t enable bigger government.

There are some important implications that follow from these four guiding principles.

As a practical matter, we can now identify provisions in the tax code that are clearly loopholes, such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, and the state and local tax deduction (the mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate).

We also know that the capital gains tax rate isn’t a “preferential” loophole, but instead is the mitigation of a penalty that shouldn’t exist. Similarly, it’s not a loophole when companies deduct expenses when calculating income. And you’re not getting some sort of handout simply because Uncle Sam isn’t imposing double taxation on your retirement account. At the risk of repeating myself, all income should be taxed in a neutral system, but only one time.

Let’s close by looking at a few secondary – but still important – implications of a neutral tax code.

First, getting rid of loopholes won’t put a burden on poor and middle-income taxpayers for the simple reason that an overwhelming share of the benefits of these provisions go to high-income taxpayers.

I’ve already shown how the vast majority of charitable deductions are taken by those making more than $200,000 per year.

The same is true for the state and local tax deduction and the healthcare exclusion.

And the Washington Post just editorialized that the home mortgage interest deduction is a boon for rich taxpayers as well.

The mortgage interest deduction is also a significant cause of after-tax income inequality: The top 20 percent of earners get 75 percent of the benefits; the top 1 percent get 15 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. …Specifically, 10 metropolitan “hot spot” counties (among them Los Angeles in California and Fairfax in Virginia) with the greatest number of mortgages larger than $500,000 accounted for 45.1 percent of all such mortgages nationally. Just eight California urban and suburban counties accounted for 40 percent of the national total. Outside of such tony coastal precincts, the only big-mortgage hot spots were resort destinations such as Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Vail, Colo. — where many homes are vacation places, not primary residences.

To be sure, the Post is misguided in that it wants to restrict tax preferences in order to finance a larger burden of government spending.

So I’m not expecting the editors to join a coalition for pro-growth tax reform.

The second implication is that a neutral tax system means less corruption.

To cite one example, consider the oleaginous way that politicians deal with so-called tax extenders. Marc Short and Andy Koenig explain in a column they wrote for the New York Times.

Congress will soon take up the so-called tax extenders package, which has more than 50 tax breaks affecting a variety of industries and issues. …this bill mostly helps the wealthy and the well connected.

The fact that rich insiders benefit is no surprise, but what makes “tax extenders” so odious is that what began in 1988 as a supposedly one-time fix now has become a regular part of the process, a scam that gives lobbyists and politicians a way of generating fees and contributions.

The first tax-extender package…opened a door that lobbyists and lawmakers were all too willing to run through. …A 2014 analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness found that more than one out of every 10 lobbyists in Washington focused specifically on the extenders package. Given that this bill comes up about every year or two, special interests constantly have the opportunity to demand new handouts.

By the way, some of the extenders actually are good policy. They’re in the mitigation-of-penalties category I discussed above.

But those good provisions should be made permanent and the bad provisions should be jettisoned.

Unfortunately, that’s not in the interests of the politicians and lobbyists who benefit from an annual extender package, so the problem doubtlessly will fester.

Last but not least, let’s consider the moral component.

For those of us who believe in justice, it is ethically offensive that some rich and powerful taxpayer get better treatment simply because they know how to manipulate the political process.

This violates the important principle that the law should treat everyone alike. Yet another reason to have a simple and fair flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of being a nit-picker about my own writing, I should confess that a flat tax is not a purely neutral tax system. There will still be a penalty on earning income. But the penalty presumably will be modest if there is a low rate and that penalty won’t be exacerbated by penalties and loopholes that distort how people earn income and spend income.

P.P.S. Here, in one image, is all you really need to know about the economics of taxation.

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Last year, I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal making the case that families would benefit more from lower tax rates rather than targeted tax credits.

My argument was simple and straightforward.

Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income.

I then had a follow-up piece that expanded the discussion, responding to critics but also noting that advocates of lower rates and supporters of targeted credits at least agree on the importance of reducing double taxation and also want to address non-fiscal impediments to growth.

Now it’s time for a third installment in the series.

The Wall Street Journal opined today against tax credits, citing the challenges that have arisen on the other side of the ocean.

Parliament blocked David Cameron’s plan to reform family tax credits. There’s a warning here for conservatives…about the dangers of social engineering through taxation. At issue is a convoluted tax benefit developed by Tony Blair in 2003 that was supposed to reward low-income work and childbearing. …This policy hasn’t worked.

The editorial points out that welfare reforms deserve credit for a somewhat improved job market.

Moreover, there’s scant evidence of desirable effects on birthrates (an important issue because of the collapsing welfare state, as discussed yesterday).

To the degree there are more births, it is because of the U.K.’s large immigrant population. Tax policy has no significant impact.

A 2013 Office for National Statistics study noted that the combination of economic climate and tax policy “does not have a clear impact in a particular direction.”

But there definitely is a measurable impact in other ways. People now expect to get checks from the government based on the size of their families.

…the tax credits have become a new entitlement for the child-rearing middle class. …eliminating the credits has proved to be politically difficult. The tax-credit system is so entrenched that it’s as hard to reform as any other entitlement… That’s a lesson for Americans as a debate about tax reform gathers momentum.

And the WSJ expands the lesson.

…the most pro-family tax policies are those that do the most to boost broad-based growth and raise incomes, which means a flatter tax code with lower rates and fewer distorting credits and exemptions. As Britain shows, the danger of using the tax code for pro-natalist social planning is that you end up with an expensive new entitlement that is merely another mechanism for income redistribution and can’t be reformed.

And if you want evidence, just look at how the so-called earned income tax credit has become the federal government’s fastest-growing entitlement program.

So why expand the problems of the EITC by creating new and bigger credits?

Especially since the tax code already is a convoluted and corrupt mess.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, Amity Shlaes and Gregory Thornbury make the case for a low-rate flat tax instead of expanded credits.

The fixation on family tax benefits abides, even though the tax code already features dozens of credits and deductions installed in the name of children. …The assumption that such credits are the best gift for the religious family dates back 100 child credits ago… But that doesn’t mean that the policy truly benefits families.

They explain that growth is more important.

And you’re more likely to get a better-performing economy when marginal tax rates are reasonable.

…a better policy for families, then and today, is a tax code that does more to realize their aspirations than any political lobby. Such a plan has no child credits but would be simpler and flatter, with a top rate of, say, 20%, 18%, 15% or even, as Carson would have it, 10%. The reasons why this is so have to do with standard tax parameters such as marginal rates and standard tax concepts such as the incentive.

Keep in mind, by the way, that there are tradeoffs. If politicians want big credits, they will want to make up for the foregone revenue by raising tax burdens elsewhere.

Costly tax breaks like the child credit are one reason why top rates are so high in the first place. To compensate for the revenue that such a break forgoes, lawmakers raise rates at the top of the tax schedule or lower the point at which the top rate kicks in.

Last but not least, there’s a moral component to this debate.

There are taxes in the Bible. But nowhere does the Bible say that a great share of the rich man’s money has to go to a secular government. And it never crosses the minds of today’s politicians that they encourage their constituents to violate the 10th Commandment when they stoke resentment and envy. …Our code does feel like a maze because progressivity represents behavioral engineering par excellence. It treats humans like rats who struggle through, avoiding trap doors and hunting for chunks of cheddar cheese without ever gaining much idea of where they are. It’s time for a tax code that treats humans with dignity.

And that tax code, needless to say, is a simple and fair flat tax.

Which, for what it’s worth, includes a generous exemption based on family size. So the goal is to provide some tax relief to families, but to keep it reasonable so that other objectives (such as growth) can be realized.

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The tax-reform landscape is getting crowded.

Adding to the proposals put forth by other candidates (I’ve previously reviewed the plans offered by Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Donald Trump), we now have a reform blueprint from Ted Cruz.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, the Texas Senator unveiled his rewrite of the tax code.

…tax reform is a powerful lever for spurring economic expansion. Along with reducing red tape on business and restoring sound money, it can make the U.S. economy boom again. That’s why I’m proposing the Simple Flat Tax as the cornerstone of my economic agenda.

Here are the core features of his proposal.

…my Simple Flat Tax plan features the following: • For a family of four, no taxes whatsoever (income or payroll) on the first $36,000 of income. • Above that level, a 10% flat tax on all individual income from wages and investment. • No death tax, alternative minimum tax or ObamaCare taxes. • Elimination of the payroll tax and the corporate income tax… • A Universal Savings Account, which would allow every American to save up to $25,000 annually on a tax-deferred basis for any purpose.

From an economic perspective, there’s a lot to like. Thanks to the low tax rate, the government no longer would be imposing harsh penalties on productive behavior. Major forms of double taxation such as the death tax would be abolished, creating a much better environment for wage-boosting capital formation.

And I’m glad to see that the notion of a universal savings account, popularized by my colleague Chris Edwards, is catching on.

Moreover, the reforms Cruz is pushing would clean up some of the most complex and burdensome sections of the tax code.

But Cruz’s plan is not a pure flat tax. There would be a small amount of double taxation of income that is saved and invested, though the adverse economic impact would be trivial because of the low tax rate.

And the Senator would retain some preferences in the tax code, which is somewhat unfortunate, and expand the earned income credit, which is more unfortunate.

It maintains the current child tax credit and expands and modernizes the earned-income tax credit… The Simple Flat Tax also keeps the current deduction for all charitable giving, and includes a deduction for home-mortgage interest on the first $500,000 in principal.

But here’s the part of Cruz’s plan that raises a red flag. He says he wants a “business flat tax,” but what he’s really proposing is a value-added tax.

…a 16% Business Flat Tax. This would tax companies’ gross receipts from sales of goods and services, less purchases from other businesses, including capital investment. …My business tax is border-adjusted, so exports are free of tax and imports pay the same business-flat-tax rate as U.S.-produced goods.

His proposal is a VAT because wages are nondeductible. And that basically means a 16 percent withholding tax on the wages and salaries of all American workers (for tax geeks, this part of Cruz’s plan is technically a subtraction-method VAT).

Normally, I start foaming at the mouth when politicians talking about value-added taxes. But Senator Cruz obviously isn’t proposing a VAT for the purpose of financing a bigger welfare state.

Instead, he’s doing a swap, imposing a VAT while also getting rid of the corporate income tax and the payroll tax.

And that’s theoretically a good deal because the corporate income tax is so senselessly destructive (swapping the payroll tax for the VAT, as I explained a few days ago in another context, is basically a wash).

But it’s still a red flag because I worry about what might happen in the future. If the Cruz plan is adopted, we’ll still have the structure of an income tax (albeit a far-less-destructive income tax). And we’ll also have a VAT.

So what happens 10 years from now or 25 years from now if statists control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and they decide to reinstate the bad features of the income tax while retaining the VAT? They now have a relatively simple way of getting more revenue to finance European-style big government.

And also don’t forget that it would be relatively simple to reinstate the bad features of the corporate income tax by tweaking Cruz’s business flat tax/VAT.

By the way, I have the same specific concern about Senator Rand Paul’s tax reform plan.

My advice to both of them is to ditch the VAT and keep the payroll tax. Not only would that address my concern about enabling the spending proclivities of statists in the future, but I also think Social Security reform is more feasible when the system is financed by the payroll tax.

Notwithstanding my concern about the VAT, Senator Cruz has put forth a plan that would be enormously beneficial to the American economy.

Instead of being a vehicle for punitive class warfare and corrupt cronyism, the tax code would simply be the method by which revenue was collected to fund government.

Which gives me an opportunity to raise an issue that applies to every candidate. Simply stated, no good tax reform plan will be feasible unless it’s accompanied by a serious plan to restrain government spending.

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I’m happy that many of the presidential candidates are proposing big tax cuts.

Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump have large tax cuts, and Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio are proposing smaller – but still significant – reductions in the federal tax burden.

All of these plans, to be credible, should be accompanied by proposals for a sustained reduction in the burden of government spending (with real enforcement mechanisms).

But there’s something else that needs to be part of the discussion. Yes, we need tax cuts and smaller government, but we also need radical tax simplification.

Consider this depressing chart showing the number of pages in the instruction manual for the IRS’s 1040 tax form.

Or the number of sections in the tax law, which has skyrocketed in the past four decades.

I think it’s fair to say that complexity is a proxy for corruption (and even the World Bank agrees with me). Our tax code is a Byzantine mess because interest groups and lobbyists conspire with politicians to swap loopholes for campaign cash.

Some say that this problem could be solved by restricting the First Amendment and limiting people’s ability to participate in the political process. But that’s naive. So long as we have a convoluted tax code, insiders will figure out how to curry favor with the political elite and manipulate the system to their advantage.

Rather than trashing the Constitution, we should be trashing the internal revenue code.

I have lots of economic arguments for fundamental tax reform and I can wax poetic about the harm of high tax rates and double taxation of saving and investment.

But this new chart from the Tax Foundation, showing the ever-growing number of words in the tax code, is probably the single most compelling argument for a simple and fair flat tax.

Wow. It doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power. It doesn’t seem to matter who controls the White House or who controls Congress. Just as the number of pages in the tax code keeps expanding, so does the number of words.

And I think all of us know that this relentless growth in complexity is not good for ordinary taxpayers.

The only winners are the cronyists, politicians, and other insiders who get rich by using the coercive power of government.

And don’t forget that a complicated tax code means a very powerful IRS, and we’ve seen how that leads to venal corruption.

Now let’s circle back to where we started. I mentioned that many presidential candidates have proposed big tax plans that reduce the amount of money flowing to Washington. Many of those plans also include partial reforms of the tax code.

All of these components are desirable in that they both reduce the tax burden and simplify the tax system. And I could list other attractive partial reforms that are in the various tax plans.

But I can’t help but wonder why no candidate has explicitly embraced the gold standard of tax reform.

By the way, I’m ecumenical on a replacement system. There are other plans that satisfy the goals of real reform.

My only caveat, for those who advocate a national sales tax or value-added tax, is that we first need to repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that politicians could never do a bait and switch and saddle the American people with both an income tax and a consumption tax.

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

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

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

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

Consider a few examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow, what a damning indictment against a vindictive bureaucracy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Pervasive double taxation that undermines saving and investment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Governor Bush takes aim at tax loopholes.

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

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

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

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

All of these reforms are very good for growth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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