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Posts Tagged ‘Flat Tax’

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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I’m very fond of Estonia, and not just because of the scenery.

Back in the early 1990s, it was the first post-communist nation to adopt a flat tax.

More recently, it showed that genuine spending cuts were the right way to respond to the 2008 crisis (notwithstanding Paul Krugman’s bizarre attempt to imply that the 2008 recession was somehow caused by 2009 spending cuts).

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It is ranked #22 by Economic Freedom of the World, which is a respectable score, but that puts them not only behind the United States (#12), but also behind Switzerland (#4), Finland (#10), the United Kingdom (#12), Ireland (#14), and Denmark (#19).

And you can see from the chart that Estonia’s overall score has dropped slightly since 2006.

But I don’t believe in making the perfect the enemy of the good. Estonia is still a reasonably good role model for reform, particularly for nations that emerged from decades of communist enslavement.

You can see how good policy makes a difference, for instance, by comparing Estonia with Croatia (#70). At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Empire, living standards in Croatia were low, but they were about twice as high as they were in Estonia. Today, though, per-capita economic output in Estonia is about $4000 higher than in Croatia.

That’s a dramatic turnaround and it shows that markets are much better for people than statism. Sort of like the lesson we learn by comparing Poland (#48) and Ukraine (#122).

Let’s now take a closer look at one of the policies that has helped Estonia prosper. The flat tax was first adopted in 1994 and the rate was 26 percent. Since then, the rate has been gradually reduced and is now 20 percent.

For some people, the most amazing aspect of the Estonian flat tax is its simplicity, as noted by Kyle Pomerleau of the Tax Foundation.

Republican Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush claimed that it only takes 5 minutes to file taxes in Estonia. This claim was confirmed by a number of reporters and tax authorities in Estonia. For those of us that do our taxes by hand, this sounds like a dream. Depending on your situation, filing your taxes can tax a significant amount of time and due to the numerous steps involved (especially if you are claiming credits) may lead some to make errors. According to the IRS, it takes an average taxpayer with no business income 8 hours to fill out their 1040 and otherwise comply with the individual income tax. Triple that for those with business income.

For those keeping score, this means Estonia is kicking America’s derriere.

But Kyle is even more impressed by other features of the Estonian system.

…that it is not the best part of the Estonian tax code. The best part of the Estonian tax code has more to do with its tax base (what it taxes) rather than how fast people can pay their taxes. Specifically, the Estonian tax code has a fully-integrated individual and corporate income tax. This means that corporate income is taxed only once either at the entity level or at the individual level.

And this means Estonia’s flat tax is far better for growth than America’s system, which suffers from pervasive and destructive double taxation.

In total, the tax rate on corporate income is 20 percent in Estonia. Compare this to the integrated tax rate on corporate profits of 56 percent in the United States. Even more, this tax system provides de facto full expensing for capital investments because the corporate tax is only levied on the cash distributed to shareholders, which is also a significant boon to investment and economic growth.

Wow. No double taxation and expensing of business investment.

There is a lot to admire about Estonia’s sensible approach to business taxation.

Particularly when compared to America’s masochistic corporate income tax, which ranks below even the Greek, Italian, and Mexican systems.

Having the world’s highest statutory corporate tax rate is part of the problem. But as Kyle pointed out, the problem is actually far worse when you calculate how the internal revenue code imposes extra layers of tax on business income.

That’s why, at a recent tax reform event at the Heritage Foundation, I tried to emphasize why it’s economically misguided to have a tax bias against saving and investment.

The bottom line is that high taxes on capital ultimately lead to lower wages for workers.

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Our nation very much needs fundamental tax reform, so it’s welcome news that major public figures – including presidential candidates – are proposing to gut the internal revenue code and replace it with plans that collect revenue in less-destructive ways.

A few months ago, I wrote about a sweeping proposal by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Today, let’s look at the plan that Senator Rand Paul has put forward in a Wall Street Journal column.

He has some great info on why the current tax system is a corrupt mess.

From 2001 until 2010, there were at least 4,430 changes to tax laws—an average of one “fix” a day—always promising more fairness, more simplicity or more growth stimulants. And every year the Internal Revenue Code grows absurdly more incomprehensible, as if it were designed as a jobs program for accountants, IRS agents and tax attorneys.

And he explains that punitive tax policy helps explain why our economy has been under-performing.

…redistribution policies have led to rising income inequality and negative income gains for families. …We are already at least $2 trillion behind where we should be with a normal recovery; the growth gap widens every month.

So what’s his proposal?

…repeal the entire IRS tax code—more than 70,000 pages—and replace it with a low, broad-based tax of 14.5% on individuals and businesses. I would eliminate nearly every special-interest loophole. The plan also eliminates the payroll tax on workers and several federal taxes outright, including gift and estate taxes, telephone taxes, and all duties and tariffs. I call this “The Fair and Flat Tax.” …establish a 14.5% flat-rate tax applied equally to all personal income, including wages, salaries, dividends, capital gains, rents and interest. All deductions except for a mortgage and charities would be eliminated. The first $50,000 of income for a family of four would not be taxed. For low-income working families, the plan would retain the earned-income tax credit.

Kudos to Senator Paul. This type of tax system would be far less destructive than the current system.

That being said, it’s not perfect. Here are three things I don’t like.

  1. The Social Security payroll tax already is a flat tax, so it’s unclear why it should be wrapped into reform of the income tax, particularly if that change complicates the possibility of shifting to a system of personal retirement accounts.
  2. There would still be some double taxation of dividends, capital gains, and interest, though the destructive impact of that policy would be mitigated because of the low 14.5 percent rate.
  3. The earned-income credit (a spending program embedded in the tax code) should be eliminated as part of a plan to shift all means-tested programs back to the states.

But it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, particularly since the debate in Washington so often is about bad ideas and worse ideas.

So the aforementioned three complaints don’t cause me much heartburn.

But there’s another part of the Paul plan that does give me gastro-intestinal discomfort. Here’s a final excerpt from his column.

I would also apply this uniform 14.5% business-activity tax on all companies…. This tax would be levied on revenues minus allowable expenses, such as the purchase of parts, computers and office equipment. All capital purchases would be immediately expensed, ending complicated depreciation schedules.

You may be wondering why this passage is worrisome. After all, it’s great news that the very high corporate tax rate is being replaced by a low-rate system. Replacing depreciation with expensing also is a huge step in the right direction.

So what’s not to like?

The answer is that Senator Paul’s “business-activity tax” doesn’t allow a deduction for wages and salaries. This means, for all intents and purposes, that he is turning the corporate income tax into a value-added tax (VAT).

In theory, this is a good step. After all, the VAT is a consumption-based tax which does far less damage to the economy, on a per-dollar-collected basis, than the corporate income tax.

But theoretical appeal isn’t the same as real-world impact.

Simply stated, the VAT is a money machine for big government.

All of which helps to explain why it would be a big mistake to give politicians this new source of revenue.

Indeed, this is why I was critical of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan four years ago.

It’s why I’ve been leery of Congressman Paul Ryan’s otherwise very admirable Roadmap plan.

And it’s one of the reasons why I feared Mitt Romney’s policies would have facilitated a larger burden of government.

These politicians may have had their hearts in the right place and wanted to use the VAT to finance pro-growth tax reforms. But I can’t stop worrying about what happens when politicians with bad motives get control.

Particularly when there are safer ways of achieving the same objectives.

Here’s some of what I wrote last year on this exact topic.

…the corporate income tax is a self-inflicted wound to American prosperity, but allow me to point out that incremental reform is a far simpler – and far safer – way of dealing with the biggest warts plaguing the current system.

Lower the corporate tax rate.

Replace depreciation with expensing.

Replace worldwide taxation with territorial taxation.

So here’s the bottom line. If there’s enough support in Congress to get rid of the corporate income tax and impose a VAT, that means there’s also enough support to implement these incremental reforms.

There’s a risk, to be sure, that future politicians will undo these reforms. But the adverse consequences of that outcome are far lower than the catastrophic consequences of future politicians using a VAT to turn America into France.

To wrap things up, there’s no doubt that Senator Paul has a very good proposal. And I know his heart is in the right place.

But watch this video to understand why his proposal has a very big wart that needs to be excised.

For what it’s worth, I’m mystified why pro-growth policy makers don’t simply latch onto an unadulterated flat tax.

That plan has all the good features needed for tax reform without any of the dangers associated with a VAT.

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

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The American Enterprise Institute has published a comprehensive budgetary plan entitled, “Tax and spending reform for fiscal stability and economic growth.”

Authored by Joseph Antos, Andrew G. Biggs, Alex Brill, and Alan D. Viard, all of whom I know and admire, this new document outlines a series of reforms designed to restrain the growth of government and mitigate many of the tax code’s more punitive features.

Compared to current law, the plan is a huge improvement.

But huge improvement isn’t the same as perfect, so here’s my two cents on what’s really good, what’s partially good, and what has me worried.

I’ll start with something that’s both good and bad.

According to the latest CBO estimates, federal tax revenues for 2015 will absorb 17.7 percent of GDP and spending will consume 20.4 percent of economic output. Now look at this table showing the impact of the AEI proposal. As you can see, the burden of taxes and spending will both be higher in the future than today.

That’s obviously bad. One would think a conservative organization would present a plan that shrinks the size of government!

But here’s the catch. Under current law, the burden of government is projected to climb far more rapidly, largely because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. So if we do nothing and leave government on auto-pilot, America will be saddled with a European-sized welfare state.

From that perspective, the AEI plan actually is good since it is based on reforms that stop most – but not all – of the already-legislated expansions in the size of the public sector.

So here’s the bottom line. Compared to what I would like to see, the AEI plan is too timid. But compared to what I fear will happen, the AEI plan is reasonably bold.

Now let’s look at the specific reforms, staring with tax policy. Here’s some of what’s in the report.

The goal of our tax reform is to eliminate the income tax’s inherent bias against saving and investment and to reduce other tax distortions. To achieve this goal, the income tax system and the estate and gift taxes would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax consisting of a…37 percent flat-rate firm-level tax on business cash flow and a graduated-rate household-level tax, with a top rate of 35 percent, on wages and fringe benefits.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the AEI folks decided that it was very important to solve the problem of double taxation and not so important to deal with the problem of a discriminatory and punitive rate structure. Which is sort of like embracing one big part of the flat tax while ignoring the other big part.

We’d have a less destructive tax code than we have now, but it wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Indeed, the plan is conceptually similar to the Rubio-Lee proposal, but with a lot more details.

Not that I’m happy with all those additional details.

To address environmental externalities in a more cost-effective and market-based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a modest carbon tax. The gasoline tax would be increased to cover highway-related costs.

I’m very nervous about giving Washington a new source of revenue. And while I’m open (in theory) to the argument that a carbon tax would be a better (less worse) approach than what we have now, I’m not sure it’s wise to trust that politicians won’t pull a bait and switch and burden us with both a costly energy tax and new forms of regulatory intervention.

And I definitely don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax. The federal government should be out of the transportation business.

There are also other features that irk me, including the continuation of some loopholes and the expansion of redistribution through the tax code.

Child and dependent care expenses could be deducted… A 15 percent refundable credit for charitable contributions… A 15 percent refundable credit for mortgage interest… A refundable credit for health insurance…the EITC for childless workers would be doubled relative to current law.

Though I should also point out that the new tax system proposed by AEI would be territorial, which would be a big step in the right direction. And it’s also important to note that the X tax has full expensing, which solves the bias against investment in a depreciation-based system.

But now let’s look at the most worrisome feature of the plan. It explicitly says that Washington should get more money.

… we also cannot address the imbalance simply by cutting spending… The tax proposals presented in this plan raise necessary revenues… Over time, tax revenue would gradually rise as a share of GDP… The upward path of tax revenue is necessary to finance the upward path of federal spending.

This is very counterproductive. But I don’t want to regurgitate my ideological anti-tax arguments (click here if that’s what you want). Let’s look at this issue from a strictly practical perspective.

I’ve reluctantly admitted that there are potential tax-hike deals that I would accept, at least in theory.

But those deals will never happen. In the real world, once the potential for additional revenue exists, the appetite for genuine spending restraint quickly evaporates. Just look at the evidence from Europe about the long-run relationship between taxes and debt and you’ll see that more revenue simply enables more spending.

Speaking of which, now let’s shift to the outlay side of the fiscal ledger.

We’ll start with Social Security, where the AEI folks are proposing to turn Social Security from a substandard social insurance program, which is bad, to a flat benefit, which might even be worse since it involves a shift to a system that is even more focused on redistribution.

The minimum benefit would be implemented immediately, increasing benefits for about one third of retirees, while benefits for middle- and high-earning individuals would be scaled down to the wage-indexed poverty level between now and 2050.

Yes, the system they propose is more fiscally sustainable for government, but what about the fact that most workers are paying record amounts of payroll tax in exchange for a miserly monthly payment?

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

The failure to embrace personal accounts may be the most disappointing feature of the AEI plan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors veered in this unfortunate direction because they put the cart of debt reduction ahead of the horse of good policy.

To elaborate, a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades, but it would give us a much better system in the long run. But this approach generally isn’t an attractive option for folks who fixate on near-term government debt.

That being said, there are spending reforms in the proposal that are very appealing.

The AEI plan basically endorses the good Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been part of recent GOP budgets. And since those two programs are the biggest drivers of our long-run spending crisis, this is very important.

With regards to discretionary spending, the program maintains sequester/Budget Control Act spending levels for domestic programs, which is far too much since we should be abolishing departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Transportation, Education, etc.

But since Congress presumably would spend even more, the AEI plan could be considered a step in the right direction.

Finally, the AEI plan calls for military spending to consume 3.8 percent of economic output in perpetuity. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a blank check, particularly since big chunks of that check get used for dubious purposes. But I’ll let the foreign policy and defense crowd fight that issue since it’s not my area of expertise.

P.S. The Heritage Foundation also has thrown in the towel on personal retirement accounts and embraced a basic universal flat benefit.

P.P.S. On a completely different topic, here’s a fascinating chart that’s being shared on Twitter.

As you can see, the United States is an exception that proves the rule. I don’t know that there are any policy implications, but I can’t help but wonder whether America’s greater belief in self-reliance is linked to the tendency of religious people to believe in individual ethics and moral behavior.

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In my ultimate fantasy world, Washington wouldn’t need any sort of broad-based tax because we succeeded in shrinking the federal government back to the very limited size and scope envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

In my more realistic fantasy world, we might not be able to restore constitutional limits on Washington, but at least we could reform the tax code so that revenues were generated in a less destructive fashion.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of a simple and fair flat tax, which has several desirable features.

The rate is as low as possible, to minimize penalties on productive behavior.

There’s no double taxation, so no more bias against saving and investment.

And there are no distorting loopholes that bribe people into inefficient choices.

But not everyone is on board, The class-warfare crowd will never like a flat tax. And Washington insiders hate tax reform because it undermines their power.

But there are also sensible people who are hesitant to back fundamental reform.

Consider what Reihan Salam just wrote for National Review. He starts with a reasonably fair description of the proposal.

The original flat tax, championed by the economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, which formed the basis of Steve Forbes’s flat-tax proposal in 1996, is a single-rate tax on consumption, with a substantial exemption to make the tax progressive at the low end of the household-income distribution.

Though if I want to nit-pick, I could point out that the flat tax has effective progressivity across all incomes because the family-based exemption is available to everyone. As such, a poor household pays nothing. A middle-income household might have an effective tax rate of 12 percent. And the tax rate for Bill Gates would be asymptotically approaching 17 percent (or whatever the statutory rate is).

My far greater concerns arise when Reihan delves into economic analysis.

…the Hall-Rabushka tax would be highly regressive, in part because high-income households tend to consume less of their income than lower-income households and because investment income would not be taxed (or rather double-taxed).

This is a very schizophrenic passage since he makes a claim of regressivity even though he acknowledged that the flat tax has effective progressivity just a few sentences earlier.

And since he admits that the flat tax actually does tax income that is saved and invested (but only one time rather than over and over again, as can happen in the current system), it’s puzzling why he says the system is “highly regressive.”

If he simply said the flat tax was far less progressive (i.e., less discriminatory) than the current system, that would have been fine.

Here’s the next passage that rubbed me the wrong way.

…there is some dispute over whether ending the double taxation of savings would yield significant growth dividends. Chris William Sanchirico of Penn Law School takes a skeptical view in a review of the academic research on the subject, in part because cutting capital-income taxation as part of a revenue-neutral reform would require offsetting increases in labor-income taxation, which would dampen long-term economic growth in their own right.

I’m not even sure where to start. First, Reihan seems to dismiss the role of dynamic scoring in enabling low tax rates on labor. Second, he cites just one professor about growth effects and overlooks the overwhelming evidence from other perspectives. And third, he says the flat tax would be revenue neutral, when virtually every plan that’s been proposed combines tax reform with a tax cut.

On a somewhat more positive note, Reihan then suggests that lawmakers instead embrace “universal savings accounts” as an alternative to sweeping tax reform.

Instead of campaigning for a flat tax, GOP candidates ought to consider backing Universal Savings Accounts (USAs)… The main difference between USAs and Roth IRAs is that “withdrawals could be made at any time for any reason,” a change that would make the accounts far more attractive to far more people. …Unlike a wholesale shift to consumption taxation, USAs with a contribution limit are a modest step in the same general direction, which future reformers can build on.

I have no objection to incremental reform to reduce double taxation, and I’ve previously written about the attractiveness of USAs, so it sounds like we’re on the same page. And if you get rid of all double taxation and keep rates about where they are now, you get the Rubio-Lee tax plan, which I’ve also argued is a positive reform.

But then he closes with an endorsement of more redistribution through the tax code.

Republicans should put Earned Income Tax Credit expansion and other measures to improve work incentives for low-income households at the heart of their tax-reform agenda.

I want to improve work incentives, but it’s important to realize that the EIC is “refundable,” which is simply an inside-the-beltway term for spending that is laundered through the tax code. In other words, the government isn’t refunding taxes to people. It’s giving money to people who don’t owe taxes.

As an economist, I definitely think it’s better to pay people to work instead of subsidizing them for not working. But we also need to understand that this additional spending has two negative tax implications.

  1. When politicians spend more money, that either increases pressure for tax increases or it makes tax cuts more difficult to achieve.
  2. The EIC is supposed to boost labor force participation, but the evidence is mixed on this point, and any possible benefit with regards to the number of people working may be offset by reductions in actual hours worked because the phase out of the EIC’s wage subsidy is akin to a steep increase in marginal tax rates on additional labor supply.

In any event, I don’t want the federal government in the business of redistributing income. We’ll get much better results, both for poor people and taxpayers, if state and local government compete and innovate to figure out the best ways of ending dependency.

The rest of Reihan’s column is more focused on political obstacles to the flat tax. Since I’ve expressed pessimism on getting a flat tax in my lifetime, I can’t really argue too strenuously with those points.

In closing, I used “friendly fight” in the title of this post for a reason. I don’t get the sense that Mr. Salam is opposed to good policy. Indeed, I would be very surprised if he preferred the current convoluted system over the flat tax.

But if there was a spectrum with “prudence” and “caution” on one side and “bold” and “aggressive” on the other side, I suspect we wouldn’t be on the same side. And since it’s good for there to be both types of people in any movement, that’s a good thing.

P.S. I got a special treat this morning. I was at Reagan Airport for a flight to Detroit at the same time as a bunch of America’s World War II vets arrived on an Honor Flight to visit the WWII Memorial.

Here’s my rather pathetic attempt to get a photo of one of the vets being greeted.

Since I’ll never be in demand as a photographer, you should watch this video to learn more about this great private initiative to honor World War II veterans.

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

Simply stated, if we’re going to have some sort of broad-based tax, it makes sense to collect revenue in the least-damaging fashion possible.

And a flat tax achieves that goal by adhering to the principles of good tax policy.

  1. A low tax rate – This is the best-known feature of the flat tax. A low tax rate is designed to minimize the penalty on work, entrepreneurship, and other forms of productive behavior.
  2. No double taxation of saving and investment – The flat tax gets rid of the tax bias against income that is saved and invested. The capital gains tax, double tax on dividends, and death tax are all abolished. Shifting to a system that taxes economic activity only one time will boost capital formation, thus facilitating an increase in productivity and wages.
  3. No distorting loopholes – With the exception of a family-based allowance designed to protect lower-income people, the flat tax eliminates all deductions, exemptions, shelters, preference, exclusions, and credits. By creating a neutral tax system, this ensures that decisions are made on the basis of economic fundamentals, not tax distortions.

All three features are equally important, sort of akin to the legs of a stool. And if we succeeded with fundamental reform, it would mean an end to the disgraceful internal revenue code.

But just because an idea is good policy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s also good politics.

So let’s delve into the debate over whether the flat tax is a winning political issue as well as a pro-growth reform.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation thinks the flat tax has political legs.

…the flat tax is again the rage in a presidential primary. A number of GOP candidates, including Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker, are looking to go flat with a radically simplified postcard tax return. …Ripping up the 70,000-page tax code has visceral appeal to voters.The way to sell the flat tax is as the ultimate Washington versus America issue. The only people who benefit from a complicated, barnacle-encrusted 70,000-page tax code are tax attorneys, accountants, lobbyists, IRS agents, and politicians who use the tax code as a way to buy and sell favors. The belly of the beast of corruption in American politics is the IRS tax code. The left keeps saying it wants to end the corrupting influence of big money in politics. Fine. By far the best way to do that is enact a flat tax and D.C. becomes the Sahara Desert.

I like what Steve is saying.

And I specifically agree that the best way of selling tax reform is to point out that it’s a Washington-versus-America issue.

When I first started giving speeches about the flat tax in the 1990s, I focused on the pro-growth and pro-competitive impact of lower marginal tax rates and reductions in double taxation.

People largely agreed with those points, but they didn’t get excited.

I soon learned that they instinctively liked the flat tax because they saw it as a way of cleaning out the stables of a corrupt system. In other words, they wanted tax reform mostly for reasons of fairness.

But with fairness properly defined, meaning all taxpayers playing by the same rules. Not the left’s definition, which is based on punishing success with high marginal tax rates.

Steve concurs.

So can the flat tax catch the populist tide of voter rage and angst over an economy that has squeezed the middle class for nearly a decade? Who knows? What seems certain is Democrats will run a class warfare campaign of raising tax rates on the rich. But envy isn’t an economic revival policy. Republicans can win this debate by going on the offensive and reminding voters that the best way to grow the economy, create jobs, and increase tax payments by the rich is to flatten the code. Flat is the new fair.

So does this mean the flat tax is a slam-dunk issue?

Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review is unconvinced. Here’s some of what he wrote about the candidates pushing fundamental reform.

They may have some creative ideas to get around problems with previous flat-tax proposals. But I have my doubts about whether a flat tax could be…as politically attractive as Moore suggests.

Ramesh is particularly skeptical whether the flat tax can be more appealing than the Lee-Rubio tax plan.

I have my doubts about whether a flat tax could be free from the objections Moore raises against Lee-Rubio… A 15 percent flat tax could also expose many more millions of people to tax increases than Lee-Rubio does; and it seems highly unlikely to reduce tax bills for as many people as Lee-Rubio does.

At the risk of sounding like a politician, I agree with both Steve and Ramesh.

Taking them in reverse order, Ramesh is correct that a flat tax faces an uphill battle. He specifically warns that a flat tax might result in higher fiscal burdens for millions of middle-class taxpayers.

Ultimately, that would depend on the tax rate, the size of the family-based allowance, and whether tax reform also was a tax cut. And those choices could be easier to make if Republicans actually demonstrated some political acumen and modernized the revenue-estimating system at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

And Ramesh also points out, quite appropriately, that the flat tax will create strong opposition from interest groups that benefit from provisions in the current system.

But Steve is correct that people want bold reform, which is a proxy for ending tax-code corruption. I’ve already praised the Lee-Rubio plan, which Ramesh likes, but I have a hard time imagining that such a plan will seize the public imagination like a flat tax.

Moreover, the Lee-Rubio plan is a huge tax cut. Since I think good reform is more likely if a plan lowers the overall tax burden, I consider that to be a feature rather than a bug.

But it does mean you have to fight a two-front war, battling both those who benefit from the current system as well as those who don’t want to reduce the flow of revenue to Washington.

These are big obstacles, whether we’re talking about an incremental plan like Lee-Rubio or big-picture reform like a flat tax.

Which is why, regardless of what happens with elections, I’m not overly optimistic about making progress. Unless, of course, we figure out some way of dealing the growing burden of federal spending. Which necessarily requires genuine entitlement reform.

P.S. Don’t forget that Barack Obama reportedly will be introducing a very simple tax reform plan.

P.P.S. Since we’re talking about the impact of policies on the election, my colleague Michael Cannon points to some very low-hanging fruit.

For more than five years, the executive branch has been issuing illegal subsidies that personally benefit the most powerful interest group in the nation’s capital: members of Congress and their staffs. …executive-branch agencies have broken the law, over and over, to protect ObamaCare. …The longest-running and perhaps most significant way the administration has broken the law to protect ObamaCare is by issuing illegal subsidies to members of Congress.

What’s Michael talking about?

When congressional Democrats passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), they were so desperate to pass a health care law that the ACA did not receive the scrutiny most bills do. Many members of Congress and their staffs were therefore surprised to learn that, as of the moment the president signed the ACA, that very law threw them out of their health plans. The ACA prohibits members of Congress and their staffs from receiving health coverage through the Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program. They remained free to purchase health insurance on their own, but they would have to do so without the $10,000 or so the federal government “contributed” to their FEHBP premiums.

But who cares what the law says.

Rather than risk Congress reopening the ACA to restore their lost health coverage — because who knows what other changes Congress might make in the process — the administration simply pretended that that part of the law didn’t exist. The Office of Personnel Management announced that members of Congress and their staffs could remain in the FEHBP until the ACA’s Exchanges launched in 2014.  …That still didn’t solve the president’s problems, however. The ACA says that as of 2014, the only coverage the federal government can offer members of Congress in connection with their employment is coverage created under the Act. In effect, that means Exchange coverage. But the law still cut off that $10,000 “employer contribution” to their health benefits. According to Politico, “OPM initially ruled that lawmakers and staffers couldn’t receive the subsidies once they went into the exchanges.” After the president intervened, OPM just ignored that part of the law and started issuing (illegal) subsidies on the order of $10,000 to hundreds of individual members of Congress and thousands of individual congressional staffers.

So what does all this have to do with the 2016 elections?

Well, as Michael points out, the GOP could make a lot of hay by going after the Obama Administration’s illegal favor for Capitol Hill.

Ending Congress’ special ObamaCare exemption — i.e., the bribes individual members of Congress and their staffs are receiving not to reopen ObamaCare — polls off the charts. More than 90 percent of voters believe this exemption is unfair.

The goal, of course, isn’t to deny the folks on Capitol Hill from getting pre-Obamacare subsidies for their health plans.

Instead, Michael is saying that these subsidies have to be restored in the proper fashion, which means amending the law, which will also open the door to other changes.

Which might mean actually addressing the real problems in our healthcare system.

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With so many Americans currently filled with anxiety about their annual tax forms, this is the time of year that many people wistfully dream about how nice it would be to have a simple and fair flat tax.

Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to better tax policy. I’ve previously addressed some of these obstacles.

1. Politicians who prefer the status quo make appeals to envy by making class-warfare arguments about imposing higher tax rates on those who contribute more to economic output.

2. Politicians have created a revenue-estimating system based on the preposterous notion that even big changes in tax policy have no impact on economic performance, thus creating a procedural barrier to reform.

3. Politicians enormously benefit from the current corrupt and complex system since they can auction off tax loopholes for campaign cash and use the tax code to reward friends and punish enemies.

Today, we’re going to look at another obstacle to pro-growth reform.

One of the main goals of tax reform is to get a low flat rate. This is important because marginal tax rates affect people’s incentives to engage in additional productive behavior.

But it’s equally important to have a system that taxes economic activity only one time. This is a big issue because the current internal revenue code imposes a heavy bias against income that is saved and invested. It’s possible, when you consider the impact of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, double tax on dividends, and the death tax, for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four times.

And what makes this system so crazy is that all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is critical for long-run growth and rising living standards.

Yet here’s the problem. The crowd in Washington has set up a system for determining tax loopholes and that system assumes that there should be this kind of double taxation!

I’m not joking. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

This is why I organized a briefing for Capitol Hill staffers last week. You can watch the entire hour by clicking here, but if you don’t have a lot of time, here’s my 10-minute speech on the importance of choosing the right tax base (i.e., taxing income only one time).

Since I’m an economist, I want to highlight one particular aspect on my presentation. You’ll notice near the end that I tried to explain the destructive economic impact of double taxation with an analogy.

I shared a Powerpoint slide that compared the tax system to an apple tree. If you want to tax income, the sensible approach is to pick the apples off the tree.

But if you want to mimic the current tax system, with the pervasive double taxation and bias against capital, you harvest the apples by chopping down the tree.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), it’s utterly foolish to harvest apples by chopping down the tree since it means fewer apples in following years.

In this analogy, the apples are the income and the tree is the capital.

But as I thought about the issue further, I realized my analogy was imperfect because our current system doesn’t confiscate all existing capital.

Which is why it is very fortunate that one of the interns at Cato, Jonathan Babington-Heina, is a very good artist. And he was able to take my idea and come up with a set of cartoons that accurately – and effectively – show why discriminatory taxation of capital is so misguided.

By the way, this isn’t the first time that an intern has come to my rescue with artistic skill.

My highest-viewed post of all time is this famous set of cartoons that shows the dangerous evolution of the welfare state.

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I warned just last week about the dangers of letting politicians impose a value-added tax.

Simply stated, unless the 16th Amendment is repealed and replaced with a new provision forever barring the re-imposition of any taxes on income, a VAT inevitably would be a new source of revenue and become a money machine to finance ever-larger government.

Just look at the evidence from Europe if you’re not convinced.

That’s why the VAT is bad in reality.

Now let’s talk about why the VAT (sometimes called a “business transfer tax”) is theoretically appealing.

First and foremost, the VAT doesn’t do nearly as much damage, per dollar raised, as our current income tax. That’s because the VAT is a single-rate tax (i.e., no class warfare) with no double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

In some sense, it’s a version of the national sales tax, except the revenue is collected on the “value added” at each stage of the production process rather than in one fell swoop when consumers make their purchases.

And it’s also conceptually similar to the flat tax. Both have one rate. Both have no double taxation. And both (at least in theory) have no special preferences and loopholes. The difference between a flat tax and the VAT is that the former taxes your income (only one time) when you earn it and the latter taxes your income (only one time) when you spend it.

In other words, the bottom line is that it is good (or, to be more accurate, less bad) to have a tax system with a low rate and no double taxation. And in the strange world of public finance economists, a system with no double taxation is called a “consumption-base tax.” And the flat tax, sales tax, and VAT all fit in that category.

So why, then, if supporters of limited government prefer a consumption-base tax over the internal revenue code, is there so much hostility to a VAT?

The answer is simple. We don’t trust politicians and we’re afraid that a VAT would be an add-on tax rather than a replacement tax.

Which explains why it’s better to simply turn the existing tax code into a consumption-base tax. After all, the worst thing that could happen is that you degenerate back to the current system.

But if you go with a VAT, the downside risk is that America becomes France.

There’s a story in today’s Wall Street Journal that illustrates why consumption-base taxation is both a threat and opportunity. Here are some introductory excerpts.

U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle increasingly are finding appeal in an ambitious concept for overhauling the nation’s income-tax system: a tax based on consumption, a tool long used around the world. …As the name implies, consumption-style taxes hit the money taxpayers spend, rather than income they receive. One prominent feature of consumption systems is that they generally tax savings and investment lightly or not at all. That, in turn, encourages more investment and innovation, and ultimately more growth, many economists contend.

The reporter is wrong about consumption systems, by the way. Income that is saved and invested is taxed. It’s just not taxed over and over again, which can happen with the current system.

But he’s right that there is bipartisan interest. And he correctly points out that some politicians want an add-on tax while others want to fix the current system.

The tax-writing Senate Finance Committee is giving new consideration to the consumption-tax idea with the hope that its promised boost to economic growth would ease the way to a revamp. …Some of these proposals would have consumers pay another tax in addition to existing state and local sales taxes, while others would merely reshape the current system to tilt it more toward consumption. …Enactment of a broad-based federal consumption tax would align the U.S. with a global trend.

A Democratic Senator from Maryland wants to augment the current tax code by imposing the VAT.

Mr. Cardin introduced legislation last year to create a type of consumption tax known as a value-added tax and at the same time lower business taxes and scrap income taxes completely for lower-income Americans.

While some GOP Senators want to modify the current system to get rid of most double taxation.

Republicans on the working group also are interested in the concept, including a proposal put forward recently by GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah. That plan would make several changes to the tax code that would move the nation closer to a consumption-based system. …Many GOP members “believe that there are economic benefits to moving away from taxation of income and toward taxation of consumption,” a Senate aide said.

And the story also notes the objections on the left to consumption-base taxation, as well as objections on the right to the VAT.

Some liberals are concerned that consumption taxes affect poor people disproportionately, while unduly benefiting the rich, unless adjustments are made. For their part, conservatives fear that some types of consumption tax—particularly value-added taxes—would make it too easy to dial up government revenue collection.

So what’s the bottom line? Is it true, as the headline of the story says, that “Proposals for a consumption tax gain traction in both parties”?

Yes, that’s correct. But that’s not the same as saying that there is much chance of bipartisan consensus.

There’s a huge gap between those who want a VAT as an add-on tax and those who want to reform the current system to get rid of double taxation.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about the prospect of an add-on VAT. As I warned last year, there are some otherwise sensible people who are sympathetic to this pernicious levy.

Which is why I repeatedly share this video about the downside risk of a VAT.

And you get the same message from these amusing VAT cartoons (here, here, and here).

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With tax day fast approaching, it’s time to write about our good friends at the Internal Revenue Service.

One of the new traditions at the IRS is an annual release of tax scams. It’s know as the “dirty dozen” list, and while it may exist mostly as a publicity stunt, it does contain some useful advice.

And that’s true of this year’s version. But I worry that the IRS is looking at a few trees and missing the forest.

The Washington Examiner was kind enough to let me write a cover story on the “dirty dozen” list. Here’s my effort to add some context to the discussion.

…our friends at the Internal Revenue Service have a relatively new tradition of providing an annual list of 12 “tax scams” that taxpayers should avoid. It’s an odd collection, comprised of both recommendations that taxpayers protect themselves from fraud, as well as admonitions that taxpayers should be fully obedient to all IRS demands. Unsurprisingly, the list contains no warnings about the needless complexity and punitive nature of the tax code. Nor does the IRS say anything about how taxpayers lose the presumption of innocence if there’s any sort of conflict with the tax agency. Perhaps most important, there’s no acknowledgement from the IRS that many of the dirty dozen scams only exist because of bad tax policy.

In the article, I list each scam and make a few observations.

But I think my most useful comments came at the end of my piece.

…maybe the tax system wouldn’t engender so much hostility and disrespect if it was simple, transparent, fair, and conducive to growth. And that may be the big-picture lesson to learn as we conclude our analysis. When the income tax was first imposed back in 1913, the top tax rate was only 7 percent, the tax form was only two pages, and the tax code was easily understandable. But now that 100 years have gone by, the tax system has become a mess, like a ship encrusted with so many barnacles that it can no longer function. …the bottom line is that the biggest scam is the entire internal revenue code. The winners are the lobbyists, politicians, bureaucrats and insiders. The losers are America’s workers, investors, and consumers.

In other words, if we actually want a humane and sensible system, we should throw the current tax code in the garbage and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

And that’s exactly the message I shared in this interview with C-Span.

Here are a few of the points from the discussion that are worth emphasizing.

The current tax code benefits Washington insiders, not the American people.

But I’m not optimistic about fixing the tax code, in part because the crowd in DC would lose some power.

We’ll never get good tax reform unless there’s genuine entitlement reform to restrain the growing burden of government spending.

The flat tax and national sales tax are basically different sides of the same coin.

If you want class-warfare tax rates on the rich, keep in mind that high rates don’t necessarily translate into more revenue.

The no-tax-hike pledge is a vital and necessary component of a strategy to restrain government.

Itemized deductions benefit the rich, not the poor.

If you care about poor people, focus on growth rather than inequality.

We should mimic Hong Kong and Singapore, not France and Greece.

P.S. I wrote last week that the Senate GOP put together a budget that is surprisingly good, both in content and presentation. A reader since reminded me that the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee was a sponsor of the “Penny Plan,” which would lower non-interest outlays by 1 percent per year.

Since Mitchell’s Golden Rule simply requires that spending grow by less than the private sector, Senator Enzi’s Penny Plan obviously passes with flying colors.

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

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior.

2. Pervasive double taxation that discourages saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that bribe people to make less productive choices.

These problems all need to be addressed, but I also acknowledged additional concerns with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms an civil liberties.

In a perfect world, we would shrink government to such a small size that there was no need for any sort of broad-based tax (remember, the United States prospered greatly for most of our history when there was no income tax).

In a good world, we could at least replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

In today’s Washington, the best we can hope for is incremental reform.

But some incremental reforms can be very positive, and that’s the best way of describing the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan” unveiled today by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

The two GOP senators have a column in today’s Wall Street Journal, and you can read a more detailed description of their plan by clicking here.

But here are the relevant details.

What’s wrong with Rubio-Lee

In the interest of fairness, I’ll start with the most disappointing feature of the plan. The top tax rate will be 35 percent, only a few percentage points lower than the 39.6 percent top rate that Obama imposed as a result of the fiscal cliff.

Even more troubling, that 35 percent top tax rate will be imposed on any taxable income above $75,000 for single taxpayers and $150,000 for married taxpayers.

Since the 35 percent and 39.6 percent tax rates currently apply only when income climbs above $400,000, that means a significant number of taxpayers will face higher marginal tax rates.

That’s a very disappointing feature in any tax plan, but it’s especially unfortunate in a proposal put forth my lawmakers who wrote in their WSJ column that they want to “lower rates for families and individuals.”

What’s right with Rubio-Lee

This will be a much longer section because there are several very attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan.

Some households, for instance, will enjoy lower marginal tax rates under the new bracket structure, particularly if those households have lots of children (there’s a very big child tax credit).

But the really attractive features of the Rubio-Lee plan are those that deal with business taxation, double taxation, and international competitiveness.

Here’s a list of the most pro-growth elements of the plan.

A 25 percent tax rate on all business income – This means that the corporate tax rate is being reduced from 35 percent (the highest in the world), but also that there will be a 25 percent maximum rate on all small businesses that file using Schedule C as part of a 1040 tax return.

Sweeping reductions in double taxation – The Rubio-Lee plans eliminates the capital gains tax, the double tax on dividends, and the second layer of tax on interest.

Full expensing of business investment – The proposal gets rid of punitive “depreciation” rules that force businesses to overstate their income in ways that discourage new business investment.

Territorial taxation – Businesses no longer will have to pay a second layer of tax on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other nations.

No death tax – Income should not be subject to yet another layer of tax simply because someone dies. The Rubio-Lee plan eliminates this morally offensive form of double taxation.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the Rubio-Lee plan eliminate the state and local tax deduction, which is a perverse part of the tax code that enables higher taxes in states like New York and California.

Many years ago, while working at the Heritage Foundation, I created a matrix to grade competing tax reform plans. I updated that matrix last year to assess the proposal put forth by Congressman Dave Camp, the former Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

Here’s another version of that matrix, this time including the Rubio-Lee plan.

As you can see, the Rubio-Lee plan gets top scores for “saving and investment” and “international competitiveness.”

And since these components have big implications for growth, the proposal would – if enacted – generate big benefits. The economy would grow faster, more jobs would be created, workers would enjoy higher wages, and American companies would be far more competitive.

By the way, if there was (and there probably should be) a “tax burden” grade in my matrix, the Rubio-Lee plan almost surely would get an “A+” score because the overall proposal is a substantial tax cut based on static scoring.

And even with dynamic scoring, this plan will reduce the amount of money going to Washington in the near future.

Of course, faster future growth will lead to more taxable income, so there will be revenue feedback. So the size of the tax cut will shrink over time, but even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t get that upset if politicians get more revenue because more Americans are working and earning higher wages.

That simply means another opportunity to push for more tax relief!

What’s missing in Rubio-Lee

There are a few features of the tax code that aren’t addressed in the plan.

The health care exclusion is left untouched, largely because the two lawmakers understand that phasing out that preference is best handled as part of a combined tax reform/health reform proposal.

Some itemized deductions are left untouched, or simply tweaked.

And I’m not aware of any changes that would strengthen the legal rights of taxpayers when dealing with the IRS.

Let’s close with a reminder of what very good tax policy looks like.

To their credit, Rubio and Lee would move the tax code in the direction of a flat tax, though sometimes in a haphazard fashion.

P.S. There is a big debate on the degree to which the tax code should provide large child credits. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, I much prefer lower tax rates since faster growth is the most effective long-run way to bolster the economic status of families.

But even the flat tax has a generous family-based allowance, so it’s largely a political judgement on how much tax relief should be dedicated to kids and how much should be used to lower tax rates.

That being said, I think the so-called reform conservatives undermine their case when they argue child-oriented tax relief is good because it might subsidize the creation of future taxpayers to prop up entitlement programs. We need to reform those programs, not give them more money.

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On the issue of so-called progressive taxation, our left-wing friends have conflicting goals. Some of them want to maximize tax revenue in order to finance ever-bigger government.

But others are much more motivated by a desire to punish success. They want high tax rates on the “rich” even if the government collects less revenue.

Some of them simply pretend there isn’t a conflict, as you might imagine. They childishly assert that the Laffer Curve doesn’t exist and that upper-income taxpayers are fiscal pinatas, capable of generating never-ending amounts of tax revenue.

But more rational leftists admit that the Laffer Curve is real. They may argue that the revenue-maximizing rate is up around 70 percent, which is grossly inconsistent with the evidence from the 1980s, but at least they understand that successful taxpayers can and do respond when tax rates increase.

So the question for grown-up leftists is simple: What’s the answer if they have to choose between collecting more revenue and punishing the rich with class-warfare taxation?

And here’s some new research looking at this tradeoff. Authored by economists from the University of Oslo in Norway, École polytechnique de Lausanne in France, and the University of Pennsylvania, they look at “Tax progressivity and the government’s ability to collect additional tax revenue.”

The recent massive expansion of public debt around the world during the Great Recession raises the question how much debt a government can maximally service by raising the level of taxes. Or, to phrase this classic public finance question differently, how much additional tax revenue can the government generate by increasing income taxes?

And since they’re part of the real world (unlike, say, the Joint Committee on Taxation or the Obama Administration), they recognize that higher tax rates impose costs on the economy that lead to feedback effects on tax revenue.

Our research (Holter et al. 2014) investigates how tax progressivity and household heterogeneity impacts the Laffer curve. We argue that a more progressive labour income tax schedule significantly reduces the maximal amount of tax revenues a government can raise…under progressive taxes heterogeneous workers will face different average and marginal tax rates. …the answer to our question is closely connected to the individual (and then properly aggregated) response of labour supply to taxes. The microeconometric literature, as surveyed e.g. by Keane (2011), has found that both the intensive and extensive margins of labour supply (the latter especially for women), life-cycle considerations, and human capital accumulation are important determinants of these individual responses. …households make a consumption–savings choice and decide on whether or not to participate in the labour market (the extensive margin), how many hours to work conditional on participation (the intensive margin), and thus how much labour market experience to accumulate (which in turn partially determines future earnings capacities).

The above passage has a bit of economic jargon, but it’s simply saying that taxpayers respond to incentives.

They also provide estimates of tax progressivity for various developed nations. They’re only looking at the personal income tax, so these numbers don’t include, for instance, the heavy burden of the value-added tax on low-income people in Europe.

The good news (at least relatively speaking) is that the American income tax is not as punitive as it is in many other nations.

But the key thing to consider, at least in the context of this new research, is the degree to which so-called progressivity comes with a high price.

Here is some additional analysis from their research.

Why does the degree of tax progressivity matter for the government’s ability to generate labour income tax revenues…? changes in tax progressivity typically affects hours worked…increasing tax progressivity induces differential income and substitution effects on the workers in different parts of the earnings distribution. …a more progressive tax system may disproportionately reduce labour supply for high earners and lead to a reduction in tax revenue. …more progressive taxes will reduce the incentives for young agents to accumulate labour market experience and become high (and thus more highly taxed) earners.

Now let’s look at some of the results.

Remarkably, they find that the best way of maximizing revenue is to minimize the economic damage of the tax system. And that means…drum roll, please…a flat tax.

For its current choice of progressivity (the green line), the US can sustain a debt burden of about 330% of its benchmark GDP, by increasing the average tax rate to about 42%. Thus, according to our findings the US is currently still nowhere close to its maximally sustainable debt levels…we also observe that larger public debt can be sustained with a less progressive tax system. Converting to a flat tax system (the black line) increases the maximum sustainable debt to more than 350% of benchmark GDP, whereas adopting Danish tax progressivity lowers it to less than 250% of benchmark GDP.

Here are a couple of charts from their study, both of which underscore that punitive tax rates are very counterproductive, assuming the goal is to either maximize revenue or to sustain a larger public sector.

Notice that if you want to punish “the rich” and impose Danish-type levels of progressivity (the dashed line), you’ll get less revenue and won’t be able to sustain as much debt.

Now let’s shift from discussing intellectual quandaries for the left and talk about challenges for believers in limited government.

We like a flat tax because it treats people equally and it raises revenue in a relatively non-destructive manner.

But because it is an “efficient” form of taxation, it’s also an “efficient” way to generate revenues to finance bigger government.

Indeed, this was one of the findings in a 1998 study by Professors Gary Becker and Casey Mulligan.

So does this mean that instead of supporting a flat tax, we should a loophole-riddled system based on high tax rates solely because that system will be so inefficient that it won’t generate revenue?

Of course not. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is why my work on fundamental tax reform is intertwined with my work on constitutional and legal mechanisms to limit the size and scope of government.

And it’s also why Obama’s class-warfare approach is so perversely destructive. If you think I’m exaggerating, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

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I’m a long-time proponent of the flat tax for three simple reasons.

1. It replaces the discriminatory “progressive” tax with a single tax rate at the lowest possible level, thus reducing the tax penalty on productive behavior.

2. It gets rid of all forms of double taxation, such as the death tax and capital gains tax, meaning economic activity is never taxed more than one time.

3. Other than a family-based allowance, it gets rid of all loopholes, deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions, and preferences, meaning economic activity is taxed equally.

Some people say that these are also three reasons to favor a national sales tax.

My response is that they’re correct. In simple terms, a national sales tax (such as the Fair Tax) is like a flat tax but with a different collection point.

If you want more details, I often explain the two plans are different sides of the same coin. The only difference is that the flat tax takes of slice of your income as you earn it and the sales tax takes a slice of your income as you spend it. But neither plan has any double taxation of income that is saved and invested. And neither plan has loopholes to lure people into making economically irrational decisions.

Instead of class warfare and/or social engineering, both plans are designed to raise money is the least-damaging fashion possible.

So even though I’m mostly known for being an advocate of the flat tax, I have no objection to speaking in favor of a national sales tax, testifying in favor of a national sales tax, or debating in favor of a national sales tax.

With this bit of background, you can understand why it caught my attention that an economics professor at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) wrote a column for Forbes with the provocative title of “I Will Support The Fair Tax When Its Backers Tell The Truth”.

Professor Dorfman writes that “such a consumption tax has much to recommend it from an economic point of view” but then warns that he “cannot support the Fair Tax as long as its backers continue to make implausible claims for their proposed reform.”

So what are the implausible claims? Let’s check them out and see if his friendly criticism is warranted.

He first expresses skepticism about the claim that take-home pay will rise to the level of gross pay under a Fair Tax, particularly given the assertion that prices won’t rise.

…the odds are that your gross pay will shrink over time under the Fair Tax. …employers can offer workers lower pay because of the lower cost of living (same prices, but higher take home pay). Because workers evaluate pay offers based on the purchasing power of that pay, the same competitive forces that will lower prices after the removal of business taxes, will lead to lower pay for employees in the long run as the labor market adjusts.

I suspect Professor Dorfman’s critique is correct, but I don’t think it matters. Workers understandably care first and foremost about the purchasing power of their paycheck, and that won’t be negatively impacted.

The Professor than looks at whether the Fair Tax gets taxes the underground economy.

…let’s tackle the claim that the Fair tax will do a better job of collecting taxes on criminals, the underground economy, and those who underreport their income. The idea is that people may hide some of their income or that drug dealers and others in the underground economy do not report their income, but that everyone spends money so the Fair Tax will tax everyone. Unfortunately, this claim is not true… Retailers are just as capable of underreporting revenue and not sending in the corresponding Fair Tax as people are of underreporting their income. …The incentive to avoid such consumption taxes will only increase when the rate is four or five times what it is now. If you don’t believe consumption taxes suffer from collection problems, go ask Greece.

And he looks specifically at taxing criminal activity.

Another reason that the Fair Tax will not capture extra revenue from illegal activities is that it only switches which side of the transaction is missed by the tax system. Currently, while drug dealers may not report their income, the people who buy drugs are paying with after-tax income. Under the Fair Tax, the drug dealers will pay tax when they spend their drug profits. However, unless the drug dealer sends in the Fair Tax on their sales, the drug buyers will now avoid tax on their purchases. Under either tax system, one side of the underground transactions will be paying taxes and one will not.

I think Professor Dorfman is correct, particularly in his explanation that drug dealers and other criminals will not collect sales tax when they peddle their illicit goods.

And he’s also correct when he says that the Fair Tax won’t collect all taxes on legal products.

But that doesn’t mean the Fair Tax is somehow flawed. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the underground economy will shrink under a national sales tax since the incentive to evade tax (on legal products) is a function of the tax rate. So if we replace the punitive high-rate internal revenue code with a low-rate Fair Tax, there will be a higher level of compliance.

But not zero evasion, so Fair Tax supporters exaggerate if they make that claim.

The next point of contention is whether the IRS can be repealed under a Fair Tax.

…some agency needs to collect all the sales taxes, ensure retailers are sending in the full amount, and handle all the mechanics of the prebate. The prebate requires this federal agency to know everyone’s family size and have a bank account or other method of sending out the prebate each month. So while individuals will have less interaction with the federal tax agency, there will still be some. For retail businesses, their interactions with federal tax officials will be at least as much as now, if not more.

The Professor is right, though this may be a matter of semantics. Fair Tax people acknowledge there will be a tax collector (the legislation creates an incentive for states to be in charge of collecting the tax), but they say that the tax authority under their system will be completely different than the abusive IRS we have today.

Last but not least is the controversy over whether everyone benefits under a Fair Tax.

…while Fair Tax proponents often act like nobody loses under the Fair Tax that is simply not possible. If the Fair Tax is implemented in a revenue neutral manner (collecting the same amount of total revenue as all the taxes it replaces), and some people win then other people must lose. Poor people pay roughly no tax either way, so the Fair tax would be neutral for them. The very rich will assumedly pay less since they spend a lower percentage of their income and spend more overseas. Thus, the suspicion is that the middle class will be paying more. One other group pretty sure to pay more is the elderly. The elderly have paid income tax while earning income, and under the Fair Tax would suddenly pay high consumption taxes right when their income drops and their spending increases. In the long run, this is not a problem, but early in a Fair Tax regime, the elderly definitely are losers.

Once again, Professor Dorfman is making a good point (and others have made the same point about the flat tax).

My response, for what it’s worth, is that supporters of both the flat tax and national sales tax should not be bound by revenue neutrality. Especially if the revenue-estimating system is rigged to produce bad numbers. Instead, they should set the rate sufficiently low that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers are net winners.

And in the long run, everyone can be a net winner if the economy grows faster.

And that, as Professor Dorfman agrees, is the main reason for tax reform.

The Fair Tax really has much to recommend it. It is simpler than the current system. It causes fewer distortions in the daily economic decisions that people make. The main distortion it does introduce is positive: to encourage saving and discourage consumption which would make the country wealthier in the long run.

Though I would quibble with the wording of this last excerpt. I don’t think the Fair Tax creates a pro-savings distortion. Instead, it removes an anti-savings bias. Just like the flat tax.

Now let me add a friendly criticism that Professor Dorfman didn’t address.

Advocates of the Fair Tax correctly say that their proposal shouldn’t be implemented until and unless the income tax is fully repealed. But as I explain in this video, that may be an impossible undertaking.

To be blunt, I don’t trust politicians. I fear that they would gladly adopt some form of consumption tax while secretly scheming to keep the income tax.

P.S. Actually, what I really want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax. Our nation enjoyed strong growth before that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was imposed, so why concede that politicians today should have either a flat tax or Fair Tax? But that’s an issue for another day.

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Some statements are so lame that they now serve only as punch lines.

Nobody, after all, would ever claim to a teacher that “the dog ate my homework.”

Moreover, surely few if any people ever actually assert to bill collectors that “the check is in the mail.”

And I have to imagine that no guy would be dumb enough to think a girl would fall for the line that “I’ll still love you in the morning.”

But we now have a new champion in the contest for the most laughable and pathetic assertion ever made.

But first some background. Congressional investigators have been trying to figure out the level of criminality and malfeasance in the IRS’s campaign to interfere with the 2012 election by targeting Tea Party groups. Much of the attention has focused on the activities of Lois Lerner, a left-wing ideologue at the center of the scandal.

And it is because of this investigation that we have a winner in the most-preposterous excuse contest. The political hacks at the IRS are now claiming, with straight faces, that they can’t turn over thousands of emails sent and received by Lois Lerner because of a “computer mishap.”

Here’s some of what’s been reported by the Washington Times.

The IRS has told Congress that it has lost some of former employee Lois G. Lerner’s emails from 2009 through 2011, including those she sent to other federal agencies… Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he was stunned… “The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’s response to congressional inquiries,” Mr. Camp said. “There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the Inspector General.” …the emails lost were “critical years” from the beginning of the targeting of conservative groups.

At this point, I suppose I should acknowledge that there’s an infinitesimally tiny chance that the IRS is being honest. Maybe, just maybe, the IRS’s immense computer infrastructure and multiple levels of redundant back up happened to fail. And, by an amazing coincidence, they can recover everything except the emails from Lois Lerner that were sent at precisely the time she was instrumental in the IRS’s harassment campaign.

Yeah, right, there’s a chance the IRS is being honest. Just like the Nixon White House could have accidentally erased 18-1/2 minutes of tape.

That being said, there’s a chance I’ll be playing center field next month for the New York Yankees. And an even bigger chance that the models from Victoria’s Secret will invite me for a weekend orgy (and just in case the Princess of the Levant is reading this, I naturally would say no).

Let me now detour into the world of public policy.

The IRS’s venal and corrupt behavior is only possible because the tax code is a Byzantine nightmare of about 75,000 pages. And that doesn’t even include all the tax court decisions and IRS letter rulings that also govern the internal revenue code.

It is this thicket of special-interest sleaze that enables hacks like Lois Lerner to wield unjustified power.

So if we want to actually reduce the chances of similar malfeasance in the future, then action is needed.

But I’m not just talking about prison for the crooks who tried to misuse the power of government.

We also need to rip up the internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

As you can see in this video, I’m mostly a fan of tax reform because it will help the American economy. But I’m also delighted the flat tax will reduce the discretionary power of politicians and bureaucrats.

In the long run, of course, it would be even better if we shrank the federal government so much that we didn’t need any broad-based tax of any kind.

 

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I’m ecumenical on tax reform. I’ll support any plan that rips up the internal revenue code and instead lowers tax rates, reduces double taxation, and cuts out distorting loopholes.

And as I explain in this interview, both the flat tax and national sales tax have a low tax rate. They also get rid of double taxation and they both wipe out the rat’s nest of deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, and exemptions.

You’ll notice, however, that I wasn’t very optimistic in the interview about the possibility of replacing the IRS with a simple and fair tax system.

But perhaps I’m being needlessly gloomy. New polling data from Reason-Rupe show that there’s very strong support for reform. At least if you favor a flat tax.

This doesn’t mean we can expect genuine tax reform tomorrow or the next day.

President Obama is viscerally committed to class-warfare tax policy, for instance, and special interest groups would vigorously resist if there was a real possibility (they would say threat) of scrapping the current tax code.

But it does suggest that tax reform – at least in the form of a flat tax – could happen if there was real leadership in Washington.

So maybe my fantasies will become reality!

And one of the best arguments for reform is that the internal revenue code is an unfair mess.

Consider how rich people are treated by the tax code. The system is so complicated that we can’t tell whether they’re paying too much (because of high rates and pervasive double taxation) or paying too little (because of special preferences and tax shelters).

Regardless, we do know that they can afford lots of lobbyists, lawyers, and accountants. So even though they are far more likely to be audited, they have ample ability to defend themselves.

But the real lesson, as I explain in this CNBC interview, is that the right kind of tax reform would lead to a simple system that treats everyone fairly.

I’m also glad I used the opportunity to grouse about the IRS getting politicized and corrupted.

But I wish there had been more time in the interview so I could have pointed out that IRS data reveal that you get a lot more revenue from the rich when tax rates are more reasonable.

And I also wish I had seen the Reason-Rupe poll so I could have bragged that there was strong support for a flat tax.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have been able to make the same claim about the national sales tax. I haven’t seen any recent public opinion data on the Fair Tax or other similar plans, but a poll from last year failed to find majority support for such a proposal.

And a Reason-Rupe poll from 2011 showed only 33 percent support for a national sales tax.

That won’t stop me from defending the national sales tax. After all, it is based on the same principles as a flat tax.

But the polls do suggest (as do anecdotes from the campaign trail) that a flat tax is a more politically viable option for reformers.

The moral of the story is that it makes more sense to push for the flat tax. After all, if I have an easy route and a hard route to get to the same destination, why make life more difficult?

Though the ultimate libertarian fantasy is shrinking government back to what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Then we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax of any kind.

P.S. Here’s my choice for the strangest-loophole award.

P.P.S. Since I shared a poll today with good news, I may as well link to a tax poll that left me somewhat depressed.

P.P.P.S. Let’s end with some IRS humor.

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I realize this may be a thought crime by DC standards, but it sure would be nice to eliminate the high tax rates that undermine economic growth and reduce American competitiveness.

At the risk of sharing too much information, I fantasize about a world without the internal revenue code. In addition to getting rid of high tax rates, I also want to abolish the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Tax Code PagesJust as important, I want to wipe out the distorting loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of politically connected interest groups. And I daydream about how much easier tax day would be if ordinary people didn’t have to figure out how to comply with an ever-changing tax code.

But perhaps you’re a normal person and you don’t dwell on these topics. Your fantasies probably have nothing to do with fiscal policy and instead involve that hottie in your neighborhood.

That’s fine. I’m actually envious of well-adjusted people who don’t fixate on the cesspool of Washington.

But – at the very least – I want you to agree that America needs fundamental tax reform. And to help persuade you,  here are some fresh stories to remind you that the tax code and the IRS are a blight on society.

For instance, how do you feel about the IRS engaging in partisan politics, as reported by the Washington Times.

Even as the IRS faces growing heat over Lois G. Lerner and the tea party targeting scandal, a government watchdog said Wednesday it’s pursuing cases against three other tax agency employees and offices suspected of illegal political activity in support of President Obama and fellow Democrats. …the Office of Special Counsel…said it was “commonplace” in a Dallas IRS office for employees to have pro-Obama screensavers on their computers, and to have campaign-style buttons and stickers at their office. In another case, a worker at the tax agency’s customer help line urged taxpayers “to re-elect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name,” the Office of Special Counsel said in a statement. …Another IRS employee in Kentucky has agreed to serve a 14-day suspension for blasting Republicans in a conversation with a taxpayer.

For more information about this nauseating scandal, read the wise words of Tim Carney and Doug Bandow.

Or what about the time, expense, and anxiety that the tax code causes for small businesses? Heck, even the Washington Post has noticed this is a big issue.

More than half of small employers say the administrative burdens and paperwork associated with tax season pose the greatest harm to their businesses, according to a new survey by the National Small Business Association. Forty-seven percent say the actual tax bill hits their companies the hardest. On average, small-business owners spend more than 40 hours — the equivalent of a full workweek — filing their federal taxes every year. One in four spends at least three full weeks on the annual chore. There is also the expense of doing that work. Only 12 percent of employers filed their taxes on their own this year, down from 15 percent last year — and hiring help can be pricey. Half spent more than $5,000 on accountants and administrative costs last year. One in four spent more than $10,000.

I was tempted to say compliance costs add insult to injury, except that understates the problem. Watch this video if you want to understand why the tax code needs to be junked.

And let’s not forget that high tax rates are pointlessly destructive and bad for America. Dozens of companies have redomiciled in other jurisdictions to get out from under America’s punitive corporate tax system. And more are looking at that option. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Financial Times.

Walgreens has come under pressure from an influential group of its shareholders, who want the US pharmacy chain to consider relocating to Europe, in what would be one of the largest tax inversions ever attempted. …The move, known as an inversion, would dramatically reduce Walgreens’ taxable income in the US, which has among the highest corporate tax rates in the world. …In a note last month, analysts at UBS said Walgreens’ tax rate was expected to be 37.5 per cent compared with 20 per cent for Boots, and that an inversion could increase earnings per share by 75 per cent. They added, however, that “Walgreens’ management seems more hesitant to pull the trigger near-term due to perceived political risks.”

By the way, “perceived political risks” is a polite way of saying that the team at Walgreens is worried that the company might be targeted by the crowd in Washington. In other words, it will be attacked if it does the right thing for workers, consumers, and shareholders.

But that’s blaming the victim. All you really need to know is that America’s corporate tax system is so harsh that companies don’t just escape to Ireland, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and Bermuda. They even find better fiscal policy in Canada and the United Kingdom!

Last but not least, do you trust the IRS with your confidential financial data? If you answer yes, seek help right away from a mental health professional and check out these stories.

According to the Washington Times:

A new cost-saving computer technology being implemented by the IRS has left the agency vulnerable to hacking, putting taxpayers’ info at risk, an investigative report has found. …although the IRS has developed cybersecurity guidelines, many of the servers aren’t following them, said a report by the agency’s internal watchdog, the Inspector General for Tax Administration. In fact, the servers failed 43 percent of the tests investigators put them through, though they aren’t releasing what those tests and settings are due to security concerns.

According to a Bloomberg report:

A U.S. Internal Revenue Service employee took home a computer thumb drive containing unencrypted data on 20,000 fellow workers, the agency said in a statement today. …The IRS said it’s working with its inspector general to investigate the incident. The IRS statement didn’t say why the incident was discovered now, didn’t include the name of the employee who used the thumb drive and didn’t say whether the employee still works at the IRS.

And National Review has reported:

The Internal Revenue Service stole and improperly accessed 60 million medical records after raiding a California company, according to a legal complaint filed in March with the California superior court for San Diego. …“No search warrant authorized the seizure of these records; no subpoena authorized the seizure of these records; none of the 10,000,000 Americans were under any kind of known criminal or civil investigation and their medical records had no relevance whatsoever to the IRS search.”

So what’s the bottom line? I suppose there are different interpretations, but my view is that the system is irretrievably broken. It needs to be shredded and replaced.

What are the options?

My real fantasy is to have a very small federal government. Then we wouldn’t need a broad-based tax of any kind.

But I also have incremental fantasies. Until we can shrink the federal government to its proper size, let’s at least figure out ways of collecting revenue that are much less destructive and much less unfair.

The flat tax is one possible answer.

I’m also a fan of the national sales tax, though only if we first amend the Constitution to ensure that politicians don’t pull a bait-and-switch and burden us with both an income tax and sales tax!

To be more specific, I’m a fan of the Fair Tax, but only if we make sure that politicians never again have the ability to impose an income tax.

P.S. Since we’re on the subject of taxes, folks in Northern New Jersey, Southern New York, and New York City may be interested in a tax symposium this Thursday at Ramapo College in Mahway, New Jersey. Along with several other speakers, I’ll be pontificating on the following question: “The Income Tax:
Necessary Evil, Or the Root of All Evil?”

The college is convenient to I-287 near the New York/New Jersey border. Say hello if you attend.

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I generally get very suspicious when rich people start pontificating on tax policy.

People like Warren Buffett, for instance, sometimes advocate higher taxes because they’re trying to curry favor with the political elite. Or maybe they feel compelled to say silly things to demonstrate that they feel guilty about their wealth.

Tax SystemRegardless, I don’t like their policy proposal (as you can see from TV debates here and here).

That being said, I also realize that stereotypes can be very unfair, so it’s important to judge each argument on the merits and not to reject an idea simply because it comes from a rich guy.

That’s why I was very interested to see that Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire software maker, decided to add his two cents to the discussion of tax reform.

Here’s what Gates said at an American Enterprise Institute forum (transcript here and video here).

…economists would have said that a progressive consumption tax is a better construct, you know, at any point in history. What I’m saying is that it’s even more important as we go forward.

He doesn’t really expand on those remarks other than to say that it’s important to reduce the tax on labor.

That part of Gates’ remarks doesn’t make much sense for the simple reason that workers are equally harmed whether the government takes 20 percent of their income when it’s earned or 20 percent of their income when it’s spent.

But his embrace of a “progressive consumption tax” is very intriguing.

I don’t like the “progressive” part because that’s shorthand for high marginal tax rates, and that type of class-warfare policy is a gateway to corruption and is also damaging to growth (see here, here, here, here, and here).

But the “consumption” part is one of the key features of all good tax reform plans.

For all intents and purposes, a “consumption tax” is any system that avoids the mistake of double-taxing income that is saved and invested.

Both the national sales tax and the value-added tax, for instance, are examples of consumption-based tax systems.

But the flat tax also is a consumption tax. It isn’t collected at the cash register like a sales tax, but it has the same “tax base.”

Under a flat tax, income is taxed – but only one time – when it is earned. Under a sales tax, income is taxed – but only one time – when it is spent. They’re different sides of the same coin.

Most important, neither the flat tax nor the sales tax has extra layers of tax on saving and investment. And that’s what makes them “consumption” taxes in the wonky world of public finance economists.

This means no death tax, no capital gains tax, no double taxation of interest or dividends. And businesses get a common-sense cash-flow system of taxation, which means punitive depreciation rules are replaced by “expensing.”

So Bill Gates is halfway on the path to tax policy salvation. His endorsement of so-called progressivity is wrong, but his support for getting rid of double taxation is right.

If you like getting into the weeds of tax policy, it’s interesting to note that Gates is advocating the opposite of the plan that was proposed by Congressman Dave Camp.

Camp wants to go in the right direction regarding rates, but he wants to exacerbate the tax code’s bias against capital. Here’s what I said to Politico.

Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he didn’t see it as an individual versus business issue, but rather took issue with Camp’s punitive treatment of savings and investment. “The way Camp is extracting more money from businesses — more punitive depreciation and the like — is he is making the tax system more biased against savings and investment,” said Mitchell, who worked for Republican Sen. Bob Packwood after the historic 1986 tax act that Packwood helped negotiate as chair of the Finance Committee.

By the way, this doesn’t mean Camp’s plan is bad. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the good and bad features.

Just like that type of analysis was appropriate in 1986, when the bad provisions that increased taxes on saving and investment were offset by a big reduction in marginal tax rates.

The 1986 law did take aim at some popular business benefits, including a lucrative investment tax credit. But the reward was a lot sweeter. “At least then, we got a big, big reduction in tax rates in exchange,” Mitchell said.

Here’s an interview I did with Blaze TV on Congressman Camp’s plan. If you pay attention near the beginning (at about the 2:00 mark), you’ll see my matrix on how to grade tax reform plans.

Now let’s circle back to the type of tax system endorsed by Bill Gates.

We obviously don’t know what he favors beyond a “progressive consumption tax,” but that bit of information allows us to say that he wants something at least somewhat similar to the old “USA Tax” that was supported by folks such as former Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici.

Is that better than the current tax system?

Probably yes, though we can’t say for sure because it’s possible they may want to increase tax rates by such a significant amount that the plan becomes a net minus for the economy.

Not that any of this matters since I doubt we’ll get tax reform in my lifetime.

P.S. Speaking of taxes and the rich, you’ll enjoy this very clever interview exposing the hypocrisy of wealthy leftists.

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Obamacare may not be good news for taxpayers or consumers, but let’s look at the bright side. At least the law has generated some superb political humor, including funny videos.

*The head of the National Socialist Workers Party finds out he can’t keep his health plan.

*A creepy version of Uncle Sam wants to know about your sex life.

*Young people discover that they’re screwed by Obamacare.

*One of the biggest statists of the 20th century is angry that the Obamacare exchanges don’t work.

We have another addition to this amusing collection. This cartoon video employs lots of snark to expose the illogical underpinnings of Obamacare.

My one complaint with this video, though, is that it merely scratches the surface.

Yes, Obamacare is a cluster-you-know-what, but there are many other government programs and policies that cause inefficiency and high costs

Here’s some of what I wrote on this topic back in 2009, starting with an explanation of how government intervention in the tax code has distorted the insurance market and turned it into an inefficient form of pre-paid healthcare.

Insurance is supposed to be for unforseen major expenses, such as a heart attack. But our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues discussed above, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans.

I then ask readers to contemplate what car insurance would look like if government also intervened in that market. Or to think about the consequences if insurance for houses also was subject to government-caused distortion.

Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

The best way of fixing the mess in health insurance, for what it’s worth, is a flat tax. This is because the “healthcare exclusion” is repealed and compensation in the form of fringe benefits is taxed at the same (low) rate as other forms of income.

This presumably will end the incentive for gold-plated Cadillac health plans since workers – once the playing field is level – will prefer a greater amount cash compensation. So health plans gradually will be scaled back so they offer genuine insurance.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity offers a good explanation.

You also should watch this Reason TV video that shows a real-world example of how prices fall and the system is more efficient when consumers are in charge of healthcare.

For the same reason, I also recommend this story from North Carolina, as well as this example of capitalism from Maine.

It’s also worth noting that there are a few tiny parts of our healthcare system where markets are allowed to operate and consumers are in charge of spending their own money, and in these areas – such as cosmetic surgery, laser eye surgery, and abortion (regardless of whether you approve or disapprove) – we find stable prices and rising quality.

Free markets work…when they’re allowed to function.

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To make fun of big efforts that produce small results, the famous Roman poet, Horace, wrote “The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.”

That line sums up my view of the new tax reform plan introduced by Congressman Dave Camp, Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

To his credit, Congressman Camp put in a lot of work. But I can’t help but wonder why he went through the time and trouble. To understand why I’m so underwhelmed, let’s first go back in time.

Back in 1995, tax reform was a hot issue. The House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, had proposed a flat tax. Congressman Billy Tauzin was pushing a version of a national sales tax. And there were several additional proposals jockeying for attention.

To make sense of this clutter, I wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation that demonstrated how to grade the various proposals that had been proposed.

As you can see, I included obvious features such as low tax rates, simplicity, double taxation, and social engineering, but I also graded plans based on other features such as civil liberties, fairness, and downside risk.

Tax Reform Grading Matrix

There obviously have been many new plans since I wrote this paper, most notably the Fair Tax (a different version of a national sales tax than the Tauzin plan), Simpson-Bowles, the Ryan Roadmap, Domenici-Rivlin, the Heritage Foundation’s American Dream proposal, the Baucus-Hatch blank slate, and – as noted above – the new tax reform plan by Congressman Dave Camp.

Given his powerful position as head of the tax-writing committee, let’s use the 1995 guide to assess the pros and cons of Congressman Camp’s plan.

Rates: The Top tax rate for individual taxpayers is reduced from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, which is a disappointingly modest step in the right direction. The corporate tax rate falls from 35 percent to 25 percent, which is more praiseworthy, though Camp doesn’t explain why small businesses (who file using the individual income tax) should pay higher rates than large companies.

Simplicity: Camp claims that he will eliminate 25 percent of the tax code, which certainly is welcome news since the internal revenue code has swelled to 70,000-plus pages of loopholes, exemptions, deductions, credits, penalties, exclusions, preferences, and other distortions. And his proposal does eliminate some deductions, including the state and local tax deduction (which perversely rewards states with higher fiscal burdens).

Saving and Investment: Ever since Reagan slashed tax rates in the 1980s, the most anti-growth feature of the tax code is probably the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Shockingly, the Camp plan worsens the tax treatment of capital, with higher taxation of dividends and capital gains and depreciation rules that are even more onerous than current law.

Social Engineering: Some of the worst distortions in the tax code are left in place, including the healthcare exclusion for almost all taxpayers. This means that people will continue to make economically irrational decisions solely to benefit from certain tax provisions.

Civil Liberties: The Camp plan does nothing to change the fact that the IRS has both the need and the power to collect massive amounts of private financial data from taxpayers. Nor does the proposal end the upside-down practice of making taxpayers prove their innocence in any dispute with the tax authorities.

Fairness: In a non-corrupt tax system, all income is taxed, but only one time. On this basis, the plan from the Ways & Means Chairman is difficult to assess. Loopholes are slightly reduced, but double taxation is worse, so it’s hard to say whether the system is more fair or less fair.

Risk: There is no value-added tax, which is a critically important feature of any tax reform plan. As such, there is no risk the Camp plan will become a Trojan Horse for a massive expansion in the fiscal burden.

Evasion: People are reluctant to comply with the tax system when rates are punitive and/or there’s a perception of rampant unfairness. It’s possible that the slightly lower statutory rates may improve incentives to obey the law, but that will be offset by the higher tax burden on saving and investment.

International Competitiveness: Reducing the corporate tax rate will help attract jobs and investment, and the plan also mitigates some of worst features of America’s “worldwide” tax regime.

Now that we’ve taken a broad look at the components of Congressman Camp’s plan, let’s look at a modified version of my 1995 grades.

Camp Tax Matrix

You can see why I’m underwhelmed by his proposal.

Congressman Camp’s proposal may be an improvement over the status quo, but my main reaction is “what’s the point?”

In other words, why go through months of hearings and set up all sorts of working groups, only to propose a timid plan?

Now, perhaps, readers will understand why I’m rather pessimistic about achieving real tax reform.

We know the right policies to fix the tax code.

And we have ready-made plans – such as the flat tax and national sales tax – that would achieve the goals of tax reform.

Camp’s plan, by contrast, simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic.

P.S. If you need to be cheered up after reading all this, here’s some more IRS humor to brighten your day, including the IRS version of the quadratic formula, a new Obama 1040 form, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon ofhow GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), and two songs about the tax agency (hereand here),  and a PG-13 joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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It’s not easy being a libertarian, particularly if you follow public policy.

Thomas Jefferson almost certainly was right when he wrote that “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”

Heck, just look at how small government used to be in the developed world compared to where it is now. Public sectors used to consume only about 10 percent of economic output during the 1800s when nations became rich, but now the burden of government spending averages more than 40 percent of GDP.

And if you really want to get depressed, then look at the long-run fiscal forecasts for the United States and other industrialized countries. Things are going to get worse. Much worse.

Most nations are heading toward a Greek-style fiscal crisis. And while the United States is in better shape than many European welfare states today, our long-run outlook is actually worse according to the International Monetary Fund.

Even the Bank for International Settlements and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development agree with the IMF’s grim prognosis.

Speaking of the IMF, let’s discuss some very bad news. It’s about Albania, so it may not seem very important, but it’s quite symbolic of the destructive impact of international bureaucracies.

As you can see from this Reuters report, the IMF basically bribed Albania to get rid of its flat tax.

“The IMF staff and the authorities reached an agreement on the IMF supporting their economic programme with financial assistance which could be delivered over a period of three years under an extended fund facility with access of about 300 million euros,” the IMF’s mission chief, Nadeem Ilahi, told reporters. …The three-month-old Socialist government will scrap a flat tax of 10 percent in the next fiscal year in January and raise the corporate tax to 15 percent from 10 percent. Also, the income tax for high-earners will rise to rates of 13 percent and 23 percent from 10 percent currently. …”The package of economic policies … supported by the IMF programme should make Albania an economy that is reforming, is open to foreign investors. … A lot of the reforms the authorities are planning are consistent with what the European Union has been asking for,” Ilahi said.

So think about what this means. The IMF is hurting global growth by distorting the allocation of capital. It’s hurting Albanian growth by enabling more government spending. And it’s hurting Albanian growth by forcing higher tax rates.

And then the IMF bureaucrat in charge, Mr. Ilahi, actually has the nerve to assert that all this bad policy will make Albania “open to foreign investors.” Yeah, sure. Investors are always flocking to nations that are actively increasing the burden of government. I guess that’s why France is such an economic dynamo and Hong Kong is suffering from stagnation…at least according to the IMF model anyway.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Mr. Ilahi (like all international bureaucrats) gets a tax-free salary! So I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that he is completely clueless about the real-world impact on the destructive policies he has foisted upon Albania.

By the way, Albanian politicians are not exactly blameless. They doubled government spending over the past 10 years, with outlays climbing from less than 200 million leks in 2003 to more than 400 million leks this year.

And then these profligate politicians decided to throw their taxpayers under the bus in exchange for a pile of additional loot from the IMF.

The real victims are the people of Albania. They suffered decades of communist enslavement. But even after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, they’ve never enjoyed a free-market, small-government economy. But with the flat tax, they had at least one pro-growth policy.

Now they don’t even have that.

P.S. The IMF is an equal-opportunity proponent of bad policy. The tax-free bureaucrats have advocated lots of tax hikes on Americans, including a value-added tax, a financial transactions tax, and class-warfare tax rate increases. Oh, and let’s not forget they urged a giant energy tax on American consumers. IMF KevorkianIt’s nice to know that the bureaucrats are so industrious at developing policies to hurt the United States when American taxpayers underwrite the biggest share of the IMF budget.

P.P.S. But I don’t want to be unfair. The IMF did provide – albeit by accident – very powerful evidence showing why the United States should not have a value-added tax. So I guess that was one useful thing the bureaucrats did, even if it wasn’t their intention. And the bureaucracy has published some good studies about the economic benefits of reducing government spending and others warning that tax increases can be self defeating.

P.P.P.S. Since this has been a depressing post, let’s close by noting that the IMF doesn’t always succeed. The bureaucrats unsuccessfully tried to pressure Latvia into abandoning the flat tax.

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There’s an off-year election today in the United States. There are no contests for the White House or Congress, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any important choices being made.

I say that notwithstanding the fact that the big races between politicians at the state and local level aren’t expected to be close.

Governor Christie in New Jersey is poised for a landslide victory in his race for a second term. The only interesting aspect of this race is whether he will use his reelection as a springboard for a run at the White House in 2016. That may please you, depending on whether you focus on his rhetoric (here and here) or his record (here and here).

Bill de Blasio is going to be elected Mayor of New York City, replacing a politically correct Napoleonic busy-body (see here, here, here, here, and here) with a hard-left statist. I expect many productive people will be fleeing in the next few years. Given what will happen, I suspect Detroit-on-the-Hudson will be the future name of NYC.

Terry McAuliffe, a former Clinton fundraiser, will probably become Governor of Virginia. The GOP in the state has been dispirited and weak every since the corrupt Republican governor imposed a big tax hike, though the GOP candidate has a slight chance for an upset because of growing anti-Obamacare sentiment.

The contest that should command our attention is Amendment 66 in Colorado, a ballot initiative that would eliminate the state’s 4.63 percent flat tax and replace it with a so-called progressive tax regime with rates of 5 percent and 5.9 percent.

Here’s how the Wall Street Journal describes the proposal.

Colorado has veered to the political left in recent years, and on November 5 it may take another leap toward California. The Democrats and unions who now run state government are promoting a ballot initiative that would raise taxes and unleash a brave new era of liberal governance. …a $950 million revenue increase for politicians in the first year alone.

The real problem is what happens once the flat tax is gutted and politicians can play divide and conquer with the tax code.

…the real prize is down the road. Once a graduated tax code is in place, unions and Democrats will try again and again to raise tax rates on “the rich.” This has happened everywhere Democrats have run the show in the last decade, from Maryland to Connecticut, New York, Oregon and California. Within a decade, the top tax rate will be closer to 8% or 9%.  …that won’t make the state any more competitive in its interior U.S. neighborhood, where states like Kansas and Oklahoma are cutting tax rates. High-tax states created one net new job for every four in states without an income tax from 2002-2012, according to a study for the American Legislative Exchange Council.

So which side will win this vote?

As recently as 2011, Colorado voters voted down a state sales and income-tax increase, but the unions keep coming. And it’s no surprise they’ve already put $2 million behind Amendment 66. If it passes, they know they’ll get a big return on that political investment for decades to come. If it does pass, we’ll also know that millions of Coloradans have taken to smoking that marijuana they legalized last year.

Hmmm…that’s probably the strongest argument I’ve heard in favor of drug prohibition.

For what it’s worth, I’m predicting Colorado voters will reject this foolish class warfare scheme. Jerry Brown Promised LandThough I realize that may be a foolish guess. After all, 54 percent of crazy Oregon voters approved a tax hike in 2010 and their southern neighbors in the suicidal state of California voted by a similar margin for a class-warfare tax hike in 2012.

I’d feel a lot more confident, however, if we could replace Colorado’s voters with some sensible people from Switzerland. When faced with a class-warfare tax hike referendum in 2010, they voted against it by a very strong 58.5-41.5 margin.

And it was Swiss voters who overwhelmingly voted (84.7 percent) for the “debt brake” in 2001. And as I noted just yesterday, that de facto spending cap has been quite effective in controlling the burden of government spending.

Anyhow, if you know any Colorado voters, you may want to send them this video.

Regardless of how they vote, they should understand the potential consequences if Amendment 66 is approved.

P.S. Some Colorado voters just made a very sensible decision to defend the Second Amendment, but it’s unclear whether they have a similar attitude about economic liberty.

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I shared a presidential debate fantasy in 2012 and a Texas sovereignty fantasy in 2011, and I even shared a fantasy two years ago involving about 50 percent of the population.

None of those fantasies have become reality, and I suspect that the message of this Branco cartoon also is an unattainable fantasy.

Flat Tax Crisis

Simply stated, a flat tax would be a wonderful outcome to this latest IRS scandal. But for reasons I’ve already explained, I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen, either now or in the future.

Doesn’t mean I’ll give up on the fight for tax reform, but I always try to be realistic.

P.S. I’ve already confessed that I have very abnormal fantasies. And I have admitted on TV that my fantasies are rarely fulfilled.

P.P.S. There is such a thing as a libertarian-specific fantasy.

P.P.P.S. For fans of the national sales tax, I’d also be delighted to get something like the Fair Tax (as you can tell from my position in this debate), but I think a national sales tax faces even greater uphill odds than a flat tax.

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Did President Obama and his team of Chicago cronies deliberately target the Tea Party in hopes of thwarting free speech and political participation?

Was this part of a campaign to win the 2012 election by suppressing Republican votes?

Perhaps, but I’ve warned that it’s never a good idea to assume top-down conspiracies when corruption, incompetence, politics, ideology, greed, and self-interest are better explanations for what happens in Washington.

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney has a much more sober and realistic explanation of what happened at the IRS.

If you take a group of Democrats who are also unionized government employees, and put them in charge of policing political speech, it doesn’t matter how professional and well-intentioned they are. The result will be much like the debacle in the Cincinnati office of the IRS. …there’s no reason to even posit evil intent by the IRS officials who formulated, approved or executed the inappropriate guidelines for picking groups to scrutinize most closely. …The public servants figuring out which groups qualified for 501(c)4 “social welfare” non-profit status were mostly Democrats surrounded by mostly Democrats. …In the 2012 election, every donation traceable to this office went to President Obama or liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown. This is an environment where even those trying to be fair could develop a disproportionate distrust of the Tea Party. One IRS worker — a member of NTEU and contributor to its PAC, which gives 96 percent of its money to Democratic candidates — explained it this way: “The reason NTEU mostly supports Democratic candidates for office is because Democratic candidates are mostly more supportive of civil servants/government employees.”

Tim concludes with a wise observation.

As long as we have a civil service workforce that leans Left, and as long as we have an income tax system that requires the IRS to police political speech, conservative groups can always expect special IRS scrutiny.

And my colleague Doug Bandow, in an article for the American Spectator, adds his sage analysis.

The real issue is the expansive, expensive bureaucratic state and its inherent threat to any system of limited government, rule of law, and individual liberty. …the broader the government’s authority, the greater its need for revenue, the wider its enforcement power, the more expansive the bureaucracy’s discretion, the increasingly important the battle for political control, and the more bitter the partisan fight, the more likely government officials will abuse their positions, violate rules, laws, and Constitution, and sacrifice people’s liberties. The blame falls squarely on Congress, not the IRS.

I actually think he is letting the IRS off the hook too easily.

But Doug’s overall point obviously is true.

…the denizens of Capitol Hill also have created a tax code marked by outrageous complexity, special interest electioneering, and systematic social engineering. Legislators have intentionally created avenues for tax avoidance to win votes, and then complained about widespread tax avoidance to win votes.

So what’s the answer?

The most obvious response to the scandal — beyond punishing anyone who violated the law — is tax reform. Implement a flat tax and you’d still have an IRS, but the income tax would be less complex, there would be fewer “preferences” for the agency to police, and rates would be lower, leaving taxpayers with less incentive for aggressive tax avoidance. …Failing to address the broader underlying factors also would merely set the stage for a repeat performance in some form a few years hence. …More fundamentally, government, and especially the national government, should do less. Efficient social engineering may be slightly better than inefficient social engineering, but no social engineering would be far better.

Amen. Let’s rip out the internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

But here’s the challenge. We know the solution, but it will be almost impossible to implement good policy unless we figure out some way to restrain the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

At the risk of over-simplifying, we will never get tax reform unless we figure out how to implement entitlement reform.

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I joked back in 2010 that Barack Obama had a very simple flat tax proposal.

But as you can see, sometimes simple isn’t the same as good.

Well, satire too often becomes reality in a world of greedy and corrupt politicians who think class-warfare is an acceptable guide to tax policy.

I say this because thousands of French taxpayers now are being subject to this satirical Obama flat tax.

Here are some of the grotesque details from a Reuters report.

More than 8,000 French households’ tax bills topped 100 percent of their income last year, the business newspaper Les Echos reported on Saturday, citing Finance Ministry data. …President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government imposed the tax surcharge last year, shortly after taking office… The government has been forced to redraft a proposed bill to levy a temporary 75 percent tax on earnings over 1 million euros, which had been one of Hollande’s campaign pledges. …Since then, a top administrative court has determined that a marginal tax rate higher than 66.66 percent on a single household risked being considered as confiscatory by the council.

Ironically, President Hollande already made a commitment that no taxpayers should have to surrender more than 80 percent of their incomes, but I guess that promise didn’t mean much.

After all, this is the guy who equates higher taxes with patriotism.

No wonder successful people are fleeing the country.

If you want to understand real tax reform, click here.

And here’s my video describing why the right kind of flat tax is a good idea.

This topic is particularly meaningful to me since I’m in the middle of the Free Market Road Show and I’ve been five flat tax nations – Bulgaria, Romania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania – in the past 36 hours.

Too bad there’s little reason to hope that America will ever be part of the flat tax club.

P.S. I guess it’s good that the French court thinks that a 66.66 percent tax is “confiscatory.” But isn’t that true of any tax – at any rate – that is used to fund illegitimate activities?

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In recent months, I’ve displayed uncharacteristic levels of optimism on issues ranging from Obamacare to the Laffer Curve.

But this doesn’t mean I’m now a blind Pollyanna. We almost always face an uphill battle in our efforts to restrain the power and greed of the political class.

I don't see a simple system in America's future

I don’t see this simple system in America’s future

And in some areas, such as the fight for pro-growth and humane tax reform, I see very little reason for hope.

In honor of tax day, I explained my pessimism in an article for The Daily Caller.

I outlined four reasons to be glum, starting with the fact that tax reform yields big benefits in the long run, but that isn’t a very compelling argument for politicians that rarely think past the next election.

Our tax code is now a 74,000-page monstrosity, and it seems that politicians make the system more convoluted every year with new credits, deductions, exemptions, preferences, exclusions, and other special provisions. …In theory, it makes sense to scrape off these barnacles and restore the ship… Our political system, though, is dominated by lawmakers who tend not to think past the next election cycle.

I then mention that too many people now see the tax code as a tool for directly taking money from others.

…a growing number of Americans now see tax returns as a vehicle for getting money from the government. I’m not talking about the fiscal illusion that results when some people over-pay their taxes and then are happy to get a refund. …I’m talking about a different crowd. There are now millions of Americans who benefit from redistribution programs that are laundered through the tax code. …“refundable” credits allow people to get checks from the government even if they didn’t pay any tax. …Needless to say, those people don’t have much incentive to oppose the current system.

My third concern deals with the under-appreciated fact that the Washington establishment gets rich from the current system.

The metropolitan DC area is now the wealthiest region of the nation; it includes 10 of America’s 15 richest counties. …One of the main sources of that unearned — and undeserved — prosperity is the tax code… many people make big bucks manipulating the tax code. Lobbyists obviously would hate a simple and fair flat tax… Many of these insiders are former politicians and former Capitol Hill staffers — particularly those that worked on the tax-writing committees. They make big bucks, and the current staffers look forward to the day when they can cash in on their “government service” and start “earning” huge salaries. Needless to say, these people are not exactly advocates of reform.

Last but not least, I explain that high-tax governments are undermining tax competition with financial protectionism, thus giving them more leeway to impose bad policy.

Beginning with the Reagan and Thatcher tax cuts, the world experienced a virtuous period of tax competition that lasted for about 30 years. Even politicians in statist nations such as France and Germany felt compelled to lower tax rates… In recent years, however, high-tax nations and left-wing international bureaucracies such as the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have worked to undermine tax competition and make it easier for politicians to impose class-warfare tax policy. They first went after so-called tax havens… Now the OECD has a new plan to go after multinational companies and significantly boost their tax burdens, presumably through the creation of a global tax return and a policy called “formula apportionment.” …every time they make progress, politicians feel less pressure to lower tax rates and reform tax systems. Why bother improving the tax code, after all, if you think that taxpayers have no choice but to submit?

I also should have added another big challenge. In the absence of good entitlement reform, the burden of government spending will dramatically increase in coming decades and create pressure for additional tax hikes. That’s not an environment conducive to tax reform.

Unless, of course, you’re a politician and you somehow think adding a value-added tax on top of the current income tax can be considered reform.

P.S. I’ve referenced the flat tax in this post, but all of these obstacles also explain why there’s even less chance of a national sales tax.

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I’m at Hillsdale College in Michigan for a conference on taxation. The event is called “The Federal Income Tax: A Centenary Consideration,” though I would have called it something like “100 Years of Misery from the IRS.”

I’m glad to be here, both because Hillsdale proudly refuses to take government money (which would mean being ensnared by government rules) and also because I’ve heard superb speeches by scholars such as Amity Shlaes (author of The Forgotten Man, as well as a new book on Calvin Coolidge that is now on my must-read list) and George Gilder (author of Wealth and Poverty, as well as the forthcoming Knowledge and Power).

My modest contribution was to present “The Case for the Flat Tax,” and I was matched up – at least indirectly, since there were several hours between our presentations – against former Congressman John Linder, who gave “The Case for the Fair Tax.”

I was very ecumenical in my remarks.  I pointed out the flat tax and sales tax (and even, at least in theory, the value-added tax) all share very attractive features.

  • A single (and presumably low) tax rate, thus treating taxpayers equally and minimizing the penalty on productive behavior.
  • No double taxation of saving and investment since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth.
  • Elimination of all loopholes (other than mechanisms to protect the poor from tax) to promote efficiency and reduce corruption.
  • Dramatically downsize and neuter the IRS by replacing 72,000 pages of complexity with simple post-card sized tax forms.

For all intents and purposes the flat tax and sales tax are different sides of the same coin. The only real difference is the collection point. The flat tax takes a bite of your income as it is earned and the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent.

That being said, I do have a couple of qualms about the Fair Tax and other national sales tax plans.

First, I don’t trust politicians. I can envision the crowd in Washington adopting a national sales tax (or VAT) while promising to phase out the income tax over a couple of years. But I’m afraid they’ll discover some “temporary” emergency reason to keep the income tax, followed by another “short-term” excuse. And when the dust settles, we’ll be stuck with both an income tax and a sales tax.

As we know from the European VAT evidence, this is a recipe for even bigger government. That’s a big downside risk.

I explore my concerns in this video.

To be sure, there are downside risks to the flat tax. It’s quite possible, after all, that we could get a flat tax and then degenerate back to something resembling the current system (though that’s still better than being France!).

My second qualm is political. The Fair Tax seems to attract very passionate supporters, which is admirable, but candidates in competitive states and districts are very vulnerable to attacks when they embrace the national sales tax.

On dozens of occasions over the past 15-plus years, I’ve had to explain to reporters that why anti-sales tax demagoguery is wrong.

So I hope it’s clear that I’m not opposed to the concept. Heck, I’ve testified before Congress about the benefits of a national sales tax and I’ve debated on C-Span about how the national sales tax is far better than the current system.

I would be delighted to have a national sales tax, but what I really want is a low-rate, non-discriminatory system that isn’t biased against saving and investment.

Actually, what I want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax, but that’s an issue for another day.

Returning to the issue of tax reform, there’s no significant economic difference between the flat tax and the sales tax. What we’re really debating is how to replace the squalid internal revenue code with something worthy of a great nation.

And if there are two paths to the same destination and one involves crossing an alligator-infested swamp and the other requires a stroll through a meadow filled with kittens and butterflies, I know which one I’m going to choose. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but I think you get my point.

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I’m not sure I could pick out a significant victory for human freedom in 2012.

Maybe I’m missing something, but the only good policy that’s even worth mentioning was the decision in Wisconsin to rein in the special privileges and excessive compensation for government workers.

But there definitely have been lots of sad developments.

The hard part is picking the most disappointing story.

1. Was it the craven decision by John Roberts to put politics before the Constitution and cast the deciding vote for Obamacare? This certainly could be the most disappointing event of the year, but technically it didn’t represent a step in the wrong direction since the Supreme Court basically gave a green light to unlimited federal power back in the 1930s and 1940s. The Obamacare case is best characterized as a failure to do the right thing. A very tragic decision, to be sure, but it maintained the status quo.

2. Was it the lawless decision by the Internal Revenue Service to impose a horrible regulation that forces American banks to put foreign law above U.S. law? This was a very bad development in the battle for tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another in a long line of policies (such as FATCA) designed to increase the power of governments to impose and enforce bad tax policy.

3. Was it the Japanese government’s decision to double the value-added tax? I’m definitely not a fan of adding a VAT on top of the income tax, but Japan made that mistake years ago. The choice to increase the tax rate just shows why it’s dangerous to give politicians any new source of revenue. So this isn’t the worst policy development of 2012, particularly since the new Japanese government may suspend the tax hike.

4. Was it the delusional decision by 54 percent of California voters to impose a big, class-warfare tax hike? I thought the vote for Prop 30 was a very troubling development since it signaled that voters could be tricked into enacting class-warfare tax policy, even though they should have realized that more revenue for the state’s politicians would simply exacerbate the eventual fiscal collapse. But since I think this will be a learning experience on what not to do, I can’t put this at the top of my list.

5. Was it the French government’s punitive decision to impose a 75-percent top tax rate? This is a spectacularly misguided policy, and it’s already resulting in an exodus of entrepreneurs and other successful people. But just as I enjoy have California as a negative role model, I like using France as an example of bad policy. So it would be a bit hypocritical for me to list this as the worst policy of 2012.

6. Or was it the envy-motivated decisions by politicians in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic to replace flat tax systems with so-called progressive tax regimes? This is a strong candidate for the worst policy of the year. It’s very rare to see governments do the right thing, so it’s really tragic when politicians implement good reforms and later decide to reinstate class-warfare policies.

All things considered, I think this last option is the worst policy development of 2012. To be sure, I’m a bit biased since my work focuses on public finance issues and I’ve spent 20 years advocating for tax reform.

But I think there’s a strong case to be made, by anyone who believes in freedom, that politicians from Slovakia and the Czech Republic deserve the booby prize for worst public policy development of 2012.

Alvin Rabushka, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Flat Tax , summarizes the grim news.

On December 4, 2013, the center-left parliament of Slovakia modified the country’s historic 19% flat-rate tax…  Effective January 1, 2013, the income tax rate for corporations was raised from 19% to 23%, while that on individuals earning more than €39,600 (€1=$1.30) a year was raised to 25%, thereby creating two brackets of 19% and 25%. …On November 7, 2012, the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of the national parliament approved a proposal to impose a second higher rate of 22% on annual income exceeding Czech Koruna (CZK) 100,000 ($5,200) per month.  President Vaclav Klaus signed the bill on December 22, 2012, which will take effect on January 1, 2013.

What’s especially depressing about these two defeats is that the supposedly right-wing parties deserve the blame.

Two nations filled with brain-dead conservative politicians

In Slovakia, all but one of the right-leaning parties in the old government decided to support the Greek bailout, leading to the collapse of the government and the election of a new socialist government that then sabotaged tax reform.

And in the Czech Republic, the current right-of-center government decided to scrap the flat tax for “fairness” reasons. I’m sure that will really be comforting to the Czech people as the economy suffers from less growth.

To understand what the people of those nations are losing, here’s my video on the flat tax.

Now for a bit of good news. There are still more than 25 flat tax jurisdictions in the world, including two of my favorite places – Hong Kong and Estonia.

So there are still some pockets of rationality. It’s just very unfortunate that the scope of human liberty is getting smaller every year.

P.S. The absolute worst thing that happened in 2012, if we look beyond public policy, was Georgia falling 4 yards short of beating Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship.

P.P.S. Speaking of sports, the best thing about 2012 occurred in Virginia Beach back in October.

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Even though I knew some people would call me Scrooge, I wrote a few days ago about why we should get rid of the tax deduction for charitable contributions in exchange for lower tax rates.

Simply stated, I’m a big advocate of fundamental tax reform, and I would like to scrap the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Needless to say, that also means getting rid of tax preferences for housing. I make the case against the home mortgage interest deduction in this interview on the Fox Business Network.

Since a short TV interview doesn’t allow much time for a detailed and wonky analysis of tax policy, this is a good time to explain why tax reform doesn’t really change the tax treatment of housing. But also I’ll explain why it is a big change.

I realize that makes me sound like a politician, talking out of both sides of my mouth, but bear with me.

One of the key principles of tax reform is that there no longer should be any double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As you can see in this chart, people who live for today and immediately consume their after-tax income are basically spared any additional layers of tax. But if you save and invest your after-tax income (which is very good for future growth and necessary to boost workers’ wages), then the government tries to whack you with several additional layers of tax.

The solution is a system that taxes income only one time. And that means all saving and investment should be treated the way we currently treat individual retirement accounts. If you have a traditional IRA (or “front-ended” IRA), you get a deduction for any money you put in a retirement account, but then you pay tax on the money – including any earnings – when the money is withdrawn.

If you have a Roth IRA (or “back-ended” IRA), you pay tax on your income in the year that it is earned, but if you put the money in a retirement account, there is no additional tax on withdrawals or the subsequent earnings.

From an economic perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs generate the same result. Income that is saved and invested is treated the same as income that is immediately consumed. From a present-value perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs produce the same outcome. All that changes is the point at which the government imposes the single layer of tax.

So why am I boring you with all this arcane tax info? Because the home mortgage interest can be considered as a front-ended IRA involving more than one party. The interest paid by the homeowner is deductible, and the interest received by the mortgage company is taxable.

Under a flat tax, the system gets switched to something akin to a back-ended IRA. The homeowner no longer deducts the interest and the recipient of the interest no longer pays tax.

Some of you may be thinking that this is a good deal for financial institutions, but a ripoff for homeowners. But here are two very important points.

  • First, homeowners that already have mortgages presumably would be grandfathered, thus allowing them to continue taking the deduction. Tax reform interest ratesThey made a contract under the old rules and shouldn’t have the rug pulled out from under them.
  • Second, people taking out new mortgages would benefit since mortgage interest would get the same tax treatment now reserved for tax-free municipal bonds. And because there’s no federal income tax on municipal bonds, that means there’s no tax wedge built into the interest rate.

In other words, homeowners or homebuyers in the new system won’t be able to deduct mortgage interest, but they’ll benefit from lower interest rates. Six of one, half dozen of another.

So why, then, is the housing lobby against the flat tax?

In part, they don’t know what they’re talking about. But what about the smart ones, the ones who understand that there’s no meaningful change in the after-tax cost of getting a mortgage in a flat tax world? Why are they opposed to tax reform.

The answer is very simple. They understand that housing isn’t directly affected by a flat tax, but they are very concerned about the indirect impact. More specifically, they understand that the flat tax eliminates all forms of double taxation in the tax code, and that would mean a level playing field.

In other words, the housing sector is now taxed rationally, and other investments are taxed punitively. Under a flat tax, by contrast, all would be taxed rationally.  So the housing sector would lose its relative advantage. 

So if your industry or sector is the beneficiary of a tilted playing field, then it’s understandable that you’ll be worried about tax reform even if there’s no real change in how you get taxed.

And I suspect the impact of tax reform wouldn’t be trivial.

To get an idea about the potential impact, let’s look at some academic research. Professor Dale Jorgenson of Harvard and another economist from Yonsei University in South Korea estimate that most of the economic benefit of tax reform occurs because capital shifts out of owner-occupied housing and into business investment.

…progressivity of labor income taxation is another major source of inefficiency in the U.S. tax system. This produces marginal tax rates on labor income that are far in excess of average tax rates. A high marginal tax rate results in a large wedge between the wages and salaries paid by employers and those received by households. A proportional tax on labor income would equalize marginal and average tax rates and would sharply curtail the losses in economic efficiency due to high marginal rates. An important challenge for tax reform is to eliminate the barriers to efficient capital allocation arising from ―double‖ taxation of assets held in the corporate sector and the exclusion of owner-occupied housing from the tax base… If both income taxes and sales taxes are replaced by a Flat Tax, and a lump sum tax is used to compensate for the revenue shortfall, the welfare gains are very substantial, $5,111.8 billion U.S. dollars of 2011 for HR and $5,444.3 billion for AS. …Our overall conclusion is that the most substantial gains from tax reform are associated with equalizing tax burdens on all assets and all sectors and eliminating the progressive taxation of labor income… We have shown that the most popular Flat Tax proposals would generate substantial welfare gains.

I don’t pay much attention to the estimates in the study about an extra $5 trillion-plus of wealth. That number is very sensitive to the structure of the model and the underlying assumptions.

But I do agree that tax reform will generate big benefits and that much of the gain will occur because there will be less tax-induced over-investment in housing and more growth-generating investment in business capital.

But as I note in the interview, that’s a good thing. It means more prosperity for the American people and a more competitive American economy.

Government shouldn’t be trying to lure us into making economically irrational decisions because of tax or regulatory interventions. Didn’t we learn anything from the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac fiasco?

The clowns in Washington have been mucking around in the economy for decades and they keep making things worse. Perhaps, just for a change of pace, we should try free markets and small government and see what happens.

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I’m a strong believer in fundamental tax reform. We need a system like the flat tax to improve economic performance.

No tax system is good for growth, of course, but the negative impact of taxation can be reduced by lowering marginal tax rate(s), eliminating double taxation of saving and investment, and getting rid of loopholes that encourage people to make decisions for tax reasons even if they don’t make economic sense.

While the general public is quite sympathetic to tax reform and would like to de-fang the IRS, there are three main pockets of resistance.

  1. The class-warfare crowd is opposed to the flat tax for ideological reasons. They want high tax rates and punitive double taxation – even if the government winds up collecting less money.
  2. The lobbyists and special interest groups also are opposed to tax reform, along with the politicians that they cultivate. The tax code is a major source of political corruption, after all, and there would be a lot fewer opportunities to game the system and swap loopholes for political support if the 72,000 page tax code was tossed in a dumpster.
  3. Beneficiaries of certain tax preferences such as the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction, and the state and local tax deduction are worried about tax reform, either because they are taxpayers who utilize the preferences or because they represent interest groups that benefit because the government has tilted the playing field.

This post is designed to allay the fears of this third group, specifically the folks who worry that tax reform might be bad news for charities.

The Wall Street Journal today published a pro-con debate on the charitable deduction. As you might expect, my role is to argue in favor of a simple and fair system that would eliminate all tax preferences.

Charity Giving USAHere’s some of what I wrote on the charitable deduction, beginning with the key point that economic growth is key because the biggest determinants of charitable giving are disposable income and net wealth.

…the best way to help charities is to boost economic growth, which leaves people with more money to donate. And I think the best way to do that is to replace our current system with a simple and fair flat tax. …I don’t think there’s a compelling argument for the charitable deduction. …Over the decades, there have been major changes in tax rates and thus major changes in the tax treatment of charitable contributions. At some points, there has been a big tax advantage to giving, at others much less. Yet charitable giving tends to hover around 2% of U.S. gross domestic product, no matter what the incentive.

The final sentence in the above excerpt is key. The value of a tax deduction is determined by the tax rate. So in 1980, when the top tax rate was 70 percent, it only cost 30 cents to give $1 to charity. By 1988, though, the top tax rate was down to 28 percent, which means that the cost of giving $1 had jumped to 72 cents.

CBO Charitable givingYet charitable giving rose during the 1980s. Why? Because Reagan implemented reforms – such as lower tax rates – that produced a healthier economy.

Some may wonder whether the example I just cited is appropriate since it focuses on the tax rate (and therefore the value of the tax deduction) for upper-income taxpayers.

But there’s a good reason for that choice. The charitable deduction overwhelmingly goes to the rich.

Upper-income households are the biggest beneficiaries of the deduction, with those making more than $100,000 per year taking 81% of the deduction even though they account for just 13.5% of all U.S. tax returns. The data are even more skewed for households with more than $200,000 of income. They account for fewer than 3% of all tax returns, yet they take 55% of all charitable deductions.

Charity JCTI’m not against rich people, or against them lowering their tax liabilities. But I do want a tax system that generates more prosperity because that’s good news for the entire economy – including the nonprofit sector.

Speaking of which, I think tax-deductible groups will become better and more efficient without the deduction.

Charities, meanwhile, get fatter and lazier because of that dynamic. Think of all the exposés in recent years about charities that devote an overwhelming share of their budgets to administrative costs and marketing expenses. No system will create perfect nonprofit groups, but cutting back or cutting out the deduction would break the cycle of inefficiency that now exists.

My debating partner is Diana Aviv, the head of Independent Sector, which is basically a trade associate in DC for charities. Here are the most relevant excerpts from her piece.

…more than 80% of those who itemized their tax returns in 2009 claimed the charitable deduction and were responsible for more than 76% of all individual contributions to charitable organizations.

That’s all fine and well. What she’s basically saying is that almost all rich people itemize and those rich people get the lion’s share of the benefit from the deduction.

But that’s not the key issue. What matters is whether the deduction makes  a big difference for the amount that people contribute. Diana addresses that point.

According to a 2010 Indiana University survey, more than two-thirds of high-net-worth donors said they would decrease their giving if they did not receive a deduction for donations.

I don’t put complete faith in public opinion data, but let’s assume that this poll is a completely accurate snapshot of how rich people think they would react. But let’s balance that off with the real-world evidence from the 1980s, which shows that rich people gave more money in the 1980s after Reagan cut tax rates and dramatically lowered the value of the tax deduction.

I’m not saying the lower tax rates caused the increase in giving, but I am saying that the lower tax rates and other reforms helped boost the economy. And I’m saying that rich people gave more to charity because they had more income and more wealth.

I also can’t resist a comment about this excerpt.

Finally, there’s another important consideration. The charitable deduction is unique in that it’s a government incentive to sacrifice on behalf of the commonweal. Unlike incentives to save for retirement or buy a home, it encourages behavior for which a taxpayer gets no direct, personal, tangible benefit.

Huh?!? Diana’s entire article is based on the notion that people need to be bribed in order to contribute, yet she simultaneously says that taxpayers get “no direct, personal, tangible benefit.”

Let me close by tying this debate to the fiscal cliff negotiations. There is some discussion of capping itemized deductions as a way of extracting more money from the rich. That creates a bit of a quandary. Here’s something else I wrote for my part of the debate.

I don’t want to give more revenue to Washington. That’s like putting blood in the water with hungry sharks around. But if politicians are going to extract more money from the private sector anyway, reducing or eliminating the deduction is much less damaging to growth than imposing higher marginal tax rates.

That being said, that type of change – while not as bad for the economy – probably would have a negative impact on charitable giving.

My argument is that real tax reform can benefit the nonprofit sector because the loss of the deduction is more than offset by the pro-growth impact of lower tax rates, less double taxation, etc.

But if all politicians are doing is limiting the deduction as part of a money grab, then nonprofits get some pain and no gain.

Incidentally, this is why the nonprofit community should join the rest of us in fighting against an ever-climbing burden of government spending. If we don’t rein in Leviathan, it’s just a matter of time before politicians get rid of the deduction as part of a relentless search for more revenue.

I think it would be better for nonprofits – and for the rest of us – if we limit the size and scope of government and enact a tax system that produces the kind of prosperity that is beneficial for all sectors of the economy.

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