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Posts Tagged ‘Flat Tax’

I’ve been very critical of Obama’s class-warfare ideology because it leads to bad fiscal policy. But perhaps it is time to give some attention to other arguments against high tax rates.

Robert Samuelson, a columnist for the Washington Post, has a very important insight about tax rates and sleaze in Washington.

His column is mostly about Obama’s anti-tax reform agenda, but it includes this very important passage.

…many politicians support tax breaks for favored groups (the elderly, the poor, small business) and causes (homeownership, attending college, “green” industries). This enhances their power. The man who really pronounced the death sentence for the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was Bill Clinton, who increased the top rate to 39.6 percent rather than broadening the base. As the top rate rose, so did the value of generating new tax breaks. Ironically, many of the people who complain the loudest about Washington influence-peddling and lobbying are the same people who support higher tax rates, which stimulate more influence-peddling and lobbying.

The last sentence is key. Higher tax rates are good news for the politicians, interest groups, bureaucrats, and lobbyists that dominate Washington.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s pretend we have a modest tax rate of 20 percent. Now imagine you are part of an industry with $200 million in profits and you want a special tax break. How much are you willing to pay to get that loophole?

Well, with a 20 percent tax, the most you can save (assuming the loophole is huge and you wipe out all your tax liability) is $40 million.

So how much would you spend on lobbyists, campaign contributions, etc, in order to get that loophole? That’s hard to answer, because it would require some estimate of the probability of success. But one thing we can safely assume is that the industry would never spend more than $40 million.

But let’s now assume you live in a world with 50 percent tax rates. Does that change the incentive for influence peddling in Washington? Of course it does. The industry’s tax bill is now $100 million, so it now has an incentive to spend up to that amount to get special treatment.

So now let’s consider a couple of additional hypothetical questions.

  • First, imagine you’re a lobbyist. Do you think you will get more business if tax rates are high, or if tax rates are low?
  • Second, imagine you are a politician. Do you think you will get more campaign contributions if tax rates are high, or if tax rates are low?

The answers are obvious, and so are the implications. Yes, higher tax rates are bad for growth and competitiveness. And, yes, they are unfair and discriminatory.

But they also foment and encourage sleaze in D.C., and that’s something that honest leftists should hate as much as the rest of us.

For more information, here’s my video on the link between big government and corruption, including a section on how a loophole-ridden tax system benefits Washington insiders.

And here’s the video on the flat tax, which explains why low tax rates are good for economic performance.

Both videos have good information (at least I like to think), but kudos to Samuelson for drawing an important link between high tax rates and corruption.

P.S. Robert Samuelson is hard to pin down on the philosophical spectrum. He’s written very good columns denouncing Obama’s manipulation of welfare statistics and criticizing the President’s flirtation with the value-added tax. But he’s also had a couple of columns where he identifies a very real problem, but fails to reach the right conclusion, including this piece that should have been an argument for Austrian economics and this piece on health care inefficiency that should have pinned the blame on third-party payer.

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In addition to being my former debating partner, Richard Epstein is one of America’s premiere public intellectuals.

You can watch him make mincemeat out of George Soros in this video, for instance, and you can listen to his astute observations about his former law school colleague Barack Obama in this video.

Renaissance man of liberty

Given his stature, I’m glad that he agrees that the flat tax is the ideal way of reforming the corrupt internal revenue code. Here’s some of what he wrote about the topic for the Hoover Institution, beginning with an outline of the fundamental issues at stake.

The central challenge for government is to incur minimum political distortions while allowing taxes to raise the revenues needed to discharge essential government functions. …Without question, the form of taxation that best meets these dual requirements is a flat tax on consumption—a position which enjoys virtually no visible political support today. …Unless something is done to alter the direction of political discourse in the United States, the next four years will be a replay of the last four years. We will witness a slow decline in the standard of living across all groups within the United States.

For those not familiar with the lingo, a “flat tax on consumption” simply means a tax system with one rate and no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. That can be a national sales tax or value-added tax, but it usually refers to the “Hall-Rabushka” flat tax championed by Dick Armey and Steve Forbes. If you want more information, click here and here.

Epstein then gives some of the economic arguments for tax reform.

A sound tax system has as few moving parts as possible. We should scrap the current system in favor of a flat tax on consumption. Radically simplifying the tax system to a flat tax on consumption would facilitate two desirable economic changes. First, it reduces taxes to zero when capital is redeployed from one venture to another, which in turn would induce better investor monitoring of current firms. The ability of investors to sell out without adverse tax consequences thus provides an added incentive for efficient market behavior. Second, it eliminates the need to draw any distinction between ordinary income and capital gains, which is one of the weak points of the current system.

And he gives some reasons why the current system is unpalatable.

Current tax policy puts items like income and deductions into political play, generating deleterious short-term consequences. Evidence of this can be seen in the rapid response of investors, who are anticipating the future tax hikes and scaling back on their investments. The adverse responses are not confined to large firms but also extend to wealthy individuals who will bear the brunt of any tax increase. The proposed increase in the estate and gift taxes, targeted exclusively at high-income taxpayers, has set off an immediate flurry of tax planning efforts by well-to-do individuals to minimize the bite of these unknown and unwelcome tax changes. Typical of the common hijinks are the estate planning tactics recently reported in the Wall Street Journal by Annamaria Andriotis, which should belie the naïve belief that high-income taxpayers don’t respond to incentives. It is not just that people go to extra lengths to alter their patterns of giving in order to take full advantage of the life-time exemption from the gift and estate taxes and annual exclusions (now $13,000 per each donor/donee pair); it is that they engage in the conscious destruction of wealth in order to minimize the impact of taxes.

He also provides the Laffer-Curve argument for better tax policy.

The President thinks that revenue growth from taxes can be reduced to a simple task of addition and multiplication. Start with the current tax base, and multiply it by the increased tax rates in order to determine the added tax revenues. …Since the advent of the income tax in 1913, tax rates have gyrated from high to low and back again. …the typical response to these tax reductions is a spur in economic activity that results in the collection of larger amounts of capital gains taxes from wealthy individuals, who also prosper under the regime by their higher after-tax earnings. …If we sock it to the rich, we run the risk of impoverishing the nation.

Esptein concludes by explaining the world is not a zero-sum exercise. Good tax policy can make everybody better off.

Too many people agree with the implicit supposition of the President that taxation is a zero-sum game, whereby the rest of the population can gain amounts that are taken from the rich through taxation. Not so. The explicit tax increases on the rich will be passed on in a variety of ways to the population as a whole so that everyone is made worse off in the name of income equality.

I certainly agree. Statists assert that people like me and Espstein believe in trickle-down economics. That’s obviously a pejorative term, but we do believe in a system where more entrepreneurship and capital formation leads to higher living standards.

How can anybody look at this chart and think otherwise?

If you want more information, here’s my video on the flat tax.

This system is working in about 30 nations around the world. Isn’t it time America had a tax system that made sense?

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I have a handful of simple rules for good tax policy.

  • Keep government small, since it’s impossible to have a reasonable tax system with a bloated welfare state.
  • Keep tax rates low to minimize penalties against income, production, and wealth creation.
  • Since capital formation is critical for long-run growth, don’t double-tax income that is saved and invested.
  • Eliminate corrupt and distorting loopholes that encourage people to make decisions that are economically irrational.

Some of these principles are interrelated. I don’t like loopholes in part because of the reasons I just listed. But I also don’t like them because politicians often claim that they need to boost tax rates to make up for the fact that they lose revenue due to various deductions, credits, exemptions, and preferences.

And sometimes a deduction in the tax code even leads to bad policy by state and local government. Today, I want to discuss preferences in the internal revenue code for state and local taxes. And I’m motivated to address this issue because some of the politicians on Capitol Hill have pointed out an inequity, but they want to fix it in the wrong way.

Under current law, state and local income taxes are fully deductible, but state and local sales taxes are only temporarily deductible. The right policy is to get rid of any deductibility for any state and local tax. But since that would create a windfall of new tax revenue for the spendaholics in Washington, every penny of that revenue should be used to lower tax rates.

Not surprisingly, the crowd in Washington doesn’t take this approach. Instead, they want to extend deductibility for the sales tax. And they may even be amenable to raising other taxes to impose that policy.

Here are some excerpts from a story in The Hill.

More than five dozen House members are pressing leaders of a tax panel to preserve a deduction for state and local sales taxes. The bipartisan group of lawmakers say it would be unfair to voters in their states not to extend the sales tax deduction, given that taxpayers would still be able to deduct state and local income taxes. …Eight states in all — Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming — currently use a sales tax, but either don’t have or have a very limited state income tax. …The letter comes as many lawmakers hope to finish off an extenders package once Congress returns to Washington after November’s elections. Lawmakers will have to grapple with expiring Bush-era tax rates — just one part of the so-called fiscal cliff — when they return, and tax extenders could be tacked on to a broader package. The Senate Finance Committee has already passed an extenders package of its own, which included a two-year extension — at a cost of an estimated $4.4 billion over a decade — of the sales tax deduction.

I have some sympathy for these members of Congress. They represent states that have wisely decided not to impose income taxes, yet the federal tax system rewards profligate high-tax states such as New York and California with a permanent deduction for state and local income taxes.

This is a very misguided policy. It means that greedy politicians such as Governor Brown of California or Governor Cuomo of New York can raise tax rates and tell voters not to get too upset because they can deduct that additional burden. This means that a $1 tax hike results in a loss of take-home pay of as little as 65 cents.

This is what a fair tax code looks like

But you don’t cure one bad policy with another bad policy. A deduction for state and local sales taxes just augments the IRS-enforced preference for bigger government at the state and local level.

The right answer is the flat tax. Put in place the lowest-possible tax rate, which is feasible because all loopholes are wiped out.

In the case of state and local tax deductibility (or lack thereof, with any luck), that’s a win-win-win situation.

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I’ve done thorough blog posts highlighting the economic benefits of the flat tax, but I find that most people are passionate about tax reform because they view the current system as being unfair and corrupt.

They also don’t like the IRS, in part because it has so much arbitrary power to ruin lives.

But it’s not just that is has the power to ruin lives. That can be said about the FBI, the DEA, the BATF, and all sorts of other enforcement agencies.

What irks people about the IRS is that it has so much power combined with the fact that the internal revenue code is a nightmare of complexity that can overwhelm even the most well-intentioned taxpayer. Just spend a couple of minutes watching this video if you don’t believe me.

I’ve already shown depressing charts on the number of pages in the tax code and the number of special breaks in the tax law. To make matters worse, not even the IRS understands how to interpret the law. According to a recent GAO report, the IRS gave the wrong answers on matters of tax law more than 530,000 times in 2010.

Yet if you use inaccurate information from the IRS when filing your taxes, you’re still liable. To add insult to injury (or perhaps injury to injury is the right phrase), you’re then guilty until you prove yourself innocent – notwithstanding the Constitution’s guarantee of presumption of innocence.

Now we have some new information showing the difficulty of complying with a bad tax system.

A new report from the Treasury Department reveals that volunteers (who presumably have the best of intentions) make mistakes in more than 50 percent of cases.

Here are some key excerpts from the report.

Of the 39 tax returns prepared for our auditors, 19 (49 percent) were prepared correctly and 20 (51 percent) were prepared incorrectly. The accuracy rate should not be projected to the entire population of tax returns prepared at the Volunteer Program sites. Nevertheless, if the 20 incorrect tax returns had been filed: 12 (60 percent) taxpayers would not have been refunded a total of $3,996 to which they were entitled, one (5 percent) taxpayer would have received a refund of $303 more than the amount to which he or she was entitled, one (5 percent) taxpayer would have owed $165 less than the amount that should have been owed, and six (30 percent) taxpayers would have owed an additional total of $1,483 in tax and/or penalties. …The IRS also conducted 53 anonymous shopping visits during the 2012 Filing Season. Volunteers prepared tax returns for SPEC function shoppers with a 60 percent accuracy rate.

So here’s the bottom line. We have a completely corrupt tax system that is impossibly complex. Yet every year politicians add new provisions to please their buddies from the lobbyist community.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could rip up all 72,000 pages and instead have a simple and fair tax system?

Sadly, tax reform is an uphill battle for four very big reasons.

  • Politicians don’t want tax reform since it reduces their power to micro-manage the economy and to exchange loopholes for campaign cash.
  • The IRS doesn’t want tax reform since there are about 100,000 bureaucrats with comfy jobs overseeing the current system.
  • Lobbyists obviously don’t want to reform since that would mean fewer clients paying big bucks to get special favors.
  • And the interest groups oppose the flat tax because they want a tilted playing field in order to obtain unearned wealth.

But there are now about 30 nations around the world that have adopted this simple and fair system, so reform isn’t impossible. But it will only happen when voters can convince politicians that they will lose their jobs if they don’t adopt the flat tax.

P.S. I’ll also take a national sales tax, like the Fair Tax, as a replacement. But since I don’t trust politicians, that option requires that we first replace the 16th Amendment with something so ironclad that not even Chief Justice John Roberts would be able to rationalize that an income tax was permissible.

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I’m a big fan of fundamental tax reform, in part because I believe in fairness and want to reduce corruption.

But I also think the flat tax will boost the economy’s performance, largely because lower tax rates are the key to good tax policy.

There are four basic reasons that I cite when explaining why lower rates improve growth.

  1. They lower the price of work and production compared to leisure.
  2. They lower the price of saving and investment relative to consumption.
  3. They increase the incentive to use resources efficiently rather than seek out loopholes.
  4. They attract jobs and investment from other nations.

As you can see, there’s nothing surprising or unusual on my list. Just basic microeconomic analysis.

Yet some people argue that lower tax rates don’t make a difference. And if lower tax rates don’t help an economy, then presumably there is no downside if Obama’s class-warfare tax policy is implemented.

Many of these people are citing David Leonhardt’s column in Saturday’s New York Times. The basic argument is that Bush cut tax rates, but the economy stunk, while Clinton increased tax rates and the economy did well.

The defining economic policy of the last decade, of course, was the Bush tax cuts. President George W. Bush and Congress, including Mr. Ryan, passed a large tax cut in 2001, sped up its implementation in 2003 and predicted that prosperity would follow. The economic growth that actually followed — indeed, the whole history of the last 20 years — offers one of the most serious challenges to modern conservatism. Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush both raised taxes in the early 1990s, and conservatives predicted disaster. Instead, the economy boomed, and incomes grew at their fastest pace since the 1960s. Then came the younger Mr. Bush, the tax cuts, the disappointing expansion and the worst downturn since the Depression. Today, Mitt Romney and Mr. Ryan are promising another cut in tax rates and again predicting that good times will follow. …Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan would do voters a service by explaining why a cut in tax rates would work better this time than last time.

While I’ll explain below why I think he’s wrong, Leonhardt’s column is reasonably fair. He gives some space to both Glenn Hubbard and Phil Swagel, both of whom make good points.

“To me, the Bush tax cuts get too much attention,” said R. Glenn Hubbard, who helped design them as the chairman of Mr. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and is now a Romney adviser. “The pro-growth elements of the tax cuts were fairly modest in size,” he added, because they also included politically minded cuts like the child tax credit. Phillip L. Swagel, another former Bush aide, said that even a tax cut as large as Mr. Bush’s “doesn’t translate quickly into higher growth.” Why not? The main economic argument for tax cuts is simple enough. In the short term, they put money in people’s pockets. Longer term, people will presumably work harder if they keep more of the next dollar they earn. They will work more hours or expand their small business. This argument dominates the political debate.

I hope, by the way, that neither Hubbard nor Swagel made the Keynesian argument that tax cuts are pro-growth because “they put money in people’s pockets.” Leonhardt doesn’t directly attribute that argument to either of them, so I hope they’re only guilty of proximity to flawed thinking.

But that’s besides the point. Several people have asked my reaction to the column, so it’s time to recycle something I wrote back in February. It was about whether a nation should reform its tax system, but the arguments are the same if we replace “a flat tax” with “lower tax rates.”

…even though I’m a big advocate for better tax policy, the lesson from the Economic Freedom of the World Index…is that adopting a flat tax won’t solve a nation’s economic problems if politicians are doing the wrong thing in other areas.

There are five major policy areas, each of which counts for 20 percent of a nation’s grade.

  1. Size of government
  2. Regulation
  3. Monetary Policy
  4. Trade
  5. Rule of Law/Property Rights

Now let’s pick Ukraine as an example. As a proponent of tax reform, I like that lawmakers have implemented a 15 percent flat tax.

But that doesn’t mean Ukraine is a role model. When looking at the mix of all policies, the country gets a very poor score from Economic Freedom of the World Index, ranking 125 out of 141 nations.

Conversely, Denmark has a very bad tax system, but it has very free market policies in other areas, so it ranks 15 out of 141 countries.

In other words, tax policy isn’t some sort of magical elixir. The “size of government” variable accounts for just one-fifth on a country’s grade, and keep in mind that this also includes key sub-variables such as the burden of government spending.

Yes, lower tax rates are better for economic performance, just as wheels matter for a car’s performance. But if a car doesn’t have an engine, transmission, steering wheel, and brakes, it’s not going to matter how nice the wheels are.

Not let’s shift from theory to reality. Here’s the historical data for the United States from Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see, overall economic policy moved in the right direction during the Clinton years and in the wrong direction during the Bush-Obama years.

To be more specific, the bad policy of higher tax rates in the 1990s was more than offset by good reforms such as lower trade barriers, a lower burden of government spending, and less regulation.

Similarly, the good policy of lower tax rates last decade was more than offset by bad developments such as a doubling of the federal budget, imposition of costly regulations, and adoption of two new health entitlements.

This is why I have repeatedly challenged leftists by stating that I would be willing to go back to Bill Clinton’s tax rates if it meant I could also go back to the much lower levels of spending and regulation that existed when he left office.

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I periodically mock Republicans for being the stupid party. Yes, some of them probably mean well, but they have this lemming-like instinct to throw themselves on hand grenades.

But I noted back in April that the supposedly right-wing Christian Democrat party in Slovakia put on a display of stupidity that was so mind-boggling that it made GOPers look like rocket scientists.

Notwithstanding their original protestations to the contrary, the Christian Democrats (who were the lead party in the governing coalition) decided to support the bailout of Greece.

And when Slovakia’s pro-freedom SAS Party (part of the governing coalition) refused to support this terrible idea, the top Christian Democrat politicians decided that the bailout was so important that they struck a deal with the Social Democrats to get their votes in exchange for early elections.

Which, of course, meant that Social Democrats prevailed and the Christian Democrats lost power. And, much to my dismay, the Social Democrats are now poised to repeal the flat tax.

But that terrible development is only happening because the Christian Democrats were so breathtakingly stupid that they threw away power in the first place. And they gave up power so they could do something bad for Slovakia. Amazing.

It seems stupidity is infectious, because something similar is now happening next door in the Czech Republic.

Just as was the case in Slovakia, there’s a supposedly right-wing government in charge of the Czech Republic. So you would think that this government would be focused on controlling spending and lowering tax rates.

But that’s based on the assumption of competence, intelligence, and principles. Those characteristics seem to be in short supply. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the Washington Post.

The lower house on Wednesday rejected a 1 percent increase in the sales tax on retail goods and a 7 percent income tax increase for the highest-earners. The parliamentary refusal came after six lawmakers from the conservative Civic Democratic Party of Prime Minister Petr Necas voted against because they said the tax hikes are against their party’s values. Necas said Thursday a new vote should take place in three months and the government is linking it to a confidence vote. If that vote also fails, the coalition government will fall.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the workings of parliamentary systems, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic is throwing a tantrum and threatening to have an election (which he almost certainly will lose) and turn the country back over to the leftists.

“Read my lips, let’s screw the people”

Unless, of course, he can convince a handful of principled lawmakers from his own party decide to stab taxpayers in the back and support a big tax hike. But not just a big tax hike. The Prime Minister wants to get rid of the flat tax by imposing a special, Obama-style class-warfare tax rate on the so-called rich.

I hope the six lawmakers mentioned in the news report hold firm, even if they’re only doing the right thing for non-principled reasons. It soon will be very obvious that they are/were on the side of the angels and that the Prime Minister and the other members of the party are a bunch of hacks who are willing to screw taxpayers in a lame and pathetic effort to buy votes with other people’s money.

I’m not sure which politician is most deserving of scorn. Is it Prime Minister Necas, who is channeling the spirit of George H.W. “read my lips” Bush as he leads his party over the cliff? Or is it Prime Minister Radicova of Slovakia, who got her party tossed from power because she decided her nation’s taxpayers should support the corrupt vote-buying schemes of Greek politicians?

Or maybe I should augment the list by including other supposed right wingers of Europe, such as Sarkozy, Merkel, Cameron, and Rajoy, all of whom seem to specialize in betraying taxpayers.

I’ve had friends tell me that this is inevitable because smart right wingers go into business, leaving the dregs for politics. It’s just the opposite for the left, they say. The smart leftists have no desire to dirty their hands with real work (Obama viewed his tiny bit of experience with the private sector “working for the enemy”), so they gravitate to government.

I think that’s way too simplistic of an explanation. I suspect the answer can be found in the insights of public choice economics, which explains that government and politics are corrupting institutions.

Perhaps that’s why it is so rare to find right-wing politicians – such as Reagan and Thatcher – who generally do the right thing.

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Even though I’m not a Romney fan, I sometimes feel compelled to defend him against leftist demagoguery.

But instead of writing about tax havens, as I’ve done in the past, today we’re going to look at incremental tax reform.

The left has been loudly asserting that the middle class would lose under Mitt Romney’s plan to cut tax rates by 20 percent and finance those reductions by closing loopholes.

That class-warfare accusation struck me as a bit sketchy because when I looked at the data a couple of years ago, I put together this chart showing that rich people, on average, enjoyed deductions that were seven times as large as the deductions of middle-income taxpayers.

And the chart includes only the big itemized deductions. There are dozens of other special tax preferences, as shown in this depressing image, and you can be sure that rich people are far more likely to have the lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants needed to exploit those provisions.

But that’s not a surprise since the internal revenue code has morphed into a 72,000-page monstrosity (this is why I sometimes try to convince honest leftists that a flat tax is a great way of reducing political corruption).

But this chart doesn’t disprove the leftist talking point, so I’m glad that Martin Feldstein addressed the issue in today’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s some of what he wrote.

The IRS data show that taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes over $100,000 (the top 21% of all taxpayers) made itemized deductions totaling $636 billion in 2009. Those high-income taxpayers paid marginal tax rates of 25% to 35%, with most $200,000-plus earners paying marginal rates of 33% or 35%. And what do we get when we apply a 30% marginal tax rate to the $636 billion in itemized deductions? Extra revenue of $191 billion—more than enough to offset the revenue losses from the individual income tax cuts proposed by Gov. Romney. …Additional revenue could be raised from high-income taxpayers by limiting the use of the “preferences” identified for the Alternative Minimum Tax (such as excess oil depletion allowances) or the broader list of all official individual “tax expenditures” (such as tax credits for energy efficiency improvements in homes), among other credits and exclusions. None of this base-broadening would require taxing capital gains or making other changes that would reduce the incentives for saving and investment. …Since broadening the tax base would produce enough revenue to pay for cutting everyone’s tax rates, it is clear that the proposed Romney cuts wouldn’t require any middle-class tax increase, nor would they produce a net windfall for high-income taxpayers. The Tax Policy Center and others are wrong to claim otherwise.

In other words, even with a very modest assumption about the Laffer Curve, it would be quite possible to implement something akin to what Romney’s proposing and not “lose” tax revenue.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Romney seriously intends to push for good policy. I’m much more concerned, for instance, that he’ll wander in the wrong direction and propose something very bad such as a value-added tax.

But Romney certainly can do the right thing if he wins. Assuming that’s what he wants to do.

Just like he can fulfill his promise the reduce the burden of government spending by implementing Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

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I appeared on CNBC a couple of days ago to discuss a new report which claims that some big U.S. companies “only” paid 9 percent of their income to the government.

While I’m a bit skeptical of the numbers (did it include the taxes paid to foreign governments, for instance, which can be substantial for multinational firms?), I confess I didn’t read the report.

So I focused on the best way of getting rid of corrupt loopholes while simultaneously boosting the competitiveness of America companies.

In other words, I said we should rip up the wretched internal revenue code and implement a simple and fair flat tax.

As is my habit, allow me to emphasize a few points from the interview.

  1. It’s good to keep money in the productive sector of the economy because we shouldn’t feed the spending addiction in DC.
  2. If tax rates are low, there’s much less incentive for companies to lobby for loopholes.
  3. The only feasible and desirable tax reform is to simultaneously eliminate tax breaks while lowering tax rates.
  4. The marginal tax rate is what determines incentives for new investment and job creation, which is why America’s highest-in-the-world 35 percent corporate tax rate is a major problem even if average tax rates are much lower.

Sadly, I’m not holding my breath expecting improvements.

Even though tax reform should appeal to well-meaning liberals, Obama seems committed to the class-warfare approach . Romney, meanwhile, mostly wants to tinker with the current system (when he’s not saying worrisome things about a value-added tax).

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I have great fondness for Estonia, in part because it was the first post-communist nation to adopt the flat tax, but also because of the country’s remarkable scenery.

Most recently, though, I’ve been bragging about Estonia (along with Latvia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic nations) for implementing genuine spending cuts. I’ve argued that Estonia is showing how a government can reignite growth by reducing the burden of government.

Not surprisingly, some people disagree with my analysis. Paul Krugman of the New York Times criticized Estonia yesterday, writing that the Baltic nation suffered a “Depression-level slump” in 2008 and has only managed an “incomplete recovery” over the past few years.

He blames this supposedly weak performance on “austerity.”

I have a positive and negative reaction to Krugman’s post. My positive reaction is that he’s talking about a nation that actually has cut spending, so there’s real public-sector austerity (see Veronique de Rugy’s L.A. Times column to understand the critical difference between public-sector and private-sector austerity).

This is a sign of progress. In the past, he launched a silly attack on the U.K. for a “government pullback” that never happened, so what he wrote about Estonia at least is based on real events.

My negative reaction is that Krugman is very guilty of cherry-picking data. If you look at the chart that accompanies his post, Estonia’s economic performance isn’t very impressive, but that’s because he’s only showing us the data from 2007-present.

The numbers are accurate, but they’re designed to mislead rather than inform (sort of as if I did a chart showing 2009-present).

But before exposing that bit of trickery, there’s another mistake worth noting. Krugman presumably wants us to think that the downturn coincided with spending cuts. But his own chart shows that the economy hit the skids in 2008 – a year in which  government spending in Estonia soared by nearly 18 percent according to EU fiscal data!

It wasn’t until 2009 that Estonian lawmakers began to reduce the burden of spending. So I guess Professor Krugman wants us to believe that the economy tanked in 2008 because of expectations of 2009 austerity. Or something like that.

Returning now to my complaint about cherry picking data, Krugman makes Estonia seem stagnant by looking only at data starting in 2007. But as you can see from this second chart, Estonia’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. It has doubled its economic output in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It did experience a credit/real estate bubble, and there was a deep recession when the bubble burst. And the politicians let government spending explode during the bubble years, almost doubling the budget between 2004 and 2008.

But Estonia reacted to the overspending and the downturn in a very responsible fashion. Instead of using the weak economy as an excuse to further expand the burden of government spending in hopes that Keynesian economics would magically work (after failing for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, and Obama in 2009), the Estonians realized that they needed to cut spending.

And now that spending has been curtailed, it’s worth noting that growth has resumed.

What makes Krugman’s rant especially amusing is that he wrote it just as the rest of the world is beginning to notice that Estonia is a role model. Here’s some of what CNBC just posted.

Sixteen months after it joined the struggling currency bloc, Estonia is booming. The economy grew 7.6 percent last year, five times the euro-zone average. Estonia is the only euro-zone country with a budget surplus. National debt is just 6 percent of GDP, compared to 81 percent in virtuous Germany, or 165 percent in Greece. Shoppers throng Nordic design shops and cool new restaurants in Tallinn, the medieval capital, and cutting-edge tech firms complain they can’t find people to fill their job vacancies. It all seems a long way from the gloom elsewhere in Europe. Estonia’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis. …How did they bounce back? “I can answer in one word: austerity. Austerity, austerity, austerity,” says Peeter Koppel, investment strategist at the SEB Bank. …that’s not exactly the message that Europeans further south want to hear. …Estonia has also paid close attention to the fundamentals of establishing a favorable business environment: reducing and simplifying taxes, and making it easy and cheap to build companies.

Good policy makes a difference. But it also helps to have rational citizens (unlike France, where people vote for economic illiterates and protest against reality).

While spending cuts have triggered strikes, social unrest and the toppling of governments in countries from Ireland to Greece, Estonians have endured some of the harshest austerity measures with barely a murmur. They even re-elected the politicians that imposed them. “It was very difficult, but we managed it,” explains Economy Minister Juhan Parts. “Everybody had to give a little bit. Salaries paid out of the budget were all cut, but we cut ministers’ salaries by 20 percent and the average civil servants’ by 10 percent,” Parts told GlobalPost. …As well as slashing public sector wages, the government responded to the 2008 crisis by raising the pension age, making it harder to claim health benefits and reducing job protection — all measures that have been met with anger when proposed in Western Europe.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that government is still far too big in Estonia. The public sector consumes about 39 percent of economic output, almost double the burden of government spending in Hong Kong and Singapore.

But, unlike certain American politicians, at least the Estonians understand the problem and are taking steps to move in the right direction. I hope they continue.

P.S. The President of Estonia, a Social Democrat named Toomas Hendrik Ilves, used his twitter account to kick the you-know-what out of Krugman yesterday. For amusement value, check out this HuffingtonPost article.

P.P.S. A few other nations, such as Canada and New Zealand, also imposed genuine spending restraint in recent decades and they also got good results.

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Tax day is just around the corner, and we even get a one-day reprieve since April 15 falls on a Sunday.

And since everyone knows that I’m a big fan of the current tax system and the IRS (speaking of which, here’s a very good joke), let’s celebrate by digging into the Jeff MacNelly archives for these two tax cartoons.

First, here’s what many of us will be doing next weekend. Click to enlarge the cartoon. Every line is worth reading.

It would be nice to have a simple and fair system like the flat tax, requiring a 10-line return that can fit on a postcard. But be wary of some “simple” plans, as shown by Barack Obama’s two-line plan for a flat tax.

And here’s another cartoon showing how tax laws are developed. Very appropriate when you think about the IRS’s proposed interest-reporting regulation or the new FATCA law.

Jeff MacNelly was my favorite political cartoonist during my formative years. Sadly, he passed away far too early.

For good political cartoons today, I recommend starting with Michael Ramirez and Lisa Benson.

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What do the flat tax and national sales tax (and even the value-added tax) have in common?

As I explain in this Senate Budget Committee testimony, they are all single-rate, consumption-base, loophole-free tax systems that fulfill the key principles of good tax policy.

But good theory doesn’t operate in a vacuum, which is why I make several additional points.

1. Echoing George Will, something like a VAT should never be implemented unless the income tax is completely abolished.

2. It’s impossible to have good tax policy if government is too big.

3. A proper definition of taxable income is necessary to understand what’s a loophole and what’s not.

4. Tax revenues already are projected to significantly increase over the next few decades because of “real bracket creep,” meaning than a rising burden of spending accounts for more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal challenge.

5. If you want the rich to pay more tax, keep tax rates reasonable.

On a personal note, I’m irked that my jacket is riding up on my shoulders. I’ve been trained to sit on the tail of my jacket when doing TV interviews, and I should have remembered that lesson during my testimony.

But at least I’m wearing my Bulldawg tie, so that compensates.

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Early in 2010, I wrote about a reprehensible IRS plan to create a cartel in the tax preparation industry, which would screw small firms and entrepreneurs to help line the pockets of big companies such as H&R Block.

And, earlier this year, I specifically criticized the IRS Commissioner for moving ahead with this scheme, which I also suspect is motivated by a desire on the part of the IRS to have a group of captive tax preparers who will be timid about protecting the interests of taxpayers.

With thuggish moves like that, no wonder the IRS wants to flush $15 million of our tax dollars down the toilet in a futile effort to improve its public image.

But there is some good news. The Institute for Justice has filed suit against the IRS for its disgusting behavior. This video explains.

One point from the video that should be emphasized is that the IRS is taking this step without any congressional authorization or instruction. But if you read this link about an IRS regulation that would force American banks to put foreign law above US law, you’ll know that the tax agency is capable of rogue behavior.

By the way, the Institute for Justice is a great organization that effectively fights for individual rights. Check out this IJ video on asset forfeiture laws (which basically enable stealing by the government).

And since we’re on the topic of theft by government, this IJ video on property rights, eminent domain, and the Kelo decision also is very much worth watching.

P.S. I’m not interested in protecting the interests of the tax preparation industry. Indeed, I want a simple and fair flat tax, which would decimate all tax preparation firms. But I don’t want the thugs at the IRS to decide which firms are allowed to operate.

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Last year, while lounging on the beach in the Caribbean…oops, I mean while doing off-site research, I developed the first iteration of a rule to describe how fiscal policy should operate.

Good fiscal policy exists when the private sector grows faster than the public sector, while fiscal ruin is inevitable if government spending grows faster than the productive part of the economy.

My motivation was to help people understand that America’s fiscal problem is excessive government spending, not red ink. Deficits and debt are undesirable, of course, but they are best understood as symptoms. The underlying disease is a bloated federal budget that diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy and subsidizes dependency.

But after getting feedback, I realized that the rule was too wordy. So, after a bit of tweaking and market testing, I came up with “Mitchell’s Golden Rule.”

The purpose of this rule isn’t to make me famous, like Art Laffer with the Laffer Curve. Instead, I’m hoping that this simple construct will help policymakers focus on the most important variable.

Countries that follow the Golden Rule, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, enjoy long-run prosperity. But the Golden Rule also shows how nations in fiscal trouble can get back on the right track with periods of spending restraint, as shown in this video featuring Canada, Slovakia, New Zealand, and Ireland. And this video shows how the United States made progress during both the Reagan years and the Clinton years.

Governments that take the opposite approach, however, eventually wind up in fiscal chaos. Just look at the data from Greece. Or other crumbling welfare states.

All this discussion about how to measure good fiscal policy may seem esoteric, but it provides the foundation to understand why Senator Rand Paul’s new budget proposal is so admirable. Joined by Senators Jim DeMint and Mike Lee, Senator Paul has a comprehensive proposal to curtail big government.

1. An immediate cut of $500 billion of wasteful spending.

2. A five-year freeze on total government spending.

3. Limiting average annual spending growth to 2.2 percent over the next ten years.

Last but not least, taxpayers get a big reward from Senator Paul’s budget with a simple and fair 17 percent flat tax. This pro-growth policy is desperately needed to boost the economy and improve competitiveness. And while a flat tax theoretically could be enacted without accompanying spending restraint, it’s far more likely to happen if lawmakers show they’re serious about restraining the federal behemoth.

The accompany chart shows the 10-year projections for spending and revenue if Senator Paul’s budget is enacted.

A few additional thoughts. Senator Paul and his colleagues are highlighting the fact that the plan generates a balanced budget in just five years. That’s a good outcome, but it should be a secondary selling point. All the good results in the plan – including the reduction in red ink and the flat tax – are made possible because the overall burden of federal spending is lowered. That should be the main selling point.

This doesn’t mean that Senator Paul is in any danger of winning a Bob Dole Award, but it’s nonetheless unfortunate since a focus on deficits gives an opening for leftists to claim that they can achieve the same outcome with tax increases. This is why sponsors should focus on the importance of spending restraint, and then add explanations of how this eliminates red ink. This is the approach I took in this video showing how limits on the growth of spending would lead to a balanced budget.

Also, I have two minor disagreements with Senator Paul’s budget proposal.

1. He does not modernize Social Security system with personal retirement accounts. He does have reforms to rein in the program’s long-run outlays, thus addressing the system’s fiscal crisis. But this generally means workers will pay more and get less, thus exacerbating the system’s other crisis, which is the anemic ratio of benefits received compared to taxes paid.

2. He retains the home mortgage interest deduction in the flat tax plan. This may sound like nit-picking since I should be happy to get 99 percent of what I want, but I worry that allowing one deduction will pave the way for more deductions. Remember the old advertisement by Lay’s potato chips (at least I think) with the saying that “I bet you can’t eat just one”? Well, that’s how politicians would be with a flat tax. Once they allowed one horse out of the barn (I realize I’m mixing my metaphors here, but you get the point), it would be just a matter of time before the entire herd escaped.

But I’m not here to make the perfect the enemy of the very, very good. I wrote a lot last year about the Ryan budget, which was quite an achievement (particularly since it actually passed the House).

The Paul budget is the Ryan budget, but even better.

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I shared my thoughts about tax reform with the Senate Budget Committee earlier today.

Not surprisingly, I testified that the ideal tax system should have the lowest-possible rate, no double taxation of income that is saved and invested, and no corrupt and inefficient loopholes. In other words, a flat tax.

You can peruse my entire testimony on the Cato website.

In addition to talking about the flat tax, I also focused on the importance of economic growth – something that will be less likely if the tax burden is increased. Here’s a table from the Congressional Budget Office’s recent Economic and Budget Outlook, showing how even tiny differences in economic growth have a big impact on tax revenue.

Another point I made is that the government will collect more revenue, even if tax rates stay the same. This is because of something called “real bracket creep,” which occurs under a “progressive” tax system even if economic growth is mediocre.

Here’s a chart from the CBO long-run forecast, showing how the burden of taxation will climb in coming decades.

And here’s a chart showing how income tax receipts will reach record levels – even if the 2001/2003 tax cuts are made permanent.

One last point. I was impressed by Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. I hadn’t seen either of them in action.

Sen. Johnson’s comments and questions showed that he was fully aware of the DC scam of fake spending cuts. And Sen. Ayotte was completely aware of the self-destructive impact of America’s worldwide corporate tax regime.

Let’s hope they stay hard core and don’t “grow in office.”

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This interview with the IRS Commissioner is really irritating. He wants us to believe that all the problems exist because of bad laws enacted by Congress.

I certainly agree that the crowd in Washington is venal, corrupt, and duplicitous. But the IRS takes a bad situation and makes it worse, whether we’re looking at gross abuses of the regulatory process or absurd proposals to squander money on a P.R. campaign to make the agency more cuddly.

So I’m less than overwhelmed by this performance.

Commissioner Shulman also makes reference to a distasteful IRS proposal to regulate the tax preparation industry, which is really a scheme to enrich the big firms like H&R Block at the expense of smaller competitors.

So that’s another black mark against the bureaucracy.

But the most noxious part of the interview is when he admits he has to pay someone to file his tax return and then dodges a question on what could be done to make the system better.

But that’s not surprising. Mr. Shulman oversees a bureaucracy with about 100,000 employees (bigger than the FBI, CIA, and DEA combined), and they obviously wouldn’t want the type of reform that would force them to get jobs in the real world.

But I don’t have any problem with telling the truth. America should have a simple and fair flat tax.

Actually, that’s just an interim step. What we really need is to restore a limited central government, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. That way we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax to finance Washington.

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Leftists want higher tax rates and they want greater tax compliance. But they have a hard time understanding that those goals are inconsistent.

Simply stated, people respond to incentives. When tax rates are punitive, folks earn and report less taxable income, and vice-versa.

In a previous post, I quoted an article from the International Monetary Fund, which unambiguously concluded that high tax burdens are the main reason people don’t fully comply with tax regimes.

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that international studies find that the jurisdictions with the highest rates of tax compliance are the ones with reasonable tax systems, such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Now there’s a new study confirming these findings. Authored by two economists, one from the University of Wisconsin and the other from Jacksonville University, the new research cites the impact of tax burdens as well as other key variables.

Here are some key findings from the study.

According to the results provided in Table 2, the coefficient on the average effective federal income tax variable (AET) is positive in all three estimates and statistically significant for the overall study periods (1960-2008) at beyond the five percent level and statistically significant at the one percent level for the two sub-periods (1970-2007 and 1980-2008). Thus, as expected, the higher the average effective federal income tax rate, the greater the expected benefits of tax evasion may be and hence the greater the extent of that income tax evasion. This finding is consistent with most previous studies of income tax evasion using official data… In all three estimates, [the audit variable] exhibits the expected negative sign; however, in all three estimates it fails to be statistically significant at the five percent level. Indeed, these three coefficients are statistically significant at barely the 10 percent level. Thus it appears the audit rate (AUDIT) variable, of an in itself, may not be viewed as a strong deterrent to federal personal income taxation [evasion].

Translating from economic jargon, the study concludes that higher tax burdens lead to more evasion. Statists usually claim that this can be addressed by giving the IRS more power, but the researchers found that audit rates have a very weak effect.

The obvious conclusion, as I’ve noted before, is that lower tax rates and tax reform are the best way to improve tax compliance – not more power for the IRS.

Incidentally, this new study also finds that evasion increases when the unemployment rate increases. Given his proposals for higher tax rates and his poor track record on jobs, it almost makes one think Obama is trying to set a record for tax evasion.

The study also finds that dissatisfaction with government is correlated with tax evasion. And since Obama’s White House has been wasting money on corrupt green energy programs and a failed stimulus, that also suggests that the Administration wants more tax evasion.

Indeed, this last finding is consistent with some research from the Bank of Italy that I cited in 2010.

…the coefficient of public spending inefficiency remains negative and highly significant. …We find that tax morale is higher when the taxpayer perceives and observes that the government is efficient; that is, it provides a fair output with respect to the revenues.

And I imagine that “tax morale” in the United States is further undermined by an internal revenue code that has metastasized into a 72,000-page monstrosity of corruption and sleaze.

On the other hand, tax evasion apparently is correlated with real per-capita gross domestic product. And since the economy has suffered from anemic performance over the past three years, that blows a hole in the conspiratorial theory that Obama wants more evasion.

All joking aside, I’m sure the President wants more tax compliance and more prosperity. And since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to help him out. Mr. President, this video outlines a plan that would achieve both of those goals.

Given his class-warfare rhetoric, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation that he will follow my sage advice.

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Perhaps the title of this post is a bit unfair since the International Monetary Fund is good on some issues, such as reducing subsidies. And some of the economists at the IMF even produce good research.

But I can’t help but get agitated that this behemoth global bureaucracy wants more money when it has a dismal track record of promoting, enabling, and subsidizing bigger government.

Here’s a brief blurb from the Wall Street Journal, which shares my skepticism.

The IMF’s Christine Lagarde delivered a speech in Berlin Monday warning that, without dramatic action, the world risked another Great Depression. …”We estimate a global potential financing need of $1 trillion,” she said. “To play its part, the IMF would aim to raise up to $500 billion in additional lending resources.” …Perhaps an IMF managing director with sound ideas about what makes an economy grow might deserve a raise. The first thing such a director would demand would be to cut the Fund’s size in half, not double it.

The WSJ’s editors are right to criticize the IMF. The folks in charge at the international bureaucracy, depending on the circumstances, have a nasty habit of supporting Keynesian spending and class-warfare tax hikes.

Let’s look at two very recent news reports to prove this point.

Our first example is from Europe, where there’s a discussion of how to address the fiscal crisis. Remarkably, the IMF has staked out a position to the left of Germany, arguing that more government spending will boost growth in Europe. Consider these excerpts from a Washington Post article.

Germany, the economic engine of Europe, is afraid it could get stuck paying much of the cost to bail out its weaker European neighbors. It is pushing instead for budget cuts, which the IMF says could weaken growth further and undermine market confidence. The IMF is already lending to the region’s bailout fund and has a lead role in monitoring the progress that nations such as Greece make in reducing their government deficits. Germany, meanwhile, is also a large contributor to the bailout fund. …If Europe doesn’t take several steps recommended by the IMF, such as reducing its emphasis on budget cuts, the 17 nations that share the euro could contract at a much faster pace, the fund said. That could possibly plunge the rest of the world into recession.

This is remarkable. One would think that the past three years have proven, once and for all, that Keynesian spending is a sedative rather than a stimulus. Yet the IMF thinks recessions are caused by smaller government.

We have another story that is equally upsetting. IMF bureaucrats get tax-free salaries, yet they frequently urge governments to impose higher taxes. And they have a very troubling habit of undermining tax reform.

Here’s a blurb from a Bloomberg report.

The International Monetary Fund may require Hungary to change its flat personal income tax as part of a bailout agreement, according to a person familiar with the Washington-based lender’s preparations for the talks. The flat tax will be an important part in any program discussion, said the person, who declined to be identified because official talks haven’t started. The IMF is in general opposed to flat-tax systems.

I’ll confess that I’m not overly sympathetic to Hungary’s plight. The government is in a mess because it keeps overspending.

But if the IMF is going to foolishly provide a bailout, wouldn’t it be better if the bureaucrats made the money contingent on implementing good policy rather than bad policy?

Unfortunately, the IMF has a bad track record on tax reform, as I’m constantly reminded when talking to officials in Eastern Europe. Indeed, one of my early posts on this blog was about the IMF’s attempt to sabotage the Latvian flat tax.

People have a right to be statist, but the question we have to decide is whether American taxpayers should subsidize that destructive mindset. Not surprisingly, I say no. Indeed, the IMF may even be worse than the OECD, another international bureaucracy that promotes a statist agenda.

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Alan Blinder has a distinguished resume. He’s a professor at Princeton and he served as Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

So I was interested to see he authored an attack on the flat tax – and I was happy after I read his column. Why? Well, because his arguments are rather weak. So anemic that it makes me think there’s actually a chance to get rid of America’s corrupt internal revenue code.

There are two glaring flaws in his argument. First, he demonstrates a complete lack of familiarity with the flat tax and seemingly assumes that tax reform simply means imposing one rate on the current system.

Here’s some of what he wrote in a Wall Street Journal column.

Many useful steps could be taken to simplify the personal income tax. But, contrary to much misleading rhetoric, flattening the rate structure isn’t one of them. The truth is that 100% of the complexity inheres in the definition of taxable income, which takes up millions of words in the tax laws. None inheres in the progressive rate structure. If you don’t believe that, consider the fact that the corporate income tax is virtually flat once a corporation passes a paltry $75,000 in taxable income. Is it simple? Back to the personal tax. Figuring out your taxable income can be quite an effort. But once that is done, most taxpayers just look up their tax bill on an IRS-provided table. Those with incomes above $100,000 must perform a simple calculation that involves multiplying two numbers together and adding a third. A flat tax with an exemption would require precisely the same sort of calculation. The net reduction in complexity? Zero.

I can understand how an average person might think the flat tax is nothing more than applying a single tax rate to the current system, but any public finance economist must know that the plan devised by Professors Hall and Rabushka completely rips up the current tax system and implements a new system based on one tax rate with no double taxation and no loopholes.

Heck, the Hall/Rabushka book is online and free of charge. But Blinder obviously could not be bothered to understand the proposal before launching his attack.

What about his second mistake? This one’s a doozy. He actually assumes that taxable income is fixed, which is a remarkable error for anyone who supposedly understands economics.

…flattening the rate structure won’t make the tax code any simpler. It would, however, make the tax system far less progressive. Do the math. …Someone with $20 million in taxable income pays nearly $7 million in taxes under the current rate structure, with its 35% top rate. Replace that with a 23% flat tax, and the bill drops to just under $4.6 million.

In other words, he assumes that people won’t change their behavior even though incentives to engage in productive behavior are significantly altered.

In a previous post, I showed how rich people dramatically increased the amount of income they were willing to earn and report after Reagan lowered the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

To Blinder, this real-world evidence doesn’t matter – even though the rich paid much more tax to the IRS after Reagan slashed tax rates.

For more information, here’s my flat tax video.

And here’s the video on the global flat tax revolution. Interestingly, there are now about five more flat tax jurisdictions since this video was made – though Iceland abandoned its flat tax, so there are some steps in the wrong direction.

Makes you wonder. If the flat tax is such a bad idea, why are so many nations doing so well using this simple and fair approach?

But be careful, as this cartoon demonstrates, simplicity can mean bad things if the wrong people are in charge.

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Governor Rick Perry of Texas has announced a plan, which he outlines in today’s Wall Street Journal, to replace the corrupt and inefficient internal revenue code with a flat tax. Let’s review his proposal, using the principles of good tax policy as a benchmark.

1. Does the plan have a low, flat rate to minimize penalties on productive behavior?

Governor Perry is proposing an optional 20 percent tax rate. Combined with a very generous allowance (it appears that a family of four would not pay tax on the first $50,000 of income), this means the income tax will be only a modest burden for households. Most important, at least from an economic perspective, the 20-percent marginal tax rate will be much more conducive to entrepreneurship and hard work, giving people more incentive to create jobs and wealth.

2. Does the plan eliminate double taxation so there is no longer a tax bias against saving and investment?

The Perry flat tax gets rid of the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the double tax on dividends. This would significantly reduce the discriminatory and punitive treatment of income that is saved and invested (see this chart to understand why this is a serious problem in the current tax code). Since all economic theories – even socialism and Marxism – agree that capital formation is key for long-run growth and higher living standards, addressing the tax bias against saving and investment is one of the best features of Perry’s plan.

3. Does the plan get rid of deductions, preferences, exemptions, preferences, deductions, loopholes, credits, shelters, and other provisions that distort economic behavior?

A pure flat tax does not include any preferences or penalties. The goal is to leave people alone so they make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than what reduces their tax liability. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Perry flat tax falls a bit short. His plan gets rid of lots of special favors in the tax code, but it would retain deductions (for those earning less than $500,000 yearly) for charitable contributions, home mortgage interest, and state and local taxes.

As a long-time advocate of a pure flat tax, I’m not happy that Perry has deviated from the ideal approach. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the very good. If implemented, his plan would dramatically boost economic performance and improve competitiveness.

That being said, there are some questions that need to be answered before giving a final grade to the plan. Based on Perry’s Wall Street Journal column and material from the campaign, here are some unknowns.

1. Is the double tax on interest eliminated?

A flat tax should get rid of all forms of double taxation. For all intents and purposes, a pure flat tax includes an unlimited and unrestricted IRA. You pay tax when you first earn your income, but the IRS shouldn’t get another bite of the apple simply because you save and invest your after-tax income. It’s not clear, though, whether the Perry plan eliminates the double tax on interest. Also, the Perry plan eliminates the double taxation of “qualified dividends,” but it’s not clear what that means.

2. Is the special tax preference for fringe benefits eliminated?

One of the best features of the flat tax is that it gets rid of the business deduction for fringe benefits such as health insurance. This special tax break has helped create a very inefficient healthcare system and a third-party payer crisis. It is unclear, though, whether this pernicious tax distortion is eliminated with the Perry flat tax.

3. How will the optional flat tax operate?

The Perry plan copies the Hong Kong system in that it allows people to choose whether to participate in the flat tax. This is attractive since it ensures that nobody can be disadvantaged, but how will it work? Can people switch back and forth every year? Is the optional system also available to all the small businesses that use the 1040 individual tax system to file their returns?

4. Will businesses be allowed to “expense” investment expenditures?

The current tax code penalizes new business investment by forcing companies to pretend that a substantial share of current-year investment outlays take place in the future. The government imposes this perverse policy in order to get more short-run revenue since companies are forced to artificially overstate current-year profits. A pure flat tax allows a business to “expense” the cost of business investments (just as they “expense” workers wages) for the simple reason that taxable income should be defined as total revenue minus total costs.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the grade for Perry’s flat tax could be as high as A- or as low as B. Regardless, it will be a radical improvement compared to the current tax system, which gets a D- (and that’s a very kind grade).

Here’s a brief video for those who want more information about the flat tax.

Last but not least, I’ve already receive several requests to comment on how Perry’s flat tax compares to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

At a conceptual level, the plans are quite similar. They both replace the discriminatory rate structure of the current system with a low rate. They both get rid of double taxation. And they both dramatically reduce corrupt loopholes and distortions when compared to the current tax code.

All things considered, though, I prefer the flat tax. The 9-9-9 plan combines a 9 percent flat tax with a 9 percent VAT and a 9 percent national sales tax, and I don’t trust that politicians will keep the rates at 9 percent.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax is that we degenerate back to the current system. The worst thing that happens with the 9-9-9 plan, as I explain in this video, is that politicians pull a bait-and-switch and America becomes Greece or France.

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I became a big admirer of Herman Cain back in the 1990s when he was a member of the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform (aka, the Kemp Commission).

I worked as a staffer for the Commission and was able to observe Mr. Cain in action over a period of several months. Suffice to say I like what I saw. Unlike many people in DC, he is not an empty suit.

That doesn’t means he’s perfect, as illustrated by his support for the TARP bailout, but he’s definitely on the right side of the dividing line between those who want freedom and those who want statism.

And his victory in the Florida straw poll is bringing lots of deserved attention to his campaign, leading several people to ask what I think about his economic agenda.

To get right to the point, it’s a very Reaganesque package of lower taxes and more freedom that can be divided into three parts.

1. His short-run plan, which he calls the “Immediate Boost,” is to slash personal and corporate tax rates to 25 percent and eliminate the capital gains tax.

2. His intermediate plan, which he calls the “Enhanced Plan,” eliminates the death tax and the payroll tax. But the most important part is the 9-9-9 plan, which is a 9 percent tax rate on personal income, a 9 percent tax rate on corporate income, and a 9 percent national sales tax.

3. His long-run agenda, which he calls the “Fair Tax,” is to eliminate all personal and corporate income taxes and adopt a national sales tax.

This all sounds great, but let me do a bit of nit-picking. I want to focus on part 2, particularly the 9-9-9 plan.

It’s fine in theory. Heck, it’s great in theory. It means low tax rates on productive behavior. It means no double taxation of saving and investment. And it means no corrupt and inefficient loopholes.

What’s not to love about a plan that achieves all these principles?

But here’s the problem. If you happen to be one of those people (such as me) who does not trust politicians, then we run a grave risk if we ever let the crowd in Washington impose any sort of national sales tax without first getting rid of all income taxes.

I have faith that Herman Cain’s heart is in the right place, but years of experience in Washington have taught me to always assume politicians will grab more power and more money at every possible opportunity.

This is why I made this video, explaining why a national sales tax is only acceptable if the Constitution is amended to permanently bar any form of income taxation.

Let me put it more bluntly. A national sales tax – such as a Fair Tax or a VAT – would be a less destructive way of raising revenue than the current tax system.

But any form of national sales tax, if imposed on top of the income tax, would be a disaster. The experience of Europe shows that national sales tax are a money machine for big government.

This is why a national sales tax can only be put on the table after the income tax is repealed. But since I don’t trust politicians, we need to also amend the Constitution to repeal the 16th Amendment that allowed income taxes.

But since many Supreme Court Justices seem oblivious to the Constitution, we would actually need to replace the 16th Amendment with a new amendment that is completely unambiguous about banning any tax on income in perpetuity.

In other words, the income tax needs to be sealed in a lead vault, buried under 10 feet of concrete, and then covered by a foot of salt so nothing can ever grow back to haunt the American people.

Once these things happen, then we can adopt a national sales tax. See, I can be open-minded and reasonable.

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Have you ever wondered why the tax code is a Byzantine mess that requires 72,000 pages of law and regulation?

Hopefully you don’t ponder such dark and dreary thoughts, but the answer is that politicians and lobbyists have spent nearly 100 years creating all sorts of loopholes, shelters, deductions, preferences, exemptions, credits, and shelters.

Beginning on that dark day in 1913 when the income tax began to plague America.

Politicians love this process since they get to control our behavior and (even better) raise campaign cash from interest groups that benefit from industrial policy in the tax code.

The Washington Post has put together a revealing chart showing the steady growth of tax breaks – just in the past 37 years. If you click on the website, it has some interactive features, but this pictures of ever-rising distortions is all you really need to know.

But you should have two warning signs blaring in your head as you peruse this material.

1. You can’t properly define a loophole unless you first properly define an ideal tax system. This sounds like wonky talk for tax geeks, but it’s critically important. There’s a big debate featuring (mostly) tax lawyers on one side who think the right “tax base” includes pervasive double taxation of saving and investment. And the other side is comprised of (mostly) tax economists who think that a proper “tax base” has no double taxation.

Not surprisingly, the Washington Post, like much of the Washington crowd, accepts the wrong definition of a loophole. I explained this issue more thoroughly in this post, for those who want to get in the weeds. But here’s one example. If you put money in an IRA, that means you only get taxed on that income one time. The tax lawyers think that’s a loophole and they want you to be taxed at least two times, once when you first earn the money and again when you take the money out of the account. The tax economists point out that the government should only get one bite at the apple, meaning that the income can be taxed before it goes into the account (a Roth-style IRA) or when it comes out of the account (a traditional IRA). But not both.

2. Assuming we have the proper definition of a loophole, we presumably agree that these distortions are both corrupt and inefficient. And we’d like to clean up the tax code by eliminating these provisions. But getting rid of loopholes – assuming that’s all that happens – gives the government more money. That’s what’s motivating folks on the left. Going after loopholes (including things that aren’t loopholes, as explained above) is largely a tax-raising exercise.

That’s why, as I explained in an earlier post, any loophole-closing should be accompanied by an equal amount of tax-rate cutting. More specifically, every dollar generated by reducing tax breaks should be used to finance lower tax rates. That’s the underlying principle of tax reform. And if you get rid of all loopholes, eliminate all double taxation, and lower tax rates as much as possible, you wind up with a simple and fair flat tax.

This video explains how the system works.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen. Politicians react to the flat tax like vampires react to holy water.

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It’s hard to keep track of all the tax hikes that President Obama is proposing, but it’s very simple to recognize his main target – the evil, nasty, awful people known as the rich.

Or, as Obama identifies them, the “millionaires and billionaires” who happen to have yearly incomes of more than $200,000.

Whether the President is talking about higher income tax rates, higher payroll tax rates, an expanded alternative minimum tax, a renewed death tax, a higher capital gains tax, more double taxation of dividends, or some other way of extracting money, the goal is to have these people foot the bill for a never-ending expansion of the welfare state.

This sounds like a pretty good scam, at least if you’re a vote-buying politician, but there is one little detail that sometimes gets forgotten. Raising the tax burden is not the same as raising revenue.

That may not matter if you’re trying to win an election by stoking resentment with the politics of hate and envy. But it is a problem if you actually want to collect more money to finance a growing welfare state.

Unfortunately (at least from the perspective of the class-warfare crowd), the rich are not some sort of helpless pinata that can be pilfered at will.

The most important thing to understand is that the rich are different from the rest of us (or at least they’re unlike me, but feel free to send me a check if you’re in that category).

Ordinary slobs like me get the overwhelming share of our income from wages and salaries. The means we are somewhat easy victims when the politicians feel like raping and plundering. If my tax rate goes up, I don’t really have much opportunity to protect myself by altering my income.

Sure, I can choose not to give a speech in the middle of nowhere for $500 because the after-tax benefit shrinks. Or I can decide not to write an article for some magazine because the $300 payment shrinks to less than $200 after tax. But my “supply-side” responses don’t have much of an effect.

For rich people, however, the world is vastly different. As the chart shows, people with more than $1 million of adjusted gross income get only 33 percent of their income from wages and salaries. And the same IRS data shows that the super-rich, those with income above $10 million, rely on wages and salaries for only 19 percent of their income.

This means that they – unlike me and (presumably) you – have tremendous ability to control the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Indeed, here are two completely legal and very easy things that rich people already do to minimize their taxes – but will do much more frequently if they are targeted for more punitive tax treatment.

1. They will shift their investments to stocks that are perceived to appreciate in value. This means they can reduce their exposure to the double tax on dividends and postpone indefinitely taxes on capital gains.  They get wealthier and the IRS collects less revenue.

2. They will shift their investments to municipal bonds, which are exempt from federal tax. They probably won’t risk their money on debt from basket-case states such as California and Illinois (the Greece and Portugal of America), but there are many well-run states that issue bonds. The rich will get steady income and, while the return won’t be very high, they don’t have to give one penny of their interest payments to the IRS.

For every simple idea I can envision, it goes without saying that clever lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, and financial planners can probably think of 100 ways to utilize deductions, credits, preferences, exemptions, shelters, exclusions, and loopholes. This is why class-warfare tax policy is so self-defeating.

And all of this analysis doesn’t even touch upon the other sure-fire way to escape high taxes – and that’s to simply decide to be less productive. Most high-income people are hard-charging types who are investing money, building businesses, and otherwise engaging in behavior that is very good for them – but also very good for the economy.

But you don’t have to be an Ayn Rand devotee to realize that many people, to varying degrees, choose to “go Galt” when they feel that the government has excessively undermined the critical link between effort and reward.

Indeed, if Obama really wants to “soak the rich,” he might want to abandon his current approach and endorse a simple and fair flat tax. As explained in this video, this pro-growth reform does lead to substantial “Laffer Curve” effects.

But you don’t have to believe the video. You can check out this data, straight from the IRS website, showing how those evil rich people paid much more to the IRS after Reagan cut their tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent in the 1980s.

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I haven’t said much about the 2012 election, largely because this blog tries to avoid politics and instead focuses on how public policy can promote or (all too often) restrict liberty.

But every so often, I feel compelled to pontificate – usually because someone is saying or doing something foolish. This is why I want to talk about Jon Huntsman’s tax reform plan.

But in this case, my ire isn’t directed at the candidate, who actually deserves credit for proposing a very good plan.

Instead, I want to expose some very shoddy – or very biased – coverage by the New York Times. Here’s how the reporter, Ashley Parker, began her report on Huntsman’s proposal.

Jon M. Huntsman Jr. again showed himself on Wednesday to be an ideological outlier in the Republican presidential field, calling for the tax code to be stripped of all loopholes and deductions. Congressional Republicans have resisted closing loopholes in recent budget talks, portraying such moves as tax increases.

Her key message, as you can read for yourself, is that Huntsman is a rogue force in the Republican Party because he wants to get rid of special tax breaks. GOPers in Congress, according to the article, “have resisted closing loopholes.”

Huntsman may very well be an outlier is certain ways, but Parker’s portrayal of his tax plan – and how it meshes with the views of other GOPers – is simply false.

The general Republican position, as well as the position of Americans for Tax Reform, is that it is perfectly acceptable and indeed desirable to get rid of tax preferences and distortions. But they should be eliminated as part of a shift to lower tax rates, not as part of some scam to give politicians more tax revenue.

Well, take a wild guess what Jon Huntsman wants to do with the revenue from “closing loopholes.” Assuming your IQ is above room temperature, you probably have figured out that the former Utah governor wants to use every penny of the additional tax revenue to finance lower tax rates. And you’d be correct.

Nowhere in Mr. Parker’s story, however, is there any acknowledgement of that important fact. Why not? To be honest, I have no idea. It could be bias. It could be incompetence. It could be that she had a preconceived narrative that Huntsman is a maverick and therefore she wanted to portray his plan as somehow contrary to GOP policy.

But all that matters is she blew the story. Within two sentences, she completely mischaracterized Huntsman’s proposal and created a false impression that he was doing something that put him to the left of the Republican mainstream, when he actually has a tax plan that is much farther to the right than anything Perry or Romney have proposed.

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As a general rule, the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund are not awful people or fire-breathing leftists. But they are voices for the establishment. And, at the upper levels, IMF staff seem overly solicitous of the views of the big nations, which means that they are indirectly attentive to interest groups (such as big banks) that have political power in those big nations.

This helps explain why the IMF is so intent on providing bailouts to Greece when it would be far better in the long run to cut the country loose and force the Greek people to realize that there is not a never-ending supply of subsidies to support statism.

But it’s not just in Greece where the IMF peddles bad policy. I wrote back in 2009 about the IMF’s efforts to repeal the flat tax in Latvia. And I’ve posted about the IMF’s support for anti-tax competition schemes that would enable bigger government.

I guess we need to give the bureaucrats credit for being consistent. The IMF is now pushing Albania to increase its flat tax rate. Here’s an excerpt from the Albanianeconomy.com website.

“The flat tax can be raised to 12-15 per cent, [from the current 10 per cent] as a way to cut the deficit and the stock of public debt,” IMF representative Gerwin Bell said on Thursday in a joint press conference with Albania’s Minister of Finance Ridvan Bode and the Governor of Albania’s Central Bank, Ardian Fullani.

To reiterate my earlier point, however, the IMF produces muddled advice, not bad advice. The bureaucrats also are recommending some budgetary restraint for Albania. The problem, of course, is that politicians often accept the suggestions for higher taxes and never bother with fiscal restraint. Indeed, IMF bailout funds for places such as Greece are substitutes for fiscal restraint.

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Read it and weep. Or maybe I should say look at it and weep.

I suppose this is a good time to recycle my flat tax video. I don’t mention this in the video, but Hong Kong’s flat tax system, which has been around for more than 60 years, requires less than 200 pages. Slovakia’s flat tax law is thinner than a magazine.

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According to an article in the New York Times, the Obama Administration is seriously examining a proposal to reduce America’s anti-competitive 35 percent corporate tax rate.

The Obama administration is preparing to inject an unpredictable new variable into its economic policy clash with Republicans: a plan to overhaul corporate taxes. Economic advisers have nearly completed the process initiated in January by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, at President Obama’s behest. That process, intended to make the United States more competitive internationally, has explored the willingness of business leaders to sacrifice loopholes in return for lowering the top corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. The approach officials are now discussing would drop the top rate as low as 26 percent, largely by curbing or eliminating tax breaks for depreciation and for domestic manufacturing.

This may be a worthwhile proposal, but this is an example where it would be wise to “look before you leap.” Or, for fans of Let’s Make a Deal, let’s see what’s behind Door Number 2.

To judge Obama’s plan, it is important to have the right benchmark. An ideal corporate tax system obviously should have a low tax rate. And it also should have no double taxation (tax corporate income at the business level or tax it at the individual level, but don’t tax it at both levels).

But it’s also important to have a simple and neutral system. The right definition of corporate income for any given year is (or should be) total revenue minus total costs. What’s left is income.

This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it’s not the way the corporate tax code works. The system has thousands of complicated provisions, some of which provide special loopholes (such as the corrupt ethanol credit) that allow firms to understate their income, and some of which impose discriminatory penalties by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Consider the case of depreciation. The vast majority of people understandably have no idea what this term means, but it sounds like a special tax break. After all, who wants big corporations to lower their tax bills by taking advantage of something that sounds so indecipherable.

In reality, though, depreciation simply refers to the tax treatment of investment costs. Let’s say a company buys a new machine (which would increase productivity and thus boost wages) for $10 million. Under a sensible and simple tax system, that company would include that $10 million when adding up all their costs, which then would be subtracted from total revenue to determine income.

But the corporate tax code doesn’t let companies properly recognize the cost of new investments. Instead, they are only allowed to deduct (depreciate) a fraction of the cost the first year, followed by more the next year, and so on and so on depending on the specific depreciation rules for different types of investments.

To keep the example simple, let’s say there is “10-year straight line depreciation” for the new machine. That means a company can only deduct $1 million each year and they have to wait an entire decade before getting to fully deduct the cost of the new machine.

Ultimately, the firm does deduct the full $10 million, but the delay (in some cases, about 40 years) means that a company, for all intents and purposes, is being taxed on a portion of its investment expenditures. This is because they lose the use of their money, and also because even low levels of inflation mean that deductions are worth significantly less in future years than they are today.

To put it in terms that are easy to understand, imagine if the government suddenly told you that you had to wait 10 years to deduct your personal exemption!

Let’s now circle back to President Obama’s proposal. With the information we now have, there is no way of determining whether this proposal is a net plus or a net minus. A lower rate is great, of course, but perhaps not if the government doesn’t let you accurately measure your expenses and therefore forces you to overstate your income.

I’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

P.S. It’s also important to understand that a “deduction” in the business tax code does not imply loophole. If you remember the correct definition of business income (total revenue minus total costs), this means a business gets to “deduct” its expenses (such as wages paid to workers) from total revenue to determine taxable income. Some deductions are loopholes, of course, which is why a  simple, fair, and honest system should be based on cash flow. Which is how business are treated under the flat tax.

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Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

The mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden – sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

Two things from the video are worth highlighting.

First, we should make sure to put most of the blame on Congress. The IRS is in the unenviable position of trying to enforce Byzantine tax laws. Yes, there are examples of grotesque IRS abuse, but even the most angelic group of bureaucrats would have a hard time overseeing 70,000-plus pages of laws and regulations (by contrast, the Hong Kong flat tax, which has been in place for more than 60 years, requires less than 200 pages).

Second, we should remember that compliance costs are just the tip of the iceberg. The video also briefly mentions three other costs.

1. The money we send to Washington, which is a direct cost to our pocketbooks and also an indirect cost since the money often is used to finance counterproductive programs that further damage the economy.

2. The budgetary burden of the IRS, which is a staggering $12.5 billion. This is the money we spend to employ an army of tax bureaucrats that is larger than the CIA and FBI combined.

3. The economic burden of the tax system, which measures the lost economic output from a tax system that penalizes productive behavior.

The way to fix this mess, needless to say, is to junk the entire tax code and start all over.

I’ve been a big proponent of the flat tax, which would mean one low tax rate, no double taxation of savings, and no corrupt loopholes. But I’m also a big fan of national sales tax proposals such as the Fair Tax, assuming we can amend the Constitution so that greedy politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and impose both an income tax and a sales tax.

But the most important thing we need to understand is that bloated government is our main problem. If we had a limited federal government, as our Founding Fathers envisioned, it would be almost impossible to have a bad tax system. But if we continue to move in the direction of becoming a European-style welfare state, it will be impossible to have a good tax system.

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If you go to the IRS website, there are about one thousand forms (and accompanying material such as instruction documents) that you can download.

Fortunately, most of us only have to worry about a small fraction of what’s on that list, but it’s still a nightmare – and one that gets worse every year because politicians have an endless appetite for manipulating our lives and auctioning off new loopholes for campaign cash.

So let’s take a few minutes to review the features of a tax system that is simple and fair (and pro-growth). I’m talking about the flat tax, which now is successfully working in about 30 nations.

Just a quick caveat for my friends who prefer the national sales tax. Yes, that system also would be a vast improvement. But since the Fair Tax or something like that would require a constitutional amendment to ensure that politicians couldn’t impose both a sales tax and income tax, that’s more of a long-term project.

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General Electric has received a lot of unwelcome attention for paying zero federal income tax in 2010, even though it reported $5.1 billion in U.S. profits. This is a good news-bad news situation.

The good news is that GE’s clever tax planning deprived the government of revenue. And I’m in favor of just about anything that reduces the amount of money that winds up in the hands of the most corrupt and least competent people in America (a.k.a., the political class in Washington).

The bad news, though, is that politicians can engage in borrow-and-spend vote-buying behavior, so depriving them of revenue doesn’t seem to have much impact on the overall burden of government spending.

Moreover, there are good ways to cut taxes and not-so-good ways to cut taxes. Special loopholes for politically powerful companies and well-connected insiders are unfair, corrupt, and inefficient.And I’ve already written about GE’s distasteful track record of getting in bed with politicians in exchange for grubby favors.

Ideally, we should junk the corrupt internal revenue code (and the corporate side of the tax code makes the personal tax code seem simple by comparison) and replace it with a simple and transparent system such as the flat tax.

That way, all income would be taxed since loopholes would be abolished, but there would be a very low tax rate and no double taxation.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is one of the best economic and policy journalists on the scene today, and this excerpt from his column explains what is right and wrong about GE’s tax bill.

GE allocates hundreds of talented minds to attempts at lowering taxes. I don’t blame GE for that. It’s probably worth it — which is exactly the problem. In a world with a simpler tax code — or better yet, with no corporate income tax — GE would spend those resources creating something of value. Again, this is a case where government creates a chasm between what’s profitable (gaming tax law) and what’s valuable for society. Also, this story demonstrates once again how Big Government hurts small business much more than it affects Big Business, which can afford to figure out a way around taxes.

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While watching my interview with Dambisa Moyo, I noticed C-Span has an easy-to-use archive system that shows all previous appearances.

This was an opportunity for some narcissistic reminiscing, beginning with my first appearance in 1990 (which I shared with a friend, who laughed at my “Justin Bieber haircut”).

But I was especially pleased to find my debate with Bruce Bartlett about the national sales tax or Fair Tax.

Some readers occasionally give me a hard time about devoting a lot of time and effort to promoting the flat tax, while not paying enough attention to the national sales tax. I’ve explained that this is because I think the flat tax is more politically feasible, but the C-Span debate should demonstrate that I am more than happy to vigorously defend the Fair Tax when given the opportunity.

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