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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Ryan’

I wrote yesterday to praise the Better Way tax plan put forth by House Republicans, but I added a very important caveat: The “destination-based” nature of the revised corporate income tax could be a poison pill for reform.

I listed five concerns about a so-called destination-based cash flow tax (DBCFT), most notably my concerns that it would undermine tax competition (folks on the left think it creates a “race to the bottom” when governments have to compete with each other) and also that it could (because of international trade treaties) be an inadvertent stepping stone for a government-expanding value-added tax.

Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has just authored a new study on the DBCFT. Here’s his summary description of the tax.

The DBCFT would be a new type of corporate income tax that disallows any deductions for imports while also exempting export-related revenue from taxation. This mercantilist system is based on the same “destination” principle as European value-added taxes, which means that it is explicitly designed to preclude tax competition.

Since CF&P was created to protect and promote tax competition, you won’t be surprised to learn that the DBCFT’s anti-tax competition structure is a primary objection to this new tax.

First, the DBCFT is likely to grow government in the long-run due to its weakening of international tax competition and the loss of its disciplinary impact on political behavior. … Tax competition works because assets are mobile. This provides pressure on politicians to keep rates from climbing too high. When the tax base shifts heavily toward immobile economic activity, such competition is dramatically weakened. This is cited as a benefit of the tax by those seeking higher and more progressive rates. …Alan Auerbach, touts that the DBCFT “alleviates the pressure to reduce the corporate tax rate,” and that it would “alter fundamentally the terms of international tax competition.” This raises the obvious question—would those businesses and economists that favor the DBCFT at a 20% rate be so supportive at a higher rate?

Brian also shares my concern that the plan may morph into a VAT if the WTO ultimately decides that is violates trade rules.

Second, the DBCFT almost certainly violates World Trade Organization commitments. …Unfortunately, it is quite possible that lawmakers will try to “fix” the tax by making it into an actual value-added tax rather than something that is merely based on the same anti-tax competition principles as European-style VATs. …the close similarity of the VAT and the DBCFT is worrisome… Before VATs were widely adopted, European nations featured similar levels of government spending as the United States… Feeding at least in part off the easy revenue generate by their VATs, European nations grew much more drastically over the last half century than the United States and now feature higher burdens of government spending. The lack of a VAT-like revenue engine in the U.S. constrained efforts to put the United States on a similar trajectory as European nations.

And if you’re wondering why a VAT would be a bad idea, here’s a chart from Brian’s paper showing how the burden of government spending in Europe increased once that tax was imposed.

In the new report, Brian elaborates on the downsides of a VAT.

If the DBCFT turns into a subtraction-method VAT, its costs would be further hidden from taxpayers. Workers would not easily understand that their employers were paying a big VAT withholding tax (in addition to withholding for income tax). This makes it easier for politicians to raise rates in the future. …Keep in mind that European nations have corporate income tax systems in addition to their onerous VAT regimes.

And he points out that those who support the DBCFT for protectionist reasons will be disappointed at the final outcome.

…if other nations were to follow suit and adopt a destination-based system as proponents suggest, it will mean more taxes on U.S. exports. Due to the resulting decline in competitive downward pressure on tax rates, the long-run result would be higher tax burdens across the board and a worse global economic environment.

Brian concludes with some advice for Republicans.

Lawmakers should always consider what is likely to happen once the other side eventually returns to power, especially when they embark upon politically risky endeavors… In this case, left-leaning politicians would see the DBCFT not as something to be undone, but as a jumping off point for new and higher taxes. A highly probable outcome is that the United States’ corporate tax environment becomes more like that of Europe, consisting of both consumption and income taxes. The long-run consequences will thus be the opposite of what today’s lawmakers hope to achieve. Instead of a less destructive tax code, the eventual result could be bigger government, higher taxes, and slower economic growth.

Amen.

My concern with the DBCFT is partly based on theoretical objections, but what really motivates me is that I don’t want to accidentally or inadvertently help statists expand the size and scope of government. And that will happen if we undermine tax competition and/or set in motion events that could lead to a value-added tax.

Let’s close with three hopefully helpful observations.

Helpful Reminder #1: Congressional supporters want a destination-based system as a “pay for” to help finance pro-growth tax reforms, but they should keep in mind that leftists want a destination-based system for bad reasons.

Based on dozens of conversations, I think it’s fair to say that the supporters of the Better Way plan don’t have strong feelings for destination-based taxation as an economic principle. Instead, they simply chose that approach because it is projected to generate $1.2 trillion of revenue and they want to use that money to “pay for” the good tax cuts in the overall plan.

That’s a legitimate choice. But they also should keep in mind why other people prefer that approach. Folks on the left want a destination-based tax system because they don’t like tax competition. They understand that tax competition restrains the ability of governments to over-tax and over-spend. Governments in Europe chose destination-based value-added taxes to prevent consumers from being able to buy goods and services where VAT rates are lower. In other words, to neuter tax competition. Some state governments with high sales taxes in the United States are pushing a destination-based system for sales taxes because they want to hinder consumers from buying goods and services from states with low (or no) sales taxes. Again, their goal is to cripple tax competition.

Something else to keep in mind is that leftist supporters of the DBCFT also presumably see the plan as being a big step toward achieving a value-added tax, which they support as the most effective way of enabling bigger government in the United States.

Helpful Reminder #2: Choosing the right tax base (i.e., taxing income only one time, otherwise known as a consumption-base system) does not require choosing a destination-based approach.

The proponents of the Better Way plan want a “consumption-base” tax. This is a worthy goal. After all, that principle means a system where economic activity is taxed only one time. But that choice is completely independent of the decision whether the tax system should be “origin-based” or “destination-based.”

The gold standard of tax reform has always been the Hall-Rabushka flat tax, which is a consumption-base tax because there is no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. It also is an “origin-based” tax because economic activity is taxed (only one time!) where income is earned rather than where income is consumed.

The bottom line is that you can have the right tax base with either an origin-based system or a destination-based system.

Helpful Reminder #3: The good reforms of the Better Way plan can be achieved without the downside risks of a destination-based tax system.

The Tax Foundation, even in rare instances when I disagree with its conclusions, always does very good work. And they are the go-to place for estimates of how policy changes will affect tax receipts and the economy. Here is a chart with their estimates of the revenue impact of various changes to business taxation in the Better Way plan. As you can see, the switch to a destination-based system (“border adjustment”) pulls in about $1.2 trillion over 10 years. And you can also see all the good reforms (expensing, rate reduction, etc) that are being financed with the various “pay fors” in the plan.

I am constantly asked how the numbers can work if “border adjustment” is removed from the plan. That’s a very fair question.

But there are lots of potential answers, including:

  • Make a virtue out of necessity by reducing government revenue by $1.2 trillion.
  • Reduce the growth of government spending to generate offsetting savings.
  • Find other “pay fors” in the tax code (my first choice would be the healthcare exclusion).
  • Reduce the size of the tax cuts in the Better Way plan by $1.2 trillion.

I’m not pretending that any of these options are politically easy. If they were, the drafters of the Better Way plan probably would have picked them already. But I am suggesting that any of those options would be better than adopting a destination-based system for business taxation.

Ultimately, the debate over the DBCFT is about how different people assess political risks. House Republicans advocating the plan want good things, and they obviously think the downside risks in the future are outweighed by the ability to finance a larger level of good tax reforms today. Skeptics appreciate that those proponents want good policy, but we worry about the long-run consequences of changes that may (especially when the left sooner or late regains control) enable bigger government.

P.S. This is not the first time that advocates of good policy have bickered with each other. During the 2016 nomination battle, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz plans proposed tax reform plans that fixed many of the bad problems in the tax code. But they financed some of those changes by including value-added taxes in their plans. In the short run, either plan would have been much better than the current system. But I was critical because I worried the inclusion of VATs would eventually give statists a tool to further increase the burden of government.

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

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

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

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

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

Concern #1: Is the DBCFT protectionist?

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

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

Charles Lane of the Washington Post explains how it works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a Washington Post editorial is similarly concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Economist shares this assessment.

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

Steve Forbes is blunt about this possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not the case with the DBCFT.

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

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

A story from CNBC highlights why retailers are so concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Led by Speaker Paul Ryan, House Republicans have put forth an anti-poverty agenda.

It’s definitely worth reading just for the indictment of the current welfare state. There are some excellent charts, including versions of ones that I’ve already shared on the $1 trillion-plus fiscal burden of current welfare programs, as well as the “bloated, jumbled, and overlapping bureaucracy” that administers all that money.

But there are some charts that deserve to be reproduced, either because they contain new insights or because they make very important economic points.

Regarding the former, here’s a chart that indirectly shows that the most effective anti-poverty program is work. Specifically a full-time job.

So the real challenge is why there are some households with persistent multi-generational poverty.

And, as Thomas Sowell already has told us, that’s a behavioral problem.

But it’s somewhat understandable behavior because government in many cases makes dependency more attractive than self-sufficiency.

Here’s a chart showing the implicit marginal tax rates that apply if a poor household tries to climb out of poverty. The bottom line is that handouts are so generous that it’s very difficult for a poor person to be better off by working instead of mooching.

No wonder dependency is a growing problem!

Some folks say the solution to this problem is to reduce the “phase-out” of benefits, but that’s a recipe for making the welfare state vastly more expensive and giving handouts to people who are not poor. That’s the approach in some European nations and it hasn’t worked.

Here’s another chart that basically makes the same point about the upside-down incentive structure created by redistribution programs. It shows that a poor household can enjoy a much higher standard of living with low earnings than with high earnings.

The bottom line is that the current welfare state is a disaster for both poor people and taxpayers.

And this video is an excellent introduction to that topic.

But let’s focus on the GOP anti-poverty plan. They put together a powerful indictment of what we have now, but what are they proposing as a solution?

Here’s where we get good news and bad news. The good news is that there is a focus on work, as explained in a column for Forbes by Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute.

…the report declares that “Our welfare system should encourage work-capable welfare recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for benefits, and states should be held accountable for helping welfare recipients find jobs and stay employed.” The blueprint points toward greater use of work requirements and time limits for food stamp recipients and beneficiaries of federal housing benefits who are able to work. …This emphasis on work generalizes the experience from the landmark 1996 welfare reform legislation, which increased work among single-parent families, reduced welfare receipt and (most importantly) lowered poverty.

So far so good, and Scott also notes that the key to work is reducing the appeal of being on the dole.

Most of the success of welfare reform in encouraging work can be attributed to the ways that it has made receipt of benefits less attractive relative to work. People largely left welfare or chose not to enroll independently of state work promotion efforts.

But here’s the problem. There’s no big attempt to reduce benefits in the GOP proposal.

Indeed, it doesn’t even turn programs over to the states, which presumably would lead to better policy since sub-national governments wouldn’t want to be overly generous lest they attract welfare migration.

But the dog that didn’t bark in the new agenda is the consolidation and block granting proposed in Speaker Ryan’s Budget Committee discussion draft from 2014. Rather, the blueprint appears to envision increased use of state waivers in the various programs… It is worth recalling that in the 2014 discussion draft, the “opportunity grants” that would have combined a dozen federal programs and funded them at a fixed level were proposed as a pilot program in a few states.

Though at least the plan apparently doesn’t increase the fiscal burden of the welfare state by further expanding the EITC, which already is the federal government’s most costly redistribution program.

The antipoverty blueprint mentions the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)…only in passing. On the one hand, the report points out that an expanded EITC would be one way to reduce some of the high marginal tax rates that recipients of federal aid face when they contemplate working. On the other, the program’s high rate of improper payments is also emphasized, rightfully, as a problem that must be addressed.

Scott also points out that the Republican plan also foresees a much more aggressive attempt to measure what works and doesn’t work. Which is good, though hardly necessary since we already know that a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington is a recipe for ever-higher costs and ever-increasing dependency.

Indeed, there’s even a Laffer Curve-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

Let’s check out a couple of other reactions.

From the left, Jordan Weissman of Slate is predictably unimpressed.

As part of his effort to convince Americans that the Republican Party is [not] a band of nihilistic anti-government lunatics—House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled…an anti-poverty plan. Which is a laugh riot. …Most of the agenda is a rehash of, or at least a variation on, material Ryan has trotted out before. Inspired by the welfare reforms of the 1990s, the speaker still wants to push more safety net beneficiaries to go to work, devolve more program control down to state and local officials, and yet somehow increase accountability and carefully monitor results… There’s also some talk about increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers—which is one of those nice, liberal-conservative consensus positions that never seems to go anywhere.

From the right, Kevin Williamson sympathizes with the GOP/Ryan approach, but also makes a more important point in his National Review column.

Paul Ryan has just introduced a welfare-reform proposal… We already knew what was going to be in it — work requirements and time limits for able-bodied adults — because there are only so many meaningful avenues of reform. We also know what the Left’s response is going to be: that this is cruel, callous, punitive, etc. But there are really only two choices: Get people moving toward economic self-sufficiency or sustain them forever in the soul-killing state of dependency. There isn’t a third option. Not really. This is only partly about money. We are a very, very rich society, and we can afford to provide decently for people who cannot care for themselves, including children and those who are physically or mentally disabled. But that isn’t our problem: Our problem isn’t people who are physically disabled but people who are morally disabled, people who wouldn’t take a bus 15 minutes to work at a gas station, much less walk 15 miles to do so.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the only good welfare reform is one that shifts all programs to the states as part of a block grant. But since funding redistribution is not a function of the federal government, that block grant should then disappear over time.

Last but not least, we need to understand that economic growth is easily the most powerful and effective anti-poverty program. That’s why the poverty rate fell from 90 percent to 15 percent in America before we had a welfare state.

And it’s no coincidence that we stopped making progress once the so-called War on Poverty began.

P.S. On the topic of poverty, it’s worth remembering that the White House has tried to redefine poverty as part of a dishonest campaign to promote class warfare policies. And the leftist bureaucrats at the OECD are pushing the same disingenuous approach.

P.P.S. If you want to know which states have the highest welfare benefits, click here. And if you want to know which ones have the highest overall levels of redistribution, click here.

P.P.P.S. There’s at least one honest leftist who understands the human cost of redistribution.

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Since I criticized Paul Ryan’s Roadmap budget plan yesterday as part of my column against the value-added tax, I now feel obliged to defend the proposal in one important respect.

But first, some background.

In a recent piece for the American Enterprise Institute, James Pethokoukis applauded former Florida Governor Jeb Bush for being willing to accept a tax increase deal.

…whatever the real-time political impact of what Bush said, the fiscal analysis supporting it is sound. …Would a GOP president really not accept an entitlement reform deal somehow that kept spending at 20% but only raised revenue to 18.4% of GDP from its postwar average of 17.4%?

I actually would accept such a deal as well, at least in theory. After all, the burden of federal government spending – if left on autopilot – is expected to grow to about 40 percent of economic output by 2050.

Heck, if I knew I could restrain federal spending so it only consumed 20 percent of GDP in 2050, I’d even accept tax revenues of 20 percent of GDP.

So does this mean I’m a Jeb Bush-style squish on taxes?

Not at all. Simply stated, the deal that Pethokoukis proposes doesn’t exist. Anywhere.

So saying I’d accept such a deal is about as relevant as me saying I’m willing to play quarterback next year for the Georgia Bulldogs.

And even if such a deal did exist, I strongly suspect the other side wouldn’t fulfill its side of the bargain. That’s certainly been the track record of previous tax-hiking budget deals. The tax hike gets imposed, but promised spending “cuts” quickly evaporate.

So Pethokoukis (and Jeb Bush) are simply being impractical when they put tax hikes on the table.

You’re probably wondering at this point how this connects to Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap proposal.

Time to reward your patience. Pethokoukis tries to defend Jeb Bush by asserting that Ryan’s Roadmap plan assumes higher levels of taxes and spending.

Look at Paul Ryan’s much-celebrated — at least in conservative circles — Roadmap for America. According to its budget plan, government spending in 2039 would be 23.7% of GDP with revenue of 19.0%. Now according to CBO’s alternate budget forecast, 2039 spending is currently on path to be 25.9%. So the Ryan plan would increase historical tax revenue by just less than two percentage points while reducing projected spending by just more than two percentage points. That is nowhere close to 10-to-1. It’s not even 2-to-1.

So does this mean Jeb Bush is more philosophically sound than Paul Ryan?

Hardly. Pethokoukis is mixing apples and oranges. Or, to be more accurate, he’s mixing apples and rocks.

The Ryan Roadmap, like all budget proposals on Capitol Hill, is measured against a “baseline” estimate of what happens if government is left on autopilot.

And that baseline assumes huge increases in the burden of government spending (because of entitlements and demographic changes) and a big increase in the overall tax burden (since even modest growth over time pushes households into higher tax brackets).

Compared to that baseline, Ryan’s Roadmap would significantly reduce the upward trajectory of spending, and also mitigate the increased tax burden.

Here are a pair of charts from the House Budget Committee, showing the long-run impact of the plan on taxes and spending.

So while I don’t like the fact that the plan includes a VAT, I very much applaud what Congressman Ryan is trying to achieve.

Jeb Bush’s theoretical budget deal, by contrast, would involve adding even more tax revenue on top of all the additional tax revenue that CBO projects. And Bush’s supposed spending cuts would be based on Washington’s funny budget math and measured against the CBO baseline as well, so I feel very safe in asserting that government would be much bigger under a risky tax-hike deal than it would be with Ryan’s Roadmap.

This is why the no-tax hike pledge is a valuable way of weeding out politicians who aren’t serious about dealing with the problem of big government.

P.S. It’s worth noting that the New York Times accidentally admitted that the only successful budget deal was the one that cut taxes.

P.P.S. The first President Bush was a disaster for advocates of limited government, as was the second President Bush, and there’s a very big reason at this point to be skeptical about version 3.0.

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Libertarians are sometimes accused of being unrealistic and impractical because we occasionally talk about unconventional ideas such as competitive currencies and privatized roads.

But having a vision of a free society doesn’t mean we’re incapable of common-sense political calculations.

For example, my long-run goal is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of the federal government, both because that’s how the Founding Fathers wanted our system to operate and because our economy will grow much faster if labor and capital are allocated by economic forces rather than political calculations. But in the short run, I’m advocating for incremental progress in the form of modest spending restraint.

Why? Because that’s the best that we can hope for at the moment.

Another example of common-sense libertarianism is my approach to tax reform. One of the reasons I prefer the flat tax over the national sales tax is that I don’t trust that politicians will get rid of the income tax if they decide to adopt the Fair Tax. And if the politicians suddenly have two big sources of tax revenue, you better believe they’ll want to increase the burden of government spending.

Which is what happened (and is still happening) in Europe when value-added taxes were adopted.

And that’s a good segue to today’s topic, which deals with a common-sense analysis of the value-added tax.

Here’s the issue: I’m getting increasingly antsy because some very sound people are expressing support for the VAT.

I don’t object to their theoretical analysis. They say they don’t want the VAT in order to finance bigger government. Instead, they argue the VAT should be used only to replace the corporate income tax, which is a far more destructive way of generating revenue.

And if that was the final – and permanent – outcome of the legislative process, I would accept that deal in a heartbeat. But notice I added the requirement about a “permanent” outcome. That’s because I have two requirements for such a deal.

1. The corporate income tax could never be re-instated.

2. The VAT could never be increased.

And this shows why theoretical analysis can be dangerous without real-world considerations. Simply stated, there is no way to guarantee those two requirements without amending the Constitution, and that obviously isn’t part of the discussion.

So my fear is that some good people will help implement a VAT, based on the theory that it will replace a worse form of taxation. But in the near future, when the dust settles, the bad people will somehow control the outcome and the VAT will be used to finance bigger government.

Here are examples to show why I am concerned.

Here’s some of what Tom Donlan wrote for Barron’s.

…the U.S. imposes the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world. Make no mistake, corporations pay no tax. That is a tax on American consumers, American workers, and American shareholders.  Don’t think that the corporate income tax eases your personal tax burden. Add your share of the corporate income tax to the other taxes you pay.  Better yet, create a business tax we can all understand. A value-added tax is a tax on consumption. We would pay it according to the amount of the economic resources we choose to enjoy, and we would not pay it when we choose to save and invest in making the economy bigger and more productive. We would pay it on imported goods as much as on those domestically produced. The makers of goods for export would receive a rebate on their value-added tax.  Trading the corporate income tax for the value-added tax is one of the best fiscal deals the U.S. could make.

I agree in theory.

America’s corporate tax system is a nightmare.

But I think giving Washington a new source of tax revenue is an even bigger nightmare.

Professor Greg Mankiw at Harvard, writing for the New York Times, also thinks a VAT is better than the corporate income tax.

…here’s a proposal: Let’s repeal the corporate income tax entirely, and scale back the personal income tax as well. We can replace them with a broad-based tax on consumption. The consumption tax could take the form of a value-added tax, which in other countries has proved to be a remarkably efficient way to raise government revenue.

Once again, I can’t argue with the theory.

But in reality, I simply don’t trust that politicians won’t reinstate the corporate tax. And I don’t trust that they’ll keep the VAT rate reasonable.

At this point, some of you may be thinking I’m needlessly worried. After all, journalists and academic economists aren’t the ones who enact laws.

I think that’s a mistaken attitude. You don’t have to be on Capitol Hill to have an impact on the debate.

Besides, there are elected officials who already are pushing for a value-added tax! Congressman Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, actually has a “Roadmap” plan that would replace the corporate income tax with a VAT, which is exactly what Donlan and Mankiw are proposing.

this plan does away with the corporate income tax, which discourages investment and job creation, distorts business activity, and puts American businesses at a competitive disadvantage against foreign competitors. In its place, the proposal establishes a simple and efficient business consumption tax [BCT].

At the risk of being repetitive, Paul Ryan’s plan to replace the corporate income tax with a VAT is theoretically very good. Moreover, the Roadmap not only has good tax reform, but it also includes genuine entitlement reform.

But I’m nonetheless very uneasy about the overall plan because of very practical concerns about the actions of future politicians.

In the absence of (impossible to achieve) changes to the Constitution, how do you ensure that the corporate income tax doesn’t get re-imposed and that the VAT doesn’t become a revenue machine for big government?

By the way, this susceptibility to the VAT is not limited to Tom Dolan, Greg Mankiw, and Paul Ryan. I’ve previously expressed discomfort about the pro-VAT sympathies of Kevin Williamson, Josh Barro, and Andrew Stuttaford.

And I’ve written that Mitch Daniels, Herman Cain, and Mitt Romney were not overly attractive presidential candidates because they’ve expressed openness to the VAT.

This video sums up why a value-added tax is wrong for America.

Last but not least, let me preemptively address those who will say that corporate tax reform is so important that we have to roll the dice and take a chance with the VAT.

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

Lower the corporate tax rate.

Replace depreciation with expensing.

Replace worldwide taxation with territorial taxation.

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

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

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

P.P.S. I also very much recommend what George Will wrote about the value-added tax.

P.P.P.S. I’m also quite amused that the IMF accidentally provided key evidence against the VAT.

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Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has unveiled the GOP’s latest budget plan.

Is this proposal deserving of applause or criticism? The answer is yes and yes, with a bit of emphasis on the former.

Let’s start with some depressing news. The Ryan budget has gotten weaker each year.

Three years ago, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 2.8 percent per year.

Two years ago, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 3.1 percent per year.

Last year, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 3.4 percent per year.

His latest budget continues this slide in the wrong direction. Here are the numbers from the new budget, showing that the burden of government spending will rise by an average of 3.5 percent annually over the next 10 years.

And this is during a time when inflation is projected to be about 2 percent per year!

Ryan FY2015 Budget

Since it would be foolish to ever expect perfection from the political process, let’s now look at the positive features of the Ryan budget.

1. Spending may be growing, but it would grow at a slower rate than the President’s proposed budget.

2. Spending may be growing, but it would grow at a slower rate than nominal economic output, thus satisfying Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

3. Perhaps most important, the budget contains genuine and structural reform of both Medicare and Medicaid, so it at least partially solves the long-run fiscal crisis.

4. The budget also foresees tax reform, including lower tax rates for households, a 25 percent corporate tax rate, and a move toward territorial taxation.

Now let’s close with some hard-to-judge news.

The tax reform would be “revenue neutral,” so it’s difficult to accurately assess the proposal without knowing the “revenue raisers” that would offset the “revenue losers” listed above (particularly since lawmakers would be bound by static scoring).

If lower tax rates are financed by getting rid of distortions such as the healthcare exclusion, the net effect is very positive.

But if lower tax rates are financed with increased double taxation (a major shortcoming of the Cong. Camp tax plan), then it’s unclear whether policy has improved.

One final comment. I’m disappointed that the House Budget Committee’s report approvingly cites Congressional Budget Office analysis to suggest that the Ryan budget would boost economic performance.

I think that’s a tactically and morally dubious approach. It’s tactically misguided because the Ryan budget supposedly hurts growth from 2015-2017 according to CBO’s short-term Keynesianism.

And it’s morally dubious because it’s wrong to use bad arguments to advance good policy. The supposed added growth beginning in 2018 is based on the assumption that interest rates are the significant determinant of economic growth – which is the same thinking displayed in the left-wing debt video I shared yesterday.

Paul Ryan and the House GOP can legitimately claim that the proposed budget is good for growth. But improved economic performance would be the result of a smaller burden of government spending and a potentially less destructive tax system. Those are the policies that free up labor and capital for the productive sector and boost incentives to utilize those resources efficiently.

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How Disappointing, but how predictable.

Politicians approved legislation in 2011 that was supposed to impose a modest bit of spending restraint over the next 10 years.

It wasn’t much. The enforcement mechanism, known as sequestration, merely was supposed to guarantee that spending climbed by $2.3 trillion rather than $2.4 trillion over the 10-year period.

But something is better than nothing, and the sequester that took place this year was a bitter defeat for President Obama and other advocates of bigger government.

And it also provided comic relief as the White House engaged in hysterical rhetoric in an attempt to scare people about sequestration.

But now there’s a deal to weaken the sequester and allow more government spending over the next two years. Hatched by Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Patty Murray, the Democrat Chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, the most important takeaway is that the agreement will increase spending caps by $63 billion over the next two years.

This chart shows what will happen.

Murray-Ryan Budget Deal

The second most important thing to understand is that the Murray-Ryan deal contains several tax hikes. But since politicians can’t resist prevaricating, these provisions are being referred to as “user fees” and “offsetting receipts.”

The most outrageous tax hike is the added levy on airline travel. Honest people call this an increase in the ticket tax. The folks in Washington call it an “Aviation security service fee.”

There’s also a tax hike on private pension plans, as well as additional taxes (oops, I mean “user fees”) on trade.

You also won’t be surprised to learn that the so-called spending cuts in the agreement are mostly fluff and gimmicks.

The Treasury Department and Justice Department have been told not to spend “unobligated balances” in their forfeiture funds, but that was money they presumably weren’t going to spend anyway.

States, meanwhile, have been told they have to pay part of the cost of managing mineral leases on federal lands within their borders. Maybe someone can explain to me why payments from state governments to Washington count as a budget cuts.

And the agreement also assumes that Washington will do a better job of policing fraud in areas such as unemployment insurance and illegal utilization of handouts by prisoners. Those would be positive developments, to be sure, but one has to wonder why they weren’t enforcing those laws already.

By the way, the aforementioned tax hikes and make-believe spending cuts are supposed to generate “savings” over 10 years that will “offset” the higher spending that will occur in 2014 and 2015.

Needless to say, it’s goes without saying that all the new spending will take place in 2014 and 2015. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for alleged savings that are supposed to take effect in the following years.

Simply stated, the ink won’t even be dry on this agreement before the lobbyists, politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups that control Washington start maneuvering to bust the spending caps and weaken the sequester next year. And the following year. And the year after that. And…well, you can fill in the blanks.

So what’s the bottom line?

Well, it’s clearly a big disappointment that Congressman Paul Ryan engineered this turkey of a deal rather than fighting for the sequester. Heck, this was the guy who put together very good entitlement reforms, yet now he’s helping Obama escape the sequester?

To be fair, folks on the Hill have told me that Ryan didn’t have much leverage because several Republicans indicated that they wouldn’t vote to comply with the sequester spending levels.

But if that’s the case, he should have at least forced a vote so the American people could see which GOP politicians are wobbly on the critical issue of restraining Leviathan.

To close on a somewhat optimistic note, it does appear that all the new spending is confined to 2014 and 2015. So if the spending caps are preserved for subsequent years, then it’s possible that the long-run trend line of government spending is unaffected.

That would be a good outcome. Not because the long-run trends are positive (if you look at the long-run data, we’re screwed), but because at least they wouldn’t have made a bad situation even worse.

If you want to damn the Murray-Ryan plan with faint praise, you could say it’s not nearly as bad as the read-my-lips deal of George H.W. Bush. That’s certainly true, but the sequester would be a much better outcome.

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