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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Reform’

In the world of tax policy, there’s an intense debate about the “border-adjustable” provision that is part of the tax plan put forth by House Republicans, which basically would tax imports and exempt revenues generated by exports.

It’s a bit wonky, but the simplest explanation is that GOPers want to replace the current corporate income tax with a “destination-based cash flow tax” (DBCFT) that would – for all intents and purposes – tax what is consumed in the United States rather than what is produced in the United States.

I’m very sympathetic to what Republicans are trying to accomplish, particularly their desire to eliminate the tax bias against income that is saved and invested. But I greatly prefer the version of consumption-base taxation found in the flat tax.

My previous columns on the plan have highlighted the following concerns.

  • Left-leaning advocates like “destination-based” tax systems such as the DBCFT because such systems undermine tax competition and give politicians more ability to increase tax rates.
  • The “border adjustability” in the plan is contrary to the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and there’s a significant risk that politicians might try to “fix” the plan by turning it into a value-added tax.

Here’s what I said about the proposal in a recent interview for CNBC.

This provision is not in Trump’s plan, but I’ve been acting on the assumption that the soon-to-be President eventually would embrace the Better Way Plan simply because it presumably would appeal to his protectionist sentiments.

So I’m quite surprised that he’s just poured cold water on the plan. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

President-elect Donald Trump criticized a cornerstone of House Republicans’ corporate-tax plan… The measure, known as border adjustment, would tax imports and exempt exports as part of a broader plan to encourage companies to locate jobs and production in the U.S. But Mr. Trump, in his first comments on the subject, called it “too complicated.” “Anytime I hear border adjustment, I don’t love it,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Friday. …Retailers and oil refiners have lined up against the measure, warning it would drive up their tax bills and force them to raise prices because they rely so heavily on imported goods.

If we read between the lines, it appears that Trump may be more knowledgeable about policy than people think.

Proponents of the Better Way Plan sometimes use protectionist-sounding rhetoric to sell the plan (e.g., taxing imports, exempting exports), but they argue that it’s not really protectionist because the dollar will become more valuable.

But Trump apparently understands this nuance and doesn’t like that outcome.

Independent analyses of the Republican tax plan say it would lead the dollar to appreciate further—which would lower the cost of imported goods, offsetting the effects of the tax on retailers and others. In his interview with the Journal on Friday, Mr. Trump said the U.S. dollar was already “too strong” in part because China holds down its currency, the yuan. “Our companies can’t compete with them now because our currency is too strong. And it’s killing us.”

I don’t agree with Trump about trade deficits (which, after all, are mostly the result of foreigners wanting to invest in the American economy), but that’s a separate issue.

When I talk to policy makers and journalists about this issue, one of the most common questions is why the DBCFT would cause the dollar to rise.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Martin Feldstein addresses that topic.

…as every student of economics learns, a country’s trade deficit depends only on the difference between total investment in the country and the saving done by its households, businesses and government. This textbook rule that “imports minus exports equals investment minus savings” is not a theory or a statistical regularity but a basic national income accounting identity that holds for every country in every year. That holds because a rise in a country’s investment without an equal rise in saving means that it must import more or export less. Since a border tax adjustment wouldn’t change U.S. national saving or investment, it cannot change the size of the trade deficit. To preserve that original trade balance, the exchange rate of the dollar must adjust to bring the prices of U.S. imports and exports back to the values that would prevail without the border tax adjustment. With a 20% corporate tax rate, that means that the value of the dollar must rise by 25%.

This is a reasonable description, though keep in mind that there are lots of factors that drive exchange rates, so I understand why importers are very nervous about the proposal.

By the way, Feldstein makes one point that rubs me the wrong way.

The tax plan developed by the House Republicans is similar in many ways to President-elect Trump’s plan but has one additional favorable feature—a border tax adjustment that exempts exports and taxes imports. This would give the U.S. the benefit that other countries obtain from a value-added tax (VAT) but without imposing that extra levy on domestic transactions.

The first sentence of the excerpt is correct, but not the second one. A value-added tax does not give nations any sort of trade benefit. Yes, that kind of tax generally is “border adjustable” under WTO rules, but as I’ve previously noted, that doesn’t give foreign production an advantage over American production.

Here’s some of what I wrote about this issue last year.

For mercantilists worried about trade deficits, “border adjustability” is seen as a positive feature. But not only are they wrong on trade, they do not understand how a VAT works. …Under current law, American goods sold in America do not pay a VAT, but neither do German-produced goods that are sold in America. Likewise, any American-produced goods sold in Germany are hit be a VAT, but so are German-produced goods. In other words, there is a level playing field. The only difference is that German politicians seize a greater share of people’s income. So what happens if America adopts a VAT? The German government continues to tax American-produced goods in Germany, just as it taxes German-produced goods sold in Germany. …In the United States, there is a similar story. There is now a tax on imports, including imports from Germany. But there is an identical tax on domestically-produced goods. And since the playing field remains level, protectionists will be disappointed. The only winners will be politicians since they have more money to spend.

If you want more information, I also discuss the trade impact of a VAT in this video.

For what it’s worth, even Paul Krugman agrees with me on this point.

P.S. It is a good idea to have a “consumption-base” tax (which is a public finance term for a system that doesn’t disproportionately penalize income that is saved and invested). But it’s important to understand that border adjustability is not necessary to achieve that goal. The flat tax is the gold standard of tax reform and it also is a consumption-based tax. The difference is that the flat tax is an “origin-based” tax and the House plan is a “destination-based” tax.

P.P.S. Speaking of which, proponents of the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act are using a destination-based scheme in hopes of creating a nationwide sales tax cartel so that states with high rates can make it much harder for consumers to buy goods and services where tax rates are lower.

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I 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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Since yesterday’s column was a look back on the good and bad things of 2016, let’s now look forward and speculate about the good and bad things that may happen in 2017.

I’m not pretending any of this is a forecast, particularly since economists have a miserable track record in that regard. Instead, the following lists are simply things I hope may happen or fear may happen.

We’ll start with the things I want.

  • Reform of healthcare entitlements – Republicans in 2017 will control Congress and the White House, so they’ll have the power to fix our broken entitlement system and dramatically improve America’s long-run outlook. And since the House and Senate GOPers have voted for budgets that presume much-need structural changes to Medicare and Medicaid, that bodes well for reform. The wild card is Donald Trump. He said some rather irresponsible things about entitlements during the campaign, which suggests he will leave policy on autopilot (which is not a good idea when we’re heading for a fiscal iceberg). On the other hand, politicians oftentimes disregard their campaign commitments (remember Obama and “you can keep your doctor“?), especially when they get in power and finally take a hard look at budget numbers. Perhaps the most optimistic sign is that Trump has appointed Budget Committee Chairman Congressman Tom Price to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and Congressman Mick Mulvaney to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget.  I very much hope Trump seriously addresses the health entitlements.
  • A lower corporate tax rate, “expensing,” and repeal of the death tax – During the campaign, Trump proposed a very large tax cut. With Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, some sort of significant tax cut should be feasible. It’s highly unlikely that Trump will get everything he wants, but the three items at the top of my wish list are lowering the corporate tax rate, ending the tax code’s bias against new investment by replacing punitive “depreciation” rules with “expensing,” and repeal of the death tax. Those reforms would have the strongest impact on long-run growth. And the icing on the cake would be a repeal of the state and local tax deduction, which subsidizes high-tax states such as California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey (I’d also like to see repeal of the healthcare exclusion, but I’m focusing on things that might actually happen in 2017 rather than what’s on my fantasy list).
  • Regulatory reform – The tentacles of the regulatory octopus are stifling the American economy. There’s no single fix for this problem. The overall system for approving regulations should be changed (I will write on the “REINS Act” in a few days), but that’s a partial solution for future red tape. To deal with the existing burden of red tape, a different set of answers will be necessary, including sensible political appointees so that bureaucrats will have a harder time pushing for regulations that are needlessly expensive and misguided and instead will be charged with undoing existing red tape. In some cases (Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, etc), it will be necessary to change current law in order to roll back regulatory excess.
  • Italian default – I’m not hoping for Italy to face a fiscal crisis, but it almost certainly will happen in the near future. The nation’s demographic decline, combined with its bloated welfare state, are a horrible recipe. And while it’s theoretically possible to avert a mess by capping spending and fixing programs (just as it is still possible to fix the mess in Greece), I don’t think good policy is very likely. So Italy will soon face a fiscal crisis and the real question is whether there’s a good response. Ideally, if this happens in 2017, Italy will be allowed to default (presumably because Trump’s representative at the International Monetary Fund vetoes any sort of bailout). This will mean, a) the people and institutions who were silly enough to lend money to a profligate government will suffer losses, making them more prudent in the future, b) Italy will lose the ability to borrow more money, putting an end to additional red ink, c) Italian politicians will be forced to immediately balance the government’s budget, which hopefully means genuine budget cuts, and d) the Italian people will (hopefully) realize that a system based on looting and mooching can no longer be maintained.

Now here’s a list of things I’m afraid may happen.

  • Punting on entitlement Reform – As noted above, the wild card for any sort of genuine entitlement reform is Donald Trump. If he decides to to be President Santa Claus by appeasing various interest groups (like the previous GOPer in the White House), then reform will be dead. Simply stated, House and Senate Republicans will not push good changes without support from the White House. But that’s only a partial worst-case scenario. Trump may choose to be like the previous Republican President and actually expand entitlements (perhaps by borrowing a page from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook and expanding Social Security). If Trump decides to punt (or, gulp, make things worse), that has very grim implications. Reform will be dead for at least eight years (either because Trump gets reelected or because he’s replaced by a Democrat who also opposes reform) and the longer we wait to address the problem, the harder it will be to save America from a Greek fiscal future.
  • A “Poison Pill” in tax reform – While there is a great opportunity to fix some of the biggest warts in the internal revenue code, I worry that lawmakers will include some bad revenue raisers to help “pay for” the good provisions. I don’t think there’s any danger (at least for 2017) of a value-added tax, but the plan from House Republicans includes a “border adjustable”/”destination based” tax on imports (known as a DBCFT) that is not only protectionist, but could eventually morph into a VAT. A smaller tax cut without a DBCFT would be better than a bigger tax cut with a DBCFT.
  • An infrastructure boondoggle – It appears that some sort of infrastructure plan will be approved in 2017. I wrote last year to suggest three guidelines for the incoming Trump Administration on this issue, but I fear that this initiative will become a typical DC feeding frenzy. Lots of spending with no accountability.
  • Italian bailout – If the inevitable Italian fiscal crisis occurs in 2017, the worst possible outcome would be a Greek-style bailout. That approach has several undesirable implications. It will a) exacerbate moral hazard by rewarding the investors who bought Italian bonds, b) it will enable Italian politicians to incur more debt, and c) it will enable the Italian people to continue thinking that big government is good because someone else is paying for it. To be sure, because there’s so much more debt involved, bailing out Italy will be much harder than bailing out Greece. But so long as the corrupt and venal IMF plays a role, it’s always prudent to assume the worst policy will be imposed.

I hope all readers have a happy new year. And I hope. for the sake of America and the rest of the world, that the first half of today’s column is more accurate than the second half.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She explains why the current approach is arbitrary and unfair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how can this work?

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

This makes sense.

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

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

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

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

What would they do? What should they do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If nothing else, Belgian politicians deserve credit for perseverance. One year ago, the nation was considering a “tax shift” that would reduce taxes on labor and increase taxes on consumption.

I pointed out that this didn’t make much sense since it wouldn’t alter the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. In other words, the government might not take as much when you earned your income, but it would compensate by taking more when you consumed your income, so there would be no improvement in your living standards and therefore no incentive to be more productive and earn more money.

Now the government in Belgium is considering a different “tax shift.” Here are some excerpts from a report in the Financial Times.

The Belgian government is rolling out a “tax shift” policy that Charles Michel, the country’s 40 year-old prime minister, says is aimed…to support people on low to medium incomes by reducing the taxes and social security charges on labour — some of the highest in Europe — and to make up the shortfall by boosting taxes on capital.

I’m underwhelmed by this approach.

Though let’s start with what’s good. The government should be lowering taxes on work. As the article notes, employees in Belgium are treated worse than medieval serfs, who only had to surrender one-third of their output to the Lord of the Manor.

…according to 2015 OECD data, is that an unmarried Belgian worker without children faced the highest “tax wedge” as a proportion of income of any citizen in the 35-country club. It stood at 55.3 per cent, compared with an average of 35.9 per cent. The burden results from a combination of high social security charges and a 50 per cent tax rate kicking in at a relatively low level — around €38,000.

Here’s one of the charts from the article. As you can see, greedy politicians get the lion’s share of the money when a Belgian worker chooses to earn income.

At the risk of understatement, the overall tax burden in Belgium is stifling.

Here’s another chart, this one showing how long European workers must toil before satisfying the tax demands of their governments.

I don’t know if the methodology is similar to the Tax Freedom Day calculations for the United States, and it’s unclear whether this is just a measure of the tax burden on labor income, or whether it also captures other taxes that workers pay (corporate income tax, value-added tax, excise taxes, etc). But it’s clear than Belgian workers have a terrible system.

Now for the bad news. Belgian politicians want to cut taxes on workers, but they say they want to compensate by imposing higher taxes on saving and investment.

That’s not a good idea since the productivity – and therefore compensation – of workers is very much linked to the amount of machinery, tools, and technology that’s available. So when politicians increase the tax burden on saving and investment, that reduces an economy’s stock of capital, and workers wind up with less pre-tax income than they would have earned otherwise.

Let’s see what Belgium’s government is trying to achieve. Here’s another blurb from the article.

Some changes, including a new financial speculation tax, were driven through last year and there are more to come. One of Mr Michel’s coalition partners, the Flemish Christian Democrats, is even pushing for a French-style wealth tax. …The speculation tax is estimated to bring in only about €20m this year, considerably less than the €34m initially predicted by the government. Also, there is little support for a more comprehensive inheritance tax. To Michel Maus, a tax law professor at Brussels Free University, the government’s efforts so far to increase taxation of capital amount to “window dressing” and “a bit political propaganda”.

I suppose the relative dearth of specific tax hikes on saving and investment is the good news inside the bad news.

Indeed, while the government did impose a tax on “speculation” (and discovered a Laffer Curve-effect when revenues came in below projections), there actually are some proposals to reduce the tax burden on saving and investment. For instance, the government has announced a move to lower the nation’s 33.99 percent corporate tax rate.

Under Minister Van Overtveldt’s current plan, the corporate tax rate would be reduced to 28% in 2017, 24% in 2018 and 20% in 2020, and would ultimately apply to companies of all sizes. At 20%, Belgium’s corporate tax rate would fall just below the EU average and would place the country in a more competitive – but not a leading – position within its peer group. …In addition, the Finance Minister is considering abolishing the Fairness Tax as well as the minimum tax on capital gains on shares, as advocated by the Chamber. The plan also includes a full tax deduction on qualifying dividends received from subsidiaries, as is the case in the Netherlands and Luxembourg, in lieu of the current deduction of 95%.

There are some offsetting tax hikes in this new plan, so this proposal presumably isn’t as good as it sounds, but it’s hard to argue with an initiative that drops the corporate rate by almost 14 percentage points.

So while I don’t like the theoretical concept of a tax shift from labor to capital, the net effect of all the tax changes in Belgium may be positive for the simple reason that the anti-growth part of the shift isn’t happening.

But regardless of what eventually happens, it is unlikely that Belgium will make much long-run progress because the country is burdened by one of the largest public sectors in the world.

Here some data from the OECD on the burden of government spending in Western Europe (and the United States). As you can see, Belgium isn’t as bad as France, but it’s worse than Greece, Sweden, and Italy.

The bottom line is that you can’t have a non-punitive tax system when government is consuming half of what the private sector produces.

So I think I’m semi-happy with what Belgian politicians are doing in the short run (reserving the right to change my mind as more details are unveiled), but I don’t have much long-term hope in the absence of effective reforms to shrink the burden of government spending.

But hope springs eternal. Maybe the government will adopt a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.S. Here’s a story that tells you everything you need to know about Belgium’s bloated public sector.

P.P.S. And if you look at America’s long-run fiscal projections, the problems in Belgium today will be problems in the United States in the not-too-distant future.

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