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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Reform’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s his proposal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s not to like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lower the corporate tax rate.

Replace depreciation with expensing.

Replace worldwide taxation with territorial taxation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like what Steve is saying.

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

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

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

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

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

Steve concurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Michael talking about?

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

But who cares what the law says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m not a fan of the IRS or it’s Commissioner, a partisan Democrat named John Koskinen. The agency has become politicized, interfering with America’s political process. Needless to say, I’m not shedding tears that the bureaucracy is no longer getting big budget increases.

By contrast, I oftentimes applaud Senator Ted Cruz. His shutdown fight against Obamacare was a net plus. He was one of the few 2016 candidates who took a strong stand against cronyism in Iowa. And he manages to retain a sense of humor in the fight against big government.

So it’s with considerable chagrin that I feel compelled to admit that IRS boss made a good point, at least from a technical perspective, when he criticized Senator Cruz on the topic of the flat tax.

Here’s the background. A story in Bloomberg quotes Senator Cruz about his goal for tax reform.

“Instead of a tax code that crushes innovation, that imposes burdens on families struggling to make ends meet, imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a post card. Imagine abolishing the IRS,” Cruz said.

Now here’s an excerpt from a Politico report about Mr. Koskinen’s response.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen poked holes in Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s plan to abolish the IRS and create a simple flat tax so taxpayers could file their taxes on a postcard. Koskinen pointed out that even if taxpayers were to file their taxes on “a small card,” someone would have to collect the money and make sure the numbers filled out are actually correct. “You can call [tax collectors] something else than the IRS if that makes you feel better, but basically someone has to follow through on all of that,” Koskinen told reporters today after a speech at the National Press Club.

Koskinen is right. So long as the federal government intends to extract more than $3 trillion from taxpayers, there will be a tax-collection agency. That’s true even if you have a flat tax or a national sales tax.

Sure, you can rename the IRS, or even require states to collect the revenue instead, but none of that changes the fact that some coercive body will exist to take our money.

That being said, Cruz’s overall point surely is correct. The IRS in a flat tax world would be largely de-fanged. Indeed, the Tax Foundation estimated several years ago that compliance costs would drop by more than 94 percent if we replaced the internal revenue code with a flat tax. And, as pointed out in this video, the tax code today is even more complex, so the savings now presumably would be even larger.

So Koskinen may be technically correct, but only because he is focusing the conversation on the narrow issue of whether government will still have a tax-enforcement body.

But Cruz is correct on the big-picture issue of whether the IRS as it exists today will no longer exist.

Since we’re on the topic of tax reform, Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart, both with the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, have a column in today’s Wall Street Journal that is somewhat critical of the Rubio-Lee tax reform plan.

The authors start by pointing out that the defining characteristic of supply-side economics is lower marginal tax rates on productive behavior (work, saving, investment, risk-taking, entrepreneurship).

Signaling opportunity throughout the tax code has long been the basis of the philosophy known as supply-side economics, or “Reaganomics.” Reaganomics treats even individual wage earners as entrepreneurs. The marginal rate to which a worker is subject under the progressive tax schedule is crucial. A higher rate on the next dollar a worker earns discourages him from working more. The highest tax bracket is especially important as top earners produce the most and innovate the most. …That top marginal rate also functions as a symbol of how society rewards enterprise.

Their unhappiness with Rubio-Lee is due to the fact that their proposal does not contain big rate reductions for labor income to match the very good rate reductions for business and investment income.

…on the personal side their proposal drops the top marginal rate on individual income by a puny 4.6 percentage points, to 35% from 39.6%. …What’s more, Rubio-Lee lowers tax thresholds drastically. Singles with taxable income as low as $75,000 find themselves entering the 35% top bracket; for couples the top rate applies after $150,000. Currently, individuals don’t hit the 35% bracket until $411,501, and the same holds for couples.

So why aren’t there big reductions in tax rates for households to match the very good reforms for businesses? The answer, at least in part, is that “Rubio-Lee also raises the child credit” and this consumes a lot of money, in effect crowding out lower marginal tax rates.

As a result, you get big economic benefits from the reforms to business taxation, but the child credits don’t have any impact on incentives to create wealth, expand jobs, or boost income.

The nonpartisan Tax Foundation recently estimated that Rubio-Lee would increase economic growth so that by 2025 the economy would be 15% larger than otherwise, almost entirely due to business tax cuts. The effect of the child credit on growth is reckoned at zero. 

But imagine if Rubio-Lee took their good tax reform plan and made it better by replacing the child credit with lower rates? And then made it even better by getting rid of additional tax preferences such as the healthcare exclusion?

Shlaes and Denhart quote me in their column as pointing out that if Rubio and Lee made their plan into something akin to the flat tax, the tax rate could be under 20 percent.

Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute notes that if Rubio-Lee dropped all the preferences it contains, old and new, the plan could drop its top income-tax rate to 20% or lower.

I confess that I don’t have up-to-date estimates to confirm my assertion, but the Clinton Treasury Department back in 1996 estimated that the flat tax rate in a revenue-neutral world would be 20.8 percent.

But since the Rubio-Lee plan is a very large tax cut, amounting to more than $4 trillion over 10 years, combining that amount of tax relief with the flat tax surely would allow the rate to be well below 20 percent.

By the way, none of this should be interpreted to suggest that Rubio-Lee is bad tax policy. It’s a huge improvement over the current system. As I wrote last month, it’s a very good tax reform plan. It is especially good about fixing some of the worst features of the current tax code, such as worldwide taxation, depreciation, and double taxation.

But that doesn’t mean it is as good as the flat tax, which does everything good in Rubio-Lee, but also has a low rate for households and fewer tax preferences.

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

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

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

That’s why the VAT is bad in reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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