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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Reform’

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 So if those provisions are repealed and all the money is used to finance lower tax rates and less double taxation, we’ll have a tax system that is much less punitive.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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I’ve been advocating for good tax reform for more than two decades, specifically agitating for a simple and fair flat tax.

I get excited when politicians make bold proposals, such as many of the plans GOP presidential candidates proposed over the past year or so.

But sometimes I wind up feeling deflated when there’s a lot of discussion about tax reform and the final result is a milquetoast plan that simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic. For instance, back in 2014, the then-Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled a proposal that – at best – was underwhelming. Shifts in the right direction in some parts of the plan were largely offset by shifts in the wrong direction in other parts of the plan. What really doomed the plan was a political decision that the tax code had to raise just as much money (on a static basis) as the current system and that there couldn’t be any reduction in the amount of class warfare embedded in the current system (i.e., the “distribution” of the tax burden couldn’t change).

Well, we have some good news. Led by the new Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Kevin Brady, House Republicans have unveiled a new plan that it far, far better. Instead of being hemmed in by self-imposed constraints of static revenue and distributional neutrality, their two guidelines were dynamic revenue neutrality and no tax increase for any income group.

With those far more sensible constraints, they were able to put together a plan that was almost entirely positive. Let’s look at the key features, keeping in mind these theoretical principles that should guide tax reform.

  1. The lowest possible tax rate – High tax rates on work and entrepreneurship make no sense if the goal is faster growth and more competitiveness.
  2. No double taxation – It is foolish to penalize capital formation (and thereby wages) by imposing extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.
  3. No loopholes or special preferences – The tax code shouldn’t be riddled with corrupt deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits, and other goodies.

What’s Great

Here are the features that send a tingle up my leg (apologies to Chris Matthews).

No value-added tax – One worrisome development is that Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz included value-added taxes in their otherwise good tax plans. This was a horrible mistake. A value-added tax may be fine in theory, but giving politicians another source of revenue without permanently abolishing the income tax would be a tragic mistake. So when I heard that House Republicans were putting together a tax plan, I understandably was worried about the possibility of a similar mistake. I can now put my mind at rest. There’s no VAT in the plan.

Death tax repeal – Perhaps the most pure (and therefore destructive) form of double taxation is the death tax, which also is immoral since it imposes another layer of tax simply because someone dies. This egregious tax is fully repealed.

No state and local tax deduction – If it’s wrong to subsidize particular activities with special tax breaks, it’s criminally insane to use the tax code to encourage higher tax rates in states such as New York and California. So it’s excellent news that House GOPers are getting rid of the deduction for state and local taxes.

No tax bias against new investment – Another very foolish provision of the tax code is depreciation, which forces companies to pretend some of their current investment costs take place in the future. This misguided approach is replaced with expensing, which allows companies to deduct investments when they occur.

What’s Really Good

Here are the features that give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

A 20 percent corporate tax rate – America’s corporate tax system arguably is the worst in the developed world, with a very high rate and onerous rules that make it difficult to compete in world markets. A 20 percent rate is a significant step in the right direction.

A 25 percent small business tax rate – Most businesses are not traditional corporations. Instead, they file using the individual portion of the tax code (using forms such as “Schedule C”). Lowering the tax rate on business income to 25 percent will help these Subchapter-S corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships.

Territorial taxation – For a wide range of reasons, including sovereignty, simplicity, and competitiveness, nations should only tax economic activity within their borders. The House GOP plan does that for business income, but apparently does not extend that proper treatment to individual capital income or individual labor income.

By shifting to this more sensibly designed system of business taxation, the Republican plan will eliminate any incentive for corporate inversions and make America a much more attractive place for multinational firms.

What’s Decent but Uninspiring

Here are the features that I like but don’t go far enough.

Slight reduction in top tax rate on work and entrepreneurship – The top tax rate is reduced to 33 percent. That’s better than the current top rate of 39.6 percent, but still significantly higher than the 28 percent top rate when Reagan left office.

Less double taxation of savings – The plan provides a 50-percent exclusion for individual capital income, which basically means that there’s double taxation of interest, dividends, and capital gains, but at only half the normal rate of tax. There’s also some expansion of tax-neutral savings accounts, which would allow some saving and investment fully protected from double taxation.

Simplification – House GOPers assert that all their proposed reforms, if enacted, would create a much simpler tax system. It wouldn’t result in a pure Hall-Rabushka-style flat tax, with a 10-line postcard for a tax return, but it would be very close. Here’s their tax return with 14 lines.

In an ideal world, there should be no double taxation of income that is saved and invested, so line 2 could disappear (in Hall-Rabushka flat tax, investment income/capital income is taxed once and only once at the business level). All savings receives back-ended IRA (Roth IRA) treatment in a pure flat tax, so there’s no need for line 3. There is a family-based allowance in a flat tax, which is akin to lines 4 and 9, but there are no deductions, so line 5 and line 6 could disappear. Likewise, there would be no redistribution laundered through the tax code, so line 10 would vanish. As would line 11 since there are no special preferences for higher education.

But I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good. The postcard shown above may have four more lines than I would like, but it’s obviously far better than the current system.

What’s Bad but acceptable

Increase in the double taxation of interest – Under current law, companies can deduct the interest they pay and recipients of interest income must pay tax on those funds. This actually is correct treatment, particularly when compared to dividends, which are not deductible to companies (meaning they pay tax on those funds) while also being taxable for recipients. The House GOP plan gets rid of the deduction for interest paid. Combined with the 50 percent exclusion for individual capital income, that basically means the income is getting taxed 1-1/2 times. But that rule would apply equally for shareholders and bondholders, so that pro-debt bias in the tax code would be eliminated. And the revenue generated by disallowing any deduction for interest would be used for pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate.

What’s Troublesome

No tax on income generated by exports and no deduction for cost of imported inputs for companies – The House GOP proposal is designed to be “border adjustable,” which basically means the goal is to have no tax on exports while levying taxes on imports. I’ve never understood why politicians think it’s a good idea to have higher taxes on what Americans consume and lower taxes on what foreigners consume. Moreover, border adjustability normally is a feature of a “destination-based” value-added tax (which, thankfully, is not part of the GOP plan), so it’s not completely clear how the tax-on-imports  portion would be achieved. If I understand correctly, there would be no deduction for the cost of foreign purchases by American firms. That’s borderline protectionist, if not over-the-line protectionist. And it’s unclear whether this approach would pass muster with the World Trade Organization.

To conclude, the GOP plan isn’t perfect, but it’s very good considering the self-imposed boundaries of dynamic revenue neutrality and favorable outcomes for all income groups.

And since those self-imposed constraints make the plan politically viable (unlike, say, the Trump plan, which is a huge tax cut but unrealistic in the absence of concomitant savings from the spending side of the budget), it’s actually possible to envision it becoming law.

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What’s the worst loophole (properly defined) in the cluttered internal revenue code?

I think the deduction for state and local taxes is very bad policy since it enables higher tax burdens in states such as California, New Jersey, and Illinois. The exemption for municipal bond interest is another misguided provision since it makes it easier for states to finance spending with debt.

Special favors in the tax code for ethanol also deserve scorn and disdain, and I’m also not a fan of the charitable deduction or the ways in which housing gets preferential treatment.

But if I had to pick just one tax preference to repeal, it would be the so-called healthcare exclusion. This is the policy that enables employers to deduct the cost of health insurance policies they buy for their employees.

You may think that deduction is reasonable. After all, employers also can deduct the wages and salaries they pay their employees. But here’s the catch. Employees pay tax on their wages and salaries, but they don’t have to pay tax on the value of their health insurance, even though such policies obviously are a form of compensation.

Moreover, since this type of compensation is shielded from both income taxes and payroll taxes, the playing field is therefore very tilted, which generates some very perverse results.

First, some background. As part of a broader analysis of the non-taxation of fringe benefits, Scott Greenberg of the Tax Foundation explains how government has created a big incentive to take income in the form of fringe benefits rather than wages and salaries.

…eighty years ago, it was relatively uncommon to offer workers compensation other than their regular wages and salaries. In 1929, only 1.9 percent of employee pay took the form of fringe benefits. By 2014, fringe benefits had risen to 19.2 percent of worker compensation.

Here’s a chart looking at the historical data.

Greenberg says this distortion in the tax code is unfair.

…the growing trend of unreported fringe benefits is “inequitable and inefficient.” This claim is spot on. For an illustration, imagine two employees, one of whom makes a salary of $100,000, and one of whom makes a salary of $80,000 and benefits worth $20,000, which largely go unreported. Although both workers receive the same overall compensation, the first employee is subject to a significantly higher tax burden than the second, which seems plainly unfair.

Moreover, the distortion lures people into making economically foolish choices.

Furthermore, this arrangement incentivizes companies to shift more compensation towards benefits, to help employees avoid taxes. This leads to an inefficient allocation of resources, towards services that employers might not have been willing to pay for in the absence of tax incentives.

He’s correct

Writing for the Weekly Standards, Ike Brannon looks specifically at the biggest tax-free fringe benefit.

…allowing employers to provide health insurance tax-free to their workers is terrible policy, a truism that any honest economist—whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise—would agree with. …First, workers end up with more health insurance than they would ever purchase on their own (since tax-free health insurance is worth more than income that’s taxed at 30%-50%), which gives people less take-home pay to spend as they see fit. Second, more generous health insurance entails lower co-pays as well as other provisions that insulate the worker from the actual cost of their health care. As a result, people become less sensitive to prices when seeking health care, and they consume more of it—most of which does nothing to improve health outcomes, numerous studies have shown.

For further details on this unfortunate tax preference, A. Barton Hinkle looks at the evolution of the health exclusion in a column for Reason.

…the original sin of the American health-care marketplace…was committed back in World War 2, when inflation led workers to demand higher wages – which many employers could not afford to pay because of price controls. …With wages frozen, employers needed another way to compete for labor made scarce by the draft. So some began offering health coverage. The practice took root, spread, and outlasted the war. In 1949 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that health benefits counted as wages for the purpose of union negotiations. Five years later, the IRS ruled that health coverage was not taxable income. The result was a double incentive for employers to offer fatter health benefits in lieu of fatter paychecks. …The result: a skyrocketing, ultimately unsustainable increase in national outlays for health care. …In short, for decades the federal government has encouraged employers to provide gold-plated health-care plans.

Joe Antos of the American Enterprise Institute explains how the “healthcare exclusion” is bad fiscal policy, bad health policy, and bad economic policy.

If we hope to move to an efficient healthcare system that is fair to everyone, Congress will have to take on the largest subsidy in the tax code. …Premiums paid for employment-based health insurance are excluded from federal income and payroll taxes.

When describing provisions that allow people to keep more of their own money, I would prefer to say largest distortion rather than largest subsidy, but I realize I’m being pedantic. Regardless of word choice, the net effect of this preference is negative.

The tax exclusion…fuels the rapid growth of health spending, contributes to stagnating wage growth, and disadvantages low-wage workers. Because there is no limit on how much can be excluded from taxes, workers are encouraged to buy more expensive coverage than they would otherwise…makes consumers less sensitive to prices and promotes the use of medical services, including services that may not provide much value to the patient.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the problems associated with the exclusion.

The exclusion has caused a shift in compensation from taxable cash wages to greater health benefits which are not taxed. Between 1999 and 2015, the average employer contribution for family coverage nearly tripled while wage rates increased by only about half.

By the way, our leftists friends should oppose the exclusion for class-warfare reasons.

…workers in higher tax brackets benefit the most from the exclusion. The Joint Committee on Taxation found that the average savings for tax filers with incomes less than $30,000 was about $1,650 compared to about $4,580 for those with incomes over $200,000.

To deal with these negative effects, Antos proposes a modified version of the “Cadillac tax” from Obamacare combined with tax credits for consumers who purchase their own health insurance.

That’s better than the status quo, but the ideal solution is a flat tax, which would eliminate the deduction provided to employers for compensation in the form of fringe benefits.

In their book on tax reform, Professors Hall and Rabushka explain the obvious beneficial consequence of a level playing field for all forms of compensation.

The flat tax eliminates the distortion toward fringe benefits created by the fact that employers can deduct them, thereby receiving a subsidy that can be passed on to their employees. The best alternative, and one we expect your employer to select, is to offer you higher pay in exchange for lower fringes. You can then use the extra cash to buy whatever combination of benefits you desire.

This will make the healthcare marketplace much more efficient.

Here’s what I wrote about the healthcare exclusion way back in 2009, as part of a column on government-created inefficiency in the health sector.

…social engineering in the tax code created this mess. Specifically, most of us get some of our compensation in the form of health insurance policies from our employers. And because that type of income is exempt from taxation, this encourages so-called Cadillac health plans.  …our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues discussed above, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans. …this messed-up approach causes inefficiency and higher costs. We consumers don’t feel any need to be careful shoppers since we perceive that our health care is being paid by someone else. Should we be surprised, then, that normal market forces don’t seem to be working? (though it is worth noting that costs keep falling and quality keeps rising in the few areas – such as laser-eye surgery and cosmetic surgery – that are not covered by insurance) Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

By the way, to make sure politicians don’t get a windfall of new revenue, the healthcare exclusion should only be repealed as part of a reform that also lowers tax rates.

Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that highlights how the healthcare exclusion is a major cause of the third-party payer problem.

And if you like videos, I strongly recommend this Reason TV explanation of how simple and affordable healthcare can be in the absence of government-created third-party payer.

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My opinion on taxing corporate income varies with my mood.

When I’m in a fiery-libertarian phase, I want to abolish taxes on corporate income for the simple reason that all income taxes should be eliminated. Heck, I would also eliminate October 3 from the calendar because that’s the awful day in 1913 that the income tax was signed into low.

But when I’m going through a pragmatic-libertarian phase, I grudgingly accept that my fantasies won’t be realized and focus on incremental reform. And that means I want a simple and fair system like the flat tax, which is based on the principle that all income should be taxed, but only one time and at one low rate.

And that means corporate income should be taxed.

That being said, while it may be appropriate to tax corporate income, that does not mean the U.S. corporate income tax is ideal.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that all of these problems can be solved with a flat tax, which would rip of the current corporate income tax and replace it with a very simple, low-rate system that properly measures income (i.e., expensing and territorial taxation) and taxes it only one time (i.e., no double taxation).

By the way, corporate income can be taxed without a corporate income tax. Simply tax the income when it is distributed to shareholders (the people who own the company) instead of taxing it at the business level. The goal, of course, is to make sure it no longer gets taxed twice.

A good business tax system isn’t a fantasy. Jurisdictions such as Estonia and Hong Kong have business tax systems that are very close to the aforementioned ideal. And it goes without saying that jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands. are even better since they fulfill my dream of no income tax whatsoever.

With this background on good business tax policy, let’s now look at some contentious issues and see how they should be addressed.

We’ll start with the kerfuffle over companies that don’t pay tax, a controversy that was triggered by a somewhat disingenuous report from the Government Accountability Office.

One of the takeaway headlines from the GAO report is the supposedly startling revelation that 70 percent of corporations paid no tax.

But Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute explained the real story, which is that they didn’t pay tax because they didn’t have profits.

In 2012, out of 1.6 million corporate tax returns, only 51% were returns that had positive “net incomes,” and only 32% were returns that had positive “incomes subject to tax.” …“income subject to tax” allows companies with positive “net incomes” to claim an additional deduction as a result of prior-year operating losses. These losses can be carried forward to offset taxable incomes in years when firms are making a profit or have positive net incomes; this is known as a net operating loss deduction (NOLD). For 2012, the data show that approximately 20% of companies with positive “net incomes” (or profits) claimed a net operating loss deduction resulting in a zero tax liability.

There’s a bit of jargon in that passage, but the main thing to understand is that companies get to use losses from one year to offset profits from another year, which means – for all intents and purposes – that the government’s definition of taxable income does a better job of measuring profits over a longer period of time.

Here are some more details.

…the data shows two things: first, the GAO claim that 70% of companies paid no income tax is largely because more than 50% of these companies had zero profits or net incomes, and therefore they had zero tax liability. Secondly, some of these currently “profitable” (positive net income) companies have experienced large losses in prior years. For these companies, the NOL deduction allowed them to reduce their tax liability to zero. …The intent of this provision is, for example, to avoid a company with 5 years of consecutive operating losses of $20 million each having to pay income tax in year 6 simply because it realizes income of $20 million in that year. The principle underlying NOLD is intended to allow companies to get out of the hole of accumulated losses before the government can start claiming…the company’s income.

Her conclusion is completely sensible and appropriate.

…the GAO clearly acknowledges that the reason 70% of companies are paying no taxes is because they are either not currently profitable or they are able to offset taxes because of prior-year losses.

The Tax Foundation also has weighed in on this issue.

…the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on corporate income taxes, which found that 19.5 percent of “profitable large corporations” paid zero corporate income taxes in 2012. …Should you be…outraged…about the number of U.S. corporations that pay no corporate income tax? In fact, there is good reason to think that many of the corporations that the GAO identifies as “profitable” did not actually earn a profit. In such cases, it would have been a mistake to collect corporate income taxes from these companies.

Echoing the explanation from Ms. Mathur, the Tax Foundations makes the same point about current year profits being offset by prior years’ losses, but also add a few additional reasons why “profitable” companies aren’t paying tax.

…some of the corporations that were categorized as “profitable” by the GAO in 2012 did not actually earn positive profits in the United States. …To the extent that some of the “profitable” corporations in the GAO report earned only foreign profits, rather than domestic profits, it is entirely reasonable that these corporations should not be subject to any U.S. corporate tax burden.

Particularly since they already are paying lots of tax on their foreign-source income to foreign governments.

There’s also the issue of depreciation, which journalists always have a hard time understanding.

…when calculating a corporation’s economic profit, it is appropriate to treat the entire cost of an investment as a current year expense. …imagine a corporation with $1 million in operating profits and $2 million in investment costs. Depending on how much of the investment the corporation treats as a current-year expense, the corporation could be making a large profit, no profit, or negative profit.

The bottom line is that you have look closely at how government defines “profit” to correctly ascertain whether companies are somehow avoiding taxation.

And in most cases, you’ll discover that the firms that don’t pay tax are the ones that don’t actually have income, properly defined.

…some U.S. corporations with positive book income might have negative taxable income: not because of any tricks or loopholes, but simply because the tax code operates under different accounting rules. …there are real, legitimate reasons why a “profitable” corporation would not and should not be required to pay corporate income taxes in a given year.

Now let’s return to the issue of double taxation, which occurs when income is taxed at the business level and then a second time when distributed as dividends to shareholders.

The Tax Foundation nicely summarize the issues in a new study, including some much-deserved focus on how this creates a bias for debt.

…income that is earned by corporations and funded by equity (stocks) is subject to a double tax: once on the corporate level, when it is earned, and once on the shareholder level, when it is distributed as dividends. The double taxation of equity-financed corporate income leads to several major economic distortions. It encourages investors to shift their investments from corporate to non-corporate businesses, leading to a less efficient allocation of capital. Furthermore, it incentivizes corporations to fund their operations with debt, rather than equity, leading to excessive leverage.

The solution, needless to say, is something called “corporate integration,” which is simply a wonky way of saying that income should be taxed only one time.

Corporate integration refers to a set of proposals to standardize the taxation of business income across legal forms and methods of financing. The chief advantage of corporate integration is that it would end the double taxation of equity-financed corporate income… The principle of tax neutrality – that a tax system should neither encourage nor discourage specific economic decisions – is embraced by public policy scholars throughout the political spectrum. Corporate integration – taxing all business income at the same top rate, regardless of the legal form of the business or how the income was financed – would minimize the economic distortions created by the U.S. tax code and conform to the principle of neutrality.

Here’s a chart showing how neutrality is violated by double taxing income that is generated by equity. Once again, there’s a bit of jargon, but the main thing to understand is that companies deduct interest payments they make to bondholders, so there’s a tax at the household level but no tax at the business level. But they can’t deduct dividend payments, which effectively means the company is taxed on that money in addition to the household paying tax as well.

The Tax Foundation helpfully suggests how this inequity could be resolved. Allow companies to deduct dividend payments, just as they now deduct interest payments.

Perhaps the simplest way to integrate the corporate and individual tax codes would be to tax dividends received by individuals at ordinary income rates and allow corporations to deduct all of their dividends paid.

Incidentally, this would basically mean that there’s no longer a corporate income tax, though (as discussed above) all corporate income would still be taxed (at the household level).

Let’s close by looking at two pieces of legislation and applying the lessons we’ve learned.

Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA) has legislation that would address many of the problems outlined above. Here’s how the Tax Foundation describes his plan.

Major elements of his plan are: Cutting the corporate income tax to 25 percent; Limiting the top tax rate on non-corporate business income to 25 percent; Allowing businesses to deduct investment costs when they occur (full expensing); Eliminating most business tax credits and many deductions; Moving to a territorial tax system like most developed nations; …Applying the same tax-rate limitation to individuals’ interest income as now applies to their capital gains and dividend income; and Eliminating the individual and corporate alternative minimum taxes (AMTs).

Wow, that’s fixing many of the problems outlined above.

But here’s the catch. To make the numbers add up, he gets rid of the bias for debt. But he does it by adding a second layer of taxation to interest income rather than abolishing the second layer of tax on dividend income.

The Nunes plan would not let nonfinancial businesses deduct interest payments, but would not tax them on interest receipts. It would generally not allow individuals to deduct interest payments, except that home mortgage interest would remain deductible, and it would apply the same tax-rate limitation to individuals’ interest income as to dividends (top rate of 20 percent). These changes would have a mixed effect on tax biases. On the one hand, they would lessen the tax distortion at the corporate level between debt and equity financing. Because debt is riskier than equity (debt payments are legally required regardless of business cash flow), corporate businesses would be better able to weather economic adversity if the tax system did not push them so strongly toward debt financing. On the other hand, the changes would mean that corporate returns financed through debt would be taxed at both the corporate and individual levels, as is now the case with corporate equity.

For what it’s worth, the Tax Foundation projects that Cong. Nunes’ plan would be very beneficial to growth and job creation, so the benefits of the good reforms are much larger than the harm associated with extending double taxation to interest payments.

That sounds right to me, particularly when you include the fact that companies will make sounder decisions once there’s no longer a bias for debt.

Last but not least, let’s review some recent legislation from Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN).

Here’s what Americans for Tax Reform wrote about his proposal.

Currently, the U.S. corporate rate is the highest amongst the 34 country Organisation for Economic Development (OECD). At 39 percent, it far exceeds the OECD average rate of 25 percent, and is even further behind developed countries like Ireland, Canada, and the U.K. which have rates of 20 percent or less. The CREATE Jobs act would fix this by reducing the U.S. corporate rate to five points below the OECD average and creating a process by which the U.S. rate is regularly reviewed to ensure economic competitiveness. …bringing the rate below the OECD average would have strong and immediate effects. A 20 percent U.S. corporate rate could create more than 600,000 jobs, increase GDP by 3.3 percent, and increase wages by 2.8 percent over the long-term, according to the Tax Foundation.

P.S. Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that describes some of the warts associated with the corporate income tax.

P.P.S. If you think my video is a bit amateurish, it’s because it was a first-time experiment and originally wasn’t going to be released. But once it was finished, we figured it was adequate. And I think it compares well to some corporate tax videos put together by other groups.

P.P.P.S. For those worried about corporate inversions, it’s worth noting that the types of reforms listed above would make companies far less likely to re-domicile in other jurisdictions.

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My views on the value-added tax are very simple and straightforward.

If we completely eliminated all income-based taxes, I would be willing to accept a VAT (or even a national sales tax) as a revenue source for government.

But unless that happens, I’m unalterably opposed because it’s far too risky to give politicians two major sources of tax revenue. Just look at what happened in Europe (and Japan). Before the VAT, the burden of government spending wasn’t that much higher in Europe than it was in the United States. Once VATs were adopted, however, that enabled a vast expansion of the welfare state.

This is why I’m worried about the Rand Paul and Ted Cruz tax plans. On paper, both plans are very good, dramatically lowering income tax rates, significantly curtailing double taxation, and also abolishing the corporate income tax. But I don’t like that they both propose a VAT to help make up the difference. It’s not that I think they have bad intentions, but I worry about what happens in the future when a bad President takes office and has the ability to increase both the income tax and the value-added tax. When the dust settles, we’re France or Greece!

By contrast, if we do some type of tax reform that doesn’t include a VAT, the worst thing that could happen when that bad president takes office is that we degenerate back to the awful tax code we have today. Which would be unfortunate, but not nearly as bad as today’s income tax with a VAT on top.

Bad since I’ve already addressed this issue, let’s focus on a part of the Paul and Cruz tax plans that has received very little attention.

Both of them propose to get rid of the payroll tax, which is the part of your paycheck that goes to “FICA” and is used to help fund Social Security and Medicare.

Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute has a column in U.S. News & World Report that explores the implications of this repeal.

Would you like to see the FICA item on your pay stub go away and be able to keep the 7.65 percent that the payroll tax takes out of your paycheck? If so, Republican presidential candidates Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have a deal for you – each of them has proposed getting rid of the tax. The senators’ plans would also eliminate the other 7.65 percent that the government collects from your employer, which you ultimately pay in the form of lower wages.

That sounds good, right? After all, who wouldn’t like to keep 15.3 percent of their income that is now being siphoned off for entitlement programs.

But here’s the catch. As Alan explains, other revenue sources would be needed to finance those programs, particularly Social Security.

The payroll tax finances two large benefit programs – 6.2 percent goes to Social Security and 1.45 percent goes to Medicare Part A. If the payroll tax went away, we would have to find another way to pay for those benefits. Paul and Cruz would turn to a value added tax, known as a VAT. …using it to pay for Social Security would have repercussions for the program that the candidates haven’t thought through. …once the payroll tax was gone, Social Security would no longer be a self-financed program with its own funding source. Instead, it would draw on the same general revenues as other government programs.

Viard thinks there are two problems with using VAT revenue to finance Social Security.

First, it means that there’s no longer a limit on how much money can be spent on the program.

…having a separate funding source for Social Security has been good budgetary policy. It’s kept the program out of annual budget fights while controlling its long-run growth – Social Security spending is limited to what current and past payroll taxes can support.

Second, replacing the payroll tax with a VAT eliminated the existing rationale for how benefits are determined.

And that will open a potential can of worms.

…what would happen to the benefit formula if the payroll tax disappeared and Social Security was financed by general revenue from the VAT? Paul and Cruz haven’t said. …One option would be to switch to a completely different formula, maybe a flat monthly benefit for all retirees. …that would be a big step, cutting benefits for high-wage workers and posing tricky transition issues.

I imagine there are probably ways to address these issues, though they might wind up generating varying degrees of controversy.

But I’m more concerned with an issue that isn’t addressed in Viard’s article.

I worry that eliminating the payroll tax would make it far harder to modernize Social Security by creating a system of personal retirement accounts.

With the current system, it would be relatively easy to give workers an option to shift their payroll taxes into a retirement account.

If the payroll tax is replaced by a VAT, by contrast, that option no longer exists and I fear reform would be more difficult.

By the way, this is also the reason why I was less than enthused about a tax reform plan proposed by the Heritage Foundation that would have merged the payroll tax into the income tax.

Yes, I realize that genuine Social Security reform may be a long shot, but I don’t want to make that uphill climb even more difficult.

The bottom line is that I don’t want changes to payroll taxes as part of tax reform, particularly when it would only be happening to offset the adverse distributional impact of the VAT, which is a tax that shouldn’t be adopted in the first place!

Instead, let’s do the right kind of tax reform and leave the payroll tax unscathed so we’ll have the ability to do the right kind of Social Security reform.

P.S. Some of you may be wondering why Senators Paul and Cruz included payroll tax repeal in their plans when that leads to some tricky issues. The answer is simple. As I briefly noted above, it’s a distribution issue. The VAT unquestionably would impose a burden on low-income households. That would not be nice (and it also would be politically toxic), so they needed some offsetting tax cut. And since low-income households generally don’t pay any income tax because of deductions, exemptions, and credits, repealing the payroll tax was the only way to address this concern about fairness for the less fortunate.

P.P.S. Since we have a “pay-as-you-go” Social Security system, with benefits for current retirees being financed by current workers, some people inevitably ask how those benefits will be financed if younger workers get to shift their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts. That’s what’s known as the “transition” issue, and it’s a multi-trillion-dollar challenge. But the good news (relatively speaking) is that coming up with trillions of dollars over several decades as part of a switch to personal accounts will be less of a challenge than coming up with $40 trillion (in today’s dollars) to bail out a Social Security system that is actuarially bankrupt.

P.P.P.S. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that class-warfare taxation is Obama’s (and Hillary’s) ostensible solution to Social Security’s shortfall.

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It’s not my role to pick sides in political fights, but I am very interested in trying to make bad ideas radioactive so that politicians won’t be tempted to do the wrong thing.

This is why I’m a big fan of the no-tax-hike pledge. The folks in Washington salivate at the prospect of getting more of our money, but they are less likely to act on their desires if they’re scared that breaking their promises means they’ll lose the next election.

It’s also why I want the value-added tax (VAT) to become a third-rail issue. Simply stated, it would be a catastrophic mistake to give Washington an additional source of tax revenue. Especially since the European evidence shows that it’s a money machine to expand the welfare state.

Given my concerns, I was understandably distressed that two lawmakers (and presidential candidates) who normally support smaller government, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, decided to include the VAT in their tax reform proposals.

But maybe I’ll get my wish after all. It seems that support for the VAT is becoming a big problem.

A report in the Wall Street Journal discusses this development.

The crux of the current dispute is Mr. Cruz’s business flat tax proposal. Under the plan, businesses would pay a 16% tax on their adjusted gross revenues after first subtracting payments to other businesses, but not profits or wages. Economically, that’s equivalent to a value-added tax.

It’s not just equivalent. It is a value-added tax, specifically a “subtraction-method” VAT.

Which is why Senator Cruz is vulnerable to criticism from both political rivals and advocates of small government..

“Republican candidates today try to hide their support for the value-added tax by renaming it a Business Flat Tax,” Mr. Rubio said. “But don’t be fooled. If it acts like a VAT, taxes like a VAT, and grows government like a VAT—it’s a VAT.” …Conservatives have long been dubious about value-added taxes, worrying that they might grow over time because less transparent taxes can be politically easier to increase, especially after their creators leave office.

There’s also a story in Politico about the VAT suddenly becoming a big part of the GOP nomination fight.

On Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) lobbed an opening salvo in what’s likely to become a new front of disagreement in the GOP primary race: taxes. “Believe it or not, multiple Republican candidates for president support new taxes on the American people,” Rubio said at an economic town hall in Sarasota, Florida. “Some even support imposing a new tax that generations of conservatives have fought against, called a Value Added Tax.” …Cruz has gone to great lengths to avoid calling this idea a value-added tax, or VAT—which has suspiciously European connotations—instead terming it a crisply Republican-sounding “business flat tax.” But economists widely agree it’s a VAT. …Stephen Moore defended the plan (and also another similar proposal from Sen. Rand Paul). That provoked strong responses from National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and the Cato Institute’s Daniel Mitchell.

There’s also been strong responses from folks who are perplexed that pro-VAT politicians are pretending that they don’t support a VAT.

Here’s how Josh Barro opened his column on this topic in the New York Times.

Like Rand Paul before him, Ted Cruz is promoting a tax plan that relies heavily on a value-added tax, or VAT. And like Mr. Paul, Mr. Cruz is not calling his VAT a VAT.

For what it’s worth, I don’t care what it’s called. I’m just worried that otherwise sensible people think it might be a good idea to give a new source of tax revenue to Washington.

Sort of like giving an alcoholic the keys to a liquor store. Or a book of matches to a pyromaniac.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute also is uncomfortable with the notion of giving Washington a major source of additional tax revenue.

…once the VAT is put in place, it is practically impossible to get rid of it. In countries that have it, the VAT rises over time incrementally and gives government immense power. Cruz and Paul are in favor of smaller government, but their suggested VATs would expand government clout. …parliaments, congresses, and assemblies don’t get rid of other taxes. They add the VAT on top of existing levies. …Due to their hidden nature, VATs tend to grow over time… From 1975 to the present, VAT rates have risen in the U.K. from 8% to 20%. …when imposed in 1967, Denmark’s VAT was 10%; it is now 25%… In 1968, Germany levied a 10% VAT…their VAT has risen “only” to 19%… Cruz and Paul make the VAT the centerpiece of their tax-reform plans. But America needs to move away from European policies, not towards them.

And former Congressman Chris Chocola (and former head of the Club for Growth) has similar concerns. He’s a supporter of Marco Rubio, so he obviously has a political interest in undermining other candidates in the GOP race, but what he wrote for National Review is spot on.

Liberals have dreamed of imposing a VAT for decades. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says that “a value-added tax plays into” her vision of tax reform. President Obama has called a VAT a “novel” idea. The Left loves that a VAT can raise enormous sums of money for the government in a hidden way. Because it’s embedded in the cost of everything we buy, Washington can increase the VAT rate and then blame businesses for the higher consumer prices they bring. …in fact, high consumption taxes are what allowed European governments to grow so large. Once countries like France realized that there was a limit to how much money they could squeeze from the income tax, they used the VAT to extract resources from a broader swath of the population.

Bartlett Cleland of the Institute for Policy Innovation adds to these arguments.

The VAT is attractive to those who…[w]ant to grow government… Whether or not those proposing such taxes are interested in expanding the scope of government is almost irrelevant, because once the tools for such expansion are in place they can be used by future politicians to grow government subtly.  Similarly, whether a tax is labeled as a VAT or not is also irrelevant if the function is the same—for example by not allowing companies to deduct wages.

Last but not least, Irwin Stelzer makes a very important observation in an article for the Weekly Standard.

The VAT would give politicians and lobbyists an entirely new tax system that could be used (just like the income tax) to swap loopholes for campaign cash.

…a VAT…will not eliminate income taxes, or the IRS, or the K Street lobbyists that thrive on writing special provisions into the code to advantage their clients at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer. It will, instead, massively multiply the number of rules-writing revenue agents and further enrich their special-privilege-seeking lobbyists.

With this in mind, he poses a hypothetical question.

…if you believe that (1) a consumption tax would completely replace all income taxes, rather than be added to our current tax code, (2) arguments on behalf of children, health advocates, safety advocates, the elderly, and others would fall on deaf political ears, and (3) the K Street crowd would quietly sublet their spaces to worthier tenants and, like the obsolete old soldiers they will have become, simply fade away, then by all means support an American value-added tax.

Stelzer offers some sage advice in his conclusion.

…lack of transparency is the politicians’ friend and makes it far easier to raise VAT rates than income tax rates. Perhaps it would be best if presidential wannabes would get on with the hard, tedious work of reforming our hideous tax code rather than adding a consumption tax to our burdens.

Speaking of which, the folks at National Review have a solution to this mess. They correctly note that a VAT would be a huge mistake.

…a key feature of Cruz’s plan: its reliance on a value-added tax. …The wage earner would pay the tax through either lower wages or higher prices or both (relative to what they would be without this new tax). …The effective tax on labor income would be much higher than the headline…rate. …It is the hidden nature of the tax that has traditionally worried conservatives. Most people would not know what their wages would have bought them if this tax were lower, or if it did not exist. …it might prove much easier for politicians— say, a liberal successor to President Cruz — to raise this tax over time… The fact that European countries use this tax to finance their swollen welfare states reinforces this fear.

So they outline a way to fix what’s wrong with the plans that contain a VAT.

…there is a way for Cruz to retain the economic and fiscal advantages of his proposal while eliminating this danger. (This road lies open for Senator Paul, too.) …let businesses deduct wages when they pay their taxes and use the income tax to make up for it. This modification would keep the effective rate of taxes on labor income the same; it would just make it transparent. …it would make it a little less likely that over time government would grow larger and larger and taxes climb higher and higher.

Let’s close with (at least to me) a very persuasive point.

I wrote two months ago that one of America’s most statist presidents, Richard Nixon, supported a VAT.

Now let’s see what one of America’s best presidents, Ronald Reagan, had to say about that levy.

…a value-added tax actually gives a government a chance to blindfold the people and grow in stature and size. …the other thing with that tax is, it’s hidden in the price of a product. And that tax can quietly be increased, and all the people know is that the price went up, and they don’t know whether the price went up because somebody got a raise, or whether the company wanted to increase profits, or whether it was government. …I think I’ve said before, taxes should hurt in the sense that people should be able to see them and know what they’re paying.

Amen.

If you need more information, here’s my video on the VAT.

P.S. If you don’t believe Irwin Stelzer’s argument that a VAT would morph into a Byzantine mess, check out this recent article from the EU Observer that’s entitled, “EU’s new VAT rules forcing thousands out of business.”

P.P.S. And if you don’t believe the VAT is a money machine for bigger government, check out this data from the IMF.

P.P.P.S. Marco Rubio is right to criticize plans that include a VAT, but that doesn’t mean his plan is free of warts. For what it’s worth, the candidate with the best plan is Ben Carson. Not that anyone’s decision should be based solely on tax policy.

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