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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Reform’

I have a fantasy of junking the entire corrupt tax system and adopting a simple and fair flat tax.

I have an even bigger fantasy of shrinking the size and scope of the federal government to what America’s Founders intended, in which case Washington wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

But in the real world, where I know “public choice” determines political behavior, I have much more limited hopes and dreams.

I’ve been saying for months that tax reform will be a worthwhile success if it leads to a significantly lower corporate tax rate and the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes.

And I recently added repeal of the death tax as a third item that would make me very happy.

Now let’s add a fourth item to my wish-list. The House version of tax reform actually does  a decent job of curtailing some of the egregious distortions that line the pocket of companies that peddle so-called green energy.

I know it must be a decent job since the GOP plan is causing angst for leftist journalists.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives…bill would slash incentives for renewable energy and the electric car industry. Environmental groups are frantic. …The House provision raising the most ire are proposed changes to the renewable electricity production tax credit, which benefits producers of wind, solar, geothermal and other types of renewable energy. …The House GOP plan would also repeal the Investment Tax Credit for big solar projects that start construction after 2027. House Republicans also propose eliminating the $7,500 credit for electric vehicle purchases. …the Senate bill may not include all of the House’s cuts to clean energy.

It is true that the Senate bill is very timid. But given that there will be a lot of pressure to find “offsets” in any final deal, I’m vaguely hopeful that some of the good provisions in the House bill will survive.

Let’s explore why that would be a very good outcome.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is not a fan of cronyist subsidies to solar energy.

Under President Barack Obama, green energy subsidies were given out like candy. The failure of solar panel company Solyndra is well-known, but the problem extends well beyond the shady loan deal and its half-billion-dollar cost to taxpayers. Between 2010 and 2013, federal subsidies for solar energy alone increased by about 500 percent, from $1.1 billion to $5.3 billion (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration), and all federal renewable energy subsidies grew from $8.6 billion to $13.2 billion over the same period. …However, that didn’t stop the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer, SolarWorld, from filing for bankruptcy earlier this year despite $115 million in federal and state grants and tax subsidies since 2012, along with $91 million in federal loan guarantees. SolarWorld and fellow bankrupt manufacturer Suniva are now begging for even more government assistance, in the form of a 40-cent-per-watt tariff on solar imports and a minimum price of 78 cents (including the 40-cent tariff) a watt on solar panels made by foreign manufacturers.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that wind energy is reliant on taxpayer handouts.

…government data shows that offshore wind power cannot survive in a competitive environment without huge taxpayer subsidies. Today, wind power receives subsidies greater than any other form of energy per unit of actual energy produced. …public subsidies for wind on a per megawatt-hour basis are 26 times those for fossil fuels and 16 times those for nuclear power. …The tax credit gives $23 for every megawatt-hour of electricity a wind turbine generates during the first 10 years of operation. …Yet, even with these incentives, only 4.7 percent of the nation’s electricity is currently supplied by wind power and that is entirely wind power from on-land turbines. …Think about it: Four large power plants could produce as much electricity as offshore wind turbines placed side by side along the entire Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida. Moreover, power plants last longer than wind turbines. A British study found that turbines need to be replaced within 12 to 15 years, and they must be imported from Europe.

Given the disgusting nature of ethanol subsidies, I wonder whether Mark’s headline can possibly be accurate.

In any event, Senator Alexander of Tennessee agrees that wind subsidies are a bad idea.

As we look at all the wasteful and unnecessary tax breaks that are holding us back, I have a nomination: At the top of the list should be ending the quarter-century-old wind production tax credit now — not two years from now. This giveaway to wind developers was meant to end in 1999 but has been extended by Congress ten different times. While the wind production tax credit is scheduled to be phased out by the end of 2019, we should do better and end it at the end of this year, and use the $4 billion in savings to lower tax rates. …Congress needs to stop its habit of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. Twenty-five years of picking wind developers over more-reliable sources of electricity hasn’t paid off. Imagine what innovation we might unleash if we used the billions wasted on wind energy to invest in research to help our free-enterprise system provide the abundance of cheap, clean, reliable energy we need to power our 21st-century economy.

A recipient of tax preferences discusses his undeserved benefits in a Wall Street Journal column.

…it’s only appropriate that I express appreciation for the generous subsidy you provided for the 28-panel, four-array, 8,540-watt photovoltaic system I installed on my metal roof last year. Thanks to the investment tax credit, I slashed my 2016 federal tax bill by $7,758. …thanks to the incentives for rooftop solar, I’ve snared three subsidies. …fewer rooftop solar projects are being installed in low-income neighborhoods. …According to a study done for the California Public Utility Commission, residents who have installed solar systems have household incomes 68% higher than the state average. Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, calls the proliferation of rooftop solar systems and the returns they provide to lucky people like me, “a wealth transfer from less affluent ratepayers to more affluent ones.” It is, Mr. Brown says, “Robin Hood in reverse.” Do I feel bad about being a solar freeloader? Yes, a little. …the local barista or school janitor—people who likely can’t afford solar panels—are paying incrementally more for the grid’s maintenance and operation. And the more that people like me install panels, the more those baristas and janitors have to pay.

By the way, the United States is not the only nation with green-energy boondoggles (remember Solyndra?).

I’ve previously written about the failure of such programs in Germany.

Let’s add to that collection with an all-too-typical story from the United Kingdom.

Britain is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds subsidising power stations to burn American wood pellets that do more harm to the climate than the coal they replaced, a study has found. Chopping down trees and transporting wood across the Atlantic Ocean to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than much cheaper coal, according to the report. It blames the rush to meet EU renewable energy targets… Green subsidies for wood pellets and other biomass were championed by Chris Huhne when he was Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary in the coalition government. Mr Huhne, 62, who was jailed in 2013 for perverting the course of justice, is now European chairman of Zilkha Biomass, a US supplier of wood pellets.

In a perverse way, I admire Mr. Huhne, who didn’t follow the usual revolving-door strategy of politician-to-cronyist. He apparently went politician-to-prisoner-to-cronyist.

If you head north in Great Britain, the foolishness mostly revolves around wind power.

…the blackmailing, money-printing sausage factory is a wind farm in Scotland. There are currently about 750 wind farms north of the border, with roughly 3,000 wind turbines. …The wind farms are distributed across Scotland, sometimes in very remote regions, so there is a real problem in getting their energy down to the English border – let alone getting it across. …Why has so much been built? Partly, it is because of income-support subsidies. This top-up of nearly 100 per cent over the wholesale price – funded, of course, from consumer bills – makes wind farms very attractive… Subsidies to onshore wind in the UK now cost a little under £600 million a year, with Scottish wind taking about half, yet the Scottish government continues to ignore the protests and consent to new wind farms as if they cost almost nothing at all. Which as far as Holyrood is concerned, is in fact true. Part of the attraction for Scottish politicians is that the subsidies that pay for Scottish wind farms come from consumers all over Great Britain. Scottish consumption is about 10 per cent of the British total – so when the Scottish government grants planning permission to the wind industry, it is simply writing a cheque drawn overwhelmingly on English and Welsh accounts. …The result is that there is a perverse incentive to locate wind farms in Scotland, even though they aren’t welcome and the grid can’t take their output.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that taxpayers in the U.K. have been subsidizing green groups.

From an economic perspective, the bottom line is that green energy is more expensive and it requires subsidies that line the pockets of politically connected people and companies. That’s true in America, and it’s true in other nations.

Which is unfortunate, because it gives a bad name to energy sources that probably will be capable of producing low-cost energy in some point in the future.

Indeed, my long-run optimism about green energy is one of the reasons why I’m such a big believer in capitalism and private property. I just don’t want politicians to intervene today and make it harder to achieve future innovation.

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I’ve been grousing all year that tax cuts and tax reform are jeopardized by the failure to restrain the growth of federal spending.

At the start of the year, I pointed out that it would be possible to both balance the budget and approve a $3 trillion tax cut if spending grew each year by an average of 1.96 percent.

That modest bit of fiscal discipline apparently was asking too much. When Trump’s budget was released in May, he proposed that spending should increase by an average of 3.5 percent annually.

But neither Trump nor Republicans on Capitol Hill have done much to hit even that lax target (which is especially disappointing since they actually did a good job of restraining spending when Obama was in the White House). So the federal budget instead is operating on auto-pilot and spending is now projected to increase by 5.2 percent annually, more than tw0-and-one-half times faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

Sigh. No wonder I’ve fretted that GOPers can’t be trusted to do the right thing.

The net result of all this is that there’s very little leeway for tax relief under congressional budget rules. This is why Republicans are looking at tax reform proposals that only have a modest tax cut in the first 10 years and no net tax cut after the first decade.

But even that may be too much to hope for.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are now considering an automatic tax hike as part of tax reform legislation. I’m not joking.

Senate Republicans are considering a trigger that would automatically increase taxes if their sweeping legislation fails to generate as much revenue as they expect. It’s an effort to mollify deficit hawks who worry that tax cuts for businesses and individuals will add to the nation’s already mounting debt. …The trigger would be a way for senators to test their economic assumptions, with real consequences if they are wrong. “Do we have realistic numbers and is there a backstop in the process just in case we don’t?” asked Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. “We should build in the ‘What if?’ What if this doesn’t work?” Lankford said. “What changes might be needed in the tax code in the days ahead to be able to adjust in what scenario?” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the Trump administration and Senate Republican leaders are open to some kind of a trigger to increase revenues if the tax plan falls short. Neither Corker nor Lankford spelled out exactly how the trigger would work, noting that senators are still working on the proposal.

This is discouraging beyond words. I’m almost at the point of wanting the whole exercise to collapse.

But I don’t want to lose sight of two very important goals: Lowering the corporate rate and getting rid of the deduction for state and local income taxes (and I’m still fantasizing about a third goal of death tax repeal).

So let’s contemplate what a tax-hike trigger would mean.

First, what tax hikes would be imposed by a Trigger?

Any automatic tax hike is a bad idea, but not all tax increases are equally bad. If politicians insert a provision that automatically increases the corporate tax rate, that’s a very bad recipe for uncertainty and the result will be less growth. If the standard deduction for households is reduced, by contrast, the resulting increase in taxable income will give politicians more tax revenue but not cause as much harm.

Second, would a Trigger be linked to projected revenue(s)?

Based on the article, it appears that politicians are focused on potential revenue shortfalls. But are they looking at overall revenue, or revenue by category? This raises important questions, such as whether businesses should get hit by an automatic tax hike if individual tax collections fall short – or vice-versa.

Third, is a Trigger linked to deficit projections?

Early last decade, some politicians wanted tax-increase triggers based on what happens to deficits and/or debt. This approach would create a perverse scenario where taxpayers are punished when politicians over-spend. And what happens if there is a recession, which would mean falling tax revenues? Do politicians really want an automatic tax hike in a faltering economy?

Fourth, is a Trigger symmetrical, meaning automatic tax cuts are possible?

If taxpayers are punished when revenues fall short, simple fairness requires that they benefit if revenues rise faster than projected. Since the bean counters at the Joint Committee on Taxation almost surely will underestimate the pro-growth impact of a lower corporate tax rate, this is especially relevant when looking at specific sources of revenue.

Fifth, why not a spending-cut Trigger?

Since America’s long-run fiscal problems are entirely caused by excessive government spending, politicians who claim to be concerned about fiscal balance should support a provision to automatically restrain spending. Such a mechanism already exists, and it works very well. It’s called sequestration.

Sadly, the fifth option is not very likely. Under current law, there are partial spending caps as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act. But big-spending Republicans cancelled the sequester in 2013, and then cancelled another sequester in 2015.

So I won’t hold my breath for a sequester in 2017.

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Since Republicans screwed up Obamacare repeal and haven’t even tried to impose spending restraint, I was rather pessimistic about tax reform earlier this year.

Given my dour attitude, I thought the best-possible outcome was nothing more than a reduction in the corporate tax rate.

But now I’m actually somewhat hopeful that we’ll get a lower corporate rate and repeal of the pernicious deduction for state and local income taxes.

And I’m even wondering whether I should allow myself to hope that the death tax can be repealed. The final outcome will depend on negotiations on Capitol Hill. The House bill gets rid of the tax (albeit only for people who can stay alive a few more years). The Senate bill isn’t as good since it only increases the exemption.

Is it possible the final deal will kill this destructive form of double taxation?

Folks on the left are afraid it may happen. The New York Times is predictably editorializing in favor of keeping the tax.

“Only morons pay the estate tax,” Gary Cohn, Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, told Senate Democrats, meaning, it was later explained, “rich people with really bad tax planning.” Many of the very wealthy use loopholes, like trusts, to avoid paying inheritance tax. …An estate tax repeal would provide a tax windfall of more than $3 million apiece for the top 0.2 percent of earners, and more than $20 million for the wealthiest Americans. It would cost $239 billion in revenue over a decade. It offers nothing for middle-class people, except more evidence of Mr. Trump’s and Republicans’ bad faith.

Frankly, I don’t care whether rich people benefit. I want the tax repealed because it penalizes saving and investment.

The actual victims of the tax (the “morons” who failed to hire clever lawyers and accountants) are forced to liquidate assets and turn the money over to government.

And potential victims of the tax engage in inefficient forms of tax planning to protect assets from the government.

Call me crazy, but I want capital to be allocated efficiently since that’s one of the keys for economic growth and rising wages.

The U.K.-based Economist has just published a defense of the death tax that begins by acknowledging that it’s not a popular levy.

Inheritance tax is routinely seen as the least fair by Britons and Americans. This hostility spans income brackets. …The estate of a dead adult American is 95% less likely to face tax now than in the 1960s. …For a time before the second world war, Britons were more likely to pay death duties than income tax; today less than 5% of estates catch the taxman’s eye. It is not just Anglo-Saxons. Revenue from these taxes in OECD countries, as a share of total government revenue, has fallen sharply since the 1960s. Many other countries have gone down the same path. In 2004 even the egalitarian Swedes decided that their inheritance tax should be abolished.

Notwithstanding the magazine’s name, the article shows very little understanding of economics.

…this trend towards trifling or zero estate taxes ought to give pause. Such levies pit two vital…principles against each other. One is that governments should leave people to dispose of their wealth as they see fit. The other is that a permanent, hereditary elite makes a society unhealthy and unfair. How to choose between them? …The positive argument for steep inheritance taxes is that they promote fairness and equality. …Unlike capital-gains taxes, heavier estate taxes do not seem to dissuade saving or investment.

I’m glad that the article pays lip service to the notion that people should be able to decide how to spend their own money, but then the article veers into pure class warfare.

What’s really remarkable, though, is that we’re supposed to believe that death taxes don’t have a negative impact on capital formation (i.e., saving and investment). Utter nonsense. Let’s think this through. Imagine a successful entrepreneur who earns income and gets hit with, say, a 40 percent personal income tax. That entrepreneur than invests some of the after-tax income, which then presumably triggers additional layers of tax (business taxes, capital gains taxes, dividend taxes), which easily can confiscate 30 percent of affected funds. And then there can be a death tax that may grab another 40 percent.

At the risk of plagiarizing the New York Times, only a “moron” is going to ignore the cumulative impact of all those taxes. There’s either going to be less quantity of saving and investment or less quality of saving and investment (because of inefficient tax planning).

Fortunately, governments in the real world increasingly understand that death taxes are very damaging. In another article, the Economist shares some specific details on how death taxes have become less popular around the world.

In OECD countries the proportion of total government revenues raised by such taxes has fallen by three-fifths since the 1960s, from over 1% to less than 0.5%. Over the same period Australia, Canada, Russia, India and Norway are among countries that have abolished death duties. More than 20 American states binned wealth-transfer taxes between 1976 and 2000… In 1976 roughly 8% of American estates filed a taxable return; that has since fallen to around 0.2%.

I actually think tax competition deserves a lot of the credit for the good reforms that have happened, but that’s an issue for another day.

Here’s a chart from the article, which is supposed to show how death taxes have become a smaller and smaller share of tax revenue. This seems like good news, but keep in mind that what it really shows is that personal income taxes, payroll taxes, and (in the U.K.) the value-added tax have grown enormously since the pre-World War II era. If the Economist wanted to be honest, it would have shown inflation-adjusted death tax revenue.

I can’t resist commenting on one other thing. The Economist wants people to think that the death tax is okay because compliance costs supposedly are modest.

A study published in 1999 suggests that the overall cost of estate-tax compliance is 7% of estate-tax revenues. Yet a chunk of those costs, such as selecting executors and drafting documents, would still be paid even in the absence of the tax. So it is hardly clear that the rich would be left with much extra time for more productive undertakings.

I’m skeptical of their compliance calculations, but let’s set that aside.

What the article overlooks (and what is far more important from an economic perspective) is that the death tax causes capital to be misallocated. Successful families make decisions about saving and investment based on potential tax implications rather than what is most productive. And really successful families create trusts and foundation to protect their wealth. Good for them (and good for their financial advisers), but not so good for everyone else since money won’t be used as efficiently.

And if you don’t think the death tax distorts incentives, consider that evidence from Australia indicates it even impacts when people die.

I’m not going to hold my breath, but it would be great news if congressional Republicans can kill the death tax.

P.S. Here’s a semi-amusing left-wing humor on Trump and the death tax.

Not as good as the video on Somalia as a libertarian paradise, but still worth sharing.

P.P.S. You won’t be surprised to know that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton actually wanted to make the death tax more punitive. Which is really remarkable since the current U.S. approach is even more punitive than Greece and Venezuela.

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Time for a confession. My left-wing friends are correct. I’m an idiot.

Why?

Because I’m an anti-tax libertarian, yet I keep writing favorably about a provision that will raise my taxes. I’m talking specifically about the provision, currently in both the House and Senate tax plans, to eliminate the deduction for state and local income taxes (and maybe also property taxes, though the House proposal will retain deductibility for the first $10,000).

I think this distortion in the tax code is very bad policy and I hope the loophole is entirely eliminated (including the property tax deduction).

But as I look at all the provisions in both bills and speculate about the contours of a final agreement, it’s highly likely that the net result will be a tax hike on one of my favorite people – me!

Sigh. I’ve joked in the past that “it ain’t easy being libertarian,” but it will definitely hurt to put my money where my mouth is (and it reminded me why GOPers should have made tax reform a tax cut by including some spending restraint).

That being said, let’s remind ourselves why the deduction is a bad idea.

Citing the self-destructive example of a recent tax hike in Illinois, Andrew Wilford of the National Taxpayers Union points out that the deduction enables and encourages state and local politicians to impose higher taxes.

…eliminating SALT would…remove this incentive for local governments to overtax its citizens. … this incentive to hike taxes can prove significant enough to drive state policy. In Illinois, residents were forced to bear the burden of a 32 percent hike on their taxes because of the state’s unwillingness to tackle its growing pension funding problem. Tax increases did not solve this underlying spending problem, but it was politically expedient— in part because state lawmakers knew that the federal government would pick up part of the tab.

It also violates my ethical-bleeding-heart rule, as Brian Riedl explains in the New York Post.

Wealthy families are four times more likely to utilize SALT than other families. Only 24 million of 125 million tax filers earning under $100,000 take the deduction, typically lowering their taxes by $1,000. By contrast, 20 million of the 25 million filers earning over $100,000 take the deduction… In fact, half the savings accrue to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers — and in New York, half of the SALT savings go to families making over $500,000.

But I don’t want today’s column to fixate on the policy argument.

Instead, let’s look at whether voting to get rid of the deduction is electoral suicide for Republicans from high-tax states such as New York and California.

Looking at the situation in the Golden State, that’s certainly the argument from the folks at Vox.

Just three of the 14 California House Republicans went against leadership… Republicans in California clearly ran on cutting taxes — but this tax bill could raise taxes on their constituents. …it also sets up their constituents for more risk. Cutting the state and local tax deduction puts undue burden on the state’s budget… “At this point it looks like California Republicans are eager to lose their seats in 2018,” Tyler Law, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said.

Though Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has a more upbeat (if you’re a Republican) assessment. She starts by explaining how California GOPers were targeted.

The House GOP passed its tax-reform bill on Thursday, and special medals of valor go to the 11 of 14 California Republicans who voted in support. The lobbyist brigade had joined with Democrats to target the Golden State delegation, seeing it as their best shot at peeling off enough Republicans to kill the bill. The assault was brutal, dishonest and all-out. …Gov. Jerry Brown unleashed on state Republicans, calling them “sheep” for supporting an end to most state and local tax, or SALT, deductions, and sending them letters deploring the tax hit on residents of high-tax California. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused them of “looting” the state. Her Senate counterpart, New York’s Chuck Schumer, warned of “political fallout” that would be “catastrophic.”

They fought back by arguing that the Democrats are the high-tax party.

What proved most effective, however, was the state Republicans’ willingness to go on offense and throw SALT in Gov. Brown’s face. California has the heaviest tax burden in the country and only just implemented a punishing new 12-cent-a-gallon-increase in its gasoline tax. Mr. McCarthy used the occasion to release a video pouncing on that hike and noting that “if Gov. Brown is worried about the tax burden, let’s make cutting [taxes] a federal and state project.” Other state Republicans ran with that message, even more bluntly. “Why punish the rest of the nation because California is stupid?” asked Rep. Duncan Hunter in a local TV interview. Even Rep. Darrell Issa, who voted “no” on Thursday (along with Dana Rohrabacher and Tom McClintock ), zapped a letter back to Gov. Brown, noting that if SALT had become a big issue, it was “a direct result of the tremendous weight that your misguided policies have put on California taxpayers.”

At the risk of sounding like a mealy-mouthed Washington apparatchik, I’m going to agree with both Vox and the Wall Street Journal.

The bottom line is that voting for tax reform probably does endanger GOP lawmakers from high-tax states, which is the message that the leftists at Vox are peddling in hopes of preserving the awful status quo.

But I want to close with the observation that enacting tax reform will improve the electoral outlook for blue-state Republicans even if it’s not necessarily good for current GOP incumbents.

That’s because voters in high-tax states will be much more likely to resist bad state tax policy if there’s no federal deduction to mitigate the burden.

And that means politicians in blue states will be under even greater pressure to lower tax rates rather than increase tax rates. If they don’t do the right thing, more and more taxpayers will escape, as the Wall Street Journal opines.

The liberal tax model is to fleece the rich to finance spending on entitlements and government programs that invariably grow faster than the economy and revenues. IRS data on tax migration show this model is now breaking down in progressive states as the affluent run for cover and the middle class is left paying the bills. Between 2012 and 2015 (the most recent data), a net $8.5 billion in adjusted gross income left New Jersey while $6.2 billion poured out of Connecticut—4% of the latter state’s total income. Illinois lost $13.6 billion. During that period, Florida with no income tax gained $39.3 billion in AGI. …As these state laboratories of Democratic governance show, dunning the rich ultimately hurts people of all incomes by repressing the growth needed to create jobs, boost wages and raise government revenues that fund public services. If the Republican House and Senate tax-reform bills follow through with eliminating all or part of the state and local tax deduction, progressive states will have an even harder time hiding the damage. They should be the next candidates for reform.

Indeed, the mere prospect of tax reform already is causing statists to rethink their approach.

Even in New Jersey.

The Republican tax reform…already it’s having a political impact in at least one high-tax, ill-governed state. Democrat Steve Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate, said last week that the GOP decision to eliminate the state and local tax deduction could throw a new tax increase on millionaires into doubt. …Excellent news. Making politicians in Trenton, Albany, Sacramento and Springfield nervous about raising taxes is one desirable outcome of tax reform. These politicians have been passing the burden of their tax-and-spend policies onto taxpayers in other states via the state and local deduction. If that goes away, Democrats will have to rethink their policies lest they drive from their states the affluent taxpayers who finance most of state government. …Here’s a radical idea: Cut taxes and make New Jersey more desirable for people to work and invest. Tax reform in Washington could also spur reform in the states.

If tax reform happens and the deduction for state and local taxes is eliminated, the left’s class-warfare agenda will become much less appealing – and much harder to implement.

And in that kind of environment, it should be much easier for Republican politicians to win votes.

For all intents and purposes, tax reform for Republicans could be like Obamacare for Democrats.

Allow me to explain. When Obamacare was enacted, I worried that it might be a long-term political victory for the left even though it was very painful for Democrats in the short run. Simply stated, voters in the future (and we’re now entering that future) would become more reluctant to vote for Republicans once they were hooked on the heroin of government dependency.

Federal tax reform would have a similar impact, except the GOP will be the long-run winners. Voters in high-tax states will be more reluctant to vote for Democrats once a $100 tax hike (for instance) actually costs $100. Which is why genuine tax reform is a win-win situation.

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I’m currently in Tokyo for an Innovation Summit. Perhaps because I once referred to Japan as a basket case, I’ve been asked to speak about policies that are needed to boost the nation’s competitiveness.

That sounds like an easy topic since I can simply explain that free markets and small government are the universal recipe for growth and prosperity.

But then I figured I should be more focused and look at some of Japan’s specific challenges. So I began to ponder whether I should talk about Japan’s high debt levels. Or perhaps the country’s repeated (and failed) attempts to stimulate the economy with Keynesianism. And Japan’s demographic crisis is also a very important issue.

But since I only have 20 minutes (not even counting Q&A), I don’t really have time for a detailed examination on any of those topics. So I was still uncertain of how best to illustrate the need for pro-market reforms.

My job suddenly got a lot easier, though, because Eduardo Porter of the New York Times wrote a column today that includes a graph very effectively illustrating why Japan is in trouble. Simply stated, the country is on a very bad trajectory of ever-higher taxes.

To elaborate, Japan used to have a relatively modest tax burden, as least compared to other industrialized nations. But then, thanks in part to the enactment of a value-added tax, the aggregate tax burden began to climb. It has jumped from about 18 percent of economic output in 1965 to about 32 percent of gross domestic product in 2015.

Even the French didn’t raise taxes that dramatically!

By the way, I feel compelled to digress and point out that Mr. Porter’s column was not designed to warn about rising taxes in Japan. Instead, he was whining about non-rising taxes in the United States. I’m not joking.

American tax policy must stand as one of the great mysteries of the global political economy. In 1969…federal, state and local governments in the United States raised about the same in taxes, as a share of the economy, as the government of the average industrialized country: 26.6 percent of gross domestic product, against 27 percent among the nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Nearly 50 years later, the tax picture has changed little in the United States. By 2015, …the figure was 26.4 percent of G.D.P. But across the market democracies of the O.E.C.D., the share had climbed by an average of more than seven percentage points. …Americans are paying dearly as a result, as their comparatively small government has proved incapable of providing an adequate safety net…there is no credible evidence that countries with higher tax rates necessarily grow less.

Americans are “paying dearly”? Are we “paying dearly” because our living standards are so much higher? Are we “paying dearly” because our growth rates are higher and Europe is failing to converge? Are we “paying dearly” because America’s poorest states are rich compared to European countries.

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s get back to our discussion about Japan.

Looking at the data from Economic Freedom of the World, Japan ranked among the world’s 10-freest economies as recently as 1990. Today, it ranks #39. That is a very unfortunate development, though I should point out that the nation’s relative decline isn’t solely because of misguided fiscal policy.

I’ll close by noting that even the good news from Japan isn’t that good. Yes, the government did slight lower its corporate tax rate so it no longer has the highest burden among developed nations. But having the second-highest corporate tax rate is hardly something to cheer about.

P.S. Since today’s column looks at the most depressing Japanese chart, I should remind people that I shared the most depressing Danish PowerPoint slide back in 2015. I may need to create a collection.

P.P.S. I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that the OECD and IMF have been encouraging bad policy for Japan.

P.P.P.S. If I had to guess, I would say that Japan’s government is probably more competent than average. But that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of some bone-headed policies, such as a regulatory regime for coffee enemas and a giveaway program that was so convoluted that no companies asked for the free money.

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Back on November 2, I summarized the good and not-so-good features of the tax plan put forth by House Republicans. Here are the parts that made me happy.

And what was the most disappointing part of the plan?

  • Absence of spending restraint.

Regarding my disappointment, I’m not just being a curmudgeonly libertarian. The bill is filled with timid and convoluted provisions, as well as some undesirable revenue-raising provisions, precisely because of congressional rules on long-run deficit neutrality. As I’ve noted in some of my TV interviews, Republicans are pushing sub-par policy because you can’t fit a football player’s body into Pee Wee Herman’s clothes.

If Republicans were willing to impose some modest spending restraint, by contrast, that would have given them enormous flexibility for large tax cuts (while also balancing the budget!).

But I’m a semi-realist about Washington. I’m not going to make the perfect the enemy of the good (or, in this case, the sort-of-decent the enemy of the I-guess-this-is-acceptable).

Now let’s look at what Senate Republicans have unveiled. In some cases, my grades are identical to the House bill because many of the major provisions are quite similar. But there are some noteworthy differences.

Lower corporate rate: A-

America’s high corporate tax rate is probably the most self-destructive feature of the current system. If the rate is permanently reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent, that will be a huge boost to competitiveness. The only downside is that the lower rate is deferred until 2019.

Lower individual rates: C+

The proposal is relatively timid on rate reductions for households. This is disappointing, but not unexpected since lower individual tax rates mean considerable revenue loss.

Ending deduction for state and local taxes: A+

Next to the lower corporate tax rate, this is the best part of the proposal. It generates revenue to use for pro-growth provisions while also eliminating a subsidy for bad policy on the part of state and local governments. Indeed, the Senate bill goes farther than the House bill since it includes property taxes. So I’ve retroactively changed my grade for the House bill from A+ to A- so I can give the Senate bill an A+.

Curtailing mortgage interest deduction: C

The deduction remains for home mortgages, but is curtailed for home equity loans. A timed improvement that will only slightly reduce the distortion that creates a bias for residential real estate compared to business investment.

Death tax repeal: C+

There’s no repeal. Just an increase in the amount of family savings that can be protected from the tax. Better than nothing, to be sure, but disappointing.

Change to consumer price index: C

It is quite likely that the consumer price index overstates inflation because it doesn’t properly capture increases in the quality of goods and service. Shifting to a different price index will lead to higher revenues because tax brackets and other provisions of the tax code won’t adjust at the same rate. That’s fine, but I’m dissatisfied with this provision since it should apply to spending programs as well as the tax code.

Reduced business interest deduction: C+

The business interest deduction is partially undone, which is a step toward equal treatment of debt and equity. It’s not the right way of achieving that goal, but it does generate revenue to finance other pro-growth changes in the legislation.

Now let’s zoom out and grade the overall plan in terms of major fiscal and economic goals.

And you’ll see that all I’ve done is repeat exactly what I wrote about the House bill.

Restraining the growth of government: F

In my fantasy world, I want a return to the very small federal government created and envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In the real world, I simply hope for a modest bit of spending restraint. This legislation doesn’t even pretend to curtail the growth of government, which is unfortunate since some fiscal prudence (federal budget growing about 2 percent per year) would have allowed a very large tax cut while also balancing the budget within 10 years.

Collecting revenue in a less-destructive manner: B

This is a positive proposal. It will mean more jobs, increased competitiveness, and higher incomes. The wonks in Washington doubtlessly will debate whether these positive effects are small or large, but I’m not overly fixated on that issue. Yes, I think the growth effects will be significant, but I also realize that many other policies also determine economic performance. The most important thing to understand, thought is that even small increases in growth make a big difference over time.

Now let’s take a closer look at how the House and Senate plans differ.

The Tax Foundation put together a very helpful comparison. I’ve broken it into three parts so I can interject some final commentary.

For this first section, since I already gave my two cents about itemized deductions, I’ll simply observe that the Senate plan is slightly better on individual income tax rates.

For this second section, I’ll merely note that the first provision is basically an attempt to give relief to small businesses that are subject to the individual income tax.

The provisions are complicated because it’s not easy to lower tax rates for “Schedule C” income in a way that doesn’t benefit taxpayers who aren’t perceived as being conventional small businesses.

For this final section, the part that’s disappointing to me is “international income.” Both the House and Senate adopt territorial taxation for businesses, which is very good.

But the congressional plans then claw back a bunch of money with OECD-style “base-erosion” policies and Obama-style global minimum taxes. It’s unclear if the net effect is modestly positive or modestly negative, but it’s not what many of us wanted when we pushed for territoriality.

I’ll close by noting that I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the two plans. Yes, I’m grading on a curve, but I had very low expectations this year. I basically hoped to get a lower corporate rate with a bit of window dressing.

And at one point we were actually forced to play defense because Republicans were looking at a very troubling proposal for a “border-adjusted tax.”

So even though I fantasize about a flat tax, I’m reasonably happy about where we are now.

The bottom line is that there’s now a good chance of getting legislation that drops the corporate rate to 20 percent while also eliminating the deduction for state and local income taxes. Those are two very good policies. And if we somehow get death tax repeal, that means three substantive, pro-growth reforms. Fingers crossed.

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The swamp is pulsating with excitement. For the lobbying community, tax reform is like Christmas. No matter what happens, they win because of lucrative retainers and fat contracts.

And what about libertarian policy wonks? What do we get? Well, we look at the sausage-making process in Washington with disdain, but we hope that the final outcome is a less-destructive tax system.

And there are some interesting debates along the way. Here’s an interview I did a couple of days ago with Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. We touch on several topics relating to tax reform, but pay close attention to the discussion on federal spending and red ink because you’ll see a very interesting mix of agreement and disagreement.

There are big areas of overlap. We both like spending restraint. We both favor getting rid of loopholes (though I fear she may favor the Haig-Simons definition of loopholes rather than the consumption-base definition). And we both seem to agree that lower tax rates can improve economic performance.

But it seems we might diverge on whether a stand-alone tax cut is desirable. My view is that the right kind of tax cut will boost incentives for productive behavior. Yes, that can produce more red ink, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it “starves the beast” and creates pressure to restrain the growth of spending. I’m motivated by a desire to limit the overall size of government.

Maya, by contrast, is not happy that Congress is considering a stand-alone tax cut. As a “deficit hawk,” she would prefer that the tax cut be “paid for” with spending restraint or by cutting back on tax preferences. She is motivated by a desire to limit red ink.

For what it’s worth, I think she’s focusing on the symptom or red ink when it would be better to focus on the underlying disease of excessive spending.

I think this 2×2 matrix is a good way of illustrating our areas of agreement and disagreement. Libertarians like me are in the top-left box. Indeed, in the top-left corner of the top-left box. I want less spending and lower taxes. Deficit hawks like Maya, by contrast, are going to be somewhere in the lower-left box since they want less spending but are open to higher taxes.

I also added other groups to the matrix, such as Reaganites (i.e. the Gipper), populists (i.e., Trump), and so-called compassionate conservatives (i.e., Bush). As well as some Democratic politicians such as Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Crazy Bernie. Since I’m going by gut instinct, I’m not going to claim everybody is in the exact right spot, but I do think this is a decent representation of the real debate in Washington.

But it’s not a perfect representation. For instance, we know the folks in the lower-left box care about red ink. But you can also find people in the top-left box and lower-right box who favor balanced budgets. Perhaps there should be a diagonal line from the top left to the lower right so that we can see who wants balanced budgets and/or budget surpluses.

So here’s a slightly more cluttered version of my fiscal matrix.

And I added Hong Kong and Sweden to the matrix to show that balanced budgets are possible with small government or big government.

Last but not least, I decided to create one more visual. The fiscal matrix is mostly designed to show preferences on spending and taxes, with the obvious implication that people below the diagonal line don’t like deficits.

But if we consider just red ink, here’s a spectrum showing how people view deficits. Maya and her group are in the deficits-are-horrible camp on one end, while the deficits-are-wonderful Keynesians are on the other end. And I put myself in the middle to represent the alleged voice of moderation.

Though even this spectrum isn’t really accurate since Keynes only believed in deficits during a downturn. And I confess I have no idea whether Maya would support red ink in that circumstance.

By the way, I can’t resist commenting on a few other moments in the interview.

  • First, Maya said that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves. That’s true (except in rare circumstances), but it’s still very important to realize that supply-side tax cuts can produce some degree of revenue feedback.
  • Second, modest spending restraint would enable both huge tax cuts and a balanced budget.
  • Third, Republicans in Congress actually approved budgets that restrained spending when Obama was in the White House (hence, my reference in the interview to the Ryan budgets).

I’ll close with a grim prediction. The tax reform battle will be Part II of the Obamacare repeal battle. I fear the effort will come to naught. Those 76,000 pages in the tax code are defended by too many powerful interest groups.

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House Republicans have unveiled their much-anticipated tax plan.

Is this something to celebrate? Well, that depends on whether you’re grading on a curve. Compared to a pure, simple, and fair flat tax, it’s timid and disappointing.

But compared to today’s wretched and unfair tax code, there are some very positive changes.

At the end of 2015, I reviewed the major tax plans put forth by the various presidential candidates, grading them on issues such as tax rates, double taxation, and simplicity.

Trump’s plan got the lowest score, though “B-” nonetheless represented a non-trivial improvement over the status quo.

And since he wound up in the White House, nobody should be surprised to see that many of his priorities are reflected in the House plan.

So let’s grade the major provisions of this new proposal (with the caveat that grades may change as more details emerge).

Lower corporate rate: A

America’s high corporate tax rate is probably the most self-destructive feature of the current system. If the rate is permanently reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent, that will be a huge boost to competitiveness.

Lower individual rates: C+

The proposal is relatively timid on rate reductions for households. This is disappointing, but not unexpected since lower individual tax rates mean considerable revenue loss.

Ending deduction for state and local income taxes: A-

Next to the lower corporate tax rate, this is the most encouraging part of the proposal. It generates revenue to use for pro-growth provisions while also eliminating a subsidy for bad policy on the part of state and local governments.

Curtailing mortgage interest deduction: B-

Instead of allowing mortgage interest deduction on homes up to $1 million, the cap is reduced to $500,000. A modest but positive improvement that will reduce the distortion that creates a bias for residential real estate compared to business investment.

Death tax repeal: A-

Don’t die for six years, because that’s how long it will take before the death tax is repealed. But if we actually get to that point, this will represent a very positive change to the tax system.

Change to consumer price index: C

It is quite likely that the consumer price index overstates inflation because it doesn’t properly capture increases in the quality of goods and service. Shifting to a different price index will lead to higher revenues because tax brackets and other provisions of the tax code won’t adjust at the same rate. That’s fine, but I’m dissatisfied with this provision since it should apply to spending programs as well as the tax code.

Reduced business interest deduction: C+

The business interest deduction is partially undone, which is a step toward equal treatment of debt and equity. It’s not the right way of achieving that goal, but it does generate revenue to finance other pro-growth changes in the legislation.

Here’s a useful summary from the Wall Street Journal of changes to business taxation.

Now let’s zoom out and grade the overall plan in terms of major fiscal and economic goals.

Restraining the growth of government: F

In my fantasy world, I want a return to the very small federal government created and envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In the real world, I simply hope for a modest bit of spending restraint. This legislation doesn’t even pretend to curtail the growth of government, which is unfortunate since some fiscal prudence (federal budget growing about 2 percent per year) would have allowed a very large tax cut while also balancing the budget within 10 years.

Collecting revenue in a less-destructive manner: B

This is a positive proposal. It will mean more jobs, increased competitiveness, and higher incomes. The wonks in Washington doubtlessly will debate whether these positive effects are small or large, but I’m not overly fixated on that issue. Yes, I think the growth effects will be significant, but I also realize that many other policies also determine economic performance. The most important thing to understand, thought is that even small increases in growth make a big difference over time.

The bottom line is that half a loaf (or, in this case, a fourth of a loaf) is better than nothing. House Republicans have a good plan. Now the question is whether the Senate makes it better or worse (hint: don’t be optimistic).

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It’s not easy being a libertarian in the policy world of Washington. I view the flat tax as a timid intermediate step, with the real goal being a tiny federal government (like the Founding Fathers envisioned) that can be financed without any broad-based tax.

Yet even my timid intermediate step is considered radical and impractical by DC standards. There’s no discussion of fundamental tax reform. Instead, the  debate revolves around whether we can reduce a couple of tax rates in one part of the code and “pay for” those changes by altering some provisions in another part of the code.

This is very frustrating, which is why I joked with Neil Cavuto that we could kill two birds with one stone by trading Trump, Hillary, Manafort, and Podesta to Russia in exchange for that country’s 13 percent flat tax.

But I want to address a couple of serious points in the interview.

To conclude, most people assume that something will pass simply because GOPers desperately need some sort of victory to compensate for their failure to repeal (or even just tinker with) Obamacare.

That’s true, but that doesn’t change the fact that any bill can be defeated if Democrats are unified in opposition and a small handful of Republicans decide to vote no.

By the way, I’m not completely unsympathetic to some of the Republicans who are wavering on whether to vote for a reform bill. Consider their predicament: If there’s a bill that cuts the corporate tax rate and gets rid of the deduction for state and local income taxes (to my chagrin, I’m assuming property taxes will still be deductible), that will be a net plus for the economy. But, depending on other provisions in the legislation, it may mean that a non-trivial number of voters (especially from high-tax states) will be hit with a tax increase.

Members of Congress who want good policy can explain to those voters that the economy will grow faster. They can tell those voters that their state politicians now will be more likely to reduce state income tax burdens. I think those assertions are true, but voters looking at higher tax burdens probably won’t care about those long-run effects.

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I’ve been arguing all year that a substantially lower corporate tax rate is the most vital goal of tax reform for reasons of competitiveness.

And I continued to beat that drum in an interview last week with Fox Business.

The Wall Street Journal agrees that the time has come for a lower corporate rate. Unless, of course, one would prefer the United States to fall even further behind other countries.

President Emmanuel Macron last week pushed a budget featuring substantial tax relief through the National Assembly. The top rate on corporate profits will fall to 28% by 2020 from 33.33% today, and Mr. Macron has promised 25% by 2022. …Critics branded Mr. Macron “the President for the rich” for these overhauls, but the main effect will be to stimulate investment and job creation… The Netherlands also is jumping on the bandwagon. Prime Minister Mark Rutte promises to cut the top corporate rate to 21% from 25% by 2021… Do American politicians really want to have to explain to voters why they let the U.S. trail even France?

For the most part, opponents of tax reform in the United States understand that they have lost the competitiveness argument. So they will pay lip service to the notion that a lower corporate rate is desirable (heck, even Obama notionally agreed), but they will fret about the loss of tax revenue and a supposed windfall for the “rich.”

I agree that tax revenues will decrease, at least in the short run. But there’s some very good research showing the long-run revenue-maximizing corporate rate is somewhere between 15 percent and 25 percent.

And Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute reviewed fifty years of data for industrialized nations and ascertained that lower tax rates are associated with rising revenue.

There’s also good evidence from Canada and the United Kingdom if you want country-specific examples of the relationship between corporate tax rates and corporate tax revenue.

By the way, even left-leaning multilateral bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have published research showing the same thing.

And what about the debate over whether the “rich” benefit?

That issue is a red herring. Yes, shareholders of companies, on average, have higher incomes, and they will benefit if the rate is reduced, but I’ve never been motivated by animosity against those with more money (assuming they earned their money rather than mooching off the government).

What does get my juices flowing, however, is growth. And if we can get more dynamism in the economy, that translates into more jobs and higher income.

A new report from the Council of Economic Advisers estimates the potential benefit for ordinary people.

Reducing the statutory federal corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent would, the analysis below suggests, increase average household income in the United States by, very conservatively, $4,000 annually. …Moreover, the broad range of results in the literature suggest that over a decade, this effect could be much larger.

There’s some good cross-country data showing nations with lower corporate tax rates do better.

Between 2012 and 2016, the 10 lowest corporate tax countries of the OECD had corporate tax rates 13.9 percentage points lower than the 10 highest corporate tax countries, about the same scale as the reduction currently under consideration in the U.S. The average wage growth in the low tax countries has been dramatically higher.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

As you can see, there’s a clear divergence between higher-tax and lower-tax nations. Though, given the limited time period in the chart and the fact that many other factors can impact wage growth, I’m actually more persuaded by some of the other empirical research cited in the CEA report.

Arulpalapam et al (2012) find that workers pay nearly 50 percent of the tax, while Desai et al (2007) estimate a worker share of 45 to 75 percent. Gravelle and Smetters (2006) generate a rate of 21 percent when the rate of capital mobility across countries is moderate and 73 percent when capital can flow freely, evidence that the labor incidence is likely both dynamic and positively correlated with the rate of international capital transfers. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study (Randolph, 2006) finds that workers bear 70 percent of the corporate income tax burden in the baseline and 59 to 91 percent in alternative specifications. In a summary study, Jensen and Mathur (2011) argue for an assumption of greater than 50 percent. …A cross-country study by Hassett and Mathur (2006) based on 65 countries and 25 years of data finds that the elasticity of worker wages in manufacturing after five years with respect to the highest marginal tax rate in a country is as low as -1.0 in some specifications, although other sets of control variables increase the elasticity to -0.3. Expanded analysis by Felix (2007) follows the Hassett and Mathur strategy, but incorporates additional control variables, including worker education levels. Felix settles on an elasticity of worker wages with respect to corporate income taxes of -0.4, at the high end of the Hassett and Mathur range. …Felix (2009) estimates an elasticity of worker wages with respect to corporate income tax rates based on variation in the marginal tax rate across U.S. states. In this case, the elasticity is substantially lower; a 1 percentage point increase in the top marginal state corporate rate reduces gross wages by 0.14 to 0.36 percent over the entire period (1977-2005) and by up to 0.45 percent for the most recent period in her data (2000-2005). …Desai et al (2007)…measure both the changes in worker wages and changes in capital income associated with corporate income tax changes. The estimated labor burden of the corporate tax rate varies from 45 to 75 percent under various specifications in the paper.

That’s a lot of jargon, so I suspect that many readers will find data from Germany and Australia to be more useful when considering how workers benefit from lower corporate rates.

P.S. While I think a lower corporate tax rate may result in more revenue over time, that’s definitely not my goal.

P.P.S. The biggest obstacle to good tax policy is the unwillingness of Republicans to impose even a modest amount of spending restraint.

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I’ve written a couple of times to explain why the deduction for state and local taxes should be eliminated as part of pro-growth tax reform.

One of my main arguments, as I pointed out at the beginning of this interview, is that Republicans are generally unwilling to finance pro-growth tax changes by restraining government spending.

And since GOPers are too timid on spending, that means “revenue offsets” are needed to finance the good provisions in tax reform (assuming the goal is to make such changes permanent).

But this second-best approach can still be very good if the right loopholes are targeted.

In other words, wiping out the deduction is a good idea as a general principle, but it’s a very good idea in today’s environment since it would produce a lot of revenue to “offset” the cost of lowering tax rates and making our awful tax system less onerous. Plus, the deduction is unfair and inconsistent with principles of good policy.

Many organization point out that generating revenues by getting rid of the state and local deduction would be a win-win situation.

The National Taxpayers Union is not a fan.

…the provision departs from principles of sound tax policy and unwisely abets the behavior of high-tax states, enabling big government.

And the Heritage Foundation doesn’t like the loophole.

The deduction for state and local taxes creates winners and losers within states. Higher-income taxpayers win; lower-income taxpayers lose.

The Tax Foundation has weighed in.

The deduction favors high-income, high-tax states like California and New York, which together receive nearly one-third of the deduction’s total value nationwide.

Along with the American Enterprise Institute.

…repealing the state and local tax deduction would be an important move toward broadening the tax base.

Americans for Tax Reform also opposes the deduction.

…this deduction actually subsidizes upper income earners in high tax states.

And the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a fact sheet with lots of data.

…nearly all filers (~99.7%) would likely benefit from a lower rate and increased standard deduction notwithstanding the loss of SALT.

National Review rejects the loophole.

Getting rid of state-tax deductibility is…good policy. …deductions mainly benefit higher-income households. …The federal government…should not use the tax code to encourage or discourage.

But the most powerful and persuasive evidence for getting rid of the deduction is that organizations favoring higher taxes and bigger government openly admit that the loophole encourages and enables bad policy (what they would call good policy) at the state and local level. You don’t have to believe me. Here are some passages from a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

…with this deduction, higher-income filers are more willing to support state and local taxes. …Ending the SALT deduction would strain state budgets over time by making it harder for states and localities to raise…revenues… The GOP tax plan…would threaten many states’ ability to raise…revenue.

What’s amazing is that the report openly acknowledges that the deduction overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy, something that CBPP normally doesn’t like because of their support for class-warfare taxation.

But if one’s goal is bigger government, you acquiesce to reverse class warfare when it makes life easier for tax-aholic politicians in states such as CaliforniaConnecticutIllinoisNew York, and New Jersey.

The lesson for the rest of us, though, is that if CBPP thinks this preference for the rich is worth preserving, the rest of us should want it abolished.

Let’s close with some analysis that is compelling to me. Here’s what Ronald Reagan said when he tried to eliminate this odious loophole back in the 1980s.

P.S. I still prefer the first-best option of tax reform financed by spending restraint. If Republicans simply limited federal spending so it grew by 1.96 percent per year over the next 10 years, that would enable both a balanced budget and a $3 trillion tax cut. And that’s even with static scoring!

P.P.S. Back during the debate on tax reform in the 1980s, Reagan also opposed the VAT. Helps to explain why I admire the Gipper so much.

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If tax policy was a religion, the Holy Trinity of reform would be very straightforward.

But if tax policy was a meal, the first two items would be the dessert and the last item would be the vegetable. Simply stated, politicians like lowering tax rates and reducing double taxation because that makes most people happy (at least the ones who actually pay tax).

But when you take away loopholes, the people who benefit from those preferences are unhappy. And they get very noisy. Interest groups hire lobbyists. Trade associations spring into action. Campaign contribution get dispensed.

If tax policy was a movie, it would be Revenge of the Swamp Creatures.

In this clip from a recent interview, I talk about some of the dessert, specifically a much-needed reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Bu today I want to focus more on the vegetables of itemized deductions.

Here’s some of what Reuters reported last month about the swamp gearing up to protect its privileges.

…industry groups and other sectors of society are gearing up to fight proposed changes to the personal income tax. …proposed changes to the personal tax code have already stirred opposition from realtors, home builders, mortgage lenders and charities.

And here’s a description of what might happen and the impact.

To simplify the tax code, Republicans have proposed eliminating nearly all tax write-offs including those for state and local taxes, then doubling the standard deduction. This would eliminate the incentive to itemize and should drastically reduce the number of taxpayers who do so. Currently, many taxpayers use itemized deductions, claiming write-offs for things like charitable contributions, interest paid on a mortgage and state and local taxes. If the standard deduction becomes larger, fewer taxpayers will need to itemize, reducing the incentive to hold a mortgage or contribute to charity. …Estimates suggest more than half of taxpayers would stop itemizing under the proposed plan.

Should we hope that these reforms occurs? If people lose or forego itemized deductions, would that be a good outcome?

As a long-time fan of the flat tax, I’m obviously not a fan of these preferences. Though I always stress that I only want to get rid of loopholes if the money is used to finance lower tax rates. At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t want the money being used to finance bigger government.

Let’s see what others have said, starting with Justin Fox’s column for Bloomberg. He’s not happy that loopholes disproportionately benefits taxpayers with above-average incomes.

Let’s talk about upper-middle-class entitlements, the subsidies that flow almost entirely to those in the upper fifth or even tenth of the income distribution. …Why do these subsidies continue…? Mainly, it seems, because they’ve been granted to a sizable, influential population who, it is feared, will fight any effort to take them away. There are other interested parties, too — the real estate industry and mortgage lenders in the case of the mortgage interest deduction… But mainly it’s the millions of upper-middle-class Americans who, like me and my family, are beneficiaries of tax subsidies.

He’s right. I’m more upset about the economic distortions these preference create, but there’s no doubt that upper-income taxpayers reap most of the benefits.

Here’s his conclusion, which I think is spot on.

…if these tax breaks had never become law, no one would really miss them. Houses might cost a bit less. College might be slightly cheaper. Income tax rates might be a little lower. The economy might run a little bit more smoothly. So … how do we get to that place from here?

By the way, Fox includes a chart showing how richer taxpayers get more benefit from the mortgage interest deduction.

That’s certainly true, and I’ve previously shared data showing how the middle class gets almost nothing from itemized deductions compared to high-income taxpayers.

Let’s focus specifically on those goodies for the rich. This chart from the Tax Foundation reveals that the state and local tax break is especially lucrative.

For what it’s worth, the state and local deduction is my least favorite, so I’d like to see this chart change.

Though the healthcare exclusion may do even more economic damage (I assume it’s not included in the above chart since it’s an exclusion rather than a deduction).

But the bottom line of today’s column is that we’re not going to get the dessert of lower tax rates unless policy makers are willing to eat some vegetables – i.e., get rid of some tax preferences. Or, to be more exact, it will be impossible, given congressional budget rules, to have any sort of meaningful permanent reforms of the tax system unless there are revenue raisers to offset the tax cuts.

P.S. In any discussion of tax preferences, it’s important to properly define a loophole. Folks on the right generally think income should be taxed only one time (technically, they favor “consumption-base” taxation). So a loophole is a provision that results in zero tax on a particular activity.

Folks on the left generally think the tax code should impose double taxation (technically, they favor “Haig-Simons” taxation). So they have a much bigger list of loopholes, mostly focused on provisions that limit the extra layers of tax imposed on income that is saved and invested. 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.

By the way, Justin Fox presumably is in the Haig-Simons camp since his column treats the capital gains tax and 401(k)s as loopholes. But he cited one of my columns, so I can’t bring myself to criticize him.

P.P.S. It (almost) goes without saying that many folks on the left want to curtail tax breaks. They openly argue that it is good to divert a larger share of income into the hands of politicians and in order to facilitate bigger government. Some of them are even honest enough (crazy enough?) to openly assert that all income belongs to the government.

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Whenever I see an otherwise sensible person express support for a value-added tax, it triggers a Pavlovian response. And it’s not a favorable reaction.

But I just read a pro-VAT column and I liked it.

So what happened? Have I surrendered to big government? Did I ingest some magic mushrooms?

Actually, I think you’ll agree that I’m still the same lovable guy. Yes, Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (also a Cato adjunct scholar) has a column in the Wall Street Journal that embraces a VAT. But unlike all of the others I just cited, he includes a condition that is mandatory, necessary, vital, and non-negotiable. It’s so important that it deserves the opposite of fine-print treatment.

…eliminate entirely the personal and corporate income tax, estate tax and all other federal taxes. …it is essential that the VAT replace rather than add to the current tax system, as it does in Europe.

Amen. John hits the nail on the head.

The VAT isn’t theoretically bad. Like the flat tax, it would have one rate. There also would be no double taxation of saving and investment. And it also can be designed to have no loopholes.

In other words, the good news is that the VAT – when compared to the internal revenue code – is a less-destructive way of generating revenue.

The bad news, though, is that the VAT is capable of generating a lot of revenue. And as we’ve seen in Europe, that’s a recipe for enabling a larger burden of government spending.

Which is why the idea of a VAT should only be on the table if the plan would first abolish all other federal taxes. Which is what John is proposing.

Except I’d take it one step farther. Just like I’ve argued when contemplating a national sales tax, I’d only allow the VAT if we first repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsberg couldn’t rule in favor of an income tax at some point in the future.

By the way, John is right that the economy would grow faster if the income tax was totally abolished. The current system is filled with warts.

Much of the current tax mess results from taxing income. Once the government taxes income, it must tax corporate income or people would incorporate to avoid paying taxes. Yet the right corporate tax rate is zero. Every cent of corporate tax comes from people via higher prices, lower wages, or lower payments to shareholders. And a corporate tax produces an army of lawyers and lobbyists demanding exemptions. An income tax also leads to taxes on capital income. Capital income taxes discourage saving and investment. But the government is forced to tax capital income because otherwise people can hide wages… The estate tax can take close to half a marginal dollar of wealth. This creates a strong incentive to blow the family money on a round-the-world cruise, to spend lavishly on lawyers, or to invest inefficiently to avoid the tax. …A reformed tax code should involve no deductions—including the holy trinity of mortgage interest, employer-provided health insurance, and charitable deductions. The interest groups for each of these deductions are strong. But if the government doesn’t tax income in the first place, these deductions vanish without a fight.

By the way, I will quibble with a couple of things he wrote.

First, I don’t necessarily think the correct corporate tax rate is zero. What’s important is eliminating either the corporate tax or the tax on dividends. That way the income is only taxed once. And since it’s probably administratively easier to tax the income once at the business level rather than once at the shareholder level, I’m not fixated on abolishing the corporate tax.

Second, it’s very important to get rid of double taxation (what he calls “capital income”), but you don’t need a VAT to make that happen. There’s no double taxation with a flat tax.

Third, he should have explicitly included the state and local tax deduction in his list of loopholes to abolish (I’m guessing he assumed it would be the first deduction on the chopping block and therefore didn’t need to be mentioned).

There’s another part of John’s column that deserves attention. He points out that you need to have small government if you want a low tax burden.

…if the federal government is going to spend 20% of gross domestic product, the VAT will sooner or later have to be about 20%. Tax reform is stymied because politicians mix arguments over the rates with arguments over the structure of taxes. This is a mistake. They should first agree to fix the structure of the tax code, and later argue about rates—and the spending those rates must support.

At the risk of being pedantic, I think the VAT rate would have to be significantly above 20 percent, both because the tax base will be smaller than GDP and also because there will be loopholes or rebates. But the point he’s making is spot on. You can’t have a low tax rate and a big government. I’ve made the same point when writing about Belgium and Germany, nations where middle-class taxpayers are pillaged because the welfare state is too big.

My bottom line on this issue is that Professor Cochrane has produced a column showing that a VAT is theoretically worth considering, but only if all other federal taxes are permanently abolished.

But since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I don’t think there’s any reason to ease up on my dogmatic (and pragmatic) opposition to that levy.

P.S. My clinching argument is that Reagan opposed a VAT and Nixon supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

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Why were the Reagan tax cuts so successful? Why did the economy rebound so dramatically from the malaise of the 1970s?

The easy answer is that we got better tax policy, especially lower marginal tax rates on personal and business income. Those lower rates reduced the “price” of engaging in productive behavior, which led to more work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

That’s right, but there’s a story behind the story. Reagan’s tax policy (especially the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981) was good because the President and his team ignored the class-warfare crowd. They didn’t care whether all income groups got the same degree of tax relief. They didn’t care about static distribution tables. They didn’t care about complaints that “the rich” benefited.

They simply wanted to reduce the onerous barriers that the tax system imposed on the economy. They understood – and this is critically important – that faster growth was the best way to help everyone in America, including the less fortunate.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal thinks that Donald Trump may be taking the same approach. Her column today basically argues that the President is making a supply-side case for growth. She starts by taking a shot at self-styled “reform conservatives.”

In May 2014, a broad collection of thinkers and politicians gathered in Washington to celebrate a new conservative “manifesto.” The document called for replacing stodgy old Reaganite economics with warmer, fuzzier handouts to the middle class.

She’s happy Trump isn’t following their advice (and I largely agree).

Donald Trump must have missed the memo. …Mr. Trump wants to make Reagan-style tax reform great again.

The class-warfare crowd is not happy about Trump’s pro-growth message, Kimberley writes.

The left saw this clearly, which explains its furious and frustrated reaction to the speech. …Democratic strategist Robert Shrum railed in a Politico piece that the “plutocrat” Mr. Trump was pitching a tax cut for “corporations and the top 1 percent” yet was getting away with a “perverted populism.” …Mr. Trump is selling pro-growth policies—something his party has forgotten how to do. …The left has defined the tax debate for decades in terms of pure class warfare. Republicans have so often been cast as stooges for the rich that the GOP is scared to make the full-throated case for a freer and fairer tax system. …Mr. Trump isn’t playing this game—and that’s why the left is unhappy. The president wants to reduce business tax rates significantly… He wants to simplify the tax code in a way that will eliminate many cherished carve-outs. …his address was largely a hymn to supply-side economics, stunning Democrats who believed they’d forever dispelled such voodoo. …Mr. Trump busted up the left’s class-warfare model. He didn’t make tax reform about blue-collar workers fighting corporate America. Instead it was a question of “our workers” and “our companies” and “our country” competing against China. He noted that America’s high tax rates force companies to move overseas. He directly and correctly tied corporate rate cuts to prosperity for workers, noting that tax reform would “keep jobs in America, create jobs in America,” and lead to higher wages.

Amen. That’s the point I made last week about investment being the key to prosperity for ordinary people.

Ms. Strassel concludes by putting pressure on Congress to do its job and get a bill to the President’s desk.

His opening salvo has given Republicans the cover to push ahead, as well as valuable pointers on selling growth economics. If they can’t get the job done—with the power they now have in Washington—they’d best admit the Democrats’ class-warfare “populism” has won.

I largely agree with Kimberley’s analysis. Trump’s message of jobs, growth, and competitiveness is spot on. His proposal for a 15 percent corporate rate would be very good for the economy. And I also agree with her that it’s up to congressional Republicans to move the ball over the goal line.

But I also think she’s giving Trump too much credit. As I point out in this interview, the Administration isn’t really playing a major role in the negotiations. The folks on Capitol Hill are doing the real work while the President is waiting around for a bill to sign.

Moreover, I’ve been repeatedly warning that there are some very difficult issues that Congress needs to decide.

Since big companies will benefit from a lower corporate rate, will there be similar tax relief for small businesses that file using “Schedule C” of the individual income tax? That’s a good idea, but there are big revenue implications.

Since Republicans (and this definitely includes Trump) are weak on spending, will they achieve deficit neutrality (necessary for permanent reform) by eliminating loopholes? That’s a good idea, but interest groups will resist.

Unfortunately, the White House isn’t offering much help on these issues. The President simply wants big tax cuts and is leaving these tough decisions to everyone else.

P.S. I should have been more specific in the interview. I said we would have a flat tax in my “fantasy world” but that I would settle for partial reform in my “ideal world.” I was grading on a curve, so I want to redeem myself. Here’s how things really rank.

P.P.S. I’m very hopeful that lawmakers will get rid of the deduction for state and local taxes. Not only would that provide some revenue that can be used for pro-growth changes, but it also would get rid of a very unfair distortion that enables higher taxes in states such as Illinois, California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

P.P.P.S. I have no objection to family-oriented tax relief and other policies that target middle-class taxpayers. Such provisions are politically useful since they expand the coalition of supporters. But I want policy makers to understand that economic growth is the best way of helping everyone – including the poor. That’s why supply-side provisions should be the primary focus of any tax package.

P.P.P.P.S. The class-warfare crowd doesn’t like lower tax rates on upper-income taxpayers. They argue that rich people won’t pay enough and that the government will be starved of revenue. Yet they have no answer when I show them this IRS data. Or this data from the United Kingdom. Or this data from France.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Notwithstanding the title of today’s column, I don’t think Trump is a principled supply-sider like Reagan. But it might be accurate to say he’s a practical supply sider like President John F. Kennedy.

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While I realize there’s zero hope of ripping up America’s awful tax code and getting a simple and fair flat tax, I’m nonetheless hopeful that there will be some meaningful incremental changes as part of the current effort to achieve some sort of tax reform.

A package that lowers the corporate rate, replaces depreciation with expensing, and ends the death tax would be very good for growth, and those good reforms could be at least partially financed by eliminating the state and local tax deduction and curtailing business interest deductions so that debt and equity are on a level playing field.

All that sounds good, and a package like this should be feasible since Republicans control both Congress and the White House (especially now that the BAT is off the table), but I warn in this interview that there are lots of big obstacles that could cause tax reform to become a disaster akin to the Obamacare repeal effort.

Here’s my list of conflicts that need to be solved in order to get some sort of plan through Congress and on to the President’s desk.

  • Carried interest – Trump wants to impose a higher capital gains tax on a specific type of investment, but this irks many congressional GOPers who have long understood that any capital gains tax is a form of double taxation and should be abolished. The issue apparently has some symbolic importance to the President and it could become a major stumbling block if he digs in his heels.
  • Tax cut or revenue neutrality – Budget rules basically require that tax cuts expire after 10 years. To avoid this outcome (which would undermine the pro-growth impact of any reforms), many lawmakers want a revenue-neutral package that could be permanent. But that means coming up with tax increases to offset tax cuts. That’s okay if undesirable tax preferences are being eliminated to produce more revenue, but defenders of those loopholes will then lobby against the plan.
  • Big business vs small business – Everyone agrees that America’s high corporate tax rate is bad news for competitiveness and should be reduced. The vast majority of small businesses, however, pay taxes through “Schedule C” of the individual income tax, so they want lower personal rates to match lower corporate rates. That’s a good idea, of course, but would have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.
  • Budget balance – Republicans have long claimed that a major goal is balancing the budget within 10 years. That’s certainly achievable with a modest amount of spending restraint. And it’s even relatively simple to have a big tax cut and still achieve balance in 10 years with a bit of extra spending discipline. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s very little appetite for spending restraint in the White House or Capitol Hill, and this may hinder passage of a tax plan.
  • Middle class tax relief – The main focus of the tax plan is boosting growth and competitiveness by reducing the burden on businesses and investment. That’s laudable, but critics will say “the rich” will get most of the tax relief. And even though the rich already pay most of the taxes and even though the rest of us will benefit from faster growth, Republicans are sensitive to that line of attack. So they will want to include some sort of provision designed for the middle class, but that will have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.

There’s another complicating factor. At the risk of understatement, President Trump generates controversy. And this means he doesn’t have much power to use the bully pulpit.

Though I point out in this interview that this doesn’t necessarily cripple tax reform since the President’s most important role is to simply sign the legislation.

Before the 2016 election, I was somewhat optimistic about tax reform.

A few months ago, I was very pessimistic.

I now think something will happen, if for no other reason than Republicans desperately want to achieve something after botching Obamacare repeal.

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It’s depressing to see how Republicans are bungling the Obamacare issue. But it’s also understandable since it’s politically difficult to reduce handouts once people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency (a point I made even before Obamacare was enacted).

Unfortunately, I fear that the GOP might bungle the tax issue as well. I was interviewed the other day by Dana Loesch on this topic and highlighted several issues.

Here’s the full discussion.

What’s especially frustrating about this issue is that taxes should be reduced. A lot.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute debunks six tax myths. Here they are, followed by my two cents.

Myth #1: Long-term deficits are driven by tax cuts and falling revenues

Fact: They are driven entirely by rapid spending growth

Brian nails it. I made this same point earlier this year. Indeed, because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time, it is accurate to say that more than 100 percent of the long-run fiscal problem is caused by excessive spending (particularly poorly designed entitlement programs).

Myth #2: Democratic tax proposals would significantly reduce the deficit

Fact: Their most common proposals would raise little revenue

Once again, Brian is right. There are ways to significantly increase the tax burden in America, such as a value-added tax. But the class-warfare ideas that attract a lot of support on the left won’t raise much revenue because upper-income taxpayers have substantial control over the timing, level and composition of their income.

Myth #3: Taxing millionaires and corporations can balance the long-term budget

Fact: These taxes cannot cover Washington’s current commitments, much less new liberal wish lists

Since even the IRS has admitted that upper-income taxpayers finance a hugely disproportionate share of the federal government, it hardly seems fair to subject them to even more onerous penalties. Especially since the IRS data from the 1980s suggest punitive rates could lead to less revenue rather than more.

Myth #4: The U.S. income tax is more regressive than other nations

Fact: It is the most progressive in the entire OECD

There are several ways to slice the data, so one can quibble with Brian’s assertion. But when comparing taxes paid by the rich compared to taxes paid by the poor, it is true that the United States relies more on upper-income taxpayers than any other developed nation. Not because we tax the rich more, but because we tax the poor less.

Myth #5: The U.S. tax code is becoming more regressive over time

Fact: It has become increasingly progressive over the past 35 years

Brian is right. Child credits, changes in the standard deduction and personal exemptions, and the EITC have combined in recent decades to take millions of households off the tax rolls. And since the U.S. thankfully does not have a value-added tax, lower-income people are largely protected from taxation.

Myth #6: Tax rates do not matter much to economic growth

Fact: They are among the most important factors

There are many factors that determine a nation’s economic success, including trade policy, regulation, monetary policy, and rule of law, so a good tax code isn’t a guarantor of prosperity and a bad tax system doesn’t automatically mean malaise. But Brian is right that taxation has a significant impact on growth.

In the interview, I said that I had two fantasies. First, I want to junk the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Second, I’d ultimately like to shrink government so much that we could eliminate the income tax entirely.

Many people don’t realize that income taxes only began to plague the world about 100 years ago.

If we can somehow restore the kind of limited government envisioned by America’s Founders, the dream of no income tax could become a reality once again.

But if Republicans can’t even manage to cut taxes today, when they control both the executive and legislative branch, then neither one of my fantasies will ever become reality.

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The federal income tax is corrosive and destructive. It’s almost as if a group of malicious people decided to deliberately design a system that imposes maximum damage while also allowing the most corruption.

The economic damage is not only the result of high tax rates and pervasive double taxation, but also because of loopholes that exist to bribe people into making economically unwise decisions.

These include itemized deductions for mortgages and charitable contributions, as well as the fringe benefits exclusion and the exemption for municipal bond interest. And there are many other corrupt favors sprinkled through a metastasizing tax code.

But there’s a strong case to be made that the worst loophole is the deduction for state and local taxes. Why? For the simple reason that it encourages, enables, and subsidizes bad policy.

Here’s how it works. State and local lawmakers can increase income taxes or property taxes and be partially insulated from political blowback because their taxpayers can deduct those taxes on their federal return.

And it’s a back-door way of giving a special break to upper-income taxpayers because the deduction is more valuable to people in higher tax brackets.

Let’s look at an example that’s currently in the news. Democrats in the Illinois state legislature want a big increase in the personal income tax. If they succeed and boost taxes by an average of $1000, high-income taxpayers who take advantage of the deduction may only suffer a loss of as little as $600 since their federal tax bill may fall by almost $400.

For politicians, this is an ideal racket. They can promise various interest groups $1000 of goodies while reducing take-home pay by a lesser amount.

Let’s review some recent commentary on this topic.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue last weekend.

Chuck Schumer aspires to raise taxes on every rich person in America, save one protected class: coastal progressives. …Like many other Democrats, he’s apoplectic about a plan to end the state and local tax deduction. …One goal of tax reform is to reduce unproductive tax loopholes, and ending the state and local deduction would generate revenue to finance lower rates: The deduction is worth about $100 billion a year… About 88% of the benefits in 2014 flowed to taxpayers who earn more than $100,000, while 1% went to those who earn less than $50,000. California alone reaps nearly 20% of the benefit…and a mere six states get more than half. …The folks underwriting this windfall are in Alaska, South Dakota, Wyoming and other places without a state income tax. …Eliminating the deduction would be a powerful incentive for Governors to cut state taxes on residents who are suddenly exposed to their full liability. …killing the state and local deduction would pay a double dividend: The first is creating a more equitable tax code with a broader base and lower rates. The second is spurring reform in states that are long overdue for a better tax climate.

Writing earlier this year for National Review, Kevin Williamson was characteristically blunt.

It’s time for…blue-state…tax increases that would fall most heavily on upper-income Americans in high-tax progressive states such as California and New York. …eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, a provision that takes some of the sting out of living in a high-tax jurisdiction such as New York City (which has both state and local income taxes) or California, home to the nation’s highest state-tax burden. Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing these significant tax increases on the rich. …allowing for the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

And Bob McManus adds his two cents in an article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

Voters in all heavy-tax, high-spending states have no one to blame for their situation save themselves. At a minimum, it seems clear that deductibility—by softening the impact of federal taxation—encourages outsize state and local spending. States that take advantage of deductibility—mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast—are in effect subsidized by states that have kept tighter control on their spending. …New York’s top-of-the-charts spending puts the state at the pinnacle…with New Yorkers paying a national high of 12.7 percent of income in state and local levies. Local property taxes in New York are astronomical and not coming down any time soon. …deductibility has powerful friends—among them the public-employee unions… New York and the nation would benefit if deductibility was jettisoned. …end the incentive for the tax-and-spend practices that have been so economically corrosive to big-spending Blue states.

Let’s close with the should-be-obvious point that the goal isn’t to repeal the state and local tax deduction in order to give politicians in Washington more money to spend. Instead, every penny of that revenue should be used to finance pro-growth tax reforms.

That creates a win-win situation of better tax policy in Washington, while also creating pressure for better tax policy at the state and local level.

For what it’s worth, both Trump and House Republicans are proposing to get rid of the deduction.

P.S. I mentioned at the start of this column that it would not be unreasonable to think that the tax code was deliberately designed to maximize economic damage. But even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t think that’s actually the case. Instead, our awful tax system is the result of 104 years of “public choice.”

P.P.S. Itemized deductions and other loopholes create distortions by allowing people to understate their income if they engage in approved behaviors. There are also provisions of the tax code – such as depreciation and worldwide taxation – that force taxpayers to overstate their income.

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If I had to pick my least-favorite tax loophole, the economist part of my brain would select the healthcare exclusion. After all, that special preference creates a destructive incentive for over-insurance and contributes (along with Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, etc) to the third-party payer crisis that is crippling America’s healthcare system.

But if I based my answer on the more visceral, instinctive portion of my brain, I would select the deduction for state and local taxes. As I’ve previously noted, that odious tax break enables higher taxes at the state and local level. Simply stated, greedy politicians in a state like California can boost tax rates and soothe anxious state taxpayers by telling them that they can use their higher payments to Sacramento as a deduction to reduce their payments to Washington.

What’s ironic about this loophole is that it’s basically a write-off for the rich. Only 30 percent of all taxpayers utilize the deduction for state and local taxes. But they’re not evenly distributed by income. Here’s a sobering table from a report by the Tax Foundation.

The beneficiaries also aren’t evenly distributed by geography.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing in dark blue that only a tiny part of the country benefits from this unfair loophole for high-income taxpayers.

As you can see from the map, the vast majority of the nation deducts less than $2,000 in state and local taxes.

But if you really want to see who benefits, don’t simply look at the dark blue sections. After all, most of those people would happily give up the state and local tax deduction in exchange for some of the other policies that are part of tax reform – particularly lower tax rates and less double taxation.

And I suspect that’s even true for the people who hugely benefit from the deduction. The biggest beneficiaries of this loophole are concentrated in a tiny handful of wealthy counties in New York, California, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

As you can see, they reap enormous advantages from the state and local tax deduction, though I suspect these same people also would benefit if tax rates were lowered and double taxation was reduced.

Regardless of who benefits and loses, there’s a more fundamental question. Should federal tax law be distorted to subsidize high tax burdens at the state and local level?

Kevin Williamson of National Review says no.

…the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

The Governor of New York, by contrast, argues that the tax code should subsidize his profligacy.

It would be “devastating on the state of New York, California, et cetera, if you didn’t allow the people of this state to deduct their state and local taxes,” Cuomo told reporters… State and local governments have been working to preserve the deduction, and they argue that doing away with the preference would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.

By the way, I noticed how the reporter displays bias. Instead of being honest and writing that that the loophole enables higher taxes, she writes that the loss of the preference “would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.”

Gee, anyone want to guess how that “flexibility” is displayed?

Though at least the reporter acknowledged that the deduction is primarily for rich people in blue states.

…the deduction…is viewed as disproportionately benefiting wealthy people. It also tends to be used in areas that lean Democratic.

And that’s confirmed by a 2016 news report from the Wall Street Journal.

Repealing the federal deduction for state and local taxes would make 23.6% of U.S. households pay an average of $2,348 more to the Internal Revenue Service for 2016. But those costs—almost $1.3 trillion over a decade—aren’t evenly spread… Ranked by the average potential tax increase, the top 13 states (including Washington, D.C.), as well as 16 of the top 17, voted twice for President Barack Obama. …And nearly one-third of the cost would be paid by residents of California and New York, two solidly Democratic states. …President Ronald Reagan tried repealing the deduction as part of the tax-code overhaul in 1986, but he was rebuffed by congressional Democrats and state officials. …Republicans argue that the break subsidizes high state taxes, because governors and legislators know they can raise income taxes on their citizens and have the federal government pick up part of the tab. …half the cost of repealing the deduction would be borne by households making $100,000 to $500,000, using a broad definition of income. Another 30% would be borne by households making more than $1 million. Under the GOP plans, residents of high-tax states wouldn’t necessarily pay more in federal taxes than they do now. They would benefit from tax-rate cuts.

Here’s one final image that underscores the unfairness of the deduction.

The Tax Policy Center has a report on the loophole for state and local taxes and they put together this chart showing that rich people are far more likely to take advantage of the deduction. And it’s worth much more for them than it is for lower-income Americans.

How much more? Well, more than 90 percent of taxpayers earning more than $1 million use the deduction and their average tax break is more than $260,000. By contrast, only a small fraction of taxpayers earning less than $50 thousand annually benefit from the deduction and they only get a tax break of about $3,800.

Yet leftists who complain about rich people manipulating the tax system usually defend this tax break.

It’s enough to make you think their real goal is bigger government.

I’ll close by calling attention to the mid-part of this interview. I shared it a couple of days ago as part of a big-picture discussion of Trump’s tax plan. But I specifically address the state and local tax deduction around 3:00 and 4:30 of the discussion.

P.S. In addition to the loophole that encourages higher taxes at the state and local level, there’s also a special tax preference that encourages higher spending at the state and local level. Sigh.

P.P.S. Now, perhaps, people will understand why I want to rip up the current system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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I expressed pessimism yesterday about Trump’s tax plan. Simply stated, I don’t think Congress is willing to enact a large tax cut given the nation’s grim fiscal outlook.

In this Fox Business interview, I elaborated on my concerns while also pointing out that the plan would be very good if it somehow got enacted.

We now have some preliminary numbers that illustrate why I’m concerned.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put together a quick guess about the revenue implications of Trump’s new plan. Their admittedly rough estimate is that federal revenues would be reduced by close to $6 trillion over 10 years.

Incidentally, these revenue estimates are very inaccurate because they are based on “static scoring,” which is the antiquated notion that major changes in tax policy have no impact on economic performance.

But these numbers nonetheless are useful since the Joint Committee on Taxation basically uses that approach when producing official revenue estimates that guide congressional action.

In other words, it doesn’t matter, at least for purposes of enacting legislation, that there would be substantial revenue feedback in the real world (the rich actually paid more, for instance, when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent). Politicians on Capitol Hill will point to the JCT’s static numbers, gasp with feigned horror, and use higher deficits as an excuse to vote no (even though those same lawmakers generally have no problem with red ink when voting to expand the burden of government spending).

That being said, they wouldn’t necessarily have that excuse if the Trump Administration was more aggressive about trying to shrink the size and scope of the federal government. So there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Until something changes, however, I don’t think Trump’s tax cut is very realistic. So if you want my prediction on what will happen, I’m sticking to the three options I shared yesterday.

  1. Congress and the White House decide to restrain spending, which easily would create room for a very large tax cut (what I prefer, but I won’t hold my breath for this option).
  2. Congress decides to adopt Trump’s tax cuts, but they balance the cuts with dangerous new sources of tax revenue, such as a border-adjustment tax, a carbon tax, or a value-added tax (the option I fear).
  3. Congress and the White House decide to go for a more targeted tax cut, such as a big reduction in the corporate income tax (which would be a significant victory).

By the way, the Wall Street Journal editorialized favorably about the plan this morning, mostly because it reflects the sensible supply-side view that it is good to have lower tax rates on productive behavior.

While the details are sparse and will have to be filled in by Congress, President Trump’s outline resembles the supply-side principles he campaigned on and is an ambitious and necessary economic course correction that would help restore broad-based U.S. prosperity. …Faster growth of 3% a year or more is possible, but it will take better policies, and tax reform is an indispensable lever. Mr. Trump’s modernization would be a huge improvement on the current tax code that would give the economy a big lift, especially on the corporate side. …The Trump principles show the President has made growth his highest priority, and they are a rebuke to the Washington consensus that 1% or 2% growth is the best America can do.

But the WSJ shares my assessment that the plan will not survive in its current form.

…the blueprint is being assailed from both the left and the balanced-budget right. The Trump economic team acknowledges that their plan would mean less federal revenue than current law… Mr. Trump’s plan is an opening bid to frame negotiations in Congress, and there are plenty of bargaining chips. Perhaps the corporate rate will rise to 20%… Budget rules and Democratic opposition could force Republicans to limit the reform to 10 years.

For what it’s worth, if the final result is a 15 percent or 20 percent corporate tax rate, I’ll actually be quite pleased. That reform would be very good for the economy and national competitiveness. And regardless of what JCT projects, there would be substantial revenue feedback.

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Fundamental tax reform such as a flat tax should accomplish three big goals.

The good news is that almost all Republicans believe in the first two goals and at least pay lip services to the third goal.

The bad news is that they nonetheless can’t be trusted with tax reform.

Here’s why. Major tax reform is based on the assumption that achieving the first two goals will lower tax revenue and achieving the third goal will generate tax revenue. A reform plan doesn’t have to be “revenue neutral,” of course, but politicians would be very reluctant to vote for a package that substantially reduced tax revenue. So serious proposals have revenue-raising provisions that are roughly similar in magnitude to the revenue-losing provisions.

Here’s the problem.   Notwithstanding lip service, Republicans are not willing to go after major tax loopholes like the healthcare exclusion. And that means that they are looking for other sources of revenue. In some cases, such as the proposal in the House plan to put debt and equity on a level playing field, they come up with decent ideas. In other cases, such as the border-adjustment tax, they come up with misguided ideas.

And some of them are even talking about very bad ideas, such as a value-added tax or carbon tax.

This is why it would be best to set aside tax reform and focus on a more limited agenda, such as a plan to lower the corporate tax rate. I discussed that idea a few weeks ago on Neil Cavuto’s show, and I echoed myself last week in another appearance on Fox Business.

Lest you think I’m being overly paranoid about Republicans doing the wrong thing, here’s what’s being reported in the establishment press.

The Hill is reporting that the Trump Administration is still undecided on the BAT.

The most controversial aspect of the House’s plan is its reliance on border adjustability to tax imports and exempt exports. …the White House has yet to fully embrace it. …If the administration opts against the border-adjustment proposal, it would have to find another way to raise revenue to pay for lowering tax rates.

While I hope the White House ultimately rejects the BAT, that won’t necessarily be good news if the Administration signs on to another new source of revenue.

And that’s apparently under discussion.

The Washington Post last week reported that the White House was looking at other ideas, including a value-added tax and a carbon tax… Even if administration officials are simply batting around ideas, it seems clear that Trump’s team is open to a different approach.

The Associated Press also tries to read the tea leaves and speculates whether the Trump Administration may try to cut or eliminate the Social Security payroll tax.

The administration’s first attempt to write legislation is in its early stages and the White House has kept much of it under wraps. But it has already sprouted the consideration of a series of unorthodox proposals including a drastic cut to the payroll tax, aimed at appealing to Democrats.

I’m not a big fan of fiddling with the payroll tax, and I definitely worry about making major changes.

Why? Because it’s quite likely politicians will replace it with a tax that is even worse.

This would require a new dedicated funding source for Social Security. The change, proposed by a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the Trump administration, would transform Brady’s plan on imports into something closer to a value-added tax by also eliminating the deduction of labor expenses. This would bring it in line with WTO rules and generate an additional $12 trillion over 10 years, according to budget estimates.

Last but not least, the New York Times has a story today on the latest machinations, and it appears that Republicans are no closer to a consensus today than they were the day Trump got inaugurated.

…it is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a simpler system, or even lower tax rates, this time next year. The Trump administration’s tax plan, promised in February, has yet to materialize; a House Republican plan has bogged down, taking as much fire from conservatives as liberals… Speaker Paul D. Ryan built a tax blueprint around a “border adjustment” tax… With no palpable support in the Senate, its prospects appear to be nearly dead. …The president’s own vision for a new tax system is muddled at best. In the past few months, he has called for taxing companies that move operations abroad, waffled on the border tax and, last week, called for a “reciprocal” tax that would match the import taxes other countries impose on the United States.

The report notes that Trump may have a personal reason to oppose one of the provisions of the House plan.

Perhaps the most consequential concern relates to a House Republican proposal to get rid of a rule that lets companies write off the interest they pay on loans — a move real estate developers and Mr. Trump vehemently oppose. Doing so would raise $1 trillion in revenue and reduce the appeal of one of Mr. Trump’s favorite business tools: debt.

From my perspective, the most encouraging part of the story is that the lack of consensus may lead Republicans to my position, which is simply to cut the corporate tax rate.

With little appetite for bipartisanship, many veterans of tax fights and lobbyists in Washington expect that Mr. Trump will ultimately embrace straight tax cuts, with some cleaning up of deductions, and call it a victory.

And I think that would be a victory as well, even though I ultimately want to junk the entire tax code and replace it with a flat tax.

P.S. In an ideal world, tax reform would be financed in large part with spending restraint. Sadly, Washington, DC, isn’t in the same galaxy as that ideal world.

P.P.S. To further explain why Republicans cannot be trusted, even if they mean well, recall that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both included VATs in the tax plans they unveiled during the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Since I’ve written that the International Monetary Fund is the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy,” I don’t think anyone could call me a fan of that international bureaucracy.

But I’ve also noted that the real problem with organizations like the IMF is that they have bad leadership. The professional economists at international bureaucracies often produce good theoretical and empirical work. That sensible research doesn’t make much difference, though, since the actual real-world policy decisions are made by political hacks with a statist orientation.

For instance, the economists at the IMF have produced research on the benefits of smaller government and spending caps. But the political leadership at the IMF routinely ignores that sensible research and instead has a dismal track record of pushing for tax increases.

Hope springs eternal, though, so I’m going to share some new IMF research on tax policy that is very sound. It’s from the second chapter of the bureaucracy’s newest Fiscal Monitor. Here are some excerpts, starting with an explanation of why the efficient allocation of resources is so important for prosperity.

A top challenge facing policymakers today is how to raise productivity, the key driver of living standards over the long term. …The IMF’s policy agenda has therefore emphasized the need to employ all policy levers, and in particular to promote growth-friendly fiscal policies that will boost productivity and potential output. Total factor productivity (TFP) at the country level reflects the productivity of individual firms…aggregate TFP depends on firms’ individual TFP and also on how available resources (labor and capital) are allocated across firms. Indeed, the poor use of existing resources within countries—referred to here as resource misallocation—has been found to be an important source of differences in TFP levels across countries and over time. …What is resource misallocation? Simply put, it is the poor distribution of resources across firms, reducing the total output that can be obtained from existing capital and labor.

The chapter notes that creative destruction plays a vital role in growth.

Baily, Hulten, and Campbell (1992) find that 50 percent of manufacturing productivity growth in the United States during the 1980s can be attributed to the reallocation of factors across plants and to firm entry and exit. Similarly, Barnett and others (2014) find that labor reallocation across firms explained 48 percent of labor productivity growth for most sectors in the U.K. economy in the five years prior to 2007.

And a better tax system would enable some of that growth by creating a level playing field.

Simply stated, you want people in the private sector to make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than because they’re taking advantage of some bizarre quirk in the tax code.

Potential TFP gains from reducing resource misallocation are substantial and could lift the annual real GDP growth rate by roughly 1 percentage point. …Upgrading the design of their tax systems can help countries chip away at resource misallocation by ensuring that firms’ decisions are made for business and not tax reasons. Governments can eliminate distortions that they themselves have created. …For instance, the current debt bias feature of some tax systems not only distorts financing decisions but hampers productivity as well, especially in the case of advanced economies. …Empirical evidence shows that greater tax disparity across capital asset types is associated with higher misallocation.

One of the main problems identified by the IMF experts is the tax bias for debt.

And since I wrote about this problem recently, I’m glad to see that there is widespread agreement on the economic harm that is created.

Corporate debt bias occurs when firms are allowed to deduct interest expenses, but not returns to equity, in calculating corporate tax liability. …Several options are available to eliminate the distortions arising from corporate debt bias and from tax disparities across capital asset types, including the allowance for corporate equity system and a cash flow tax. …In the simplest sense, a CFT is a tax levied on the money entering the business less the money leaving the business. A CFT entails immediate expensing of all investment expenditures (that is, 100 percent first-year depreciation allowances) and no deductibility of either interest payments or dividends. Therefore, if it is well designed and implemented, a CFT does not affect the decision to invest or the scale of investment, and it does not discriminate across sources of financing.

By the way, regular readers may notice that the IMF economists favor a cash-flow tax, which is basically how the business side of the flat tax operates. There is full expensing in that kind of system, and interest and dividends are treated equally.

This is also the approach in the House Better Way tax plan, so the consensus for cash-flow taxation is very broad (though the House wants a destination-based approach, which is misguided for several reasons).

But let’s not digress. There’s one other aspect of the IMF chapter that is worthy of attention. There’s explicit discussion of how high tax rates undermine tax compliance, which is music to my ears.

Several studies have shown that tax policy and tax administration affect the prevalence of informality and thus productivity. Colombia provides an interesting case study on the effect of taxation on informality. A 2012 tax reform that reduced payroll taxes was found to incentivize a shift of Colombian workers out of informal into formal employment. Leal Ordóñez (2014) finds that taxes and regulations play an important role in explaining informality in Mexico. For Brazil, Fajnzylber, Maloney, and Montes-Rojas (2011) show that tax reductions and simplification led to a significant increase in formal firms with higher levels of revenue and profits. While a higher tax burden contributes to the prevalence of informality… For 130 developing countries, a higher corporate tax rate is found to increase the prevalence of cheats among small manufacturing firms, lowering the share of sales reported for tax purposes.

In closing, I should point out that the IMF chapter is not perfect.

For instance, even though it cites research about how high tax rates reduce compliance, the chapter doesn’t push for lower rates. Instead, it endorses more power for national tax authorities. Makes me wonder if the political folks at the IMF imposed that recommendation on the folks who wrote the chapter?

Regardless, the overall analysis of the chapter is quite sound. It’s based on a proper understanding that growth is generated by the efficient allocation of labor and capital, and it recognizes that bad tax policy undermines that process by distorting incentives for productive behavior.

The next step is convince Ms. Lagarde and the rest of the IMF’s leadership to read the chapter. They get tax-free salaries, so is it too much to ask that they stop pushing for higher taxes on the rest of us?

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There are many powerful arguments for junking the internal revenue code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax.

  1. It is good to have lower tax rates in order to encourage more productive behavior.
  2. It is good to get rid of double taxation in order to enable saving and investment.
  3. It is good the end distorting preferences in order to reduce economically irrational decisions.

Today, let’s review a feature of good tax reform that involves the second and third bullet points.

Under current law, there is double taxation of corporate income. This means that companies must pay a tax on income, but that the income is then taxed a second time when distributed to the owners of the company (i.e., shareholders).

This means that the effective tax rate is a combination of the corporate income tax rate and the tax rate imposed on dividends. And this higher tax rate is an example of why double taxation discourages capital formation and thus leads to lower wages.

But this double taxation of dividends also creates a distortion because there isn’t double taxation of corporate income that is distributed to bondholders. This means companies have a significant tax-driven incentive to rely on debt, which is risky for them and the overall economy.

Curtis Dubay has a very straightforward explanation of the problem.

In debt financing, a business raises money by issuing debt, usually by selling a bond. In equity financing, a business raises funds by selling a share in the business through the sale of stock. The tax system provides a relative advantage to financing capital expenditures through debt because under current tax law, businesses can deduct their interest payments on the debt instruments, but dividend payments to shareholders are not deductible. Thus, equity is disadvantaged because it is double taxed while debt correctly faces only a single layer of taxation.

By the way, when public finance people write that something is “not deductible” or non-deductible, that simply means it subject to the tax (much as the non-deductibility of imports under the BAT is simply another way of saying there will be a tax levied on all imports).

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the analysis. Curtis then explains why it doesn’t make sense to create an incentive for debt.

The double tax on equity makes debt a relatively more attractive way for businesses to finance themselves, all else equal. As a result, businesses will take on more debt than they otherwise might. …This is a serious problem because carrying significant amounts of debt can make businesses less stable during periods when profitability declines. Interest payments on debt are a fixed cost that businesses must pay regardless of their performance. This can be onerous and endanger a business’s solvency when profits fall.

He points out that the sensible way of putting debt and equity on a level playing field is by getting rid of the double tax on dividends, not by imposing a second layer of tax on interest.

…it does not make sense to equalize their tax treatment by eliminating interest deductibility for businesses. Doing so would further suppress economic growth, job creation, and wage increases. Instead, Congress should end the double taxation of income earned through equity financing in tax reform by eliminating taxes on saving and investment, including capital gains and dividends.

Incidentally, what Curtis wrote isn’t some sort of controversial right-wing theory. It’s well understood by every public finance economist.

The International Monetary Fund, for instance, is generally on the left on fiscal issues (and that’s an understatement). Yet in a study published by the IMF, Ruud A. de Mooij outlines the dangers of tax-induced debt.

Most tax systems today contain a “debt bias,” offering a tax advantage for corporations to finance their investments by debt. …One cannot compellingly argue for giving tax preferences to debt based on legal, administrative, or economic considerations. The evidence shows, rather, that debt bias creates significant inequities, complexities, and economic distortions. For instance, it has led to inefficiently high debt-to-equity ratios in corporations. It discriminates against innovative growth firms, impeding stronger economic growth. … recent developments suggest that its costs to public welfare are larger—possibly much larger—than previously thought. …The economic crisis has also made clear the harmful economic effects of excessive levels of debt… These insights make it more urgent to tackle debt bias by means of tax policy reform.

What’s the solution?

Well, just as Curtis Dubay explained, there are two options.

What can be done to mitigate debt bias in the tax code? In a nutshell, it will require either reducing the tax deductibility of interest or introducing similar deductions for equity returns.

And the author of the IMF study agree with Curtis that the way to create neutrality between equity and debt is by using the latter approach.

Abolishing interest deductibility would indeed eliminate debt bias, but it would also introduce new distortions into investment, and implementing it would be very difficult. …The second option, introducing a deduction for corporate equity, has better prospects. …such an allowance would bring other important economic benefits, such as increased investment, higher wages, and higher economic growth.

And Mooij even acknowledges that there’s a Laffer Curve argument for getting rid of the double tax on dividends.

The main obstacle is probably its cost to public revenues, estimated at around 0.5 percent of GDP for an average developed country. …In the long term, the budgetary cost is expected to be significantly smaller, since the favorable economic effects of the policy change would broaden the overall tax base. And in fact, a number of countries have successfully introduced variants of the allowance for corporate equity, suggesting that it is not only conceptually desirable but also practically feasible.

Another study from the International Monetary Fund, authored by Mooij and  Shafik Hebous, highlights the damage caused by luring companies into taking on excessive debt.

Excessive corporate debt levels are a serious macroeconomic stability concern. For instance, high debt can increase the probability of a firm’s bankruptcy in case of an adverse shock… Given this concern about excessive corporate debt, it is hard to understand why almost all tax systems around the world encourage the use of corporate debt over equity. Indeed, most corporate income tax (CIT) systems allow interest expenses, but not returns to equity, to be deducted in calculating corporate tax liability. This asymmetry stimulates corporations to use debt over equity to finance investment.

We get the same explanation of how to address the inequity in the tax treatment of debt and equity.

Effectively, there are two ways in which debt bias can be neutralized: either by treating equity more similar as debt by adding an allowance for corporate equity (ACE); or by treating debt more similar for taxation as equity by denying interest deductibility for corporations.

And we get the same solution. Stop double taxing dividends.

ACE systems have been quite widely advocated by economists and implemented in some countries, such as Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Switzerland, and Turkey. Evaluations generally suggest that these systems have been effective in reducing debt bias… Yet, many countries are still reluctant to introduce an ACE due to the expected revenue loss.

By the way, the distortionary damage becomes greater when tax rates are onerous.

A recent academic study addresses the added damage of extra debt that occurs when tax rates are high.

For a country like the United States with a relatively high corporate income tax rate (a statutory federal rate of 35%), theory argues that firms in this country should have significant leverage. …The objective of our study is to estimate how much such variation in tax structure arising from global operations explains the variation in capital structure that we observe among US publicly traded multinational firms. …We employ the BEA’s multinational firm data and augment it with international tax data… Using our calculated weighted average tax rate, we include otherwise identified explanatory variables for capital structure and estimate in a multivariate regression setting how much our blended tax rate measure improves our understanding of why capital structure varies across firms and, to a lesser extent, across time. …Economically, this coefficient corresponds to a 7.1% higher book leverage ratio for a firm with a 35% average tax rate over the sample period compared to an otherwise identical firm with a 25% average tax rate. These results demonstrate that, contrary to some of the earlier literature finding that tax effects were negligible, firms that persistently confront high tax rates have significantly more debt, both economically and statistically, than otherwise equivalent firms who persistently face lower corporate income tax rates. …Irrespective of whether we examine leverage ratios based on book values or market values, whether we include cash or not, or if we alternatively examine interest coverage, we find that multinational firms confronting lower tax rates use less debt. The results are not only statistically significant, but the coefficient magnitudes suggest that these effects are first order

There’s some academic jargon in the above excerpt, so I’ll also include this summary of the paper from the Tax Foundation.

A new paper published in the Journal of Financial Economics finds that countries with high tax rates on corporate income also have higher corporate leverage ratios. …Using survey data of multinational corporations from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the authors…find that businesses that report their income in high tax jurisdictions have corporate leverage ratios that are substantially higher than those in low tax jurisdictions. More precisely, they find that a business facing an average tax rate of 35% has a leverage ratio that is 7.1% higher than a similar firm facing an average tax rate of 25%.

By the way, here are the results from another IMF study by Mooij about how the debt bias is connected to high tax rates.

We find that, typically, a one percentage point higher tax rate increases the debt-asset ratio by between 0.17 and 0.28. Responses are increasing over time, which suggests that debt bias distortions have become more important.

The bottom line is that the U.S. corporate tax rate is far too high. And when you combine that punitive rate with a distortionary preference for debt over equity, the net result is that we have companies burdened by too much debt, which puts them (and the overall economy) in danger when there’s a downturn.

So the obvious solution (beyond simply lowering the corporate rate, which should be a given) is to get rid of the double tax on dividends.

The good news is that Republicans want to move in that direction.

The not-so-good news is that they are not using the ideal approach. As I noted last year, the “Better Way Plan” proposed by House Republicans is sub-optimal on this issue.

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.

For what it’s worth, I suggest this approach was acceptable, not only because the debt bias was eliminated, but also because of the other reforms in the plan.

…the revenue generated by disallowing any deduction for interest would be used for pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate.

Though I can’t say the same thing about the border-adjustability provision, which is a poison pill for tax reform.

P.S. While the preference for debt is quite harmful, I nonetheless still think the worst distortion in the tax code is the healthcare exclusion.

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We have reached the 50th full day of the Trump Presidency.

In that span of time, we’ve had lots of political wrangling between Trump and the media. We’ve been introduced to the concept of the “Deep State” (yes, there is a permanent bureaucracy that acts to protect its own interests, but it’s silly to call it a conspiracy). There have been some controversial executive orders. And Trump made his big speech to Congress.

Lots of noise, though, does not mean lots of action. The President hasn’t signed any big legislation to repeal Obamacare, or even any legislation to tinker with Obamacare. There haven’t been any big changes on fiscal policy, either with regards to spending or taxes.

Heck, Trump hasn’t even told us what he really thinks on some of these issues.

In other words, the biggest takeaway after 50 days is that we still don’t know whether Trump is going to make government bigger or smaller.

I address some of these issues in two recent interviews. We’ll start with this discussion on the day of Trump’s Joint Address. I mostly focus on the need for entitlement reform and explain how Trump could do the right thing for America…if he wants to.

You’ll also notice, right at the end of the interview, that I made sure to sneak in a reference to fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. Gotta stay on message!

In this second interview, which occurred a couple of days later, I start the conversation by fretting about how the border-adjustable tax could kill the chances of getting good tax policy.

In the latter part of the interview, the discussion shifts to infrastructure and I make the rare point that we should copy Europe and get the private sector more involved (it’s generally a good idea to do the opposite of Europe, to be sure, but there are a small handful of other areas – including corporate tax rates, Social Security, and privatized postal services – where various European countries are ahead of us).

The bottom line is that we didn’t know before the election whether Trump wants to limit the burden of government, and we still don’t know today. My guess last year was that we’ll get the wrong answer, though I confess that the jury is still out.

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For more than 30 years, I’ve been trying to educate my leftist friends about supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve.

Why is it so hard for them to recognize, I endlessly wonder, that when you tax something, you get less of it? And why don’t they realize that when you tax something at high rates, the effect is even larger?

And if the tax is high and the affected economic activity is sufficiently discouraged, why won’t they admit that this will have an impact on tax revenue?

Don’t they understand the basic economics of supply and demand?

But I’m not giving up, which means I’m either a fool or an optimist.

In this Skype interview with the Blaze’s Dana Loesch, I pontificate about the economy and tax policy.

I made my standard points about the benefits a lower corporate rate and “expensing,” while also warning about the dangers of the the “border adjustable tax” being pushed by some House Republicans.

But for today, I want to focus on the part of the interview where I suggested that a lower corporate tax rate might generate more revenue in the long run.

That wasn’t a throwaway line or an empty assertion. America’s 35 percent corporate tax rate (39 percent if you include the average of state corporate taxes) is destructively high compared to business tax systems in other nations.

Last decade, the experts at the American Enterprise Institute calculated that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is about 25 percent.

More recently, the number crunchers at the Tax Foundation estimated the long-run revenue-maximizing rate is even lower, at about 15 percent.

You can (and should) read their studies, but all you really need to understand is that companies will have a greater incentive to both earn and report more income when the rate is reasonable.

But since the U.S. rate is very high (and we also have very punitive rules), companies are discouraged from investing and producing in America. Firms also have an incentive to seek out deductions, credits, exemptions, and other preferences when rates are high. And multinational companies understandably will seek to minimize the amount of income they report in the United States.

In other words, a big reduction in the corporate rate would be unambiguously positive for the American economy. And because there will be more investment and job creation, there also will be more taxable income. In other words, a bigger “tax base.”

Though I confess that I’m not overly fixated on whether that leads to more revenue. Remember, the goal of tax policy should be to finance the legitimate functions of government in the least-destructive manner possible, not to maximize revenue for politicians.

P.S. Economists at the Australian Treasury calculated the effect of a lower corporate rate and found both substantial revenue feedback and significant benefits for workers. The same thing would happen in the United States.

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As part of an otherwise very good tax reform plan, House Republicans have proposed to modify the corporate income tax so that it becomes a “destination-based cash-flow tax.”

For those not familiar with wonky inside-the-beltway tax terminology, there are three main things to understand about this proposal.

  • First, the tax rate on business would drop from 35 percent to 20 percent. This is unambiguously positive.
  • Second, it would replace depreciation with expensing, which is a very desirable change that would eliminate a very counter-productive tax on new investment outlays. This is basically what makes the plan a “cash-flow” tax.
  • Third, any income generated by exports would be exempt from tax but the 20-percent tax would be imposed on all imports. These “border-adjustable” provisions are what makes the plan a “destination-based” tax.

I’m a big fan of the first two provisions, but I’m very hostile to the third item.

I don’t like it because I worry it sets the stage for a value-added tax. I don’t like it because it is designed to undermine tax competition. I don’t like it because it has a protectionist stench and presumably violates America’s trade commitments. I don’t like it because that part of the plan only exists because politicians aren’t willing to engage in more spending restraint. And I don’t like it because politicians should try to reinvent the wheel when we already know the right way to do tax reform.

Heck, I feel like the Dr. Seuss character who lists all the ways he would not like green eggs and ham. Except I can state with complete certainty I wouldn’t change my mind if I was suddenly forced to take a bite of this new tax.

Today, I’m going to augment my economic arguments by noting that the plan also is turning into a political liability. Here are some excerpts from a news report in the Wall Street Journal about opposition in the business community.

A linchpin of the House Republicans’ tax plan, an approach called “border adjustment,” has split Republicans and fractured the business world into competing coalitions before a bill has even been drafted. …There is also global uncertainty: Other countries may retaliate, either by border-adjusting their corporate taxes or by challenging the U.S. plan at the World Trade Organization as too tilted toward American producers.

And The Hill reports that grassroots organizations also are up in arms.

Americans for Prosperity is stepping up its efforts to advocate against a proposal from House Republicans to tax imports and exempt exports, as lawmakers are increasingly raising concerns about the proposal. …AFP has hundreds of volunteers and staff who are making phone calls about the proposal. The group has about 100 meetings set up with Congress members and their staff for next week, while Congress is in recess.

Meanwhile, the Economist reports that the plan is causing uncertainty around the world.

To offset a border-adjusted tax of 20%—the rate favoured by House Republicans—the greenback would need to rise fully 25%, enough to destabilise emerging markets burdened with dollar-denominated debts. If the dollar stayed put and wages and prices rose 25% instead, the Federal Reserve would have to decide how to respond to an unprecedented surge in inflation. Why tolerate such disruption?

Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal has a devastating take on the issue.

Like a European value-added tax, its cost would be deeply hidden in the price of goods, thus easily jacked up over time. Also, compared with the current tax structure, businesses would see less incentive to move abroad in search of lower taxes, eroding a useful pressure on politicians to be fiscally sane. And because the tax would alter the terms of trade, it would be expected to lead to a sharp increase in the dollar. U.S. holders of foreign assets would suffer large paper losses. Since many foreigners borrow in dollars too, a global debt crisis might follow. The tax might also violate World Trade Organization rules, inviting other countries to impose punitive taxes on U.S. exports.

Last but not least, John Tamny outlines some of the political downsides at Real Clear Markets.

…the House of Representatives…is aggressively promoting a…tax on imports. …When we get up and go to work each day, our work is what we exchange for what we don’t have, including voluminous goods and services produced for us around the world.  …Party members are proudly seeking a tax on our work. …Only the “stupid” Party could come up with something so injurious to every American, to the American economy, and to its growth-focused brand.  But that’s where we are at the moment.  The Party that attained majorities with its tax cutting reputation is aggressively seeking to shed its growth brand through the introduction of tax hikes meant to give politicians even more of what we the people produce.  If so, the majority Party can kiss its majority goodbye.  It will have earned its minority status.

For what it’s worth, I think John overstates the case against the plan. The additional revenue from border-adjustable tax provision would be used to cut taxes elsewhere. Heck, the plan is actually a significant net tax cut.

But John is right when you look at the issue through a political lens. If the DBCFT actually began to move through the legislative process, opponents would start running commercials about the “GOP scheme to impose new consumption tax on Americans.” Journalists (most of whom dislike Republicans) would have a field day publicizing reports about the “GOP plan to raise average family tax bill by hundreds of dollars.”

Such charges would be ignoring the other side of the equation, of course, but that’s how politics works.

All of which brings me back to one of my original points. We already know that the flat tax is the gold standard of tax reform. And we already know the various ways of moving the tax code in that direction.

My advice is that Republicans abandon the border-adjustable provision and focus on lowering tax rates, reducing double taxation, and cutting back on loopholes. Such ideas are economically sounder and politically safer.

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February 5 Addendum: For my left-wing friends and others who are bending over backwards to misread this column, saying nice things about Russia’s flat tax doesn’t mean (as noted below) that Russia’s overall economic policy is admirable. And it obviously doesn’t imply anything favorable about Russia’s dismal political system or Putin himself. I like the Russia flat tax for the same reason that I like trade liberalization in China and Social Security reform in Chile. Every so often, bad governments stumble upon a good policy and I think that’s laudable because I want people to have better lives. Sadly, I don’t think the Putin-Trump “bromance” will lead to a flat tax in the US, but that would be an unexpected and nice silver lining to that dark cloud.

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

In part, my support for fundamental reform is driven by my desire for a low rate, for no double taxation, and for the elimination of loopholes. Those are the economic reasons for reform.

But I also am very much motivated by the moral case for tax reform. It offends me that we have 70,000-plus pages of special favors for the friends and contributors of politicians. I value the rule of law, so I want everyone in America to play by the same rules.

And I confess that I’m jealous that other nations have adopted this common-sense reform while we’re still stuck with a punitive and unfair internal revenue code.

But the silver lining to this dark cloud is that we can learn from the experiences of other nations.

A recent report looks at what’s happened in Russia following the introduction of the flat tax.

On December 23, 2016, in his annual end-of-year press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that despite his “many doubts” at the initial stage of introducing a flat 13-percent personal income tax in 2001, tax reform in Russia has been a major success. …Putin claimed that in 2001, when the tax reform was introduced, he was “concerned that the budget would lose revenue, because those who earn more would have to pay less.” He said he was also concerned “whether social justice would be ensured and so on.” However, as the reform gained traction, “personal-income tax collection has increased – pay attention – seven times,” Putin said. …Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, told Polygraph.info that two factors contributed to a significant increase in personal income tax revenue: “the low rate made tax evasion and avoidance much less attractive, and increased incentives to earn income.”

I appreciated the chance to talk to the reporter and get quoted in the story, but I am naturally suspicious about the claims of government officials. So I wondered about Putin’s claim about a seven-fold increase in income tax receipts.

I know there were good results in the first few years after reform. I authored a study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity last decade, and there was data at the time showing an impressive increase in revenues from the personal income tax. That data certainly bolstered the argument for tax reform.

But we now have almost another full decade of data. Has the Russian flat tax continued to produce good results? Is the low tax rate continuing to encourage both the earning of income and reporting of income?

To answer these questions, I had my intern cull through various IMF Article IV consultation reports on Russia to get up-to-date data on personal income tax receipts in Russia. And what did I learn? Was Putin wrong?

Yes, Putin’s claim of a seven-fold increase in tax receipts was completely misleading. There was actually a 10-fold jump in personal income tax revenue.

In other words, the flat tax is a success. In today’s Washington, you would say the Russian government is winning bigly.

But there are caveats.

  • Russia has experienced significant inflation, at least compared to the United States. So if you factor out increases in the price level, personal income tax revenues are “only” about three times higher today than they were before the flat tax was implemented.
  • Moreover, a flat tax is not a panacea. Notwithstanding the good results it has delivered, Russia has an unimpressive ranking of #102 from Economic Freedom of the World. In other words, there’s still a long way to go if Russia wants to become a rich nation.

But these caveats don’t change the main conclusion, which is that the Russian flat tax works. Just as it works in Hong Kong. And just as it works in Jersey. It works wherever it is tried.

Let’s look at another example. Writing for Forbes, Fahim Mostafa explains that the Hungarian flat tax also has been a big success.

A fair number of Eastern European nations have…chosen this system of taxation over its progressive counterpart. Among the latest to join this club is Hungary, replacing progressive rates from 17% to 32% with a flat tax of 16% on income effective from 2012 onward… There is reason to believe that the implementation of this system has largely benefited the Eastern European nation. …The results from the following years have been remarkable. Total government revenue in 2015 (the last year for which OECD data is available at this time) stood at 23.8% higher than the maximum prior to the flat tax reform… According to the OECD, public debt in Hungary has been decreasing steadily since 2011. Increased revenues allow for this debt to be paid. …The flat tax has boosted consumption in Hungary, greatly increasing taxes collected from sales. Total tax revenue has shot up despite the massive cuts made to income tax. Politicians seeking to implement this policy in their own nation would do well to point out the example of Hungary.

I’ll add two comments.

First, the same caveats I applied to Russia apply to Hungary. The country is ranked #57 from Economic Freedom of the World, so it’s great that there’s a successful flat tax, but a lot more reform is needed for Hungary to become a role model for overall market-friendly reform.

Second, the author should probably make a change to the column. Instead of writing that “tax revenue has shot up despite the massive cuts,” it might be more accurate to write that “tax revenue has shot up because of the massive cuts.”

Yes, every so often you can find examples of nations being on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve, either because tax rates are ridiculously high (the U.S. before Reagan) or because a nation is developing or transitioning and needs low tax burdens to boost growth and encourage compliance.

It’s never my goal to boost revenue for governments, of course, but there’s surely a lesson to be learned about the benefits of low tax rates when both taxpayers and the government wind up with more money.

P.S. If we really want to learn from other places about the ideal tax system, we should check out Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands.

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House Republicans, as part of a generally laudable tax reform plan, want to replace the corporate income tax with a “destination-based cash-flow tax.”

I’ve addressed that topic a couple of times.

  • Left-leaning advocates like “destination-based” tax systems such as the DBCFT because such systems undermine tax competition and give politicians more ability to increase tax rates.
  • The “border adjustability” in the plan is contrary to the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and there’s a significant risk that politicians might try to “fix” the plan by turning it into a value-added tax.
  • In theory, the import tax in the DBCFT is not necessarily protectionist, but the machinations of to justify that assertion, combined with the conflict it creates in the business community, undermine the consensus for reform.

I had a chance to speak about the DBCFT to a gathering put on by the Washington International Trade Association. I hit on all my main reasons for being worried about the border adjustable provisions.

For those who want additional information, I was preceded on the panel by Gordon Gray of the American Action Forum and followed by John Veroneau of Covington and Burling (and formerly with the Office of U.S. Trade Representative). You can watch the entire event by clicking here.

Regarding my remarks, I think the most relevant thing I said was when I shared new data from the Congressional Budget Office and pointed out that we can simultaneously balance the budget within 10 years and have a $3 trillion tax cut if politicians simply exercise a modest bit of spending restraint and limit annual budget increases to 1.96 per year.

And the most important thing that I said was when I warned that proponents of good policy should never do anything that might create the conditions for a value-added tax in the United States. Some people say the most important rule to remember is to never feed gremlins after midnight, but I think it’s even more important not to give politicians a new source of revenue.

Unless, of course, you want bigger government and more red ink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian concludes with some advice for Republicans.

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

Amen.

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

Let’s close with three hopefully helpful observations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are lots of potential answers, including:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concern #1: Is the DBCFT protectionist?

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

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

Charles Lane of the Washington Post explains how it works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a Washington Post editorial is similarly concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Economist shares this assessment.

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

Steve Forbes is blunt about this possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not the case with the DBCFT.

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

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

A story from CNBC highlights why retailers are so concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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