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Posts Tagged ‘Taxation’

If you get into the weeds of tax policy and had a contest for parts of the internal revenue code that are “boring but important,” depreciation would be at the top of the list. After all, how many people want to learn about America’s Byzantine system that imposes a discriminatory tax penalty on new investment? Yes, it’s a self-destructive policy that imposes a lot of economic damage, but even I’ll admit it’s not a riveting topic (though I tried to make it culturally relevant by using ABBA as an example).

In second place would be a policy called “deferral,” which deals with a part of the law that allows companies to delay an extra layer of tax that the IRS imposes on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other countries. It is “boring but important” because it has major implications on the ability of American-domiciled firms to compete for market share overseas.

Here’s a video that explains the issue, though feel free to skip it and continue reading if you already are familiar with how the law works.

The simple way to think of this eye-glazing topic is that “deferral” is a good policy that partially mitigates the impact of a bad policy known as “worldwide taxation.”

Unfortunately, good policy tends to be unpopular in Washington. This is why deferral (and related issues such as inversions, which occur for the simple reason that worldwide taxation creates a huge competitive disadvantage for U.S.-domiciled companies) is playing an unusually large role in the 2016 election and concomitant tax debates.

Consider the tax controversy involving Apple. The CEO does not want to surrender money that belongs to shareholders to the government.

Apple CEO Tim Cook struck back at critics of the iPhone maker’s strategy to avoid paying U.S. taxes, telling The Washington Post in a wide ranging interview that the company would not bring that money back from abroad unless there was a “fair rate.”

Since the discussion is about income that Apple has earned in other nations (and therefore about income that already has been subject to all applicable taxes in other nations), the only “fair rate” from the United States is zero.

That’s because good tax systems are based on “territorial taxation” rather than “worldwide taxation.”

Though a worldwide tax system might not impose that much damage if a nation had a low corporate tax rate.

Unfortunately, that’s not a good description of the U.S. system, which has a very high rate, thus creating a big incentive to hold money overseas to avoid having to pay a very hefty second layer of tax to the IRS on income that already has been subject to tax by foreign governments.

Along with other multinational companies, the tech giant has been subject to criticism over a tax strategy that allows them to shelter profits made abroad from the U.S. corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent is among the highest in the developed world.

“Among”? I don’t know if this is a sign of bias or ignorance on the part of CNBC, but the U.S. unquestionably has the highest corporate tax rate among developed nations.

Indeed, it might even be the highest in the entire world.

Anyhow, Mr. Cook points out that there’s nothing patriotic about needlessly paying extra tax to the IRS, especially when it would mean a very punitive tax rate.

…a few particularly strident critics have lambasted Apple as a tax dodger. …While some proponents of the higher U.S. tax rate say it’s unpatriotic for companies to practice inversions or shelter income, Cook hit back at the suggestion. “It is the current tax law. It’s not a matter of being patriotic or not patriotic,” Cook told The Post in a lengthy sit-down. “It doesn’t go that the more you pay, the more patriotic you are.” …Cook added that “when we bring it back, we will pay 35 percent federal tax and then a weighted average across the states that we’re in, which is about 5 percent, so think of it as 40 percent. We’ve said at 40 percent, we’re not going to bring it back until there’s a fair rate. There’s no debate about it.”

Cook may be right that there’s “no debate” about whether it’s sensible for a company to keep money overseas to guard against bad tax policy.

But there is a debate about whether politicians will make the law worse in a grab for more revenue.

Senator Ron Wyden, for instance, doesn’t understand the issue. He wrote an editorial asserting that Apple is engaging in a “rip-off.”

…the heart of this mess is the big dog of tax rip-offs – tax deferral. This is the rule that encourages American multinational corporations to keep their profits overseas instead of investing them here at home, and it does so by granting them $80 billion a year in tax breaks. This policy…defies common sense. …some of the most profitable companies in the world can put off paying taxes indefinitely while hardworking Americans must pay their taxes every year. …that system creates a perverse incentive to keep corporate profits overseas instead of investing here at home.

I agree with him that the current system creates a perverse incentive to keep money abroad.

But you don’t solve that problem by imposing unconstrained worldwide taxation, which would create a perverse incentive structure that discourages American-domiciled firms from competing for market share in other nations.

Amazingly, Senator Wyden actually claims that making the system more punitive would help make America a better place to do business.

…ending deferral is a necessary step in making sure…the U.S. maintains its position as the best place to do business.

Wow, this rivals some of the crazy things that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said.

Though I guess we need to give Wyden credit for honesty. He admits that what he really wants is for Washington to have more money to spend.

Ending deferral will also generate money from existing deferred taxes to pay for rebuilding our country’s crumbling infrastructure. …This is a priority that almost all tax reform proposals have called for.

By the way, can you guess which presidential candidate agrees with Senator Wyden and wants to impose full and immediate worldwide taxation?

If you answered Hillary Clinton, you’re right. But if you answered Donald Trump, that also would be a correct answer.

This is a grim example of why I refer to them as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of statism.

Though to be fair, Trump’s plan at least contains a big reduction in the corporate tax rate, which would substantially reduce the negative impact of a worldwide tax system.

The Wall Street Journal opines on the issue and is especially unimpressed by Hillary Clinton’s irresponsible approach on the issue.

Mrs. Clinton is targeting so-called inversions, where U.S.-based companies move their headquarters by buying an overseas competitor, as well as foreign takeovers of U.S. firms for tax considerations. These migrations are the result of a U.S. corporate-tax code that supplies incentives to migrate… The Democrat would impose what she calls an “exit tax” on businesses that relocate outside the U.S., which is the sort of thing banana republics impose when their economies sour. …Mrs. Clinton wants to build a tax wall to stop Americans from escaping. “If they want to go,” she threatened in Michigan, “they’re going to have to pay to go.”

Ugh, making companies “pay to go” is an unseemly sentiment. Sort of what you might expect from a place like Venezuela where politicians treat private firms as a source of loot for their cronies.

The WSJ correctly points out that the problem is America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax regime, combined with a punitive corporate tax rate.

…the U.S. taxes residents—businesses and individuals—on their world-wide income, not merely the income that they earned in the U.S. …the U.S. taxes companies headquartered in the U.S. far more than companies based in other countries. Thirty-one of the 34 OECD countries have cut corporate taxes since 2000, leaving the U.S. with the highest rate in the industrialized world. The U.S. system of world-wide taxation means that a company that moves from Dublin, Ohio, to Dublin, Ireland, will pay a rate that is less than a third of America’s. A dollar of profit earned on the Emerald Isle by an Irish-based company becomes 87.5 cents after taxes, which it can then invest in Ireland or the U.S. or somewhere else. But if the company stays in Ohio and makes the same buck in Ireland, the after-tax return drops to 65 cents or less if the money is invested in America.

In other words, the problem is obvious and the solution is obvious.

But there are too many Barack Obamas and Elizabeth Warrens in Washington, so it’s more likely that policy will move in the wrong direction.

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If I had to summarize my views on fiscal policy in just two sentences, here’s what I would say.

  1. Government spending undermines growth by diverting labor and capital from more productive uses to less productive uses.
  2. Tax rates on productive economic behaviors such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship should be as low as possible.

So you can imagine that I’m not overly enthused about Hillary Clinton’s embrace of class-warfare tax policy to finance an ever-growing burden of government spending.

Here’s a story that’s giving me heartburn. The Washington Examiner reports that Hillary is “going where the money is.”

Hillary Clinton promised Tuesday that she would pay for her ambitious White House agenda by hitting up the wealthy. “I’ll tell you how we’re going to pay for it,” she said Tuesday in Pennsylvania, referring specifically to her economic agenda. “We’re going where the money is. We are going after the super wealthy, we are going after corporations, we are going after Wall Street so they pay their fair share.”

So what does it mean for various groups to “pay their fair share”?

Well, since even the IRS has admitted that upper-income taxpayers finance a hugely disproportionate share of the federal government, logic tells us that these supposedly evil rich people should get a tax cut.

But that’s not what Hillary means. She wants voters to adopt and us-vs-them mentality, so she demonizes successful people and implies that their wealth is somehow illegitimate.

In part, she is perpetuating the traditional leftist myth that the economy is a fixed pie and that the rest of us have less because someone like Bill Gates has more.

But I also think she wants to imply that upper-income people somehow don’t deserve their money. Maybe they are a bunch of Paris Hilton types with trust funds, living indolent lives while the rest of us have to work.

That’s never been a compelling argument to me. If Paris Hilton’s family earned money honestly (and already paid tax on the money when it was first earned), it’s their right to give it to their children without all sorts of punitive extra layers of taxation.

But this stereotype isn’t even accurate in the first place. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute shows that people like the late Steve Jobs are more the norm. In other words, rich people are rich because they are innovating and creating, building new businesses and new products that make the rest of our lives better.

Since innovation, risk-taking, investment, entrepreneurship, and hard work are the keys to long-run growth, it certainly seems that the tax code shouldn’t be punishing those things.

Yet that’s what Hillary has in mind when she demagogues about the “super wealthy.”

Interestingly, another New York Democrat seems to understand the negative relationship between taxes and good outcomes, at least on a selective basis. Larry O’Connor explains.

Without the teeniest sense of irony, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has proposed that America’s Olympic medal winners should not have to pay taxes on the cash prizes they are awarded with their medals. Schumer’s reasoning behind lifting the tax? Because “hard work” and excellence shouldn’t be punished.

The problem, of course, is that Senator Schumer routinely supports higher taxes.

Indeed, the only tax hike he doesn’t favor, to my knowledge, is the Trump-Clinton plan to hike the capital gains tax on “carried interest.” But Schumer’s only good on that issue because of the money he gets from the private-equity folks on Wall Street, not because he actually understands or favors good tax policy.

But Schumer’s make-believe support for lower taxes on Olympic medal winners is good news, if for no other reasons than it gave Mark Perry an excuse to produce another one of his famous Venn diagrams.

Let’s close by contemplating Hillary’s statement that she wants to go “where the money is.”

That statement rang a bell. Someone else said almost the exact same thing.

And then I remembered. It was an infamous bank robber named Willie Sutton, who is widely reported to have said he robbed banks because “That’s where the money is.”

Needless to say, I don’t want to imply that there’s some moral equivalence between Hillary Clinton and Willie Sutton. Perish the thought!

After all, I’m sure Willie Sutton never expected gratitude from his victims.

P.S. In my role as the Don Quixote of fiscal policy, I have helpfully shared evidence with Mrs. Clinton about the consequences of higher tax burdens in both Europe and various American states.

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I don’t like election years because the policy debate tends to revolve around the various proposals put forth by candidates. And since those ideas generally don’t make much sense, it’s a frustrating period.

But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that it does create opportunities to comment on what the candidates are saying…and hopefully steer the discussion in a more productive direction.

For instance, I just authored a column about Trump’s plan for Time. I pointed out what’s good (such as a lower corporate rate and death tax repeal), what’s bad (pork-barrel infrastructure and a whiff on entitlement reform), and what’s ugly (protectionism and a new loophole for childcare costs).

But my biggest complaint, which was part of the “bad” section, dealt with Trump’s failure to produce any plan to control the size of government. And echoing a point I made late last year, a big tax cut simply isn’t viable unless it’s accompanied by a credible proposal to rein in Leviathan.

It will be very hard to have a tax cut of any size unless Trump also has some sort of plan to limit the growth of government spending. Unfortunately, outside of vague rhetoric about “waste, fraud, and abuse,” it’s unclear that he is serious about the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

I also made similar points in this CNBC interview, which covered all of the main features of Trump’s economic agenda.

You’ll notice in the interview that I said Trump should propose some sort of spending cap.

Well, maybe my wish will be granted. A story published by Bloomberg looks at Trump’s flirtation with a specific form of spending cap known as the Penny Plan.

Donald Trump on Tuesday revisited a budget-trimming measure called the “penny plan” in response to fresh questions about how he’d finance his agenda. “Well, we’re cutting back, I mean whether it’s a penny plan—which is something that, as simple as it is, I’ve always sort of liked,” the Republican presidential nominee said on Fox Business… Trump remained short on further specifics about how he’d pay for his proposals.

But let’s say he goes beyond sympathetic comments and actually embraces the Penny Plan. The article gives some detail of the proposal.

In variations of the “penny plan,” …one cent is cut per dollar in the federal budget over a period of six or seven years and a spending cap is imposed until the budget is balanced. Different programs can see greater than 1 percent cuts—or no cuts—as long as overall spending is reduced by 1 percent each year… The math generally works out, the nonpartisan fact-checking website PolitiFact found in 2012 when analyzing a Republican lawmaker’s version of the proposal.

And for further detail, Justin Bogie and Romina Boccia have a column in the Daily Signal.

Last week, a House Budget Committee member, Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced the “Penny Plan,” which would implement an aggregate spending cap beginning in 2017 and “would cut a single penny from every dollar the federal government spends.” Under this plan, for fiscal year 2017, the cap would be $3.6 trillion for total noninterest outlays minus 1 percent. For each subsequent year through 2021, outlays would be capped at the previous year’s level (not including net interest payments) minus 1 percent.

Wow, this is hard-core spending restraint.

I have written favorably about the Penny Plan, but I normally promote the Swiss Debt Brake, which is a spending cap that has allowed government spending to grow each year by an average of 2 percent.

I must be a big-government squish!

Here are more details on the Penny Plan. Most important, it is enforced by sequestration.

…spending reductions necessary to arrive at the capped level would be enforced by sequestration. Unlike the current form of sequestration applied to the Budget Control Act spending caps, the Penny Plan would not exempt any of the programs listed under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, except payments for net interest. …Spending caps, enforced with automatic cuts, serve to motivate Congress to prioritize among competing demands for resources. Designed properly, caps can curb excessive spending growth over the long run.

The bottom line, according to Bogie and Boccia, is that a sequester-enforced spending cap is critical for good long-run fiscal policy.

The Penny Plan takes a step toward consideration of a statutory spending cap to limit the growth in government and improve the nation’s fiscal course. Congress must put the country’s budget on a sustainable path to secure prosperity for current and future generations, and a spending cap is one important tool to get there.

My bottom line is similar. I’m a huge fan of spending caps (which have a much better track record than balanced budget requirements).

The key is to make sure that government grows slower than the private sector. And the more spending is restrained (especially if it’s actually cut 1 percent each year), the quicker and better the results.

There’s lots of evidence of nations getting good results when they cap spending. I don’t know if Donald Trump is serious about a spending cap (or whether he’s serious about the policies needed to make sure overall spending stays within a cap), but I know it’s the right policy.

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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know – most bad, though some good – about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

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When I wrote last year about “Hillary Clinton’s Plan to Increase the Cost of College,” I explained that colleges and universities boost tuition when the government hands out more subsidies to students, so the main effect is to make higher education even more expensive.

Today, let’s look at Donald Trump’s plan to increase the cost of childcare. And this is a very easy column to write because the economic consequences of Trump’s plan to make childcare expenses deductible are the same as Hillary’s misguided plan to subsidize tuition.

Let’s start with a caveat. We don’t know a lot about Trump’s new scheme. All we know is that he said in his big speech to the Economic Club of Detroit earlier today that “My plan will also help reduce the cost of childcare by allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of childcare spending from their taxes.”

From an economic perspective, Trump’s statement doesn’t make sense. At best, creating a big deduction for childcare expenses simply creates the illusion of lower cost because of the tax loophole.

But that’s the best-case scenario. The actual result will be to increase costs and make the tax code even more convoluted.

When income is shielded from taxation, either based on how it is earned or how it is spent, that creates an incentive for taxpayers to make economically irrational decisions solely to benefit from the special tax preference. And just as the healthcare exclusion has led to ever-higher prices and ever-greater levels of bureaucracy and inefficiency in the health sector, a deduction for childcare expenses will have similar effects in that sector of the economy. Providers will boost prices to capture much of the benefit (much as colleges have jacked up tuition to capture the value of government-provided loans and grants).

Creating a new distortion in the tax code also will have a discriminatory impact. The tax loophole will only have value for parents who use outside care for their kids. Parents who care for their own kids get nothing. Moreover, the new loophole also won’t have any value for the millions of people who don’t earn enough to have any tax liability. Yet these people will be hurt when childcare providers increase their prices to capture the value of the deduction for parents with higher levels of income.

And that will probably lead politicians to make the tax loophole “refundable,” which is a wonky way of saying that people with low levels of income will get handouts from the government (in other words, “refundable” tax breaks are actually government spending laundered through the tax code, just like much of the EITC).

So we’d almost certainly be looking at a typical example of Mitchell’s Law, where one bad policy leads to another bad policy.

And when the dust settles, government is bigger, the tax code is more convoluted, and the visible foot of government crowds out another slice of the invisible hand of the market.

Remember, bigger government and more intervention is a mistake when Republicans do it, and it’s a mistake when Democrats do it.

I want fewer favors in the tax code, not more. I want rationality to guide economic decisions, not distorting tax preferences. Most of all, I don’t want politicians to have more power over the economy. I wish Trump listened to Ben Carson when putting together a tax plan.

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Even though it has the largest economy in Europe, I routinely ignore Germany. This isn’t because of deliberate malice or neglect, but rather because the country has boring economic policy.

Unlike Estonia and Switzerland, it doesn’t have any really good policies that are worth applauding.

Not does it have really bad policies that deserve to be mocked, so it doesn’t get the negative attention that I shower upon nations such as France, Italy, and Greece.

Heck, about the only really interesting thing about German policy is whether the country’s politicians will be dumb enough to underwrite the profligacy of some of their neighbors.

Let’s try to atone for this oversight by giving some attention to the peculiar German tendency to be a bit over-zealous about generating money for the government.

  • The Germans, after all, came up with an odd scheme to make streetwalkers pay a nightly tax via parking meters.
  • The Germans also imposed a tax on online coffee beans that cost €30 to enforce for every €1 collected.
  • The Germans even fined a one-armed bicyclist because he didn’t have handbrakes on both handlebars.

We have another example of über-intense tax enforcement to add to our list.

The BBC reports that homeowners on a German street are having to pay for a road that was built by the Nazis.

Homeowners on a street in Germany have been told they must foot the bill for their road’s construction – even though it’s been there for nearly 80 years. …The bills included a conversion from the Nazi-era Reichsmark currency into euros for the original road surface, first laid in 1937… The figures were also adjusted for inflation. …a court has now confirmed that they must cough up the cash. It determined that while construction began in the 1930s, the road was only officially completed in 2009 when pavements were added. For the intervening period it was considered to be under development. …Auf’m Rott’s current residents will be shelling out for the “Hitler asphalt”, streetlamps dating back to 1956, a sewer from the 1970s, and pavements and greenery added in 2009.

How stereotypically German. Not only is there an unusual tax, but they even have the records from the 1930s and went though all the trouble of adjusting the numbers for inflation.

Wow, no wonder other Europeans think the Germans aren’t very compassionate.

By the way, I suspect the German homeowners also think their country isn’t very considerate. The homeowners aren’t getting hit with some annoying-yet-trivial €100 euro charge.They really are “shelling out.”

…city authorities told them pay an average of 10,000 euros ($11,000; £8,400) per household

I guess I’m lucky that Fairfax County in Virginia, which just re-paved my local street, didn’t send me a similar bill!

Though in the interest of fairness, let’s contemplate the German system, which apparently is vaguely based on a user-pays principle.

In Germany, residents have to pay a “development contribution” to the local authority for things like new roads, cycle paths and street lighting.

Part of me actually likes this approach. It’s better to have local communities pay for local infrastructure rather than having some convoluted and wasteful nationwide program (like we have to some degree in the United States) that is susceptible to waste and cronyism.

On the other hand, surely there must be something wrong with doing some routine maintenance on a street and then using that as an excuse to send homeowners a giant bill for expenses that mostly occurred during the Hitler era.

P.S. I haven’t totally ignored Germany. Over the years, I’ve bemoaned the fact that the ostensibly conservative Christian Democrats aren’t conservative and complained that the supposedly classical liberal Free Democrats aren’t classical liberals.

P.P.S. Though I’ve also given the Germans some modest praise for a period of spending restraint last decade and also for largely resisting the siren song of Keynesianism  during and after the recent recession (by the way, you won’t be surprised to learn Krugman botched the numbers when writing about Germany’s fiscal policy during that period).

P.P.P.S. And I have pointed out that the German government occasionally can waste money with Gallic flair. Or even display Greek levels of government incompetence. So, unlike the Washington Post, I would never refer to the country as being “fiscally conservative.”

P.P.P.P.S. By the way, it’s not just the German politicians who are in love with the idea of taxation. There are even some German taxpayers who protest because they want to be saddled with higher tax burdens (though I wonder if they’d be as hypocritical as their American counterparts if they faced a put-up-of-shut-up challenge).

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What’s the best measure of the tax burden on the U.S. economy?

Is it the amount of money that we’re forced to surrender to the knaves in Washington (i.e., the difference between our pre-tax income and post-tax consumption)?

Or is it the loss of economic output caused by high tax rates, distorting preferences, and pervasive double taxation (i.e., policies that reduce our pre-tax income)?

The answer is both.

But even that’s not sufficient. There’s another very big part of the tax burden, which is the complexity caused by a 75,000-page tax code that imposes very high compliance costs on taxpayers. In other words, the tax (as measured by time, resources, and energy) we pay for the ostensible privilege of paying taxes.

And this compliance tax is enormous according to new research from the Tax Foundation. The report starts with some very sobering numbers.

…In 1955, the Internal Revenue Code stood at 409,000 words. Since then, it has grown to a total of 2.4 million words: almost six times as long as it was in 1955 and almost twice as long as in 1985. However, the tax statutes passed by Congress are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tax complexity. There are roughly 7.7 million words of tax regulations, promulgated by the IRS over the last century, which clarify how the U.S. tax statutes work in practice. On top of that, there are almost 60,000 pages of tax-related case law, which are indispensable for accountants and tax lawyers trying to figure out how much their clients actually owe.

It then measures the burden of this convoluted system for taxpayers.

According to the latest estimates from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Americans will spend more than 8.9 billion hours complying with IRS tax filing requirements in 2016. This is equal to nearly 4.3 million full-time workers doing nothing but tax return paperwork. …in dollar terms, the 8.9 billion hours needed to comply with the tax code computes to $409 billion each year in lost productivity, or greater than the gross product of 36 states… The cost of complying with U.S. business income taxes accounts for 36 percent of the total cost of the entire tax code, at $147 billion. Complying with the individual income tax costs another $99 billion annually.

The report provides data for 50 provisions of the tax code. In the interest of brevity, here are the 10-most expensive features of the internal revenue code.

The overall $147 billion compliance cost for businesses is enormous, particularly when you consider that corporate tax revenue for Uncle Sam this year is estimated to be $329 billion. So companies have a double-whammy of enduring the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate, and they have to spend lots of money for the pleasure of that punitive system.

Another part that grabbed my attention is “Form 4562” dealing with depreciation. If you care about good policy and stronger growth, businesses shouldn’t even have to depreciate. Instead, we should have a policy of “expensing,” which is simply the common-sense approach of recognizing costs in the year they occur. So firms are paying a $23 billion-plus tax for the privilege of a policy that already punishes them for investing. Amazing.

And don’t forget the death tax, which also makes the top-10 list. The Tax Foundation points out that the compliance cost basically doubles the burden of that horrible and unfair levy.

The estate and gift tax, which will only collect approximately $20 billion in federal revenues this year, has a compliance cost of $19.6 billion.

What a mess.

So what’s the answer?

Simply stated, we should rip up the entire internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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