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Posts Tagged ‘Taxation’

While my colleagues are stuck in the cold of Washington for inauguration week, I’m enjoying a few days in the Caribbean. More specifically, I’m sharing my views today on Trump and the global economy at the annual Business Outlook Conference in the British Virgin Islands.

Yes, another example of the sacrifices I make in the battle for liberty.

But it’s fortuitous that I’m here for reasons other than the weather. This is a good opportunity to expose Oxfam. Many people have a vague impression that this group is a well-meaning charity that seeks to help lift up poor people.

If you take a close look at the organization’s activities, however, you’ll see that it’s become a left-wing pressure group.

Consider, for example, Oxfam’s recent report on “Tax Battles,” which discusses the supposed “dangerous global race to the bottom on corporate tax.”

Based on Oxfam’s ideologically driven agenda, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands are the worst of the worst, followed by the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Singapore. The British Virgin Islands, meanwhile, is number 15 on Oxfam’s list.

And what awful sins did BVI and the other jurisdictions commit to get on the list?

Well, the report suggests that their guilty of helping taxpayers minimize their tax burdens.

To create the list, Oxfam researchers assessed countries against a set of criteria that measured the extent to which countries used three types of harmful tax policies: corporate tax rates, the tax incentives offered, and lack of cooperation with international efforts against tax avoidance.

In other words, places with good business tax policy are ostensibly bad because politicians have less money to waste.

By the way, the folks at Oxfam are grotesquely hypocritical.

The world’s most important jurisdiction for corporate tax planning is Delaware and it didn’t even appear on the list. Why? I have no idea.

But I can tell you that there is a single building in Delaware that is home to 285,000 companies according to a report in the New York Times.

1209 North Orange Street… It’s a humdrum office building, a low-slung affair with a faded awning and a view of a parking garage. Hardly worth a second glance. If a first one. But behind its doors is one of the most remarkable corporate collections in the world: 1209 North Orange, you see, is the legal address of no fewer than 285,000 separate businesses. Its occupants, on paper, include giants like American Airlines, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Electric, Google, JPMorgan Chase, and Wal-Mart. These companies do business across the nation and around the world. Here at 1209 North Orange, they simply have a dropbox. …Big corporations, small-time businesses, rogues, scoundrels and worse — all have turned up at Delaware addresses in hopes of minimizing taxes, skirting regulations, plying friendly courts or, when needed, covering their tracks. …It’s easy to set up shell companies here, no questions asked.

Most leftists get upset about Delaware, just like they get upset about BVI and the Cayman Islands.

But Oxfam’s people are either spectacularly clueless or they made some sort of bizarre political calculation to give America a free pass.

For purposes of today’s discussion, however, what matters most is that Oxfam is ideologically hostile to jurisdictions with good policy. The fact that they’re also hypocritical is just icing on the cake.

By the way, putting out shoddy reports is a pattern for the organization.

It recently got a lot of press attention because of a report on “An Economy for the 99 Percent” with the dramatic claim that the world’s 8-richest people have the same wealth as the world’s bottom-50 percent.

Oxfam wants people to somehow conclude that billions of people are poor because those 8 people are rich. But that’s nonsense.

My colleague Johan Norberg has waged a one-man campaign to debunk Oxfam’s shoddy methodology and dishonest implications.

Here are two very clever tweets on the topic.

Amen. Ethical people want to reduce poverty. Envious people want to punish the successful.

And here’s a tweet noting that the classical liberal policies opposed by Oxfam have led to a much better world.

And here’s one of his “Dead Wrong” videos on the topic of inequality and poverty.

And since we’re looking at videos, here’s my video on Obama’s anti-tax haven demagoguery.

You’ll notice that 1209 North Orange Street makes a cameo appearance.

The moral of the story is that BVI (and other so-called tax havens) should be applauded, not criticized.

And Oxfam should end the pretense of being a charity. It’s a left-wing hack organization.

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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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Mancur Olson (1932-1998) was a great economist who came up with a very useful analogy to help explain the behavior of many governments. He pointed out that a “roving bandit” has an incentive to maximize short-run plunder by stealing everything from victims (i.e. a 100 percent tax rate), whereas a “stationary bandit” has an incentive to maximize long-run plunder by stealing just a portion of what victims produce every year (i.e., the revenue-maximizing tax rate).

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University elaborates on this theory in this very helpful video.

As you can see, Olson’s theory mostly is used to analyze and explain the behavior of autocratic governments. Now let’s apply these lessons to political behavior in modern democracies.

I wrote last year about a field of economic theory called “public choice” to help explain how and why the democratic process often generates bad results. Simply stated, politicians and special interests have powerful incentives to use government coercion to enrich themselves while ordinary taxpayers and consumers have a much smaller incentive to fight against that kind of plunder.

But what’s the best way to think about these politicians and interest groups? Are they roving bandits or stationary bandits?

The answer is both. To the extent that they think their power is temporary, they’ll behave like roving bandits, extracting as much money from taxpayers and consumers as possible.

Though if you think of democracies as duopolies, with two parties and rotating control of government, then each party will also behave like a stationary bandit, understanding that it’s not a good idea to strangle the goose that lays the golden eggs.

And this is one of the reasons why I’m a big fan of “tax competition.” Simply stated, politicians and special interests constrain their greed when they know that potential victims have the ability to escape.

Here’s a report from the Wall Street Journal that is a perfect example of my argument.

Germany could reduce its corporate tax rate in the wake of similar moves in the U.K. and the U.S., German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said. Europe’s largest economy should simplify its complex tax system for companies in order to…remain competitive internationally, Mr. Schäuble told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. He also said that while Germany opposed beggar-thy-neighbor tax competition between mature industrial nations, Berlin would also consider cutting tax rates if necessary.

And such steps may be necessary. In other words, Germany may reduce tax rates, not because politicians want to do the right thing, but rather because they fear they’ll lose jobs and investment (i.e., sources of tax revenue) to other jurisdictions.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has said he would like to cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% as part of a broader tax overhaul. In November, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said the main corporate rate there should fall from 20% to 17% by 2020. These followed announcements about corporate tax-rate cuts by Japan, Canada, Italy and France.

Let’s look at another example.

I made the economic case for Brexit in large part because the European Union is controlled by anti-tax competition bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels.

Well, it appears that the British vote for independence is already paying dividends as seen by comments from the U.K.’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Philip Hammond warned yesterday that the Government will come out fighting with tax cuts if the EU tries to wound Britain by refusing a trade deal. …Yesterday, Mr Hammond was asked by a German newspaper if the UK could become a tax haven by further lowering corporation tax in order to attract businesses if Brussels denies a deal. In his strongest language yet on Brexit, the Chancellor said he was optimistic a reciprocal deal on market access could be struck… But he added: …‘In this case, we could be forced to change our economic model and we will have to change our model to regain competitiveness. And you can be sure we will do whatever we have to do. …We will change our model, and we will come back, and we will be competitively engaged.’ …Earlier this year Mrs May committed Britain to having the lowest corporation tax of the world’s 20 biggest economies. The intention is a rate of 17 per cent by 2020.

In other words, yet another case of politicians doing the right thing because of tax competition.

The stationary bandits described by Olson are being forced to adopt better tax policy.

So it’s very appropriate to close with some wise counsel from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

The EU needs more tax competition from government vying to stimulate business investment. …The real tax-policy scandal is that so few European governments understand there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between oppressive tax rates and low economic growth.

P.S. Since we’re looking at tax competition, Europe, and bandits, keep in mind there’s considerable academic work showing that Europe became a rich continent precisely because there were many small nations that competed with each other. Those jurisdictions felt pressure to adopt good policy because the various leaders wanted lots of economic activity to tax. All of which helps to explain why modern statists are so hostile to decentralization and federalism.

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I don’t often use the literary tactic of referring to something as the “best-ever.” Indeed, the only time that phrase appeared in the title of a column was back in 2014 when I smugly wrote about the collapse of government-run single-payer healthcare in Vermont. Recalling what Justice Brandeis wrote about states being the “laboratories of democracy,” I asserted that the disaster in the Green Mountain State taught the entire nation a valuable lesson about the dangers of bad policy and that this was the “best-ever argument for federalism.”

Well, it’s time to once again use this superlative because consumers in California get the “best-ever receipt” when they make purchases at Firearms Unknown. Here’s the example that’s gone viral, and I’ve highlighted the relevant portion that gives an amusing description of California’s onerous sales tax.

By the way, not everything you see on the Internet is true (yes, shocking news). And since the folks at Independent Journal Review didn’t want to make the mistake of sharing without checking (like I did when trying to mock Justin Trudeau), they actually did some due diligence.

Many times, viral photos are too good to be true. So we contacted Firearms Unknown in National City, CA, to find out if this was one of those times. Sure enough, a representative with Firearms Unknown confirmed the receipt’s authenticity to Independent Journal Review. Then, he let out a chuckle. I guess if you’re going to operate a gun shop in a far-left state like California, you better have a good sense of humor. Bravo, Firearms Unknown.

Yes, kudos to the store, but I also want to take this opportunity to make a serious point about tax visibility.

One of the many reasons to oppose a value-added tax is that the tax almost always is hidden from consumers. When taxpayers make purchases in Europe, they don’t know that VATs are responsible, on average, for about 21 percent of the purchase price.

So it’s good that consumers in America know there’s a sales tax, both because it’s visible on their receipts and also because they can see the difference between the price on the shelf and the price at the cash register.

Though this system isn’t perfect. How many Americans, after all, know how much sales tax they paid last year?

The visibility issue also exists with the income tax. In theory, we all know what we paid the previous year based on our annual tax returns. But because of withholding, most Americans don’t really pay attention to that very important number and instead focus on whether they’re getting a refund. They actually think a big refund is a great outcome, even though it simply means that they gave the government an interest-free loan by over-paying their taxes during the year!

This is one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of Hong Kong, in part because of the flat tax. Not only is there a low rate and no double taxation, but there’s also no withholding. Instead, taxpayers write checks to the government twice annually. So they are fully aware of the cost of government, which may explain why the fiscal burden of government is relatively low (it also helps that there is a constitutional spending cap).

In the United States, the only levies that are visible (at least some of the time) are property taxes. Taxpayers usually have to make annual or semiannual payments on cars and houses (though property taxes on homes are sometimes built into mortgage payments).

And when you have to write a lump-sum check to the government, that’s a wonderful opportunity for people to ponder whether they’re actually getting good value for their money.

And since the answer almost always is no, it’s easy to understand why politicians are big fans of policies (such as VATs and withholding) that disguise the burden of taxation.

P.S. In the body of previous columns, I have used the “best-ever” superlative a handful of times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian concludes with some advice for Republicans.

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

Amen.

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

Let’s close with three hopefully helpful observations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are lots of potential answers, including:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concern #1: Is the DBCFT protectionist?

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

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

Charles Lane of the Washington Post explains how it works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a Washington Post editorial is similarly concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Economist shares this assessment.

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

Steve Forbes is blunt about this possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not the case with the DBCFT.

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

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

A story from CNBC highlights why retailers are so concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll start with the things I want.

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

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

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

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

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