The False Choice Between a VAT and Impossible Spending Cuts

Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana has triggered a spat among policy wonks with his recent comments expressing sympathy for a value-added tax (VAT). Kevin Williamson of National Review is arguing that a VAT will probably be necessary because there is no hope of restraining spending. Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform jumped on Williamson for his “apostasy,” arguing that a VAT would be bad news for taxpayers. From a policy perspective, I’m very much against a VAT because it will finance bigger government, as explained in this video.


That being said, Kevin Williamson makes a good point when he says that some supply-siders have neglected the spending side of the fiscal ledger. And it certainly is true that Republicans don’t seem very interested in curtailing the growth of government. But does this mean, as Williamson argues, but that our choices are limited to 1) a 36 percent spending cut, 2) catastrophic deficits and debt, or 3) a European-style value-added tax.

I actually think it would be a great idea to reduce the budget by 36 percent. That would bring the burden of federal spending back down to where it was in 2003. Notwithstanding the screams from various interest groups that this would generate, nobody was starving in the streets when the budget was $2.3 trillion rather than today’s $3.5 trillion. But Kevin is unfortunately correct in noting that this type of fiscal reform won’t happen.

Kevin is wrong, however, in saying that we therefore have to choose between either Greek-style deficits or a VAT. According to the Congressional Budget Office, tax revenues over the next 10 years will increase by an average of about 7.3 percent each year - and that’s assuming the tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is adjusted for inflation. Reducing red ink simply requires that politicians exercise a tiny bit of restraint so that spending grows by a lesser amount. This video walks through the numbers and shows how quickly the budget could be balanced with varying levels of spending discipline.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that the VAT has not prevented gigantic deficits in nations such as Greece, Japan, Ireland, Spain, England, etc, etc. Politicians in those nations implemented VATs, usually with promises that the money would be used to reduce other taxes and/or lower red ink, but all that happened was more spending and bigger government (this cartoon makes the point in a rather amusing fashion). In other words, Milton Friedman was right when he wrote that, ”In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.”