Tag: Fair Tax

The Great Hillsdale College Debate: Flat Tax or Fair Tax?

I’m at Hillsdale College in Michigan for a conference on taxation. The event is called “The Federal Income Tax: A Centenary Consideration,” though I would have called it something like “100 Years of Misery from the IRS.”

I’m glad to be here, both because Hillsdale proudly refuses to take government money (which would mean being ensnared by government rules) and also because I’ve heard superb speeches by scholars such as Amity Shlaes (author of The Forgotten Man, as well as a new book on Calvin Coolidge that is now on my must-read list) and George Gilder (author of Wealth and Poverty, as well as the forthcoming Knowledge and Power).

My modest contribution was to present “The Case for the Flat Tax,” and I was matched up - at least indirectly, since there were several hours between our presentations - against former Congressman John Linder, who gave “The Case for the Fair Tax.”

I was very ecumenical in my remarks.  I pointed out the flat tax and sales tax (and even, at least in theory, the value-added tax) all share very attractive features.

  • A single (and presumably low) tax rate, thus treating taxpayers equally and minimizing the penalty on productive behavior.
  • No double taxation of saving and investment since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth.
  • Elimination of all loopholes (other than mechanisms to protect the poor from tax) to promote efficiency and reduce corruption.
  • Dramatically downsize and neuter the IRS by replacing 72,000 pages of complexity with simple post-card sized tax forms.

For all intents and purposes the flat tax and sales tax are different sides of the same coin. The only real difference is the collection point. The flat tax takes a bite of your income as it is earned and the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent.

That being said, I do have a couple of qualms about the Fair Tax and other national sales tax plans.

First, I don’t trust politicians. I can envision the crowd in Washington adopting a national sales tax (or VAT) while promising to phase out the income tax over a couple of years. But I’m afraid they’ll discover some “temporary” emergency reason to keep the income tax, followed by another “short-term” excuse. And when the dust settles, we’ll be stuck with both an income tax and a sales tax.

As we know from the European VAT evidence, this is a recipe for even bigger government. That’s a big downside risk.

I explore my concerns in this video.

To be sure, there are downside risks to the flat tax. It’s quite possible, after all, that we could get a flat tax and then degenerate back to something resembling the current system (though that’s still better than being France!).

My second qualm is political. The Fair Tax seems to attract very passionate supporters, which is admirable, but candidates in competitive states and districts are very vulnerable to attacks when they embrace the national sales tax.

On dozens of occasions over the past 15-plus years, I’ve had to explain to reporters that why anti-sales tax demagoguery is wrong.

So I hope it’s clear that I’m not opposed to the concept. Heck, I’ve testified before Congress about the benefits of a national sales tax and I’ve debated on C-Span about how the national sales tax is far better than the current system.

I would be delighted to have a national sales tax, but what I really want is a low-rate, non-discriminatory system that isn’t biased against saving and investment.

Actually, what I want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax, but that’s an issue for another day.

Returning to the issue of tax reform, there’s no significant economic difference between the flat tax and the sales tax debate. What we’re really debating is how to replace the squalid internal revenue code with something worthy of a great nation.

And if there are two paths to the same destination and one involves crossing an alligator-infested swamp and the other requires a stroll through a meadow filled with kittens and butterflies, I know which one I’m going to choose. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but I think you get my point.

Look Before You Leap on Cain’s 9-9-9 Tax Plan

I like the overall approach of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. As I recently wrote, it focuses on lower tax rates, elimination of double taxation, and repeal of corrupt and inefficient loopholes.

But I included a very important caveat. The intermediate stage of his three-step plan would enable politicians to impose both an income tax and a national sales tax. I wrote in my earlier post that I had faith in Herman Cain’s motives, but I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of letting the crowd in Washington have an extra source of revenue.

After all, Europe’s welfare states began their march to fiscal collapse and economic stagnation after they added a version of a national sales tax on top of their pre-existing income taxes.

But it seems that I was too nice in my analysis of Mr. Cain’s plan. Josh Barro and Bruce Bartlett are both claiming that the business portion of Cain’s 9-9-9 is a value-added tax (VAT) rather than a corporate income tax.

In other words, instead of being a 9 percent flat tax-9 percent sales tax-9 percent corporate tax, Cain’s plan is a 9 percent flat tax-9 percent sales tax-9 percent VAT.

Let’s elaborate. The business portion of Cain’s plan apparently does not allow employers to deduct wages and salaries, which means – for all intents and purposes – that they would levy a 9 percent withholding tax on employee compensation. And that would be in addition to the 9 percent they presumably would withhold for the flat tax portion of Cain’s plan.

Employers use withholding in the current system, of course, but at least taxpayers are given credit for all that withheld tax when filling out their 1040 tax forms. Under Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, however, employees would only get credit for monies withheld for the flat tax.

In other words, there are two income taxes in Cain’s plan – the 9 percent flat tax and the hidden 9 percent income tax that is part of the VAT (this hidden income tax on wages and salaries, by the way, is a defining feature of a VAT).

This doesn’t make Cain’s plan bad from a theoretical perspective. The underlying principles are still sound – low tax rates, no double taxation, and no loopholes.

But if I was uneasy when I thought that the 9-9-9 plan added a sales tax on top of the income tax, then I am super-duper-double-secret-probation uneasy about adding a sales tax and a VAT on top of the income tax.

Here’s my video on the VAT, which will help you realize why this pernicious tax would be a big mistake.

Again, this doesn’t make Cain wrong if we’re grading based on economics or philosophy. My anxiety is a matter of real-world political analysis. I don’t trust politicians with new sources of revenue. Whether we give them big new sources of revenue or small new sources of revenue, they will always figure out ways of pushing up the tax rates so they can waste more money trying to buy votes.

The IRS: Even Worse Than You Think

Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

Narrated by Hiwa Alaghebandian of the American Enterprise Institute, the mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden - sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

Two things from the video are worth highlighting.

First, we should make sure to put most of the blame on Congress. As Ms. Alaghebandian notes, the IRS is in the unenviable position of trying to enforce Byzantine tax laws. Yes, there are examples of grotesque IRS abuse, but even the most angelic group of bureaucrats would have a hard time overseeing 70,000-plus pages of laws and regulations (by contrast, the Hong Kong flat tax, which has been in place for more than 60 years, requires less than 200 pages).

Second, we should remember that compliance costs are just the tip of the iceberg. The video also briefly mentions three other costs.

  1. The money we send to Washington, which is a direct cost to our pocketbooks and also an indirect cost since the money often is used to finance counterproductive programs that further damage the economy.
  2. The budgetary burden of the IRS, which is a staggering $12.5 billion. This is the money we spend to employ an army of tax bureaucrats that is larger than the CIA and FBI combined.
  3. The economic burden of the tax system, which measures the lost economic output from a tax system that penalizes productive behavior.
  4. The way to fix this mess, needless to say, is to junk the entire tax code and start all over.

    I’ve been a big proponent of the flat tax, which would mean one low tax rate, no double taxation of savings, and no corrupt loopholes. But I’m also a big fan of national sales tax proposals such as the Fair Tax, assuming we can amend the Constitution so that greedy politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and impose both an income tax and a sales tax.

    But the most important thing we need to understand is that bloated government is our main problem. If we had a limited federal government, as our Founding Fathers envisioned, it would be almost impossible to have a bad tax system. But if we continue to move in the direction of becoming a European-style welfare state, it will be impossible to have a good tax system.

Is the FAIR Tax a Political Liability?

In the past 15 years, I’ve debated in favor of a national sales tax, testified before Congress on the merits of a national sales tax, gone on TV to advocate for a national sales tax, and spoken with dozens of reporters to explain why a national sales tax is a good idea. Even though I prefer a flat tax, I’ve been an ardent defender of sales tax proposals such as the FAIR tax because it would be a great idea to replace the current system with any low-rate system that gets rid of the tax bias against saving and investment. I even narrated this video explaining that a national sales tax and flat tax are different sides of the same coin — and therefore either tax reform proposal would significantly improve prosperity and competitiveness.

I will continue to defend the FAIR tax and other national sales tax proposals that replace the income tax, but I wonder whether this is a losing battle. Every election cycle, candidates that endorse (or even say nice things about) the FAIR tax wind up getting attacked and put on the defensive. Their opponents are being dishonest, and their TV ads are grossly misleading, but they are using this approach because the anti-FAIR tax message is politically effective. Many pro-tax-reform candidates have lost elections in favorable states and districts, largely because their opponents were able to successfully demagogue against a national sales tax.

The Wall Street Journal reaches the same conclusion, opining this morning about the false — but effective — campaign against candidates who support a national sales tax.

In 16 House and three Senate races so far, Democrats have blasted GOP candidates for at one point or another voicing an interest in the FAIR tax. …FAIR tax proponents are right to say these Democratic attacks are unfair and don’t mention the tax-cutting side of the proposal, but the attacks do seem to work. Mr. Paul’s lead in Kentucky fell after the assault, and the issue has hurt GOP candidate Ken Buck in a close Colorado Senate race. In a special House election earlier this year in Pennsylvania, Democrat Mark Critz used the FAIR tax cudgel on Republican opponent Tim Burns. In a district that John McCain carried in 2008, Mr. Critz beat the Republican by eight points and is using the issue again in their rematch. This is a political reality that FAIR taxers need to face. …[I]n theory a consumption tax like the FAIR tax is preferable to an income tax because it doesn’t punish the savings and investment that drive economic growth. If we were designing a tax code from scratch, the FAIR tax would be one consumption tax option worth debating. But … voters rightly suspect that any new sales tax scheme will merely be piled on the current code.

We won’t know until next Tuesday what is going to happen in Kentucky and Colorado, and we won’t know until then what will happen in the other campaigns where the FAIR tax is an issue. But if there are two tax reform plans that achieve the same objective, why pick the approach that faces greater political obstacles?

FAIR tax proponents presumably could defuse some of the attacks by refocusing their efforts so that repealing the income tax is the top priority. This would not require any heavy lifting since all honest proponents of a national sales tax want to get rid of the 16th Amendment and replace it with something that unambiguously prohibits any direct tax on income. So why not lead with that initiative, and have the national sales tax as a secondary proposal? This is what I propose in the video, and I think it would be much harder for demagogues to imply that a FAIR tax would mean a new tax on top of the corrupt system that already exists.

Don’t Give Up on the American People…at Least not Yet

Gloominess and despair are not uncommon traits among supporters of limited government – and with good reason. Government has grown rapidly in recent years and it is expected to get much bigger in the future. To make matters worse, it seems that the deck is stacked against reforms to restrain government. One problem is that 47 percent of Americans are exempt from paying income taxes, which presumably means they no longer have any incentive to resist big government. Mark Steyn recently wrote a very depressing column for National Review Online about this phenomenon, noting that, “By 2012, America could be holding the first federal election in which a majority of the population will be able to vote themselves more government lollipops paid for by the ever shrinking minority of the population still dumb enough to be net contributors to the federal treasury.” Walter Williams, meanwhile, has a new column speculating on whether this cripples the battle for freedom:

According to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research organization, nearly half of U.S. households will pay no federal income taxes for 2009…because their incomes are too low or they have higher income but credits, deductions and exemptions that relieve them of tax liability. This lack of income tax liability stands in stark contrast to the top 10 percent of earners, those households earning an average of $366,400 in 2006, who paid about 73 percent of federal income taxes. …Let’s not dwell on the fairness of such an arrangement for financing the activities of the federal government. Instead, let’s ask what kind of incentives and results such an arrangement produces and ask ourselves whether these results are good for our country. …Having 121 million Americans completely outside the federal income tax system, it’s like throwing chum to political sharks. These Americans become a natural spending constituency for big-spending politicians. After all, if you have no income tax liability, how much do you care about deficits, how much Congress spends and the level of taxation?

Steyn and Williams are right to worry, but the situation is not as grim as it seems for the simple reason that a good portion of the American people know the difference between right and wrong. Consider some of the recent polling data from Rasmussen, which found that “Sixty-six percent (66%) believe that America is overtaxed. Only 25% disagree. Lower income voters are more likely than others to believe the nation is overtaxed” and “75% of voters nationwide say the average American should pay no more than 20% of their income in taxes.” These numbers contradict the hypothesis that 47 percent of Americans (those that don’t pay income tax) are automatic supporters of class-warfare policy.

So why are the supposed free-riders not signing on to the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda? There are probably several reasons, including the fact that many Americans believe in upward mobility, so even if their incomes currently are too low to pay income tax, they aspire to earn more in the future and don’t want higher tax rates on the rich to serve as a barrier. I’m not a polling expert, but I also suspect there’s a moral component to these numbers. There’s no way to prove this assertion, but I am quite sure that the vast majority of hard-working Americans with modest incomes would never even contemplate breaking into a rich neighbor’s house and stealing the family jewelry. So it is perfectly logical that they wouldn’t support using the IRS as a middleman to do the same thing.

A few final tax observations:

The hostility to taxation also represents opposition to big government (at least in theory). Rasumssen also recently found that, “Just 23% of U.S. voters say they prefer a more active government with more services and higher taxes over one with fewer services and lower taxes. …Two-thirds (66%) of voters prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes.”

There is a giant divide between the political elite and ordinary Americans. Rasmussen’s polling revealed that, “Eighty-one percent (81%) of Mainstream American voters believe the nation is overtaxed, while 74% of those in the Political Class disagree.”

Voters do not want a value-added tax or any other form of national sales tax. They are not against the idea as a theoretical concept, but they wisely recognize the politicians are greedy and untrustworthy. Rasumussen found that “just 26% of all voters think that it is even somewhat likely the government would cut income taxes after implementing a sales tax. Sixty-six percent (66%) believe it’s unlikely to happen.”

Fiscal restraint is a necessary precondition for any pro-growth tax reform. If given a choice between a flat tax, national sales tax, value-added tax, or the current system, many Americans want reform, but it is very difficult to have a good tax system if the burden of government spending is rising. Likewise, it would be very easy to have a good tax system if we had a federal government that was limited to the duties outlined in Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution.

Republicans should never acquiesce to higher taxes. All these good numbers and optimistic findings are dependent on voters facing a clear choice between higher taxes and bigger government vs lower taxes and limited government. If Republicans inside the beltway get seduced into a “budget summit” where taxes are “on the table,” that creates a very unhealthy dynamic where voters instinctively try to protect themselves by supporting taxes on somebody else – and the so-called rich are the easiest target.

Last but not least, I can’t resist pointing out that I am part of a debate for U.S. News & World Report on the flat tax vs. the current system. For those of you who have an opinion on this matter, don’t hesitate to cast a vote.