Tag: flat tax

A Bumpy — but Hopeful — Road Ahead for Ukraine

Even when one tries to ignore the current developments in the East of the country, Ukraine is in a pickle. With one of the lowest incomes per capita among the transitional economies of Eastern Europe, rampant corruption, and quickly depleting foreign reserves, the country is overdue for a reform package in many areas, including fiscal and monetary policy, the judiciary system, bankruptcy law, energy policy, state ownership, to name just a few.

While there is no shortage of foreign experts offering their views on what policies Ukraine needs or does not need, the future of Ukraine is for Ukrainians to decide. Still, the outside world can help. The Cato Institute, for example, is teaming up with the Atlas Network and the Kyiv-based European Business Association this week, hosting an emergency conference on Ukrainian economy.

Instead of policy wonks from Washington, the conference convenes a stellar group of policymakers from the region, who have direct experience with reforms enhancing economic freedom. The speakers include Einars Repse, the former Prime Minister of Latvia, Ivan Miklos, author of Slovakia’s flat tax revolution, Kakha Bendukidze, who as Minister of the Economy was the driving force behind economic reforms in Georgia, Sven Otto Littorin, the former Minister for Employment of Sweden, who assisted with the liberalization of the country’s labor markets, Jan Vincent-Rostowski, until recently the Minister of Finance of Poland, as well as Cato’s very own Andrei Illarionov.

The conference website is here, and you can follow my live twitter feed at this link. Notwithstanding the pessimism of the daily news coming from that part of the world, the recent events in Ukraine have given its people and its leaders a unique window of opportunity to make a departure from the country’s post-Soviet legacy and to put in place institutions that will lead to economic opportunity, freedom, and shared prosperity.

Grading the Camp Tax Reform Plan

To make fun of big efforts that produce small results, the Roman poet Horace wrote, “The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.”

That line sums up my view of the new tax reform plan introduced by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

To his credit, Chairman Camp put in a lot of work. But I can’t help but wonder why he went through the time and trouble. To understand why I’m so underwhelmed, let’s first go back in time.

Back in 1995, tax reform was a hot issue. The House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, had proposed a flat tax. Congressman Billy Tauzin was pushing a version of a national sales tax. And there were several additional proposals jockeying for attention.

To make sense of the clutter, I wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation that demonstrated how to grade the various proposals that had been proposed.

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.

The ‘National Taxpayer Advocate’ at the IRS Is Advocating for the Government, not Taxpayers

I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, though I try to make sure that politicians get much of the blame for America’s convoluted, punitive, and unfair tax code.

Heck, just look at these three images—here, here, and here—and you’ll find startling evidence that politicians make the tax system worse with each passing year.

But there is an office at the IRS that ostensibly exists to defend the interests of taxpayers. The Taxpayer Advocate Service is, according to the government website, “an independent organization within the IRS and helps taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS and recommend changes that will prevent the problems.” The head of this office, Nina Olson, has the title of National Taxpayer Advocate.

Sounds good, right?

Well, not so fast. The TAS does some good things, but Ms. Olson spends at least part of her time advocating for the government.

The TAS just released its annual report, and here’s some of what the bureaucracy recommended, according to a Bloomberg story.

Among the other problems Olson identifies in the report are … the underfunding of the Internal Revenue Service … The IRS, which Olson compares to the accounts receivable department of a company, should be fenced off from more budget cuts by Congress, she writes in the report.

Don’t rub your eyes or clean your glasses. You read correctly. The folks at the IRS who supposedly are advocating for you are instead advocating for a bigger IRS budget.

I debunked this silly argument last year, explaining why Congress should reject the Obama Administration’s assertion that more money for the IRS would be an “investment” that would yield big returns.

But I want to be fair. Some of what the TAS does is worth applauding. The report also discusses the grotesque levels of complexity in the code. Here’s more of the Bloomberg story:

Estonia and Austerity: Another Exploding Cigar for Paul Krugman

I have great fondness for Estonia, in part because it was the first post-communist nation to adopt the flat tax, but also because of the country’s remarkable scenery.

Most recently, though, I’ve been bragging about Estonia (along with Latvia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic nations) for implementing genuine spending cuts. I’ve argued that Estonia is showing how a government can reignite growth by reducing the burden of government.

Not surprisingly, some people disagree with my analysis. Paul Krugman of the New York Times criticized Estonia yesterday, writing that the Baltic nation suffered a “Depression-level slump” in 2008 and has only managed an “incomplete recovery” over the past few years.

He blames this supposedly weak performance on “austerity.”

I have a positive and negative reaction to Krugman’s post. My positive reaction is that he’s talking about a nation that actually has cut spending, so there’s real public-sector austerity (see Veronique de Rugy’s L.A. Times column to understand the critical difference between public-sector and private-sector austerity).

This is a sign of progress. In the past, he launched a silly attack on the U.K. for a “government pullback” that never happened, so what he wrote about Estonia at least is based on real events.

My negative reaction is that Krugman is very guilty of cherry-picking data. If you look at the chart that accompanies his post, Estonia’s economic performance isn’t very impressive, but that’s because he’s only showing us the data from 2007-present.

The numbers are accurate, but they’re designed to mislead rather than inform (sort of as if I did a chart showing 2009-present).

But before exposing that bit of trickery, there’s another mistake worth noting. Krugman presumably wants us to think that the downturn coincided with spending cuts. But his own chart shows that the economy hit the skids in 2008 - a year in which  government spending in Estonia soared by nearly 18 percent according to EU fiscal data!

It wasn’t until 2009 that Estonian lawmakers began to reduce the burden of spending. So I guess Professor Krugman wants us to believe that the economy tanked in 2008 because of expectations of 2009 austerity. Or something like that.

Returning now to my complaint about cherry picking data, Krugman makes Estonia seem stagnant by looking only at data starting in 2007. But as you can see from this second chart, Estonia’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. It has doubled its economic output in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period - including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It did experience a credit/real estate bubble, and there was a deep recession when the bubble burst. And the politicians let government spending explode during the bubble years, almost doubling the budget between 2004 and 2008.

But Estonia reacted to the overspending and the downturn in a very responsible fashion. Instead of using the weak economy as an excuse to further expand the burden of government spending in hopes that Keynesian economics would magically work (after failing for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, and Obama in 2009), the Estonians realized that they needed to cut spending.

And now that spending has been curtailed, it’s worth noting that growth has resumed.

What makes Krugman’s rant especially amusing is that he wrote it just as the rest of the world is beginning to notice that Estonia is a role model. Here’s some of what CNBC just posted.

Sixteen months after it joined the struggling currency bloc, Estonia is booming. The economy grew 7.6 percent last year, five times the euro-zone average. Estonia is the only euro-zone country with a budget surplus. National debt is just 6 percent of GDP, compared to 81 percent in virtuous Germany, or 165 percent in Greece. Shoppers throng Nordic design shops and cool new restaurants in Tallinn, the medieval capital, and cutting-edge tech firms complain they can’t find people to fill their job vacancies. It all seems a long way from the gloom elsewhere in Europe. Estonia’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis. …How did they bounce back? “I can answer in one word: austerity. Austerity, austerity, austerity,” says Peeter Koppel, investment strategist at the SEB Bank. …that’s not exactly the message that Europeans further south want to hear. …Estonia has also paid close attention to the fundamentals of establishing a favorable business environment: reducing and simplifying taxes, and making it easy and cheap to build companies.

Good policy makes a difference. But it also helps to have rational citizens (unlike France, where people vote for economic illiterates and protest against reality).

While spending cuts have triggered strikes, social unrest and the toppling of governments in countries from Ireland to Greece, Estonians have endured some of the harshest austerity measures with barely a murmur. They even re-elected the politicians that imposed them. “It was very difficult, but we managed it,” explains Economy Minister Juhan Parts. “Everybody had to give a little bit. Salaries paid out of the budget were all cut, but we cut ministers’ salaries by 20 percent and the average civil servants’ by 10 percent,” Parts told GlobalPost. …As well as slashing public sector wages, the government responded to the 2008 crisis by raising the pension age, making it harder to claim health benefits and reducing job protection — all measures that have been met with anger when proposed in Western Europe.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that government is still far too big in Estonia. The public sector consumes about 39 percent of economic output, almost double the burden of government spending in Hong Kong and Singapore.

But, unlike certain American politicians, at least the Estonians understand the problem and are taking steps to move in the right direction. I hope they continue.

P.S. The President of Estonia, a Social Democrat named Toomas Hendrik Ilves, used his twitter account to kick the you-know-what out of Krugman yesterday. For amusement value, check out this HuffingtonPost article.

P.P.S. A few other nations, such as Canada and New Zealand, also imposed genuine spending restraint in recent decades and they also got good results.

New Academic Study Confirms Previous IMF Analysis, Shows that Lower Tax Rates Are the Best Way to Reduce Tax Evasion

Leftists want higher tax rates and they want greater tax compliance. But they have a hard time understanding that those goals are inconsistent.

Simply stated, people respond to incentives. When tax rates are punitive, folks earn and report less taxable income, and vice-versa.

In a previous post, I quoted an article from the International Monetary Fund, which unambiguously concluded that high tax burdens are the main reason people don’t fully comply with tax regimes.

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that international studies find that the jurisdictions with the highest rates of tax compliance are the ones with reasonable tax systems, such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Now there’s a new study confirming these findings. Authored by two economists, one from the University of Wisconsin and the other from Jacksonville University, the new research cites the impact of tax burdens as well as other key variables.

Here are some key findings from the study.

According to the results provided in Table 2, the coefficient on the average effective federal income tax variable (AET) is positive in all three estimates and statistically significant for the overall study periods (1960-2008) at beyond the five percent level and statistically significant at the one percent level for the two sub-periods (1970-2007 and 1980-2008). Thus, as expected, the higher the average effective federal income tax rate, the greater the expected benefits of tax evasion may be and hence the greater the extent of that income tax evasion. This finding is consistent with most previous studies of income tax evasion using official data… In all three estimates, [the audit variable] exhibits the expected negative sign; however, in all three estimates it fails to be statistically significant at the five percent level. Indeed, these three coefficients are statistically significant at barely the 10 percent level. Thus it appears the audit rate (AUDIT) variable, of an in itself, may not be viewed as a strong deterrent to federal personal income taxation [evasion].

Translating from economic jargon, the study concludes that higher tax burdens lead to more evasion. Statists usually claim that this can be addressed by giving the IRS more power, but the researchers found that audit rates have a very weak effect.

The obvious conclusion, as I’ve noted before, is that lower tax rates and tax reform are the best way to improve tax compliance - not more power for the IRS.

Incidentally, this new study also finds that evasion increases when the unemployment rate increases. Given his proposals for higher tax rates and his poor track record on jobs, it almost makes one think Obama is trying to set a record for tax evasion.

The study also finds that dissatisfaction with government is correlated with tax evasion. And since Obama’s White House has been wasting money on corrupt green energy programs and a failed stimulus, that also suggests that the Administration wants more tax evasion.

Indeed, this last finding is consistent with some research from the Bank of Italy that I cited in 2010.

…the coefficient of public spending inefficiency remains negative and highly significant. …We find that tax morale is higher when the taxpayer perceives and observes that the government is efficient; that is, it provides a fair output with respect to the revenues.

And I imagine that “tax morale” in the United States is further undermined by an internal revenue code that has metastasized into a 72,000-page monstrosity of corruption and sleaze.

On the other hand, tax evasion apparently is correlated with real per-capita gross domestic product. And since the economy has suffered from anemic performance over the past three years, that blows a hole in the conspiratorial theory that Obama wants more evasion.

All joking aside, I’m sure the President wants more tax compliance and more prosperity. And since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to help him out. Mr. President, this video outlines a plan that would achieve both of those goals.

Given his class-warfare rhetoric, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation that he will follow my sage advice.

Grading Perry’s Flat Tax: Some Missing Homework, but a Solid B+

Governor Rick Perry of Texas has announced a plan, which he outlines in the Wall Street Journal, to replace the corrupt and inefficient internal revenue code with a flat tax. Let’s review his proposal, using the principles of good tax policy as a benchmark.

1. Does the plan have a low, flat rate to minimize penalties on productive behavior?

Governor Perry is proposing an optional 20 percent tax rate. Combined with a very generous allowance (it appears that a family of four would not pay tax on the first $50,000 of income), this means the income tax will be only a modest burden for households. Most important, at least from an economic perspective, the 20-percent marginal tax rate will be much more conducive to entrepreneurship and hard work, giving people more incentive to create jobs and wealth.

2. Does the plan eliminate double taxation so there is no longer a tax bias against saving and investment?

The Perry flat tax gets rid of the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the double tax on dividends. This would significantly reduce the discriminatory and punitive treatment of income that is saved and invested (see this chart to understand why this is a serious problem in the current tax code). Since all economic theories - even socialism and Marxism - agree that capital formation is key for long-run growth and higher living standards, addressing the tax bias against saving and investment is one of the best features of Perry’s plan.

3. Does the plan get rid of deductions, preferences, exemptions, preferences, deductions, loopholes, credits, shelters, and other provisions that distort economic behavior?

A pure flat tax does not include any preferences or penalties. The goal is to leave people alone so they make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than what reduces their tax liability. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Perry flat tax falls a bit short. His plan gets rid of lots of special favors in the tax code, but it would retain deductions (for those earning less than $500,000 yearly) for charitable contributions, home mortgage interest, and state and local taxes.

As a long-time advocate of a pure flat tax, I’m not happy that Perry has deviated from the ideal approach. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the very good. If implemented, his plan would dramatically boost economic performance and improve competitiveness.

That being said, there are some questions that need to be answered before giving a final grade to the plan. Based on Perry’s Wall Street Journal column and material from the campaign, here are some unknowns.

1. Is the double tax on interest eliminated?

A flat tax should get rid of all forms of double taxation. For all intents and purposes, a pure flat tax includes an unlimited and unrestricted IRA. You pay tax when you first earn your income, but the IRS shouldn’t get another bite of the apple simply because you save and invest your after-tax income. It’s not clear, though, whether the Perry plan eliminates the double tax on interest. Also, the Perry plan eliminates the double taxation of “qualified dividends,” but it’s not clear what that means.

2. Is the special tax preference for fringe benefits eliminated?

One of the best features of the flat tax is that it gets rid of the business deduction for fringe benefits such as health insurance. This special tax break has helped create a very inefficient healthcare system and a third-party payer crisis. It is unclear, though, whether this pernicious tax distortion is eliminated with the Perry flat tax.

3. How will the optional flat tax operate?

The Perry plan copies the Hong Kong system in that it allows people to choose whether to participate in the flat tax. This is attractive since it ensures that nobody can be disadvantaged, but how will it work? Can people switch back and forth every year? Is the optional system also available to all the small businesses that use the 1040 individual tax system to file their returns?

4. Will businesses be allowed to “expense” investment expenditures?

The current tax code penalizes new business investment by forcing companies to pretend that a substantial share of current-year investment outlays take place in the future. The government imposes this perverse policy in order to get more short-run revenue since companies are forced to artificially overstate current-year profits. A pure flat tax allows a business to “expense” the cost of business investments (just as they “expense” workers wages) for the simple reason that taxable income should be defined as total revenue minus total costs.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the grade for Perry’s flat tax could be as high as A- or as low as B. Regardless, it will be a radical improvement compared to the current tax system, which gets a D- (and that’s a very kind grade).

Here’s a brief video for those who want more information about the flat tax.

Last but not least, I’ve already received several requests to comment on how Perry’s flat tax compares to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

At a conceptual level, the plans are quite similar. They both replace the discriminatory rate structure of the current system with a low rate. They both get rid of double taxation. And they both dramatically reduce corrupt loopholes and distortions when compared to the current tax code.

All things considered, though, I prefer the flat tax. The 9-9-9 plan combines a 9 percent flat tax with a 9 percent VAT and a 9 percent national sales tax, and I don’t trust that politicians will keep the rates at 9 percent.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax is that we degenerate back to the current system. The worst thing that happens with the 9-9-9 plan, as I explain in this video, is that politicians pull a bait-and-switch and America becomes Greece or France.

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