Tag: Tax Reform

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.

‘Gang of Six’ Plan Is Lousy

My colleague Dan Mitchell discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly in the deficit reduction plan released by the bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Six.”  As Dan noted, the plan is more of an outline and a complete assessment isn’t possible until more details emerge. However, the fact that President Obama immediately embraced the plan ought to tell proponents of limited government all they need to know.

Here are some random thoughts on the plan:

  • There’s nothing impressive about the “immediate” $500 billion in deficit reduction. That figure includes revenue increases, so it’s not even $500 billion in spending cuts. And I’m not sure why they say “immediate” when they probably mean that the reductions would occur over the next several fiscal years. The deficit alone for next year will probably be at least $1 trillion.
  • The plan promises about $2.5 trillion in spending reductions over 10 years. As I’ve been pointing out, $2 trillion in spending cuts isn’t a lot when compared to the $46 trillion the government is projected to spend over the next decade. See this Cato video for more.
  • Tax reform is fine; more revenue for the government is not. Transferring more resources from the private sector to the government is a loser for both economic and individual liberty. In addition, the plan’s requirement that tax reform “maintain or improve the progressivity of the tax code” would result in more Americans viewing the federal government’s spending programs as a “free lunch.”
  • My anti-tax credentials are beyond question: I equate taxation with theft. But I don’t like debt-financed spending any more than I like tax-financed spending. Had anti-tax advocates and Republicans put the same amount of effort into restraining spending during the Bush/Republican Congress years as they did in cutting taxes, we might not be facing the prospect of a large tax increase today. Unfortunately, I see little evidence that that lesson has been learned.
  • The plan does almost nothing to rein in the scope of federal government’s activities. It doesn’t seem to matter which party or ideological faction on Capitol Hill releases a plan – conservatives, moderates, and liberals all apparently assume that the federal government should continue doing everything that it currently does. Generally speaking, Democrats want more tax revenue to maintain an expansive government. Republicans talk about smaller government, but only a handful can articulate exactly what programs or functions they’d eliminate. It’s more common to hear Republicans blubber on about “reducing waste, fraud, and abuse” in government programs and “saving” the pillars of the welfare state (Social Security and Medicare) for “future generations.”
  • Our global military presence would make a Roman emperor blush and our Founding Fathers roll over in their graves, but there’s nothing in this plan to suggest that the military-industrial complex faces any threat.

In sum, if you’re hoping that debt reduction will be brought about through a reduction in the federal warfare/welfare state, you’re going to have to wait for a different plan. And the sad truth is that no such plan is going to materialize anytime soon – at least not one that will get through Congress and signed by the president. But look on the bright side – we’re not Greece! Not yet.

The Gang of Six Is Back from the Dead: Contemplating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Their Budget Plan

The on-again, off-again “Gang of Six” has come back on the scene and is offering a “Bipartisan Plan to Reduce Our Nation’s Deficits.”

The proposal is quite similar to the one put forth by the President’s Simpson-Bowles Commission, which isn’t too surprising since some of the same people are involved.

At this stage, all I’ve seen is this summary (A BIPARTISAN PLAN TO REDUCE OUR NATIONS DEFICITS v7), so I reserve the right to modify my analysis as more details emerge (and since I fully expect the plan to look worse when additional information is available, the following is an optimistic assessment.

The Good

  • Unlike President Obama, the Gang of Six is not consumed by class-warfare resentment. The plan envisions that the top personal income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent.
  • The corporate income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent as well, something that is long overdue since the average corporate tax rate in Europe is now down to 23 percent.
  • The alternative minimum tax (which should be called the mandatory maximum tax) will be repealed.
  • The plan would repeal the CLASS Act, a provision of Obamacare for long-term-care insurance that will significantly expand the burden of federal spending once implemented.
  • The plan targets some inefficient and distorting tax preference such as the health care exclusion.

The Bad

  • The much-heralded spending caps do not apply to entitlement programs. This is like going to the doctor because you have cancer and getting treated for a sprained wrist.
  • A net tax increase of more than $1 trillion (I expect that number to be much higher when further details are divulged).
  • The plan targets some provisions of the tax code – such as IRAs and 401(k)s) – that are not preferences, but instead exist to mitigate against the double taxation of saving and investment.
  • There is no Medicare reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.
  • There in no Medicaid reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.

The Ugly

  • The entire package is based on dishonest Washington budget math. Spending increases under the plan, but the politicians claim to be cutting spending because the budget didn’t grow even faster.
  • Speaking of spending, why is there no information, anywhere in the summary document, showing how big government will be five years from now? Ten years from now? The perhaps-all-too-convenient absence of this critical information should set off alarm bells.
  • There’s a back-door scheme to change the consumer price index in such a way as to reduce expenditures (i.e., smaller cost-of-living-adjustments) and increase tax revenue (i.e., smaller adjustments in tax brackets and personal exemptions). The current CPI may be flawed, but it would be far better to give the Bureau of Labor Statistics further authority, if necessary, to make changes. A politically imposed change seems like nothing more than a ruse to impose a hidden tax hike.
  • A requirement that the internal revenue code maintain the existing bias against investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers. This “progressivity” mandate implies very bad things for the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

This quick analysis leaves many questions unanswered. I particularly look forward to getting information on the following:

  1. How fast will discretionary spending rise or fall under the caps? Will this be like the caps following the 1990 tax-hike deal, which were akin to 60-mph speed limits in a school zone? Or will the caps actually reduce spending, erasing the massive increase in discretionary spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. What does it mean to promise Social Security reform “if and only if the comprehensive deficit reduction bill has already received 60 votes.” Who defines reform? And why does the reform have to focus on “75-year” solvency, apparently to the exclusion of giving younger workers access to a better and more stable system?
  3. Will federal spending under the plan shrink back down to the historical average of 20 percent of GDP? And why aren’t those numbers in the summary? The document contains information of deficits and debt, but those figures are just the symptoms of excessive spending. Why aren’t we being shown the data that really matters?

Over the next few days, we’ll find out what’s really in this package, but my advice is to keep a tight hold on your wallet.

A Fiscal Royal Wedding

The British royal wedding was splendid, and the bride and groom were a great match. As a fiscal wonk, my idea of a royal match-up would be marrying corporate tax cuts and business subsidy cuts. The Obama administration is talking about corporate tax cuts and Republicans are talking about cuts to farm subsidies. Might they get together over a cup of tea and work out nuptials?

The global average corporate tax rate has fallen over the last decade from 32 to 25 percent (KPMG, page 79). We have been stuck with a highly damaging 40% federal-state rate. Canada is chopping its combined federal-provincial rate to 25 percent. The Conservative government just won a parliamentary majority, which promises even more pro-investment changes for our largest trading partner.

Consider a Japanese car company deciding where to build its next North American plant. Should it choose a place with a 25 percent tax and stable government finances, or a place with a 40 percent tax and soaring government debt threatening major tax hikes?

The American economy is sputtering, and today we learned that the unemployment rate is back up to 9 percent. If the Obama administration wants to get the economy booming before next year’s election, it should push for a cut in the federal corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent or lower. And it should put aside all this stuff about “closing corporate loopholes.” A lot of supposed corporate loopholes aren’t loopholes to begin with, and as soon as you start trying to cut the real loopholes, half the business community lines up against reform and nothing gets done. Furthermore, if we chopped the corporate rate, the economic distortions caused by loopholes would decline.

Anyway, the largest corporate “loopholes” are probably “homemade loopholes,” which start disappearing automatically if we cut the tax rate. With a high tax rate, corporations have fashioned all kinds of financial structures to avoid taxes. Corporate tax experts agree that the mobility of the corporate tax base is high and rising. If we sharply cut our corporate rate, reported income would increase substantially as multinationals shift their profits into the United States. (For more on this, see my book).

A corporate tax cut would spur capital investment and economic growth. In 2005, the Joint Committee on Taxation used two macro models to look at the effects of various fiscal reform packages. By far, the largest positive impacts on GDP came from matching a corporate tax rate cut with federal spending cuts. (See charts 1c and 1d). The JCT found that:

A decrease in the corporate income tax rate primarily affects the economy through increasing the after-tax rate of return on corporate capital, which provides incentives for increased investment in corporate capital. Over time, this increased investment results in more goods and services and higher total output. It also results in higher labor productivity, leading to increased wages and employment.

So, let’s get cracking on a corporate tax rate cut. Forget about the corporate loopholes, and instead match a rate cut with cuts to business subsidies, such as farm handouts.

Let’s also put aside the idea of tying corporate tax reform to individual tax reform, as Ways and Means chairman David Camp has suggested. That’s just a recipe for gridlock. Obama is offering up corporate tax reform — for the sake of jobs and the economy, Republicans should jump on that opportunity right away.

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.

Friday Links

Tuesday Links

  • A bombing campaign by either Israel or the United States would rally the Iranian people to support an otherwise unpopular and incompetent regime.
  • What else will it take to rally the so-called fiscal hawks to the cause of reducing spending, balancing the budget, and averting national bankruptcy?
  • Senator Franken’s Pay for War Resolution is a superficially a step in the right direction; but when it comes to war, the Senate could probably easily rally a 60-vote supermajority to override any offset requirements.
  • It should be easy to rally around Paul Ryan’s Medicare choice plan, since seniors will lose benefits in the long run anyway.
  • Tax reform proposals are rallying back on both sides of the aisle–will any of them stick?