Tag: taxation

The Baucus-Hatch “Blank Slate” Approach to Tax Reform Isn’t Blank

I’m a big proponent of tax reform, so at first I was very excited to learn that Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) were launching an effort to clean up the tax code.

But on closer inspection, I don’t think this will lead to a simple and fair system like the flat tax. Or even a national sales tax (assuming we could trust politicians not to pull a bait-and-switch, adding a new tax and never getting rid of the income tax).

But judge for yourself. Here’s some of what’s contained in a letter they sent to their colleagues, starting with some language about the growing complexity of the tax code and the compliance cost for taxpayers.

…since then, the economy has changed dramatically and Congress has made more than 15,000 changes to the tax code. The result is a tax base riddled with exclusions, deductions and credits. In addition, each year, it costs individuals and businesses more than $160 billion to comply with the tax code. The complexity, inefficiency and unfairness of the tax code are acting as a brake on our economy. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Sounds good, though they also could have mentioned other indicators of nightmarish complexity, such as the number of pages in the tax code, the number of special tax provisions, or the number of pages in the 1040 instruction manual.

I’m a bit mystified, however, at the low-ball estimate of $160 billion of compliance costs. As explained in this video, there are far higher estimates that are based on very sound methodology.

But perhaps I’m nit-picking. Let’s see with Senators Baucus and Hatch want to do.

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences that some refer to as “tax expenditures.”

I don’t like the term “tax expenditure” since it implies that the government taking money from person A and giving it to person B is equivalent to the government simply letting person B keep their own money. These two approaches may be economically equivalent in certain cases, but they’re not morally equivalent.

Once again, however, I may be guilty of nit-picking.

That being said, there is a feature of the “blank slate” approach which does generate legitimate angst. There’s a footnote in the letter that states that the Joint Committee on Taxation is in charge of determining so-called tax expenditures.

A complete list of these special tax provisions as defined by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

This is very troubling. The JCT may be non-partisan, but it’s definitely not non-ideological. These are the bureaucrats, for instance, who assume that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! Moreover, the JCT uses the “Haig-Simons” tax system as a benchmark, which means they start with the assumption that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

This is not nit-picking. The definition of “tax expenditure” is a critical policy decision, not something to be ceded to the other side before the debate even begins.

As illustrated by this chart, the tax code is very biased against saving and investment.

Between the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the double tax on dividends, and the death tax, it’s possible for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four different times.

This is a very foolish policy, particularly since every school of thought in the economics profession agrees that capital formation is a key to long-run growth. Even the Marxists and socialists!

What’s the Better Role Model, France or Switzerland?

At the European Resource Bank conference earlier this month, Pierre Bessard from Switzerland’s Institut Liberal spoke on a panel investigating “The Link between the Weight of the State and Economic prosperity.”

His presentation included two slides that definitely are worth sharing.

The first slide, which is based on research from the Boston Consulting Group, looks at which jurisdictions have the most households with more than $1 million of wealth.

Switzerland is the easy winner, and you probably won’t be surprised to see Hong Kong and Singapore also do very well.

Switzerland Liberal Institute 2

Gee, I wonder if the fact that Switzerland (#4), Hong Kong (#1), and Singapore (#2) score highly on the Economic Freedom of the World index has any connection with their comparative prosperity?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course.

Most sensible people already understand that countries with free markets and small government out-perform nations with big welfare states and lots of intervention.

Speaking of which, let’s look at Pierre’s slide that compares Swiss public finances with the dismal numbers from Eurozone nations.

Switzerland Liberal Institute 1

The most impressive part of this data is the way Switzerland has maintained a much smaller burden of government spending.

One reason for this superior outcome is the Swiss “Debt Brake,” a voter-imposed spending cap that basically prevents politicians from increasing spending faster than inflation plus population.

Now let’s compare Switzerland and France, which is what I did last Saturday at the Free Market Road Show conference in Paris.

As part of my remarks, I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP.

They said no.

I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP.

They said no.

And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output (I used OECD data for my comparisons, which is why my numbers are not identical to Pierre’s numbers).

Once again, they said no.

The fundamental question, then, is why French politicians impose such a heavy burden of government spending - with a very high cost to the economy - when citizens don’t get better services?

Or maybe the real question is why French voters elect politicians that pursue such senseless policies?

But to be fair, we should ask why American voters elected Bush and Obama, both of whom have made America more like France?

Siding with the Heritage Foundation in the “Austerity” Fight with Paul Krugman and the Washington Post

I’m not reluctant to criticize my friends at the Heritage Foundation. In some cases, it is good-natured ribbing because of the Cato-Heritage softball rivalry, but there are also real policy disagreements.

For instance, even though it is much better than current policy, I don’t like parts of Heritage’s “Saving the American Dream” budget plan. It’s largely designed to prop up the existing Social Security system rather than replace the existing tax-and-transfer entitlement system with personal retirement accounts. And while the plan contains a flat tax, it’s not the pure Hall-Rabushka version. One of the most alarming deviations, to cite just one example, is that it creates a tax preference for higher education that would enable higher tuition costs and more bureaucratic featherbedding.

That being said, I’m also willing to defend Heritage if the organization is being wrongly attacked. The specific issue we’ll review today is “austerity” in Europe and whether Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is right to accuse Heritage of “meretricious” testimony.

Let’s look at the details.

Earlier this month, Paul Krugman wrote that, “a Heritage Foundation economist has been accused of presenting false, deliberately misleading data and analysis to the Senate Budget Committee.” Krugman was too clever to assert that the Heritage economist “did present” dishonest data, but if you read his short post, he clearly wants readers to believe that an unambiguous falsehood has been exposed.

Krugman, meanwhile, was simply linking to the Washington Post, which was the source of a more detailed critique. The disagreement revolves around  whether Europeans have cut spending or raised taxes, and by how much. The Heritage economist cited one set of OECD data, while critics have cited another set of data.

So who is right?

Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner explains that the Heritage economist was looking at OECD data for 2007-2012 while critics are relying on an OECD survey of what politicians in various countries say they’ve done since 2009 as well as what they plan to do between now and 2015.

Whitehouse believed he had caught Furth and The Heritage Foundation in a bald face lie. …There is just one problem with Whitehouse’s big gotcha moment: The staffer who spoon-fed Whitehouse his OECD numbers on “the actual balance between spending cuts and tax increases” failed to also show Whitehouse the front page of the OECD report from which those numbers came. That report is titled: “Fiscal consolidation targets, plans and measures in OECD countries.” Turns out, the numbers Whitehouse used to attack Furth for misreporting “what took place in Europe” were actually mostly projections of what governments said they were planning to do in the future (the report was written in December 2011 and looked at data from 2009 and projections through 2015). At no point in Furth’s testimony did he ever claim to be reporting about what governments were going to do in the future. He very plainly said his analysis was of actual spending and taxing data “to date.” Odds are that Whitehouse made an honest mistake. Senators can’t be expected actually to read the title page of every report from which they quote. But, considering he was the one who was very clearly in error, and not Furth, he owes Furth, and The Heritage Foundation an apology. Krugman and Matthews would be well advised to revisit the facts as well.

In other words, critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years.

So far, we’ve simply addressed whether Heritage was unfairly attacked. The answer, quite clearly, is yes. If you don’t believe me, peruse the OECD data or peruse the IMF data.

Now let’s briefly touch on the underlying policy debate. Keynesians such as Krugman assert that there have been too many spending cuts in Europe. The “austerity” crowd, by contrast, argues that strong steps are needed to deal with deficits and debt, though they are agnostic about whether to rely on spending reforms or tax increases.

I’ve repeatedly explained that Europe’s real problem is an excessive burden of government spending. I want politicians to cut spending (or at least make sure it grows slower than the productive sector of the economy). And rather than increasing the tax burden, I want them to lower rates and reform punitive tax systems.

The bad news is that Europeans have raised taxes. A lot. The semi-good news is that spending no longer is growing as fast as it was before the fiscal crisis.

In the grand scheme of things, however, I think Europe is still headed down the wrong path. Here’s what I wrote back in January and it’s still true today.

I don’t sense any commitment to smaller government. I fear governments will let the spending genie out of the bottle at the first opportunity. And we’re talking about a scary genie, not Barbara Eden. And to make matters worse, Europe faces a demographic nightmare. These charts, reproduced from a Bank for International Settlements study, show that even the supposedly responsible nations in Europe face a tsunami of spending and debt over the next 25-plus years. So you can understand why I don’t express a lot of optimism about European economic policy.

By the way, I’m not optimistic about the long-term fiscal outlook for the United States either. In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, we’ll sooner or later have our own fiscal crisis.

CBO’s Tax Expenditure Report Uses Wrong Benchmark, Overstates Loopholes

As a long-time advocate of tax reform, I’m not a fan of distortionary loopholes in the tax code. Ideally, we would junk the 74,000-page internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax - meaning one low rate, no double taxation, and no favoritism.*

The right kind of tax reform would generate more growth and also reduce corruption in Washington. Politicians no longer would have the ability to create special tax breaks for well-connected contributors.

But we won’t get to the right destination if we have the wrong map, and this is why a new report about “tax expenditures” from the Congressional Budget Office is so disappointing.

As you can see from this excerpted table, CBO makes the same mistake as the Tax Policy Center and assumes that there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such, they list IRAs and 401(k)s as tax expenditures, even though those provisions merely enable people to avoid being double-taxed.

Likewise, the CBO report assumes that there should be double taxation of dividends and capital gains, so provisions to guard against such destructive policies also are listed as tax expenditures.

CBO Tax Expenditure List

The Real Reason Politicians Want a Bigger Bite of Apple

Earlier this month, I explained four reasons why the Apple “tax avoidance” issue is empty political demagoguery.

And Rand Paul gave some great remarks at a Senate hearing, excoriating some of his colleagues for trying to pillage the company.

But this Robert Ariail cartoon may be the best summary of the issue.

Arial Apple Cartoon

What makes this cartoon so effective is that it properly and cleverly identifies what’s really driving the political class on this issue. They want more revenue to finance a bigger burden of government spending.

When I did my contest for best political cartoonist, I picked a cartoon about Greece and euro for Robert Ariail’s entry. While I still think that was a very good cartoon, this Apple cartoon would probably take its place if I did a new contest.

OECD Study Admits Income Taxes Penalize Growth, Acknowledges that Tax Competition Restrains Excessive Government

I have to start this post with a big caveat.

I’m not a fan of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The international bureaucracy is infamous for using American tax dollars to promote a statist economic agenda. Most recently, it launched a new scheme to raise the tax burden on multinational companies, which is really just a backdoor way of saying that the OECD (and the high-tax nations that it represents) wants higher taxes on workers, consumers, and shareholders. But the OECD’s anti-market agenda goes much deeper.

Now that there’s no ambiguity about my overall position, I can admit that the OECD isn’t always on the wrong side. Much of the bad policy comes from its committee system, which brings together bureaucrats from member nations.

The OECD also has an economics department, and they sometimes produce good work. Most recently, they produced a report on the Swiss tax system that contains some very sound analysis, including a rejection of Obama-style class warfare and a call to lower income tax burdens.

Shifting the taxation of income to the taxation of consumption may be beneficial for boosting economic activity (Johansson et al., 2008 provide evidence across OECD economies). These benefits may be bigger if personal income taxes are lowered rather than social security contributions, because personal income tax also discourages entrepreneurial activity and investment more broadly.

I somewhat disagree with the assertion that payroll taxes do more damage than VAT taxes. They both drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. But the point about income taxes is right on the mark.

Great Moments in Government: The IRS Apologizes for Bias while Simultaneously Denying Bias

I’m happy to bash the IRS, but I usually try to explain that our anger should be focused on the politicians who created the corrupt, 74,000-page tax code.

But sometimes the IRS deserves some negative attention. The tax collection bureaucracy has thieving employees, incompetent employees, thuggish employees, seemlingly brainless employees, and victimizing employees.

The senior folks at the IRS also deserve scorn for bone-headed decisions such as squandering millions of dollars on a P.R. campaign and a scheme to regulate and control private tax preparers.

Now it seems we have another reason to condemn the tax-collection bureaucracy. As Michael Cannon has noted, the IRS is engaging in Nixon-type political harassment.

Here’s some of what the Associated Press just reported.

The Internal Revenue Service inappropriately flagged conservative political groups for additional reviews during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status, a top IRS official said Friday. Organizations were singled out because they included the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their applications for tax-exempt status, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups.