Desperate for fresh revenues to feed the giant spending appetite of President Obama, Democratic policymakers are talking up ‘tax reform’ as a way to reduce the deficit. Some are considering a European-style value-added tax (VAT), which would have a similar effect as a national sales tax, and be a large new burden on American families.
A VAT would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the government, even at a 10-percent rate. The math is simple: total U.S. consumption in 2008 was $10 trillion. VATs usually tax about half of a nation's consumption or less, say $5 trillion. That means that a 10% VAT would raise about $500 billion a year in the United States, or about $4,300 from every household. Obviously such a huge tax hit would fundamentally change the American economy and society, and for the worse.
Some fiscal experts think that a VAT would solve the government's budget problems and reduce the deficit, as the Washington Post noted yesterday. That certainly has not happened in Europe where the average VAT rate is a huge 20 percent, and most nations face large budget deficits just as we do. The hard truth for policymakers to swallow is that the only real cure for our federal fiscal crisis is to cut spending.
Liberals like VATs because of the revenue-raising potential, but some conservatives are drawn to the idea of using VAT revenues to reduce the corporate tax rate. The Post story reflected this in noting "A 21 percent VAT has permitted Ireland to attract investment by lowering the corporate tax rate." That implies that the Irish government lost money when it cut its corporate rate, but actually the reverse happened in the most dramatic way.
Ireland installed a 10% corporate rate for certain industries in the 1980s, but also steadily cut its regular corporate rate during the 1990s. It switched over to a 12.5% rate for all corporations in 2004. OECD data show that as the Irish corporate tax rate fell, corporate tax revenues went through the roof -- from 1.6% of GDP in 1990, to 3.7% in 2000, to 3.8% in 2006.
In sum, a VAT would not solve our deficit problems because Congress would simply boost its spending even higher, as happened in Europe as VAT rates increased over time. Also, a VAT is not needed to cut the corporate income tax rate because a corporate rate cut would be self-financing over the long-term as tax avoidance fell and economic growth increased.
Steve Moore and Art Laffer have an excellent column in today's Wall Street Journal. They explain that high-tax states drive repel entrepreneurs and investors, leading to a pronounced Laffer Curve effect. Productive people either leave the state or choose to earn and report less taxable income. And because growth is weaker than in low-tax states, there also is a negative impact on lower-income and middle-class people:
Here's the problem for states that want to pry more money out of the wallets of rich people. It never works because people, investment capital and businesses are mobile: They can leave tax-unfriendly states and move to tax-friendly states. ...Updating some research from Richard Vedder of Ohio University, we found that from 1998 to 2007, more than 1,100 people every day including Sundays and holidays moved from the nine highest income-tax states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio and relocated mostly to the nine tax-haven states with no income tax, including Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Texas. We also found that over these same years the no-income tax states created 89% more jobs and had 32% faster personal income growth than their high-tax counterparts. ...Dozens of academic studies -- old and new -- have found clear and irrefutable statistical evidence that high state and local taxes repel jobs and businesses. ...Examining IRS tax return data by state, E.J. McMahon, a fiscal expert at the Manhattan Institute, measured the impact of large income-tax rate increases on the rich ($200,000 income or more) in Connecticut, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 5% from 4.5%; in New Jersey, which raised its rate in 2004 to 8.97% from 6.35%; and in New York, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 7.7% from 6.85%. Over the period 2002-2005, in each of these states the "soak the rich" tax hike was followed by a significant reduction in the number of rich people paying taxes in these states relative to the national average.
Interestingly, the Baltimore Sun last week published an article noting that the soak-the-rich tax imposed last year is backfiring. There are fewer rich people, less taxable income, and lower tax revenue. To be sure, some of this is the result of a nationwide downturn, but the research cited by Moore and Laffer certainly suggest that the state revenue shortfall will continue even after than national economy recovers:
A year ago, Maryland became one of the first states in the nation to create a higher tax bracket for millionaires as part of a broader package of maneuvers intended to help balance the state's finances and make the tax code more progressive. But as the state comptroller's office sifts through this year's returns, it is finding that the number of Marylanders with more than $1 million in taxable income who filed by the end of April has fallen by one-third, to about 2,000. Taxes collected from those returns as of last month have declined by roughly $100 million. ...Karen Syrylo, a tax expert with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied against the millionaire bracket, said she has heard from colleagues who are attorneys and accountants that their clients moved out of state to avoid the new tax rate. She said that some Maryland jurisdictions boast some of the highest combined state and local income tax burdens in the country. "Maryland is such a small state, and it is so easy to move a few miles south to Virginia or a few miles north to Pennsylvania," Syrylo said. "So there are millionaires who are no longer going to be filing Maryland tax returns."
With President Obama proposing higher tax rates for the entire nation, perhaps this is a good time to remind people about the three-part video series on the Laffer Curve that I narrated. If you have not yet had a chance to watch them, the videos are embedded here for your viewing pleasure:
Photo by Peter Holden Photography for AEI
I was a panelist at an American Enterprise Institute forum today discussing the proliferation of federal tax credits, particularly for low-income families.
AEI scholars Kevin Hassett, Larry Lindsey, and Aparna Mathur have a draft paper that looks at the idea of consolidating current individual credits into one supercredit. The idea would be to simplify the system and reduce the economic distortions created by these credits, which are valued at about $170 billion in 2009.
My observations included:
- Obama's Make Work Pay credit is valued at about $60 billion per year, much of which is "refundable." (That means it is partly a spending increase not a tax cut). Coincidentally, Obama's proposed tax hikes for higher-income individuals are also about $60 billion per year. So Obama is damaging the economy with "Make Work Not Pay" tax increases at the top in order to fund dubious work incentives at the bottom. It makes no economic sense.
- The AEI scholars provide interesting calculations about how we could make the $170 billion of redistribution in these credits simpler. That's fine as far as it goes, but I'd like to end the redistribution altogether. Let's provide a large basic exemption in the tax code for folks at the bottom, but we don't need any complex credits. Instead, let's repeal federal policies that damage the budgets of struggling families at the bottom, such as import barriers that raise the price of clothing and federal milk cartels that raise the price of dairy products.
- Here's my compromise redistribution plan. Let's chop the $170 billion in tax credits in half and use the extra funds to cut the corporate income tax rate. With a purely static calculation, that would allow cutting the corporate rate from 35% to 25%. Assuming some behaviorial feedbacks, the $85 billion in credit savings would easily allow us to reduce the corporate rate to 20% or so.
- What do corporate taxes have to do with the workers who currently get all these tax credits? As Hassett and Mathur explained in a 2006 paper, corporate tax cuts would increase investment, improve productivity, and that in turn would raise wages of average American workers. We don't need President Obama's fancy new Make Work Pay credits. Instead, we need to cut the corporate tax rate to make the economy boom and raise worker's wages and incomes in the private marketplace.