Tag: Tax Reform

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!

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

IRS Budget Soars

The revelations of IRS officials targeting conservative and libertarian groups suggest that now is a good time for lawmakers to review a broad range of the agency’s activities. Since the agency’s last overhaul in the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, its budget has exploded from $33 billion to a proposed $106 billion in 2013. 

Using data from the OMB budget database, I split total IRS outlays into two broad activities: administration and handouts. Administration includes tax return processing, investigations, enforcement, and other bureaucratic functions. Handouts mainly includes spending on “refundable” tax credits such as the EITC. 

The chart shows that the IRS has become a huge social welfare agency in recent decades. Handouts have soared from $4.4 billion in 1990 to an estimated $91.1 billion in 2013 (red line). Handouts are down a bit in recent years because some of the refundable credits from “stimulus” legislation have expired. IRS administration costs have grown from $7.7 billion in 1990 to an estimated $15.3 billion in 2013 (blue line). 

 

How should we reform the IRS budget? First, we should terminate the handout programs. That would save taxpayers more than $90 billion annually and cut the IRS budget by 86 percent. 

The largest IRS handout is the refundable part of the EITC, which is expected to cost $55 billion in 2013. Many policymakers favor the EITC as a “conservative” handout program because it encourages people to work. But the EITC itself creates a discouragement to increased work over the income range that it is phased-out. It also adds to tax-code complexity and has an error and fraud rate of more than 20 percent.

The EITC is an example of how big government begets more big government. We certainly wouldn’t need the EITC incentive to work if we slashed all the taxes and welfare programs that currently encourage people not to work. 

It’s a similar situation with other IRS handout programs, such as the $1 billion “Therapeutic Discovery” grant program. These grants are supposed to “produce new and cost-saving therapies, support jobs and increase U.S. competitiveness.” But it would be better to accomplish those goals by repealing the excise tax on medical devices and slashing the high 40 percent U.S. corporate income tax. 

As for the $15 billion in spending on IRS administration, we could dramatically cut that cost with major tax reforms. In particular, a consumption-based flat tax would hugely simplify the code and greatly reduce paperwork costs of the IRS and taxpayers alike. 

Looking ahead, the IRS budget is expected to balloon in coming years as the agency plays a key role in implementing ObamaCare. Unless the health care legislation is repealed, IRS outlays are expected to soar from $106 billion this year to $263 billion by 2023.

New GAO Study Mistakenly Focuses on Make-Believe Tax Expenditures

I’m very leery of corporate tax reform, largely because I don’t think there are enough genuine loopholes on the business side of the tax code to finance a meaningful reduction in the corporate tax rate.

That leads me to worry that politicians might try to “pay for” lower rates by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Based on a new study about so-called corporate tax expenditures from the Government Accountability Office, my concerns are quite warranted.

The vast majority of the $181 billion in annual “tax expenditures” listed by the GAO are not loopholes. Instead, they are provisions designed to mitigate mistakes in the tax code that force firms to exaggerate their income.

Here are the key findings.

In 2011, the Department of the Treasury estimated 80 tax expenditures resulted in the government forgoing corporate tax revenue totaling more than $181 billion. …approximately the same size as the amount of corporate income tax revenue the federal government collected that year. …According to Treasury’s 2011 estimates, 80 tax expenditures had corporate revenue losses. Of those, two expenditures accounted for 65 percent of all estimated corporate revenues losses in 2011 while another five tax expenditures—each with at least $5 billion or more in estimated revenue loss for 2011—accounted for an additional 21 percent of corporate revenue loss estimates.

Sounds innocuous, but take a look at this table from the report, which identifies the “seven largest corporate tax expenditures.”

GAO Tax Expenditure Table

To be blunt, there’s a huge problem in the GAO analysis. Neither depreciation nor deferral are loopholes.

Identifying the Right “Depreciation” Tax Policy

I’m normally reluctant to write about “depreciation” because I imagine eyes glazing around the world. After all, not many people care about the tax treatment of business investment expenses.

But I was surprised by the positive response I received after writing a post about Obama’s demagoguery against “tax loopholes” for corporate jets. So with considerable trepidation let’s take another look at the issue.

First, a bit of background. Every economic theory agrees that investment is a key for long-run growth and higher living standards. Even Marxist and socialist theory agrees with this insight (though they foolishly think government somehow is competent to be in charge of investments).

Let’s look at two remarkable charts, starting with one that shows the very powerful link between total investment and wages for workers.

 

As you can see, if we want people to earn more money, it definitely helps for there to be more investment. More “capital” means that workers have higher productivity, and that’s the primary determinant of wages and salary.

Our second chart shows how the internal revenue code treats income that is consumed compared to how it penalizes income that is saved and invested. Simply stated, the current system is very biased against capital formation because of the combined impact of capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, double taxes on dividends, and death taxes.

Indeed, one of the reasons why the right kind of tax reform will generate more prosperity is that double taxation of saving and investment is eliminated. With either a flat tax or national sales tax, economic activity is taxed only one time. No death tax, no capital gains tax, no double tax on dividends in either plan.

All of this background information helps underscore why it is especially foolish for the tax code to specifically penalize business investment. And this happens because companies have to “depreciate” rather than “expense” their investments.

Targeting Multinationals, the OECD Launches New Scheme to Boost the Tax Burden on Business

I’ve been very critical of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most recently, I criticized the Paris-based bureaucracy for making the rather remarkable assertion that a value-added tax would boost growth and employment.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now the bureaucrats have concocted another scheme to increase the size and scape of government. The OECD just published a study on “Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” that seemingly is designed to lay the groundwork for a radical rewrite of business taxation.

In a new Tax & Budget Bulletin for Cato, I outline some of my concerns with this new “BEPS” initiative.

…the BEPS report…calls for dramatic changes in corporate tax policy based on the presumption that governments are not seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD essentially argues that it is illegitimate for businesses to shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have more favorable tax laws. …The core accusation in the OECD report is that firms systematically—but legally—reduce their tax burdens by taking advantage of differences in national tax policies.

Ironically, the OECD admits in the report that revenues have been trending upwards.

…the report acknowledges that “… revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of gross domestic product have increased over time. …Other than offering anecdotes, the OECD provides no evidence that a revenue problem exists. In this sense, the BEPS report is very similar to the OECD’s 1998 “Harmful Tax Competition” report, which asserted that so-called tax havens were causing damage but did not offer any hard evidence of any actual damage.

To elaborate, the BEPS scheme should be considered Part II of the OECD’s anti-tax competition project. Part I was the attack on so-called tax havens, which began back in the mid- to late-1990s.

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.